When wood is split or cut along the grain, a reduction in tensile stiffness has been observed. The averaged mechanical properties of wood samples, veneers or splinters therefore change when their thickness is less than about 1 mm. The loss of stiffness increases as the thickness approaches that of a single cell. The mechanism of the effect depends on whether the longitudinal fission plane is between or through the cells. Isolated single cells are a model for fission between cells. Each cell within bulk wood is prevented from twisting by attachment to its neighbours. Separation of adjacent cells lifts this restriction on twisting and facilitates elongation as the cellulose microfibrils reorientate towards the stretching direction. In contrast when the wood is cut or split along the centre of the cells, it appears that co-operative action by the S1, S2 and S3 cell-wall layers in resisting tensile stress may be disrupted. Since much of what is known about the nanoscale mechanism of wood deformation comes from experiments on thin samples, caution is needed in applying this knowledge to structural-sized timber. The loss of stiffness at longitudinal fracture faces may augment the remarkable capacity of wood to resist fracture by deflecting cracks into the axial plane. These observations also point to mechanisms for enhancing toughness that are unique to wood and have biomimetic potential for the design of composite materials.