[Real Data] How Long Does Untreated Wood Last Outside?

Untreated wood typically lasts 3-25 years outside, depending on the wood species, climate conditions, and maintenance. More durable woods like cedar, teak, and redwood can last over 15 years while pine, fir, and aspen may decay in under 5 years without protection.

Here’s a detailed look at how long exactly untreated wood typically lasts outside, factors that affect its durability, and tips for maximizing its lifespan.

Check This Video About Outdoor Lifespan of Untreated Wood

What is Untreated Wood?

Untreated wood is lumber that has not been subjected to a chemical preservative or protective finish. Common examples of untreated exterior woods include:

  • Cedar
  • Redwood
  • Cypress
  • Some pines

These woods contain natural oils, resins, and extracts that make them naturally resistant to rot and insect damage. However, all untreated woods are still vulnerable when exposed to moisture, sun, wind, and other elements.

Treated wood has been pressure-treated with chemical preservatives that help protect against rot, fungal decay, and insects. Common treatments include:

  • Copper azole (CA)
  • Alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ)
  • Copper boron azole (CBA)
  • Ammoniacal copper zinc arsenate (ACZA)

Treated lumber is a common choice for outdoor applications like decks, fences, and landscape projects. The treatment makes the wood last 5-7 times longer than untreated wood.

How Long Does Untreated Wood Last Outside?

The lifespan of untreated wood outdoors depends on several variables:

Type of Wood

Some woods have natural durability that makes them resistant to rot and insects. Untreated varieties like cedar, redwood, and cypress tend to last much longer outdoors than pine, fir, aspen, and other fast-decaying woods.

According to the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) Wood Handbook, here are the rot resistance ratings for common untreated woods:

Wood SpeciesNatural Rot Resistance
TeakVery high
White oakModerately high
Black walnutModerately high
Black cherryModerately high
Douglas firModerate
Southern pineModerate
PoplarVery low
AspenVery low

As you can see, teak, cedar, redwood, and cypress will last the longest outdoors without treatment. They have natural oils that repel moisture and resist decay and insect damage. Woods like poplar and aspen offer very little rot resistance without treatment.

Part of the Wood Exposed

Wood decays faster where moisture can easily enter – primarily at the end grains. Decking boards, fence boards, and other horizontal surfaces last longer than vertical supports, posts, and lattice where the end grain is exposed. Applying wood sealer or paint to the exposed end grains dramatically improves longevity.

Climate Conditions

Moist, humid climates speed up decay while hot, arid climates slow it down. A study by Louisiana State University tested untreated Southern Pine lumber at four different sites:

  • New Orleans, LA (hot, humid)
  • Poplarville, MS (warm, humid)
  • Starkville, MS (warm, less humid)
  • Stoneville, MS (hot, less humid)

After just 1 year of exposure, the lumber in warm, humid Poplarville experienced significantly more checking, cracking, and fungal decay than the other sites. The boards in hot, dry Stoneville showed the least degradation after 4 years.

This demonstrates that hot, arid climates like the Southwest United States can extend the service life of untreated woods. Cool, damp climates accelerate rotting.

Sunlight Exposure

Direct sun accelerates the breakdown of lignin and cellulose in wood, causing it to weaken, check, warp, and decay. Even woods with good natural durability will degrade faster in full sun vs. shade.

Different types of wood also react differently to sunlight. Teak’s high oil content makes it very resistant to sun damage while pine is more prone to photodegradation. Providing shade with a roof overhang or canopy can significantly improve the lifespan of untreated wood.

Mechanical Damage/Wear

Foot traffic, impact, abrasion, and other mechanical stresses take a toll on wood over time. Deck boards will wear out faster than vertical siding. Using untreated wood for high-traffic structural applications will require more frequent replacement than for decorative accent features.

Wood’s Original Quality

The quality, density, and integrity of the untreated wood impacts durability. Knots expose end grain and accelerate localized decay. Checks, cracks, warping, and other existing defects give moisture more ways to enter the wood. High-quality, defect-free boards last longer than low-grade lumber.

Protective Measures

Applying finishes, stains, water sealants, or other protective treatments improves the lifespan of untreated wood. Proper construction and maintenance procedures like sealing end grains, allowing drainage/ventilation, and limiting ground contact also extend service life.

