Hardwood Supply and Quality

The U.S. has large and growing stocks of high-quality hardwood timber, and a limitless supply of ungraded rhetoric. August 8, 2006

I have seen hardwood prices rise per foot in the last eight years dramatically. I have noticed that the log trucks around here don't haul the 24-30" diameter red oaks anymore. The biggest one you see now is only 10" - 12". We used to cut a bundle open and see 12" wide clear boards, now it is mostly 6" wide boards, and their not that great. I have talked to other cabinet builders and we all agree the lumber is getting scarce. What will become of cabinet building in the next few years? The plywood that I use right now comes from China. The hardwood that my doors are made of comes from Canada. Will we be making cabinets from plastic in the next few years? By the way plastic is made from crude oil - guess where we will have to get that?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
I'm not the type to jump into drawn out threads like this one will become, especially since I'll be dead by the time the trees are gone and woodworking no longer exists. To answer the question to the best of my abilities, if you haven't noticed everyone is heading towards frameless cabinets. I know there is wood in particle board but you could make it out of several resources. So particle board with a laminate, PVC edgetape and RTF doors, or MDF painted. If you want stain grade wood they have MDF that is veneered. So you see, they are already accommodating your answer by the technology, style, etc. Besides that, lumber is a renewable resource. If it takes 50 years to renew itself, it will. Remember though, if we don't log it, the beetles will.

From contributor B:
Quick, run outside, I think the sky might be falling where you are. I hear the old- timers say stuff like this all the time. "Back in my day sonny boy, all the lumber was wide and didn't have any of them knots in it". I don't believe that there are no more wide boards out there. I think that a lot of the wide lumber gets used for veneer. Remember, they weren't making too much of that in the past. We still get wide lumber and when we do we rip it down and re-glue it so that it will be stable so it is not really any better that the narrow stuff. I really don't think we will ever run out of trees. Too many people have too much money invested to ever let that happen.

From contributor C:
Itís time to move. I buy all my lumber from a local sawyer and have yet to buy anything less than 10 inches wide. I occasionally see a 6 inch wide piece in his stacks, but most are 8 inches plus up to 15 inches. If I want it he will saw through and through and sell me boards up to 32 inches wide! The wide lumber is out there, you just aren't looking in the right spots. When you buy from a lumber yard you get what they want to order. Start buying from a local sawyer, save some money and get the lumber you want. The locals will appreciate your money staying in town too.

From contributor D:
There is more hardwood growing today in the U.S. than there was when the pilgrims landed. Yes the virgin forests are for all intents and purposes gone. But with reseeding and selective cutting the resource is more sustainable now than ever.

From contributor E:
I think the reason your plywood etc. is coming from China is not a lack of resources here, it is just the fact that it is less costly to manufacture the product there because of labor costs and because of fewer environmental restrictions in that country. I also agree that if you get wide lumber you have to rip and glue so there is no benefit to wide boards anyway.

From contributor F:
I ordered about 100BF of red oak. In that stack were a couple of pieces almost 10" wide, and one piece that was 15" wide. I didn't order wide stuff - that's just what they sent me. I ordered a bunch of poplar in the same order. I had a couple of 12" boards, and one that was about 16" wide. I very seldom get maple that is decent width, but I have good width with most other woods. It may be time to change suppliers.

From contributor G:
I tend to agree with some of the responses here from both sides of the spectrum. While a lot of suppliers have closed down in many areas, if you work at it a bit you can find some good stuff, mostly not advertised. A lot of the local gems here are nearly impossible to find but once you find them, they have some really neat lumber. Prices, well I haven't been around this stuff for long enough to see the huge price change, but I look at it like this. With rising oil prices, it's naturally going to affect the cost of lumber - all of that has to be trucked by semis and trucks that burn tons of diesel fuel. I guess maybe some day soon we will see some hybrid 18 wheelers and the price of mahogany will slip down to the price of hard maple - in my dreams.

But that's how the economy is working, and we have to adjust ourselves to that. We are expanding into an era where our products are powered and built by CNC machines and cutting machinery that people did not have many years ago. They also didn't have this ever growing vast market for hardwood kitchens that is picking up Ė at least around here. So until the housing boom implodes on itself, I wouldn't worry much. Just remember, supplies might increase in price too, but so do you clientís salaries.

From contributor H:
The ply comes from China because you buy it. If you buy American ply with American cores, you will get a better product and deliver a better product to your customer. You will pay more, your customer will pay more, but your neighbors are employed, and you get to uphold the standards of your profession. The solution is not overly simple, but not complicated either. Decentralize, buy locally, use more solid woods than panel products (since panel products consume more energy than solids, and their waste is harder to reuse), and build for the long term. Well designed, expensive, well built, and highly valued products are the best use of diminished natural resources.

The cheap, quick and dirty, rape and pillage style of resource extraction is a thing of the past, so the next steps in the chain also need to change. Ikea and Wal-Mart have driven the cheap, throwaway products to the point where we all expect mediocrity, accept it (since we saved $1.43 each), and then throw it away on a whim.

Some segments of our industry are a long way from changing the outmoded model, but one person, one shop can make a difference. And some segments have gone to great lengths to appear to be green, while practicing the same methods as always. The Europeans have made serious improvements in this arena, and we (U.S.) have been characteristically slow (due to a long heritage of endless forests). But you can make a difference by determining to make what you need to make, and not what you might think the (Walmart) market dictates.

