How Far Can an LVL Beam Span? (Explained)

You might have a lot of experience as a carpenter, or you may not, but at some point, you have more than likely used LVL engineered wood. Contractors use LVL wood for beams, headers, studs, and a whole lot more in today’s new home market. Although, you may be wondering how far an LVL beam can span.

Due to its strength, an LVL beam can span up to 60 feet and is much stronger than traditional lumber. Generally, you can find LVL beams in 4-foot increments starting at 24 feet and going up to 44 feet long, with special orders up to 60 feet. LVL beam thickness is usually between 1 ¾ and 7 inches.

Questions about LVL engineered lumber, like what LVL stands for, how strong it is, and how you store it, are not always easy to find.

Here is a compiled list of the top questions about LVL wood all in one place. Combined with in-depth research plus my decade-long experience as a home inspector, here are the answers I gathered.

Do LVL Beams Sag?

A properly sized engineered LVL Beam will have some deflection by nature, but if properly built and installed with crowning up, the deflection makes the beam true and level. If you over span any material, including LVL, you can experience sagging to an extent.

Always follow the manufacturer’s suggested span requirements, or consult a structural engineer when in doubt.

Most building codes have allowances for sag, and within those allowances, you will see LVL beams sag slightly at 14 feet and longer spans. This deflection or sag can be visible with an unleveled floor or even cracks in the drywall. This sag type is very typical, especially in ten-year-old homes, and usually does not pose any safety issues. 

Is LVL Stronger than Dimensional Lumber?

Dimensional lumber in today’s market is grown quicker with wider spaced growth rings and is not as strong as it once was. Engineered LVL lumber is made in a factory and is robust, straight, and more uniform than dimensional lumber.

The days of crooked and warped lumber are in the past. Being a composite, LVL is much less likely than dimensional lumber to twist, warp, shrink, or bow. Strong adhesives are the key to making LVL wood strong, resistant to mold, and resistant to termite infestations. 

A drawback in LVL is it is more susceptible to water damage and rot if it gets wet than traditional lumber. The adhesive on many LVL beams is waterproof, but that glue will start to delaminate with repeated water infiltration, weakening the LVL beam. LVL work for interior and dry location applications. 

What Does LVL Beam Stand For?

Engineered lumber was first seen in use as early as ancient Egypt. There is recorded use by the Chinese, English, French, and Russians well before the 20th century, and it received its first patent in 1856. During World War II, plywood became an essential war material. 

LVL stands for Laminated Veneer Lumber and is similar to plywood in appearance. The difference is that plywood changes the grain’s direction with each layer, and LVL keeps the grain direction the same. LVL is typically made in a factory, straighter, more uniform, and stronger than traditional milled lumber. An LVL engineering process uses multiple layers of thin wood assembled with adhesives.

The most common wood used in LVL beams is Douglas fir. Other woods are also used, such as:

  • Yellow poplar
  • Southern pine
  • Other softwoods in the United States

The process to get to a finished LVL beam starts with debarking the log, then rotary peeling the veneer to send the sheets to the jet tube dryers to reduce the moisture content to 8-10%. 

After drying, the manufacturer grades the veneer sheets, gets a resin application, and compresses the sheets until dry. They are cut to size, wrapped, and prepped for storage or transportation. 

What Are the Downsides of LVL Materials?

LVL wood is susceptible to defects. Here are some of them:

  1. Warping – If not correctly stored, even with the added strength, LVL will most likely warp. LVL wood can swell and shrink with moisture content, similar to sawn lumber, but LVL tends to be uniform in swelling and shrinking. If one piece of LVL board has swelled up, then all the other LVL lumber will be the same. 
  1. Uneven Strength – Another downside is that LVL is very strong, but only on one axis, because of the stacking of layers with the grain running in the same direction. You should never stack other materials on top of LVL wood and only load it in one direction.
  1. Susceptible to Damage – In outdoor applications where a beam is exposed to the elements, an LVL is not the best choice. LVL can delaminate if left exposed to the weather and weaken the structural integrity of the building. 
  1. Expensive – LVL costs approximately two times as much to purchase as standard dimensional lumber. With the higher upfront cost, LVL will last longer and stay straighter than the lower-cost option. 

Are LVL Beams a Good Choice?

LVL beams are a high-quality building product that is an excellent choice for most modern homes. LVL is especially a great choice to build homes and buildings with open floor plans due to the more extended manufacturing capabilities.

Due to the nature of the phenyl-formaldehyde resins used in LVL manufacturing, this lumber is pretty fire-resistant which is another excellent reason to use them in residential construction. 

How to Fasten LVL Beams Together?

Building LVL beams on the job site require specific fasteners to connect the layers making up the LVL beam. This type of LVL beam is commonly referred to as a Glulam beam.

