As I progressed to building furniture, I spent time building stairs, making built-in cabinets and constructing fireplace walls. One of my early walls was for my own home, a 6’-0” wide by 9’-0” tall assembly of red oak rails, stiles and raised panels. It taught me a valuable lesson about wood movement – I learned when large was too large.
Of the seven panels in the main body of my fireplace wall (Fig. 1), four have grain running horizontally. Of the three vertical-grain panels, the center is twice the width as the two flanking it. All of the panels, except the large center panel, were fitted with adequate room for expansion and contraction. The large panel … not so much.
As the panel swelled to a width that exceeded its confines, joinery fractured under the stress and the wall separated at the top left corner, opening a small crevice. Lessons are often hard to accept, and seldom forgot.
The Correct Substrate
Today I’m working on another fireplace wall. And yes, it too has a wide center panel. My first thought was to size the opening for the proper amount of wood movement. There are charts and graphs on wood movement calculations that are easily found. But there is a problem. If I set the opening to accommodate the full-expansion capabilities of my panel, during full-contraction stages one large gap at the end or two smaller gaps at both ends would show. The panel is probably too wide, but the design is at the customer’s request.
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