Assessing Decay

Sometimes it happens – wood in service suffers from decay. How can you identify decayed wood and what are the recommended actions to take? First, be sure you actually have decay. The wood may only be harmlessly discoloured, for any number of reasons. See the publication in the side bar for help if your wood is stained but you’re not sure why.

If wood is badly decayed, this will be quite obvious. The wood will be softer than normal and perhaps even be breakable by hand. Decayed wood often has a colour change, either darker or lighter than normal, although this could be due to weathering or could just be a stain. The wood may display an unexpected cracking pattern, or may look stringy- this is a sign of fairly advanced decay. If fungal growth is visible on the surface, the wood has quite likely already suffered strength loss even if this isn’t visibly obvious. However, do not rely on visual cues alone.

Wood can appear stained and yet be sound, or can appear normal yet have already suffered significant strength loss due to decay. Some researchers or engineers use the pick test to determine if the wood is sound. They insert the point of a knife at a shallow angle to the surface and attempt to lever up a thin splinter. If the wood splinters with longer fragments, it is likely sound. If instead it breaks or crumbles in small pieces over the blade, it could be decayed. Decayed wood breaks somewhat like a carrot snapping in half, at one section, versus the splintering along the length of sound wood. See our Biodeterioration page to learn more about the science of decay.


If you are still unsure whether or not you have decayed wood, you are advised to seek help from a wood restoration specialist.

How urgent is a decay problem? By the time you notice decay, the wood typically has lost substantial strength already. In cases where the decayed wood is supporting load you are strongly advised to contact a structural engineer or other appropriate expert to more thoroughly assess the problem and proceed with a repair.

A small, localized and non-critical case of decay may be a do-it-yourself project under some conditions. All decayed wood should be removed. If you are unable to remove the entire affected piece, remove the decayed portion plus an additional portion of adjacent wood beyond the visible decay. A rule of thumb is to remove an additional two feet (60 cm) of adjacent wood from each side, although this will of course depend on the extent of the decay. The removal of adjacent wood is because the fungus may have extended deep into the wood beyond the area of decay and may be ready to cause more damage in adjacent sound wood.

Then apply a field treatment to the remaining adjacent wood, such as a borate solution in brush-on, rod or paste form, before replacing the removed pieces. Use treated or naturally durable wood to replace the removed pieces. If damaged wood must be left in place, a penetrating epoxy can sometimes be applied as a stabilizer. In those cases and for best results in all wood repair projects we recommend you consult with a wood restoration expert.

Indoors, it is extremely important that you find the source(s) of the moisture that allowed wood decay fungi to grow. If you had wood decay in a location that is supposed to be dry, then you have a leak or a condensation problem that needs fixing to prevent any future problems. Look for primary and secondary sources of moisture. A short term leak may have allowed decay to start, for example, and condensation may be sustaining the decay. If the location of the decayed wood was outdoors or in a wet location, you need to use treated or naturally durable wood.

If you have building moisture problems on a large scale, you need to hire some experts and be prepared for a potentially substantial remediation project. Seek out a qualified consultant, who will begin by using a variety of techniques and tools to determine the extent of the damage. This will include a visual examination for staining, bulging, cracking, presence of water, and warping. Subsurface moisture penetration will be tested with probes and/or thermography.

In a building with wood structural members, the consultant will probably use a moisture meter to sample wetness of structural wood components in several locations. Based on the results of this investigation, the consultant will recommend a course of action for repair and future prevention. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has developed a guide for building envelope rehabilitation, in two volumes: one for owners, one for consultants.

More Information
Click Here for a fact sheet Discolourations on wood products: Causes and Implications for help if your wood is stained and you’re not sure why.
Click here for more information on biodeterioration and the science of decay.
Click here for more information on remedial treatments.
Click here for links on decay assessment and other durability topics