Kiln drying

The process of kiln drying consists basically of introducing heat. This may be directly, using natural gas and/or electricity or indirectly, through steam-heated heat exchangers, although solar energy is also possible. In the process, deliberate control of temperature, relative humidity and air circulation is provided to give conditions at various stages (moisture contents or times) of drying the timber to achieve effective drying. For this purpose, the timber is stacked in chambers, called wood drying kilns, which are fitted with equipment for manipulation and control of the temperature and the relative humidity of the drying air and its circulation rate through the timber stack (Walker et al., 1993; Desch and Dinwoodie, 1996).

Kiln drying provides a means of overcoming the limitations imposed by erratic weather conditions. In kiln drying as in air drying, unsaturated air is used as the drying medium. Almost all commercial timbers of the world are dried in industrial kilns. A comparison of air drying, conventional kiln and solar drying is given below:

  1. Timber can be dried to any desired low moisture content by conventional or solar kiln drying, but in air drying, moisture contents of less than 18% are difficult to attain for most locations.
  2. The drying times are considerably less in conventional kiln drying than in solar kiln drying, followed by air drying.
    1. This means that if capital outlay is involved, this capital is just sitting there for a longer time when air drying is used. On the other hand, installing an industrial kiln, to say nothing of maintenance and operation, is expensive.
    2. In addition, wood that is being air dried takes up space, which could also cost money.
  3. In air drying, there is little control over the drying elements, so drying degrade cannot be controlled.
  4. The temperatures employed in kiln drying typically kill all the fungi and insects in the wood if a maximum dry-bulb temperature of above 60 C is used for the drying schedule. This is not guaranteed in air drying.
  5. If air drying is done improperly (exposed to the sun), the rate of drying may be overly rapid in the dry summer months, causing cracking and splitting, and too slow during the cold winter months.

The significant advantages of conventional kiln drying include higher throughput and better control of the final moisture content. Conventional kiln and solar drying both enable wood to be dried to any moisture content regardless of weather conditions. For most large-scale drying operations solar and conventional kiln drying are more efficient than air drying.

Compartment-type kilns are most commonly used in timber companies. A compartment kiln is filled with a static batch of timber through which air is circulated. In these types of kiln, the timber remains stationary. The drying conditions are successively varied from time to time in such a way that the kilns provide control over the entire charge of timber being dried. This drying method is well suited to the needs of timber companies, which have to dry timbers of varied species and thickness, including refractory hardwoods that are more liable than other species to check and split.

The main elements of kiln drying are described below: a) Construction materials: The kiln chambers are generally built of brick masonry, or hollow cement-concrete slabs. Sheet metal or prefabricated aluminium in a double-walled construction with sandwiched thermal insulation, such as glass wool or polyurethane foams, are materials that are also used in some modern kilns. Some of the elements used in kiln construction. However, brick masonry chambers, with lime and (mortar) plaster on the inside and painted with impermeable coatings, are used widely and have been found to be satisfactory for many applications. b) Heating: Heating is usually carried out by steam heat exchangers and pipes of various configurations (e.g. plain, or finned (transverse or longitudinal) tubes) or by large flue pipes through which hot gases from a wood burning furnace are passed. Only occasionally is electricity or gas employed for heating. c) Humidification: Humidification is commonly accomplished by introducing live steam into the kiln through a steam spray pipe. In order to limit and control the humidity of the air when large quantities of moisture are being rapidly evaporated from the timber, there is normally a provision for ventilation of the chamber in all types of kilns. d) Air circulation: Air circulation is the means for carrying the heat to and the moisture away from all parts of a load. Forced circulation kilns are most common, where the air is circulated by means of fans or blowers, which may be installed outside the kiln chamber (external fan kiln) or inside it (internal fan kiln). Throughout the process, it is necessary to keep close control of the moisture content using a moisture meter system in order to reduce over-drying and allow operators to know when to pull the charge.Preferably, this in-kiln moisture meter will have an auto-shutoff feature.

Satisfactory kiln drying can usually be accomplished by regulating the temperature and humidity of the circulating air to suit the state of the timber at any given time. This condition is achieved by applying kiln-drying schedules. The desired objective of an appropriate schedule is to ensure drying timber at the fastest possible rate without causing objectionable degrade. The following factors have a considerable bearing on the schedules.

  1. The species; because of the variations in physical, mechanical and transport properties between species.
  2. The thickness of the timber; because the drying time is approximately inversely related to thickness and, to some extent, is also influenced by the width of the timber.
  3. Whether the timber boards are quarter-sawn, back-sawn or mixed-sawn; because sawing pattern influences the distortion due to shrinkage anisotropy.
  4. Permissible drying degrade; because aggressive drying schedules can cause timber to crack and distort.
  5. Intended use of timber; because the required appearance of the timber surface and the target final moisture contents are different depending on the uses of timber.

Considering each of the factors, no one schedule is necessarily appropriate, even for similar loads of the same species. This is why there is so much timber drying research, including this work, focused on the development of effective drying schedules.