Taking into account all these variables, here are some general guidelines for how long untreated wood tends to last outdoors before serious rotting occurs:

Untreated Wood TypeExpected Lifespan Outdoors
Teak, Ipe15-25 years
Cedar, Redwood10-15 years
Cypress, White Oak7-12 years
Pine, Fir, Spruce3-7 years
Aspen, Poplar< 3 years

These are very general estimates and will vary based on specific conditions. Some untreated woods can start experiencing surface degradation in less than a year, while teak and other durable species can last 20+ years with proper care.

Factors Affecting the Lifespan of Untreated Wood

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the key factors that influence how long untreated wood will last outdoors before rotting:

Wood Type

As mentioned above, wood species with natural rot and insect resistance will last the longest without treatment. Teak is the gold standard; its high oil content makes it resistant to moisture, sun, fungi and pests. Cedar, redwood, cypress, black locust and white oak also have good durability.

On the other end of the spectrum, aspen, poplar, willow, pine, fir and spruce offer very little natural rot resistance. These woods will decay quickly when exposed to the elements.

Always select the most durable wood species suitable for your project if using untreated lumber. Also inspect boards carefully and avoid those with excessive knots, cracks, warping, or other defects if possible.

Moisture Exposure

The biggest threat to untreated wood’s longevity outdoors is moisture. Prolonged wetting allows fungi, mold, and decay organisms to infiltrate the wood and cause rotting from the inside out.

Water pooling, soil contact, poor drainage, inadequate overhangs, and other moisture traps speed deterioration. Limiting exposure to precipitation and ground contact is key.

Sun and Weathering

Sunlight (UV radiation) degrades lignin and cellulose in wood fibers. It accelerates surface cracking, discoloration, and erosion. Combined with heat, sun causes untreated wood toexpand and contract, resulting in raised grain, checking, and splitting.

Wind abrades wood surfaces over time while also forcing moisture into cracks and crevices.

Freeze-thaw cycles open up cracks that let in more water.

Pollution like acid rain and salt air interact withsunlight to corrode wood more quickly.

Selecting wood species that resist sun damage, providing shade covers, and proper sealing are important for minimal weathering.

Wood-Destroying Pests

Insects like termites, carpenter ants, powderpost beetles, and wood-boring bees can rapidly eat away at untreated wood outdoors. Fungal decay also invites black mold, brown rot, and other organisms that break down wood cell walls.

Using naturally rot-resistant wood is the best defense against pests. Keeping wood well-sealed and limiting moisture penetration also helps prevent infestation. Applying borates or other insecticides provides added protection.

Design and Construction Factors

How you use and install the untreated wood affects its longevity:

  • Elevating off ground with footings or spacers reduces moisture exposure
  • Allowing air circulation helps moisture evaporate
  • Overhangs and breathable coverings shield from rain
  • Sealing end grains limits water intrusion
  • Quality joinery with proper spacing avoids trapped moisture
  • Using thicker dimension lumber reduces cracking
  • Minimizing mechanical wear prevents surface breakdown
  • Pre-drilling nail holes reduces splitting

Proper installation is just as important as wood selection for outdoor projects with untreated lumber.

Frequency of Care

Diligent maintenance and upkeep allows you to proactively address any issues with your untreated wood before major rotting occurs.

Checking for cracks, damage, mold and making timely repairs prevents small issues from becoming major decay problems. Reapplying protective finishes like stains and water sealants is advised every 1-2 years.

With regular inspection and care, even moderately durable woods can achieve long service lives outdoors.

Improving the Lifespan of Untreated Wood

If planning to use untreated wood for an exterior application, there are several protective measures you can take to maximize its lifespan:

Use Naturally Durable Wood Species

Select wood species like cedar, redwood, or cypress that resist decay rather than pine, fir, aspen, and poplar. Also check boards to avoid those with excessive knots, splits, warping and other flaws.

Apply Protective Finishes

Stains, varnishes, oils, water sealants, and wood preservatives improve resistance to moisture and UV when applied to unfinished lumber. They retard cracking, fading, mold growth and weathering. Reapply clear finishes every 1-2 years.

Allow Proper Drainage and Ventilation

Allow space between boards and use spacers to promote airflow. Grade soil away from posts and structures. Avoid dirt/mulch contact. Overhangs and breathable covers keep off rain.

