Conference PaperPDF Available

Physical properties of UK grown larch subjected to a mild and moderate thermal treatment process

Spear M.J.1, Binding T.2, Nicholls J.1, Jenkins D.2, Ormondroyd G.A.1
Home grown Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) is a strong attractive species with potential
for diversifying softwood timber consumption in the UK. The fast growth rate due to the
mild British climate presents some challenges to its use in high value applications, however
mild and moderate thermal modification systems have been devised which have been
shown to improve machinability and working properties of the timber. The thermal
modification process developed in Wales has been tested in the production of cladding and
joinery products. The timber from treatment runs with durations at the target treatment
temperature ranging from 1 hours to 5 hours have been compared. The density, colour and
surface quality of planed surfaces are presented in this paper, and the influence of the
different thermal regimes on the level of modification are discussed. The mild thermal
modification shows potential for interior applications, and eradicates many issues
commonly associated with UK grown larch such as resin pockets and springback of the
latewood after machining.
Key words: Mild thermal modification; treatment conditions, density, colour.
A thermal modification using conditions which are considerably milder than conventional
commercial processes has been developed and trialled in Wales. The primary objective is
the altered machining properties of this mild thermally treated timber. The system has been
tested on two fast growing softwood species, Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) and Western
hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). When grown in the western side of the UK, the mild
maritime climate favours high yield classes, however these timbers are less favoured in the
market. Wales has a large number of small and medium sized enterprises working with
timber, both at the sawmilling, processing and production stages. The thermal modification
system was designed to suit working practices within this sector, and to add value to timbers
1 Research Scientist, The BioComposites Centre, Bangor University, Deiniol Road, Bangor, LL57 2UW,
Tel: +44 1248 382029, E-mail:
2 Coed Cymru, The Old Sawmill, Tregynon, Newtown, Powys, SY16 3PL, Tel: +44 1686 640777, E-mail:
by increasing their suitability for joinery or furniture applications. This paper reports
experiments conducted on Japanese larch.
Thermal modification of timber
Planks of Japanese larch were sourced from two sawmills within Wales using Welsh grown
timber. Plank cross sections were 110 x 30mm and 155 x 38mm for the small (pilot scale)
kiln and 155 x 25mm for full scale production. Planks were supplied at lengths of 3m for
the full scale kiln, and cross cut to lengths of 90cm for use in the pilot scale kiln.
Thermal modifications were conducted in three stages: a drying day, a treatment day and a
conditioning day. This was selected to allow small businesses to operate kilns on a single
shift working pattern, rather than requiring a larger workforce to operate a three shift pattern
across 24 hours. The conditions for the drying day and the conditioning day were consistent
throughout the study, and utilised temperatures of 120°C and 80°C respectively, with
continuous humidity. The maximum temperature and duration at this temperature for the
treatment day are detailed in the results section, again steam was supplied to elevate
humidity throughout the high temperature stages.
Both treatment ovens are single direction air flow chambers with a baffle above the timber
stack to deflect air through the stack during operation. Conditions within the oven were
controlled by a Eurotherm programmable controller, which determined the set point
throughout the kiln run. The controller received data from a thermocouple located near the
roof of the kiln, in the returning air flow. The conditions within the timber in the stack were
recorded using K-type thermocouples drilled into the core of the planks, or located on the
surface of the planks as a location adjacent to a core thermocouple.
Evaluation of modified timber
The thermally modified planks produced were evaluated on leaving the kiln to observe
uniformity within the stack. A sampling matrix was used to cut samples for moisture
content determination from locations at each side of the kiln, at the centre and from the
upper and lower regions of the stack. The mass of moisture content blocks was recorded
immediately after cutting, and after drying for 24h at 50°C then for 24h at 105°C. The
dimensions of the moisture content samples was also recorded before and after drying.
The colour of the timber was monitored using the moisture content samples after drying for
1 day at 50°C but prior to drying at 105°C for oven dry density determination (this was to
avoid detecting any additional colour change induced due to the higher temperature drying
step). Colour was measured in CIE Lab space using a Datacolor Check II Plus. ΔL, Δa, Δb,
ΔE, ΔC and Δh were calculated against a reference sample of untreated larch heartwood
measured while recently cut, i.e. before any ageing or UV induced processes altered the
colour. Each reading was the average of four measurements, located within a small square
pattern on the freshly cut end grain of the timber. This method has been shown to offer a
robust mechanism to avoid colour differences due to proportions of exposed earlywood and
latewood on the transverse faces (Spear et al. 2014). Four such spectral readings were taken
for each sample to calculate the L* a* and b* values, and samples from at least 15 samples
were used for the colorimetric data of each kiln run.
