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Did you know one of the biggest causes of damage in woodworking and wood products is moisture?

That means having your wood at the right moisture content could eliminate major risks.

You would have peace of mind and confidence that the products you build, whether for yourself or others, will last a lifetime.

So, how would that look in your woodworking workflow? It all starts with having a quality moisture meter, which lets you know whether or not your wood has the right moisture content.

Let’s get some guidance on how to use one. We’ll cover:

Choosing the Right Meter

When shopping for a wood moisture meter, you’ll want to find a high-quality meter with accurate readings. But how do you know what makes for an accurate moisture meter?

Enter the accuracy test.

The normal scientific method for determining the moisture content of a piece of wood is the oven-dry test, which involves weighing the wood, drying it out completely in an oven, and then weighing it again. The difference in weight before and after drying indicates the moisture content.

When performing the accuracy test, we follow the same procedure, but before drying the wood, we also use a moisture meter to measure the moisture content. Then, we compare the moisture meter results with the weight calculations.

Sound like a lot of work?

Thankfully, we’ve done it for you! The accuracy test is one of many tests we use to determine the quality of a moisture meter.

Some other things you can look for in a meter are:

  • A way to verify calibration
  • Easy usability
  • A durable build
  • Positive third-party reviews and tests

However, please note that third-party reviews are limited because most consumers won’t take the time to do scientific-type tests like the accuracy test mentioned above. They won’t really have a way to know how accurate their meters are, so their comments will be subjective.

For other considerations, see our article on moisture meter features.

Regardless of features, you’ll have two main options: a pin moisture meter and a pinless moisture meter.

The difference?

A pin moisture meter has pins or probes that must be pressed into the wood. An electrical current runs between the two pins, measuring the resistance caused by the moisture in the wood.

A pinless meter, on the other hand, uses a scanner plate with electromagnetic waves to measure moisture content.

Both pin and pinless meters have high-quality options. But we recommend you opt for a pinless moisture meter for woodworking in most situations.

For one thing, pinless moisture meters won’t leave pinholes in the wood. If you’re working with expensive wood or designing a beautiful piece of furniture, you wouldn’t want to see ugly holes.

Moreover, when you don’t have to press the pins into the wood, you can take moisture readings much more quickly. All you have to do is position the scanner plate against the wood with some pressure, and you’ll have a reading within seconds.

Another reason for using a pinless meter rather than a pin meter in woodworking is that woodworkers often use denser hardwoods for their projects. These types of wood can be very difficult to press pins into and can easily result in broken pins.

With a pinless meter, you don’t have to worry about replacing broken pins!

Finally, pinless meters are not typically affected by temperature the way pin meters are. With a pin meter, you’ll need a chart to correct your readings if your temperature is far different than room temperature. If you choose a pinless meter, temperature is one less thing you’ll have to think about.

And once you have a moisture meter, you’re ready to make it part of your workflow. We’ll look at how to do that next.

Using Your Moisture Meter

Your new moisture meter has arrived; you’ve pulled it out of the box and turned it on. Now what?

First, adjust the meter for the species of wood you’re using. Your moisture meter should come with a manual that provides inputs for wood species, so find the right number and put that into the meter.

Be sure to remove any surface water from the wood you’ll be measuring, as this could skew the reading, too.

With a pin meter, choose the length of pins you need for your wood and push them into the wood, going with the grain. If you’re using insulated pins, you can move your pins to different depths, allowing you to understand the moisture gradient in the wood. On the other hand, uninsulated pins will give you one moisture reading somewhere between the two pins. The easiest way to think about this is that you’re going to measure the electrical path of least resistance, whether that’s on the top or bottom of those pins, and you have no real way of being sure it’s at the maximum pin depth.

And remember, with a pin meter, you may need to adjust for temperature with a correction chart.

How about using a pinless meter?

If you have a pinless dual-depth meter, choose the one best suited for your wood. Common options are ¼-inch and ¾-inch.

Press the scanner plate firmly against a flat surface of wood and take the reading. Do this many times throughout the wood, particularly the center, to get a good overall picture of its condition.

One precaution with pinless meters is to avoid taking readings near any metal, as this could significantly affect the numbers you see on your screen.

And there you go—that’s how you measure the moisture content of wood. But the question in your mind is, What am I looking for? What’s a good moisture content?

What moisture content should you look for?

The ideal moisture content for woodworking projects will depend on your region, though generally, indoor items should be between 6 and 8% moisture content (MC).

Reality is a little more nuanced, though.

