About Treated Wood

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When you want to use wood that is not naturally decay resistant in a wet application (outdoors, for example) or where it may be at risk for insect attack, you need to specify preservative-treated wood. This is lumber that has been chemically treated to make it unattractive to fungi and other pests. In the same way that you would specify galvanized steel where it would be at risk of rusting, you specify treated wood where it will be used in a setting conducive to decay. 

Wood does not deteriorate just because it gets wet. When wood breaks down, it is because an organism is eating it as food. Preservatives work by making the food source inedible to these organisms.

Properly preservative-treated wood can have 5 to 10 times the service life of untreated wood. This extension of life saves the equivalent of 12.5% of Canada’s annual log harvest.

Preserved wood is used most often for railroad ties, utility poles, marine piles, decks, fences and other outdoor applications. Various treatment methods and types of chemicals are available, depending on the attributes required in the particular application and the level of protection needed.

Treating Methods

There are two basic methods of treating: with and without pressure. Non-pressure methods are the application of preservative by brushing, spraying or dipping the piece to be treated. These are superficial treatments that do not result in deep penetration or large absorption of preservative. Their use is best restricted to field treatment during construction (for example, when a pressure-treated piece of lumber must be field cut), to cases where only part of a piece is to be treated, to manufacturing processes for strand-based wood products, to surface protection against moulds or to remedial treatment of wood in place. For example, mixtures of borate and glycols are used to treat sound wood left in place during repair of decay problems. The glycol helps the borate to penetrate dry wood, arresting the activity of any fungus which contacts it. The penetration of the preservative is still limited, and the most important function is to prevent undetected fungus left in place from spreading to sound wood.

Deeper, more thorough penetration is achieved by driving the preservative into the wood cells with pressure. Various combinations of pressure and vacuum are used to force adequate levels of chemical into the wood. Pressure-treating preservatives consist of chemicals carried in a solvent. The solvent, or carrier, is either water or oil. Oilborne preservatives are largely used for treating industrial products such as railway ties, utility poles and bridge timbers, and for protection of field cuts. Waterborne preservatives are more widely used in residential markets due to the absence of odour, the cleaner wood surface and the ability to paint or stain the wood product. When a wood product will be used in an application known to present a risk, for example outdoors, pressure-treatment is recommended.

Types of Preservatives

The mostly commonly used wood preservatives in North America for residential construction are waterborne copper-based systems, including alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), copper azole (CA) and micronized copper azole (MCA). Wood treated with these preservatives has a natural green hue, though this may be masked by the use of colourants that most often give the treated wood a mid-brown colour. Copper is the primary biocide in these systems. ACQ also contains quaternary ammonium compounds that act as a co-biocide to protect against copper-tolerant organisms. Similarly, CA and MCA contain tebuconazole to protect against these organisms. 

Chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was heavily used in residential construction until 2004 when its use in most residential applications was phased out. It is now largely limited to industrial applications, but can still be used in a few residential applications such as shakes and shingles and permanent wood foundations. Ammoniacal copper zinc arsenate (ACZA) can also be used in most of these applications, but is primarily favoured for treating Douglas-fir and for marine applications.

Borates are another class of waterborne preservative used in North America. Their use is currently limited to applications which are protected from rain and other persistent sources of water. These include framing in termite areas and repair of decayed framing in leaky buildings where the main moisture source has been eliminated. Borates are also used as part of a dual treatment in conjunction with a creosote or copper naphthenate shell to protect railway ties.

Metal-free waterborne preservative systems such as PTI and EL2 contain carbon-based fungicides and insecticides. Wood treated with these systems is used in residential construction in the United States, and is restricted to above-ground applications.

Oilborne preservatives include creosote, pentachlorphenol, and copper- and zinc-naphthenate. Creosote is the well-known black oily wood preservative, the oldest type of preservative still in modern use. It’s now used in Canada almost exclusively for railroad ties, where its resistance to moisture movement is a key advantage. Pentachlorophenol in oil is mainly used for utility poles where the surface softening characteristics of the oil are useful in pole climbing. Copper naphthenate and zinc naphthenate are two common preservatives used for treating field cuts. Copper naphthenate is also used to treat ties and timbers in the United States.

Environmental Concerns

All wood preservatives used in the U.S. and Canada are registered and regularly re-examined for safety by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada’s Pest Management and Regulatory Agency, respectively. 

A series of life cycle assessments has been completed comparing preservative treated wood to alternative products. In most cases, the treated wood products had lower environmental impacts.


Wood preservation is not an exact science, due to the biological – and therefore variable and unpredictable – nature of both wood and the organisms that destroy it. Wood scientists are trying to understand more about how wood decays to ensure that durability is achieved through smart design and construction choices where possible, so that as a society we can be selective in our use of preservatives.


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