Seal End Grains

Paint exposed end grains with water sealants or wood filler to minimize water intrusion through the most vulnerable entry points.

Limit Sun and Weather Exposure

Use roofs, canopies, and fences to provide shade. North/east facing boards last longer than southern/western exposure. Consider weather-resistant materials for the most exposed parts of a structure.

Inspect and Maintain Frequently

Check for cracks, mold, wear, raised grain and address issues right away. Make repairs before small flaws become major decay problems.

Add Supplemental Structural Support

Use thicker, more rigid materials to reinforce weaker untreated wood in load-bearing applications. Sister framing lumber or double up decking boards in high traffic areas.

Use Borate-Based Insecticides

Applying borate solutions to untreated lumber provides protection against termites, ants, beetles, and other pests. It also hinders fungal and bacterial growth.

Keep Wood Clean

Clean off dirt, debris, mold, and mildew regularly. Don’t allow organic buildup that can retain moisture and attract pests.

By selecting appropriate wood species, making sensible structural design choices, properly installing and protecting your outdoor project, and performing regular maintenance, even untreated lumber can achieve long service lives exposed to the elements.

Examples of How Long Untreated Wood Lasts In Different Applications

The lifespan of outdoor wood projects depends heavily on context. Here are some examples of approximately how long untreated wood lasts in different exterior applications:


  • Cedar privacy fence boards: 10-15 years
  • Cedar picket fence boards: 12-18 years
  • Pine privacy fence boards: 3-5 years
  • Pine picket fence boards: 5-7 years
  • Fence posts: Replace every 8-10 years for softwoods, 12-15 years for durable hardwoods

Fence boards experience abrasion from weathering on both sides. Durable finishes and allowing air circulation extends lifespan. Posts suffer more moisture exposure at ground level; using gravel or concrete footings improves longevity.


  • Cedar or redwood decking: 10-15 years
  • Pressure-treated decking: 15-20+ years
  • Pine decking: 5-8 years
  • Deck railings/benches: 8-12 years for softwoods, 10-15 years for cedars
  • Deck framing: 10-15 years depending on moisture exposure

Decking takes a beating from foot traffic, furniture, weathering. Quality wood selection and penetrating finishes improve durability. Periodic sanding and refinishing helps maintain.


  • Cedar or redwood siding: 10-15 years
  • Pine siding: 5-10 years
  • Shed framing: 10-15 years if kept dry

Moisture, sun, and decay organisms infiltrate slowly with proper construction, ventilation, drainage, and routine maintenance. Apply quality primer and paint.

Raised Beds

  • Cedar raised bed walls: 5-7 years
  • Pine raised beds: 3-5 years
  • Cypress raised beds: 7-10 years

Constant moisture exposure from soil contact speeds decay. Using thicker boards, plastic or metal lining, gravel backfill, and decay-resistant woods extends lifespan. Expect to rebuild or replace after 5-10 years.

Planter Boxes

  • Cedar planter boxes: 10-15 years
  • Pine planter boxes: 5-7 years
  • Redwood planter boxes: 10-15 years

Self-contained planter boxes last longer than in-ground beds. Elevate on feet to prevent ground contact. Ensure drainage holes to limit moisture buildup.

Retaining Walls

  • All untreated woods: 5 years maximum

The constant pressure and moisture exposure of backfilled earth rapidly deteriorates untreated timber retaining walls. Use pressure-treated lumber or other retaining wall building materials instead.


When left unprotected outdoors, all woods will eventually decay, but their lifespan varies based on wood species, climate, design, maintenance and other factors.

Durable species like cedar, redwood, and teak offer the longest-lasting performance for untreated wood projects, with an expected service life of 10-25 years before replacement is needed.

More vulnerable woods like pine, poplar, and fir may show signs of rot in as little as 3-5 years outdoors if left untreated and unprotected.

No untreated wood lasts forever, but applying protective finishes, allowing proper drainage, limiting ground contact, and routine care helps maximize durability.

With the right wood selection, design choices, and maintenance, untreated lumber can offer many years of service for outdoor structures and landscaping features. Periodic inspection and repair allows you to get the most from your untreated wood projects.