We determined the stable carbon isotope composition (δ1.3C) of cellulose extracted from early and late wood in Douglas fir [Pseudotsuga menziexii (Mirb.) Franco] tree rings. Data were obtained for the period 1962 to 1981, at the start of which the trees were 20 years old. A water balance model was used to calculate daily stand transpiration and water deficit. The model incorporates site factors (soil water availability, slope and aspect) and environmental variables (solar radiation, air temperature and rainfall). There was far greater variability in late wood than in early wood δ1.3C. In wet years, late wood δ1.3C was significantly lighter (by as much as 2δ) than early wood δ1.3C but in dry years this difference was reversed. Differences between spring and summer cumulative transpiration accounted for almost 60δ of the variability in differences between early and late wood δ1.3C. We found excellent correspondence between summer cumulative transpiration and late wood δ1.3C, with estimates of transpiration accounting for up to 93% of the variability in δ1.3C. Correlations between early wood δ1.3C and spring transpiration were generally poor (r2<0.4), but we were able to identify those exceptional years in which there had been a very dry spring. Our results indicate that, while tree ring δ1.3C correlates reasonably well with basal area increment, it is a far better indicator of inter- and intra-annual variability in water availability than radial growth.