Wood will adjust to the climate of its environment, losing or gaining moisture to match the moisture around it. The MC it eventually reaches when it remains in a consistent environment is called the equilibrium moisture content, or EMC.

And the EMC is different depending on your region.

In wet, humid regions—Florida, for example—the EMC will tend to be higher than in drier climates.

Thus, though indoor environments (at 30–50% relative humidity and 60–80° F) typically have an EMC between 6 and 8%, it’s best to use a chart for your region to determine the exact number.

When should you measure moisture content?

Measure MC before purchasing your wood, before beginning work on it, and during the process of woodworking.

Measuring the MC before you purchase the wood is important because it helps you to know how close the wood is to the EMC.

If the wood you’re about to buy is still wet and far above the EMC, you won’t be able to start work on it right away. You’ll have to dry the wood yourself or take it somewhere and have it dried—both options that could cost you either time or money.

With this knowledge, you can decide whether the wood is worth it. And you may just opt for wood closer to the EMC already.

That way, all it will need is a little bit of acclimation to the environment before you can begin work on it.

But even if the wood was at the correct MC when you measured it at the time of purchase, don’t assume it’ll still be there when you’re ready to start your project a few days later. Use your moisture meter to check it again.

And if you have to acclimate the wood or let it dry, check the progress with your moisture meter.

Only when your moisture meter indicates that you’re within a percentage point or two of the EMC should you begin work.

And even during your project, it doesn’t hurt to check again, especially if your workshop experiences fluctuations in temperature or humidity.

This is a major part of avoiding damage to your project. Let’s understand why.

Preventing Moisture Damage

Proper moisture control is the key to maintaining the quality of your woodworking project. When wood experiences moisture changes due to shifts in the environment, the wood can change shape and size. In fact, a 4% change in MC can cause a 1% expansion or shrinkage across the grain.

The result of moisture changes is not pretty. It can include significant problems like:

  • Adhesives not holding together
  • Pieces not fitting together well
  • The joints of chairs and tables not being able to hold together properly
  • Warping
  • Cracking

The last thing you want to find is that the cabinet drawers won’t close or the nightstand you built doesn’t have a completely flat surface.

For that reason, it’s critical that your wood is at the EMC of its final location when you work on it. If it isn’t, allow the wood to acclimate or dry. Don’t use it until it’s ready.

Keeping its environment consistent is also important. Avoid major fluctuations in temperature and humidity, using a humidifier or dehumidifier if necessary.

When you’ve invested your time, energy, and resources into a beautiful piece of woodwork, taking these precautions will protect your investment.

Maintaining and Calibrating Your Moisture Meter

Your moisture meter will serve you best when you properly maintain it. It’ll last much longer, and you won’t have to worry about being left hanging in the middle of a project when your moisture meter isn’t working.

One aspect of maintenance is calibration. Quality moisture meters will typically come with a calibration check that allows you to check whether your moisture meter is calibrated.

While some meters come with a button to push and see if calibration is correct, this is one of the modes that fail. So calibration checking should be external to the meter, like a calibration platform that comes with the meter.

Aside from calibration, here are some other quick tips for maintenance:

  • Keep extra batteries on hand and replace the batteries as soon as the meter shows they’re low if you want accurate readings.
  • Store the meter in its case.
  • Avoid dropping the meter or letting it rattle around in the back of your vehicle.
  • Remove the batteries when you don’t expect to use the meter for more than 30 days.
  • Regularly clean your meter with a damp cloth.
  • Don’t store the meter (or any instrumentation, really) near harsh chemicals

Bonus Tip: Data Storage and Management

To be the most efficient in your woodworking projects, consider how you store and manage data from your moisture meter.

If you’re a hobbyist, writing everything in a notebook may work.

But when you’re upping production or working for clients, you’ll want better ways to keep track of your moisture readings. Many high-quality moisture meters have data collection features that store the readings on a smartphone app. Some even allow you to look at trends and print reports. No more losing the numbers you wrote on scraps of paper!

And this way, you can be sure you’re giving your clients a product with which you’ve taken every precaution against moisture damage.

Add Moisture Meters to Your Workflow to Protect Your Projects

With moisture damage being so common for woodworking projects, don’t risk your project. Using a high-quality moisture meter will help you get long-lasting, damage-free results.

Simply incorporate the moisture meter into your woodworking workflow and ensure that your wood has the proper moisture content before purchase, before you begin building, and during the woodworking process.

Need guidance as you look for a good moisture meter? Find one suited for your work in our lineup of the top moisture meters for 2023.