In the tree a knot is either the base of a side branch or a dormant bud. A knot (when the base of a side branch) is conical in shape (hence the roughly circular cross-section) with the inner tip at the point in stem diameter at which the plant's vascular cambium was located when the branch formed as a bud.

Knots do not necessarily influence the stiffness of structural timber, this will depend on the size and location. Stiffness and elastic strength are more dependent upon the sound wood than upon localized defects. The breaking strength is very susceptible to defects. Sound knots do not weaken wood when subject to compression parallel to the grain.

Heartwood is often visually distinct from the living sapwood, and can be distinguished in a cross-section where the boundary will tend to follow the growth rings. For example, it is sometimes much darker. However, other processes such as decay or insect invasion can also discolor wood, even in woody plants that do not form heartwood, which may lead to confusion.

No definite relation exists between the annual rings of growth and the amount of sapwood. Within the same species the cross-sectional area of the sapwood is very roughly proportional to the size of the crown of the tree. If the rings are narrow, more of them are required than where they are wide. As the tree gets larger, the sapwood must necessarily become thinner or increase materially in volume. Sapwood is relatively thicker in the upper portion of the trunk of a tree than near the base, because the age and the diameter of the upper sections are less.

When a tree is very young it is covered with limbs almost, if not entirely, to the ground, but as it grows older some or all of them will eventually die and are either broken off or fall off. Subsequent growth of wood may completely conceal the stubs which will however remain as knots. No matter how smooth and clear a log is on the outside, it is more or less knotty near the middle. Consequently, the sapwood of an old tree, and particularly of a forest-grown tree, will be freer from knots than the inner heartwood. Since in most uses of wood, knots are defects that weaken the timber and interfere with its ease of working and other properties, it follows that a given piece of sapwood, because of its position in the tree, may well be stronger than a piece of heartwood from the same tree.

In species which show a distinct difference between heartwood and sapwood the natural color of heartwood is usually darker than that of the sapwood, and very frequently the contrast is conspicuous (see section of yew log above). This is produced by deposits in the heartwood of chemical substances, so that a dramatic color variation does not imply a significant difference in the mechanical properties of heartwood and sapwood, although there may be a marked biochemical difference between the two.

Since the latewood of a growth ring is usually darker in color than the earlywood, this fact may be used in visually judging the density, and therefore the hardness and strength of the material. This is particularly the case with coniferous woods. In ring-porous woods the vessels of the early wood often appear on a finished surface as darker than the denser latewood, though on cross sections of heartwood the reverse is commonly true. Otherwise the color of wood is no indication of strength.

In heartwood it occurs only in the first and last forms. Wood that is thoroughly air-dried retains 8–16% of the water in the cell walls, and none, or practically none, in the other forms. Even oven-dried wood retains a small percentage of moisture, but for all except chemical purposes, may be considered absolutely dry.

The general effect of the water content upon the wood substance is to render it softer and more pliable. A similar effect occurs in the softening action of water on rawhide, paper, or cloth. Within certain limits, the greater the water content, the greater its softening effect.

Drying produces a decided increase in the strength of wood, particularly in small specimens. An extreme example is the case of a completely dry spruce block 5 cm in section, which will sustain a permanent load four times as great as a green (undried) block of the same size will.

In temperate softwoods, there often is a marked difference between latewood and earlywood. The latewood will be denser than that formed early in the season. When examined under a microscope, the cells of dense latewood are seen to be very thick-walled and with very small cell cavities, while those formed first in the season have thin walls and large cell cavities. The strength is in the walls, not the cavities. Hence the greater the proportion of latewood, the greater the density and strength. In choosing a piece of pine where strength or stiffness is the important consideration, the principal thing to observe is the comparative amounts of earlywood and latewood. The width of ring is not nearly so important as the proportion and nature of the latewood in the ring.

