Sawing Utility Poles

      Information on the wood species and treatment chemicals found in utility poles. May 11, 2005

I have access to a large number of cedar utility poles. While normally I am cautious about poles, these are hi-line poles with little or no metal, long and larger diameter. What are the possible markets for this type of wood? Is it in demand? Are any of you cutting and selling any? Pricing suggestions?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Any idea which of the 6 main cedars that this would be?

From the original questioner:
I'm not sure, but I think it is western red cedar.

From contributor A:
It is hard to tell which type of cedar once they are treated. I have sawn some and sell it as treated lumber for about what they are getting in the lumberyards. Most of the time I get very clear, good lumber. The grit down in the checks will dull your blades in no time. Bigger boards and timbers bring better money for barns and such. You can not use it indoors or in a house frame. In some areas the sawdust is of EPA concern and there are regulations for it. Watch for where they plugged a pecker hole with cement and put tar over it. I have gotten some very nice 32' 4x10s from main line poles.

From the original questioner:
I plan on taking only the upper portion and not the butt. Do you still think there will be treatment? They've been in the air for about 40 years.

From contributor J:
You could always square it off and sell it for posts and beams for decks and outdoor framing (like gazebos and such). Might not bring quite as much as sawing into 2x, but when you figure in the increased blade wear and labor, that might be the most profitable route to go with that stuff, particularly if you have long, straight pieces that don't have a large diameter. An 8x8 cedar beam 20 feet long is a pricey item... wish I had a few of them to saw for the deck I'm building that's 20 feet off the ground.

From contributor L:
Many folks around here saw them up for trailer flooring.

From contributor M:
I've sawn them before. The only treatment I've seen is in the butts on the western red cedar. A few people I know paneled rooms with it, with no ill effects. Those 100' class 00 poles have a lot of bf in them. Others I know used it for decks, boat docks and sheds.

From contributor T:
I'm just a wimp, perhaps, but... My fear wouldn't be getting sick to my stomach the morning after putting the boards up, it would be falling apart 10 years later and wondering why. No treated wood in the living spaces of my house... no siree.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
No, it would not be very reasonable to put any treated wood on the inside of a home or living space. The health risks are enormously high.

From contributor M:
I know that too. The ones I did saw were treated butts only. The butts weren't used. The finished lumber smelled and looked like WRC - there was no chemical smell to it. That treatment, either penta or creosote, would be hard to miss.

From contributor M:
I sawed some chestnut poles about 14 years ago and built our kitchen cabinets from them. The poles were much smaller than WRC highline poles, and most were checked to the heart on 3 sides. Lots of glue up needed. Here again, only the butts were treated with creosote and were not used.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Penta does not have any odor. The odor you smell with freshly treated penta is the oil used to transport the penta. Often the oil will evaporate so that there will be no smell years later. Sometimes LPG was used to carry the penta. This produced a clean surface (no oily residue) with no odor.

I am somewhat curious on how someone can treat only the butt of a pole commercially. As treating is done under vacuum and pressure, it must be quite a trick. I do not believe I have ever seen such an operation. If the butt end is only submerged in the treating solution, then penetration of the chemical is minimal, so soaking is not an option. There was a hot/cold bath method, but I did not hear of it being used commercially.

From contributor M:
I'm a lineman, not a chemical engineer. For 33 years I've climbed, drilled, sawn, and set about every type of wood pole used here in New England. Pentachloraphenol stinks, worse than CCA. There is no mistaking a pole treated with it. The chestnut poles I used dated from the 30's. All newer poles have a brand 10' from the butt that tells the species, the treatment, the year, etc. The older ones only had a large nail with a year stamped on it. They may have only had creosote painted on, I don't know, I never saw it done. I am quite sure though at this point I can tell treated wood from untreated, and would not use it in a house, mine or anyone else's. Plus - my hair hasn't fallen out!

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Perhaps I was not clear that penta smells because of the carrier, and sometimes a non-smelling carrier is used. In those cases, the penta treated wood would not smell. We do have to be careful about exposure. Many carcinogens take time... for example, someone could claim that they have been smoking two packs a day for 30 years and nothing has happened... yet. Many chemicals affect child development in the womb, many affect only some people, etc.