The remaining timber sections cut from between moisture content samples were then used
for sample preparation, including mechanical properties, dimensional stability and
weathering (reported elsewhere). Prior to this, the timber sections were planed, and
observations were made about the quality of the finished surface.
Kiln conditions and dwell time above target temperature
The maximum temperature, and the duration of time spent at this temperature, will be
referred to as the treatment phase for the treatment day. Observation of the thermocouple
data however reveals that the temperature within the timber lagged behind the oven
temperature, and that the peak temperature within the wood varied to a small extent with
location in the stack, and with the level of drying which had occurred in that stack during
the drying day. It is therefore also necessary to define a treatment zone which for this
paper will be considered the duration for which the temperature of the wood was greater
than 160°C. Typically this zone began at a similar time to the treatment phase, but extended
for a period beyond the end of the treatment phase, due to thermal lag within the stack on
Fig.1 Schematic of the treatment phase and treatment zone direct control of the
treatment phase via kiln programme gives indirect control of treatment zone, i.e. duration
the timber is above the threshold temperature.
By altering the kiln set point and duration for the treatment phase, the duration for which
the timber was in the treatment zone can be controlled (Figure 1). Conditions were selected
for kiln runs Regular 1 to 4 to achieve 1 to 5 hours at a temperature of 160°C or greater.
The initial moisture content of the timber prior to the treatment step contributes to the
stability of the relationship between treatment phase parameters and the treatment zone that
results. Similarly, plank thickness, the size of the timber stack, and the thermal output of
the oven contribute to variations in this relationship when increasing load size or moving
between ovens. Within a set of experiments from a single oven, replicability of this
treatment zone conditions relies on efficient pre-conditioning of the timber on day 1, which
for the process used here generated a moisture content of 9 to 11.5% in the planks (the
initial moisture content prior to the day 1 step was 18% and above). Representative data
from the pilot oven and from the full scale oven (Run thin 6 and Run thin 9) are given in
Table 1. This demonstrates the relatively small difference between ovens, and relatively
larger influence of plank thickness compare for example Run regular 4 and Run large 2,
which were both conducted in the pilot scale oven.
Table 1 Examples of treatment phase with the observed duration of the treatment
Treatment phase
Treatment zone
Temperature (°C)
Duration (min)
Run regular 1
1h or more
Run regular 2
3h or more
Run regular 4
4 to 5h
Run large 1
1 ½ h
Run large 2
6h 40
4 to 5 h
Run thin 6
2 ½ h
3 h
Run thin 9
2 ½ h
3 ½ h
The bulk density of the planks was calculated using the mass and dimensions of the
moisture content samples. Density between planks is known to vary considerably within
UK grown larch, primarily relating to the proportion of juvenile or mature wood present in
the plank. The number of growth rings per inch (rpi) of the planks also showed wide
variation, with the lowest recorded rpi of 2.8, and the highest 9.0. These values are lower
than would typically be expected for Alpine grown European larch (Larix decidua) or
Scandinavian grown Siberian larch (Larix siberica), and form part of the reason for seeking
to modify this timber to increase uniformity in machining.
Table 2 Air dry density data after treatment and conditioning procedure. Data has
been segregated into juvenile and mature wood
Density (g/cm3)
Run large 1
Run large 2
Run large 3
Run large 4
All samples
As a result of this variability the density data was separated into two groups according to
the growth rings per inch (rpi). An arbitrary value of 6 rpi was used to segregate juvenile
and mature wood, and density data for all samples containing any single rpi measurement
below 6 has been grouped as juvenile in Table 2.
For reference, the density of untreated larch timber from the same source was recorded as
0.556 g/cm3 air dry, these samples were predominantly mature wood, but insufficient
sample blocks of untreated larch have been measured to allow for segregation into values
for juvenile and mature wood to be statistically viable. Further work on the fully finished
and conditioned mechanical properties test specimens is anticipated to address density
change in greater depth. For the same reason, a detailed analysis of mass loss has not been
reported, although it is expected to be very low, due to the short duration and relatively low
temperature within the treatment zone.
The colour of the timber was only affected to a small extent (Table 3). All ΔE values were
low compared to conventional thermal treatments, especially in the ΔL component. For
example Bekhta and Niemz (2003) reported ΔL values ranging from
-29 to -39 at 200 °C for 4 hours under different humidities. Two sets of samples form the
pilot oven recorded a negative ΔL value, and this was small (-6.57). These planks could be
considered to have received a moderate rather than mild thermal treatment.