It is not only the proportion of latewood, but also its quality, that counts. In specimens that show a very large proportion of latewood it may be noticeably more porous and weigh considerably less than the latewood in pieces that contain less latewood. One can judge comparative density, and therefore to some extent strength, by visual inspection.

No satisfactory explanation can as yet be given for the exact mechanisms determining the formation of earlywood and latewood. Several factors may be involved. In conifers, at least, rate of growth alone does not determine the proportion of the two portions of the ring, for in some cases the wood of slow growth is very hard and heavy, while in others the opposite is true. The quality of the site where the tree grows undoubtedly affects the character of the wood formed, though it is not possible to formulate a rule governing it. In general, however, it may be said that where strength or ease of working is essential, woods of moderate to slow growth should be chosen.

In ring-porous woods, each season's growth is always well defined, because the large pores formed early in the season abut on the denser tissue of the year before.

In the case of the ring-porous hardwoods, there seems to exist a pretty definite relation between the rate of growth of timber and its properties. This may be briefly summed up in the general statement that the more rapid the growth or the wider the rings of growth, the heavier, harder, stronger, and stiffer the wood. This, it must be remembered, applies only to ring-porous woods such as oak, ash, hickory, and others of the same group, and is, of course, subject to some exceptions and limitations.

In ring-porous woods of good growth, it is usually the latewood in which the thick-walled, strength-giving fibers are most abundant. As the breadth of ring diminishes, this latewood is reduced so that very slow growth produces comparatively light, porous wood composed of thin-walled vessels and wood parenchyma. In good oak, these large vessels of the earlywood occupy from 6 to 10 percent of the volume of the log, while in inferior material they may make up 25% or more. The latewood of good oak is dark colored and firm, and consists mostly of thick-walled fibers which form one-half or more of the wood. In inferior oak, this latewood is much reduced both in quantity and quality. Such variation is very largely the result of rate of growth.

The results of a series of tests on hickory by the U.S. Forest Service show that:

The effect of rate of growth on the qualities of chestnut wood is summarized by the same authority as follows:

In the diffuse-porous woods, the demarcation between rings is not always so clear and in some cases is almost (if not entirely) invisible to the unaided eye. Conversely, when there is a clear demarcation there may not be a noticeable difference in structure within the growth ring.

In diffuse-porous woods, as has been stated, the vessels or pores are even-sized, so that the water conducting capability is scattered throughout the ring instead of collected in the earlywood. The effect of rate of growth is, therefore, not the same as in the ring-porous woods, approaching more nearly the conditions in the conifers. In general, it may be stated that such woods of medium growth afford stronger material than when very rapidly or very slowly grown. In many uses of wood, total strength is not the main consideration. If ease of working is prized, wood should be chosen with regard to its uniformity of texture and straightness of grain, which will in most cases occur when there is little contrast between the latewood of one season's growth and the earlywood of the next.

The following tables list the mechanical properties of wood and lumber plant species, including bamboo.

Wood has been an important construction material since humans began building shelters, houses and boats. Nearly all boats were made out of wood until the late 19th century, and wood remains in common use today in boat construction. Elm in particular was used for this purpose as it resisted decay as long as it was kept wet (it also served for water pipe before the advent of more modern plumbing).

New domestic housing in many parts of the world today is commonly made from timber-framed construction. Engineered wood products are becoming a bigger part of the construction industry. They may be used in both residential and commercial buildings as structural and aesthetic materials.

In buildings made of other materials, wood will still be found as a supporting material, especially in roof construction, in interior doors and their frames, and as exterior cladding.

Wood is also commonly used as shuttering material to form the mold into which concrete is poured during reinforced concrete construction.

A solid wood floor is a floor laid with planks or battens created from a single piece of timber, usually a hardwood. Since wood is hydroscopic (it acquires and loses moisture from the ambient conditions around it) this potential instability effectively limits the length and width of the boards.

Solid hardwood flooring is usually cheaper than engineered timbers and damaged areas can be sanded down and refinished repeatedly, the number of times being limited only by the thickness of wood above the tongue.