From contributor A:
I have sawn several high line poles and have some to saw now. Every one of them has been treated from top to bottom. Now that does not mean they do that everywhere. In an area where there are not as many termites as here, they may just paint the butt and use a good cedar post to weather the elements. I would contact the local electrical company and chat with the engineer and see what he knows. I called mine here at Entergy and he told me every one is treated in our area with either CCA or creosote but long ago there were some put in place that just the end was tarred, but they have long rotted away.

From contributor P:
I work as a electrician and I work with/around poles quite a bit. Not as much as a line man, but I still see and set them, and I have to side with the line man on this. In my area, PNW Washington state, there are 3 types of poles that they sell and I set. They don't break them down by spices. They go as follows: 1: Untreated - no treatment whatsoever (I asked at the yard), 2: End treatment - the end of the pole (bottom 6'-10') is run through a machine that punches slits in the wood and injects the treatment. Just the bottom 6'-10', 3: Full treatment - the whole pole. The choice of what kind you can use is up to the serving utility. I am kind of shocked to hear WRC poles (all the ones I have ever seen around here are DF). They like them strong - ever see how they bend as the lines make a turn? (And they have guy wires on them and there are bends between the guy wires.)

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
You are indeed correct about WRC being rarely used for poles. It was so much more valuable when sawn into lumber. Certainly in the eastern U.S., white cedar would be more commonly used. As you mentioned, the cedars are so weak compared to DF and SYP. Therefore, cedar would not be used for tall poles or for poles with lots of wires.

Incidentally, the processing of cutting little passageways (slits) in the butt of a log is called incising. It is done to increase the preservative uptake in that particular region of the pole. In many species (especially Doug fir), the sapwood is permeable enough for good uptake, but the heartwood is so impermeable that incising is used to achieve deep penetration. Most often only the butt is incised, but the entire piece will be treated. The penetration of the un-incised wood is not very high and with the final vacuum treatment, most of the preservative in the un-incised sapwood is removed. Hence the upper part of the pole will look clean and smell clean after a few years of exposure. If the pole is carrying lots of wires and if a failure would be very costly, then the entire pole will be incised to assure the longest possible freedom from decay.

From contributor P:
Thanks Gene. (Just trying to learn here.) The choice about treatment normally comes from the serving utility. We have several here. Puget Power requires all new poles to be full treatment. But the Tacoma City Light just requires the bottom to be treated. And the untreated ones are used for temp power.

Here is a question on the poles I work with. They look like they are treated with something very dark. Some are CTC (most of the full treatment ones are), but some (most of the part treated ones) are something else - I don't know what (but again, it is a very dark stain) and these are the incised ones. There is a very dark stain on the entire butt of the pole that normally goes about 6"-12" past the end of the incising. So you are saying that the whole pole is treated (dipped, sprayed? I was told injected at the pole yard), but the only part that ends up with a stain is the incised part? As dark as the stain is, I would think that you could still see it on the whole pole (I am talking about brand new poles at the pole yard). I would think that it would stain the sapwood. I think this is what is fueling this misunderstanding. The guys that work with poles don't know how they are made, and the top looks and smells (and we have been told) untreated. Most line men I know have a very laidback attitude to the treatment (to the point that it is scary). I know a line man that built his house out of old CTC cross arms. Almost all the framing... And was always joking about not having to worry about termites.

From contributor T:
Western red cedar is an important and valuable pole species and can be butt treated using a thermal bath treatment: the change from hot to cold preservative solutions induces a vacuum in the wood that draws the preservative in. Thermal treatment can be done on the butt only or full-length. The penetration of this treatment is not as good as with pressure treatments, but with western red cedar only the (thin) sapwood requires preservative protection - the heartwood is quite durable (as a result of the extractives that also give the wood its nice color and odor). Butt treatments leave susceptible sapwood in the upper (non-ground contact) parts of western red cedar poles, but the decay hazard is generally less there. Thermal treatments can be done with pentachlorophenol (carried in oil) and with (black-colored) creosote.

From contributor Q:
How can one be certain that a pole is or is not treated? I cut up some cedar poles recently for a neighbor who used them for an addition to his house. There was no visible sign that they were treated.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Someone should run a chemical test. It is not easy to determine by sight all the time.

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