When putting together sawn lumber, it is vital to find each board’s crown or direction of the bend.
Finding the bend will help you match and put together the layers properly. 

Once the crowns are marked and beams glued and layered together, you should use a structural wood screw connector. A few brands make a structural wood screw with a self-drilling point, so it does not split the layers, and a smooth shank to help squeeze the boards together for strength. 

Manufacturers have specs to follow on faster placement and how many fasteners are needed when fastening the beams together. 

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Can You Notch an LVL Beam?

Although you can, cutting or notching an LVL beam is not recommended by most manufacturers. Check with the LVL manufacturer, and they should have technical specs on proper notching if approved.

It is recommended never to notch the tension side of the beam. Notching a beam on the tension side will reduce the strength of an LVL beam, according to Murphy Plywood. Notches cut perpendicular to grain can cause splitting along the length of the beam. 

You can, however, drill holes in the beam at predetermined zones where horizontal holes are permitted for passage of wires and conduit. You should not have vertical holes unless the beam width is 3 1/2 inches or more. Always consult with an engineer or architect before cutting or drilling any holes in an LVL beam. 

How to Finish an LVL Beam?

If a beam is cut, the cut end needs a coat of sealant to protect it from added moisture. LVL beams are engineered to be in a covered location and not exposed to the living area.

If you have an exposed LVL beam and want to finish it, you can always cover it with 1x cedar or pine to give it a natural look. When covering the beam with wood, a pro tip is to rip the bottom joints at 45 to provide the appearance of an actual beam. 

You can use a combination of a power paint stripper and a rotary sander to remove the “factory” finish, which is commonly referred to as “waxy.” Using a primer before painting is critical on an LVL beam, and if you want to stain, you need to apply a lacquer sealer first to reduce the blotchiness. Solid stains work best. 

It is a good idea to keep any cut-offs to test paints or stains for coverage and appearance. If you don’t have any cut-off sections, ask the manufacture for scrap to try it. 

Let’s not forget about finishing the beam with drywall. Using drywall is a standard wall covering and works well for hiding exposed beams. You should cover the beam at the same time as the other drywall in the same room. The benefit of drywall is it will help hide the beam, so it is not as noticeable. 

Should You Handle or Store LVL Beams Differently?

LVL beams are similar to traditional wood beams in that you should keep them wrapped to protect from the weather and use stickers to separate bundles. To preserve the LVL beams from water damage, we recommend that you store the LVL material at least 12 inches off the ground.

If picking up with a crane, pick up the load using a spreader to minimize handling stress. It is also essential to avoid stacking other materials on top of LVL materials. 

The wrapping on the LVL beams should be cut open from the bottom to release any excess moisture. If storing on the job site for more than a week, you’ll need an additional covering to protect the LVL beams from the weather. Monitor the condition of the beams and the coverings regularly during job site storage.

What Is Stronger: Glulam or LVL?

A Glulam differs from LVL in that it is sawn lumber glued together, where LVL is laminate layers glued together. Both have considerable advantages over traditional sawn lumber. They are both strong and used in structural applications.

A Glulam beam also has a more excellent finish, adding to the visual appeal of the installation. LVL is manufactured longer and is more robust than Glulam. 

Glulam is used in large structures and curved applications, including:

  • Trusses
  • Tied rafters
  • Straight beams
  • Curved beams
  • Arched bridges
  • Columns

LVL is used for structural applications in commercial and residential construction, including:

  • Beams
  • Truss chords
  • Floor bearers
  • Purlins
  • Hip and valley rafters
  • Lintels
  • Studs
  • Headers

Both Glulam and LVL have their place in modern construction, and one of the main reasons that builders choose LVL is that it’s much less expensive than Glulam. You can also fabricate LVL much thinner, which helps in retrofit construction projects. They are both excellent choices for residential and commercial construction. 

What Is the Difference Between SCL and LVL?

Structural Composite Lumber (SCL) is a category of engineered wood products engineered by layering wood veneers, flakes, or strands with strong adhesives pressing it into lumber. LVL is in the SCL category and parallel strand lumber (PSL) and oriented strand lumber (OLS).

The term SCL came to mean all the products with layers glued together to form a highly predictable, precisely engineered product. 

Engineered wood in the SCL products have consistent sizes and are free from splitting and warping virtually. SCL wood is a top choice for builders of high-quality homes. 

Conclusion

Lvl is an excellent choice in lumber for quality home building due to its strength and straightness. LVL beams come in various lengths up to 60 feet and are stronger than traditional sawn lumber beams. It is relatively easy to get produced, and there are a few manufacturers in the U.S., which keeps the price relatively low for engineered lumber. 

If you are looking for the best bang for your buck, LVL beams are right for you. The added cost over traditional lumber is only slight compared to the straighter and easier to work with LVL beams.

Sources

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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