Wood is a porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees and other woody plants. It is an organic material, a natural composite of cellulose fibers that are strong in tension and embedded in a matrix of lignin that resists compression. Wood is sometimes defined as only the secondary xylem in the stems of trees, or it is defined more broadly to include the same type of tissue elsewhere such as in the roots of trees or shrubs. In a living tree it performs a support function, enabling woody plants to grow large or to stand up by themselves. It also conveys water and nutrients between the leaves, other growing tissues, and the roots. Wood may also refer to other plant materials with comparable properties, and to material engineered from wood, or wood chips or fiber.
People have used wood for thousands of years for many purposes, including as a fuel or as a construction material for making houses, tools, weapons, furniture, packaging, artworks, and paper. Known constructions using wood date back ten thousand years. Buildings like the European Neolithic long house were made primarily of wood.
In the tree a knot is either the base of a side branch or a dormant bud. A knot (when the base of a side branch) is conical in shape (hence the roughly circular cross-section) with the inner tip at the point in stem diameter at which the plant's vascular cambium was located when the branch formed as a bud.
Heartwood is often visually distinct from the living sapwood, and can be distinguished in a cross-section where the boundary will tend to follow the growth rings. For example, it is sometimes much darker. However, other processes such as decay or insect invasion can also discolor wood, even in woody plants that do not form heartwood, which may lead to confusion.
When a tree is very young it is covered with limbs almost, if not entirely, to the ground, but as it grows older some or all of them will eventually die and are either broken off or fall off. Subsequent growth of wood may completely conceal the stubs which will however remain as knots. No matter how smooth and clear a log is on the outside, it is more or less knotty near the middle. Consequently, the sapwood of an old tree, and particularly of a forest-grown tree, will be freer from knots than the inner heartwood. Since in most uses of wood, knots are defects that weaken the timber and interfere with its ease of working and other properties, it follows that a given piece of sapwood, because of its position in the tree, may well be stronger than a piece of heartwood from the same tree.
Since the latewood of a growth ring is usually darker in color than the earlywood, this fact may be used in visually judging the density, and therefore the hardness and strength of the material. This is particularly the case with coniferous woods. In ring-porous woods the vessels of the early wood often appear on a finished surface as darker than the denser latewood, though on cross sections of heartwood the reverse is commonly true. Otherwise the color of wood is no indication of strength.
The general effect of the water content upon the wood substance is to render it softer and more pliable. A similar effect occurs in the softening action of water on rawhide, paper, or cloth. Within certain limits, the greater the water content, the greater its softening effect.
In diffuse-porous woods the pores are evenly sized so that the water conducting capability is scattered throughout the growth ring instead of being collected in a band or row. Examples of this kind of wood are alder, basswood, birch, buckeye, maple, willow, and the Populus species such as aspen, cottonwood and poplar. Some species, such as walnut and cherry, are on the border between the two classes, forming an intermediate group.
In the case of the ring-porous hardwoods, there seems to exist a pretty definite relation between the rate of growth of timber and its properties. This may be briefly summed up in the general statement that the more rapid the growth or the wider the rings of growth, the heavier, harder, stronger, and stiffer the wood. This, it must be remembered, applies only to ring-porous woods such as oak, ash, hickory, and others of the same group, and is, of course, subject to some exceptions and limitations.