Why Are Metals Better Conductors of Heat Than Wood?

By John Papiewski; Updated April 24, 2017
Metal railroad tracks get hot faster than the ties holding them

Standing on a wood deck might feel warm on a hot day, but a metal one would be unbearable. A casual look at wood and metal won’t tell you why one gets hotter than another. You have to examine microscopic features, then see how the atoms in these materials conduct heat.

Vibrations

Heat causes molecules in a material to vibrate. As they vibrate, they jostle their neighbors, transmitting the energy of their motion. When one group of molecules sets another to vibrating, heat conducts through the material.

Surface

Heat conduction between materials depends partly on how their surfaces meet. If a surface is rough and uneven, contact and heat conduction are interrupted by gaps. Wood is full of microscopic gaps at its surface. Metals are smoother and have fewer gaps.

Metals

In metals, the outer electrons in its atoms are more loosely bound than in wood. Metal atoms are packed more densely and can transmit heat vibrations more readily.

Crystals vs. Fibers

On an atomic level, metals arrange themselves in networks of crystals, which tend to be stiff. Wood is made of tiny fibers, which are both softer and more randomly organized. Heat vibrations are conducted less efficiently though these fibers.

Internal Voids

Wood has gaps internally as well as at on its surface. It’s riddled with microscopic air pockets left when the living wood dried out. Molecular vibrations from heat move through these pockets slowly. Metals have far fewer voids.

About the Author

Chicago native J.T. Barett has a Bachelor of Science in physics from Northeastern Illinois University and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."