Where has all the hardwood gone?

Many people love the look and feel of real wood in their homes - in floors, cabinets, paneling, moldings, or furnishings. But with the loss of old-growth forests, is the supply drying up?

"There's a gross misconception that we're running out of trees in the United States," says Judd Johnson, associate editor of the Hardwood Market Report. He believes negative attention to clear-cut timber harvesting has clouded the facts.

The hardwood business, he points out, is very much alive and well, even in states like Indiana and West Virginia, where abandoned farmlands and strip mines have been converted into hardwood forests. Because these are on private lands owned by small family companies, though, they and most of the Eastern hardwood forests go largely unnoticed.

Jon Arno, whose family owns Durst Lumber Co. in Berkley, Mich., agrees that wood is plentiful.

"In terms of cubic meters of wood, we're growing it [in the US] faster than we're consuming it," he observes. "The problem is it's second growth and you don't get a lot of clear stock." Clear stock is free of knots and defects and is prized for its stability and beauty.

If you speak to sawmill operators, Mr. Johnson says, most will tell you that the quality of US timber is decreasing. What is really happening, in his opinion, is that many of the best logs are now sold overseas or to American veneer manufacturers, bypassing middle-man sawmills altogether.

The perception that there is a smaller supply of hardwoods is also fed by stricter grading of the raw lumber, says Paul Fisette, director of the University of Massachusetts' Building Materials and Wood Technology program.

In the past, when premium wood was more plentiful, he says, the industry may have been more lax, selling better boards with lower-grade ones. Now that the upper grades are worth so much, though, this doesn't happen.

Generous sections of clear wood, Mr. Fisette explains, are harder to find in young trees, the kind that foresters now harvest before full maturity at 30 or 40 years old. Their smaller trunks are punctuated by knots where branches once grew, whereas older trees often grow a new layer of clear outer wood.

The good news for woodworkers is that they usually don't need long lengths of clear stock. Many pieces used in furniture and cabinetmaking may be two feet or less.

There's even an advantage in buying lower-grade stock, since there is more character to the wood grain and the knots can be trimmed out.

The experts agree that hardwood is as accessible as ever, even if increasingly expensive.

Bill Hibdon, the president of Hibdon Hardwood in St. Louis, gives these ballpark retail prices: red oak and hard maple, $4.50 per board foot (one inch thick by a foot square); mahogany, $5.50; and cherry and walnut, $6. (Prices vary by region.)

Superstores like The Home Depot and Lowe's carry limited selections. Independent stores and lumberyards may offer more species and sizes.

Fisette says consumers can also buy from millwork shops, which often let individual woodworkers piggyback onto their orders. It's important to speak their language, though, and you never see exactly what you're buying until it arrives.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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