Table 3 Colorimetric data for mild and moderate thermal treatment kiln runs
Run regular 2
Run regular 4
Run large1
Run large 2
Run thin 8
Run thin 9
Run thin 12
The mild treated planks (Run large 1-2, Table 3) all showed positive rather than negative
ΔL values. To some extent the colour of larch leads to lower anticipated changes in ΔL,
and a different anticipated change in Δa and Δb. Bekhta and Niemz (2003) reported Δa
from 3.2 to 5.7 and Δb 0.5 to 4 (at 4 hours). As the thermal treatment duration increased in
their study, Δb became increasingly negative and Δa diminished. In this current study it is
Δa which alters to a greater extent than Δb. This, and the reduced ΔL value relates to the
pigment of the flavonoids within larch heartwood, unlike the spruce used by Bekhta and
Niemz. The temperature within the timber was also lower than in their study. The L*, a*
and b* values were consistent with those reported by Spear et al. (2014) for pilot studies
on the mild thermal modification system, where a ΔE of 4.54 was reported for low, and
8.02 for high intensity thermal modifications.
During moderate intensity treatments conducted in the full scale oven, a greater degree of
colour change was seen (Table 3). Here the Δa component is the greatest contributor to the
larger ΔE values, with ΔL again being a relatively minor component. These values
correspond well with the ΔC and Δh values of 0.57 and 7.96 respectively, reported for the
pilot study Run Regular 2. It should be noted that the ΔL values for all three full scale runs
in Table 3 were smaller than the ΔL reported for the pilot moderate treatment, although a
limited number of samples did show higher ΔL values which correlated with localised hot
spots within the oven. The moderate treatment level within this timber treatment system
remains considerably lower than standard thermal modification systems.
Surface quality
The timber planed well, with relatively few chip bruising marks, these can be minimised
by improving extraction and blade sharpness. The incidence of post-machining raised
grain was considerably reduced, as was the fuzzy grain (typical of Type III chip
formation in unmodified timber) where grain deviated around knots and the like.
The larch timber from the mild and moderate thermal modification processes is distinct in
its relatively small level of colour change, yet the working and machining properties were
significantly improved. The density change and mass loss requires further study and will
be reported elsewhere, however appears to be low, as expected for the short duration of the
treatment zone.
This project was funded by the Welsh Government using European Regional development
Funds under the Collaborative Industrial Research Programme, Academia for Business.
Support from Coed Mon and Menter Mon in scaling up the treatment process is greatly
Bekhta P. and Niemz P. (2003) Effect of high temperature on the change in color,
dimensional stability and mechanical properties of spruce wood. Holzforschung
Spear M., Binding T., Jenkins D., Nicholls J. and Ormondroyd G. (2014) Mild thermal
modification to enhance the machinability of larch. In: Proceedings of the 7th European
Conference on Wood Modification 2014. 10-12th March 2014, Lisbon, Portugal, 4pp
... Thermal modification is a well developed technology within Europe (Hill 2006, with an increasing market in exterior joinery such as cladding and decking products. The mild thermal treatment investigated within this project operates at a lower temperature than the current market leading technologies (Spear et al. 2014(Spear et al. , 2015a. The mild thermal modifications were conducted in three stages: drying, treatment and reconditioning. ...
... Stages that were a single working day in duration were chosen to allow small businesses to operate kilns on a single shift working pattern, unlike the continuous treatment schedules and high treatment temperatures used in the Thermowood process and other treatments conforming to DD CEN/TS 15679, for which a larger workforce is required. Fuller details of the treatment, including the definition of treatment phase (set temperature of the kiln) and treatment zone (duration above a specified threshold temperature) have been reported in Spear et al. (2015a). The mild thermal treatment has also been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect in controlling problems relating to the exudation of oleoresin (Spear et al. 2015b), by a drying process. ...
... The number of growth rings per inch (rpi) of the planks also showed wide variation. In the first study, values of 2.8 to 9.0 rpi were reported for timber from one supplier (Spear et al. 2015a). This data correlates to Run regular 4 in Figure 2. In later work with timber from a second sawmill, values ranged from 5.08 to 17.78 rpi, for timber which contained a greater proportion of mature wood, and had been sourced from a slower grown stand. ...
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Many timber species in British forestry were selected for fast growth rate and imported from other regions within the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere. As these stands of trees have matured, the difference between UK grown and timber grown within the original provenance of the species has become apparent. One such example is Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi). The use of these home grown timbers presents challenges relating to growth rate and density. Japanese larch is a species of interest for diversifying softwood timber consumption in the UK, but sharply defined earlywood and latewood leads to several problems in machining and utilizing the timber. One option for enhancing timber quality is mild thermal modification. This paper presents a broad range of results from projects undertaken within Wales to develop and scale up the mild thermal modification process. The principal aims were to improve machinability and working properties of the timber in joinery applications. By comparing timber from treatment runs with residence times in the treatment zone which ranged from 1½ hours to 5 hours, an optimized protocol for furniture and joinery products was developed. Surface quality observations, bulk density and weight change were used to initially screen the efficacy of the treatment. The influence of the different thermal regimes on the level of modification are discussed. The efficacy of the treatment on regions of juvenile wood versus mature wood was also considered, as the difference in physical properties between juvenile and mature wood in untreated timber is significant and contributes to machining and working variability. The stability and machinability of large planks from the scale up were evaluated. The mild thermal modification shows potential for interior applications, and eradicates many issues commonly associated with fast grown larch such as resin pockets and springback of the latewood after machining.
... Samples of modified Japanese larch were generated by a mild and a moderate treatment intensity thermal modification process as described in Spear et al. (2015). Pieces were planed and laminated into workpieces with four lamellae using a polyurethane adhesive. ...
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Thermal modification leads to enhanced dimensional stability among other property changes. There is interest in using mild thermal modifications to add value to joinery products. A mild-modification system for Welsh timber has been developed to improve dimensional stability and working properties of fast grown softwoods such as larch (Larix kaempferi) and Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). There is potential to combine this with lamination to achieve large section pieces suitable for joinery applications. This paper reports a set of tests developed to investigate the strain within glued joints in modified wood under combined wetting, UV and humidity cycling regimes. The developed method was based on EN 927-6, which is a QUV artificial weathering test typically used to evaluate the performance of coatings on wood. By omitting a mask, and allowing UV exposure over the total surface, the glued joints within the samples were exposed to rapid drying during the UV phases of the cycle and wetting during spray cycles. This places significant strain on any paint films or glue joints, providing a challenging test method, enabling comparison of film performance and bonding. After six days cycling between spray and UV the samples were removed and placed above a water bath to provide elevated humidity on the underside (uncoated face). This had the effect of permitting asymmetric swelling through the thickness of the sample. Samples were removed from the QUV chamber between each one week cycle, to gather data relating to moisture content, degree of splitting, checking or delamination. The samples were prepared from modified Japanese larch. Pieces were planed and laminated with four lamellae using a polyurethane adhesive. In the final piece the lamellae were aligned radially, tangentially or half-radially or half-tangentially, laid up to minimise and to maximise strain at the glue-line by deliberately favouring matching (e.g. radial to radial) or poor (e.g. tangential to radial) combinations. In addition, combinations of mild and moderate thermal modification were placed in adjacent glue-lines. Samples were tested uncoated, or with clear varnish coating on only the upper face. Swelling in tangential dimensions of the segments was greater than in the radial dimensions, resulting in visible difference of thickness where radial-tangential bonds had been created. However bonding remained good through the 12 week period. The performance of a high gloss varnish was also monitored, and only minor defects observed in the majority of segments. The observed dimensional changes, moisture uptake and development of splits and checks within the wood will be discussed to illustrate stress development within the laminated samples. The results clearly highlight the potential of this test method as a severe combination of cyclic conditions, with potential for evaluating adhesive performance under asymmetric conditions.
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The spread of Phytopthora ramorum in stands of Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) in the UK in the past decade has led to sanitary felling of infected stands to control the spread of this disease. While larch timber may be used for fencing, garden buildings and cladding relatively easily, a surplus of timber is anticipated. Traditionally UK grown larch has been considered less suitable for joinery products due to issues with raised profiles after planing due to springback, which is less desirable for interior woodwork. One approach to control this problem is the use of a mild thermal modification system to alter the hemicellulose and lignin components of the wood, altering the viscoelastic behaviour of the early and late wood, and reducing the prominence of raised grain. This paper presents the results of an ongoing 18-month collaborative research project which treated larch to enhance machining properties. Treated larch planks were machined and sawn, and changes in surface quality and machined surface quality were quantified. It was shown that low and medium intensity treatments were sufficient to enhance the timber machinability and surface quality, making it suitable for high value joinery products. Treatments at 140 °C and above were shown to reduce the incidence of raised grain. This temperature was sufficiently low to retain a natural-looking colour which was acceptable for interior use with transparent coatings. Colorimetric analysis showed that although the mild and medium treatments induced a relatively small total colour change (ΔE), the combination of a* and b* parameters into chroma and hue gave a useful relationship to quantify the intensity of the treatment. Resin pockets were observed to be still wet in timber treated on the mild schedule, while in timber treated on the high intensity schedule the incidence of wet resin pockets was reduced.
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