From contributor I:
There's no shortage - seems like replanting takes care of that, in most states its the law. Thereís plenty of plantation wood like Lyptus which grows fast, and new wood thatís not wood. Bamboo, then Alder isn't a problem( unless the Corp. that owns it all creates a false shortage). I don't know about the East Coast Hardwoods but I've been told the nice premium logs are exported, and we get stuck with the junk. Seems like the closer you are to a hardwood log mill, kiln and distributors, the worse the wood looks - narrow, warped etc. Sounds more like a distribution problem and not a real shortage. There's always Melamine and tape.

From contributor J:
Yes, we are slowly running out of wood. The sky is not falling, it won't happen overnight. If you listen to scientists, and not politicians, humans are contributing to global warming, and a major factor is due to deforestation. There aren't enough trees to suck the excess carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) out of the air we are putting into it. Plain and simple, we do have fewer trees than we had 50 and 100 years ago. Replanting is helping, but we are consuming more than we're replanting. I've been looking to alternatives myself. As you pointed out, plastics are a product of oil. Go back to metal cabinets? There is a company in Italy that produces nice metal cabinets. Not sure of any in the US that would be suitable in a kitchen.

From contributor K:
No wood means no trees, no trees mean no oxygen and plenty of CO2, which means no air to breath, and we'll all be dead - so you see, nothing to worry about.

From contributor L:
I have a portable mill and have tried to find a way to make a living at it. If there were indeed a shortage of hardwood, I would have no problem. The retail price of hardwood is so low that I can hardly make a profit at it. I have plenty of wide boards. I recently just sawed about 700 BD FT of 8/4 x 26" Wide x 16' long red oak. Last winter, I quartered a 48"diameter red oak and got a bunch of prefect quarter sawn boards almost 20" wide and 5/4 and 8/4 thick. If you want wide boards, contact your state forestry dept. They can give you a list of all the sawyers registered in your state. You might want to check neighboring states as well. You can also get on these message boards and find people also. Most any of the small mills would probably be happy to supply you with as many wide boards as you want - that is, if you are willing to pay more for it then you are paying for your 6" boards from the large suppliers.

From contributor F:
FSC woods are certified to come from sustainably managed forestries. In addition, there are forestries that are sustainable harvested, but are not certified as such. Buy FSC and we help ensure a healthy future for the wood industry. As a woodworker, what interested me most about the book 'Collapse' by Jared Diamond is the profound impact deforestation had on some societies' failure. On Easter Island, no more big trees meant no more canoes, which meant severely limited fishing and trade, which contributed heavily to societal collapse. In other societies, no more trees meant no more wood to burn to make charcoal, which was necessary to forge iron. Europe and Japan have been harvesting trees for much longer than the US and have implemented policies to sustain and grow their forestries. FSC provides some consumer-based pressure to do this here, and good governmental policies will do the same from the top down.

From contributor D:

The American hardwood forest comprises 279 million acres in 2006 - with a volume of 352 billion cubic feet of lumber expanding at a current rate of 10.2 billion cubic feet per year. Current removal rate is 6 billion cubic feet per year. That still leaves a net growth of 4.2 billion cubic feet per year. Just 50 years ago the hardwood forests in the eastern U.S. where approximately half what they are now.

The ownership of U.S. hardwood forests is over 70% in private hands. The balance is roughly split between the Government and the forest industry itself. I agree with previous post about imports. We get them because we buy them. We buy them because they are cheaper in the short term. We also buy them because they make the companies we invest in (the stock market) more profitable for us. So if you own any Borg stock (Home Depot, Lowes, etc.) and you like how they are performing for you don't complain that they carry imported sub-par material.

From contributor H:
To extend Bryan's statements with a bit of history: Every society that had trees collapsed when they cut the last of their timber. Wood was essential to everything man did for the last 25 centuries. Charcoal, weaponry, shelter, trade all depended upon huge amounts of wood. Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon were all heavily forested. Once the trees were gone, their societies collapsed. Greece was totally forested and cut the wood for toolmaking and shipbuilding. When the wood was gone, their shipping stopped and the next area came on. The Romans had a great wood supply until it was exhausted, and then they also fell from the world stage. Look at those areas today and they still are not reforested.

England fought long and hard for the Colonies when they saw all those beautiful White Oaks, White Pines and other woods from New England to the Piedmont. They needed those trees for their Navy that ruled the world. When they lost access, they started to lose their grip on the Empire. Extend this model to other natural resources and it helps understand why wars are fought.

From contributor M:
There are more trees today than there were at the turn of the last century. One of the big reasons for that was the great depression and the government programs that were started to give people jobs and expand the country after WWII. There are also lots of dollars going into replanting of trees that are logged out.

Having spent a lot of time with people in the logging industry (My father-in-law was in it and also my brother-in-law) and having gone to an environmental college in that area I got to see all sides of the issue. When an area is clear cut, there is a progression that the land goes through. The first trees to come back in the northern forests are the conifers and species like Birch and Aspen. When I was in college we were taken to areas that were clear cut a few years earlier and told that when you clear cut, you lose the hardwoods and only get less desirable trees in return, so it was better to selective harvest and leave a percentage of hardwoods.

I go back every few years and can tell you that the areas that were clear cut now have a decent population of Maple and Oak growing in them naturally. It certainly may have been better to leave some Oaks and Maples to boost the population earlier in the process, but they do come back.

One of the problems is that they take a long time to grow back and from an economic standpoint, it can be more cost effective to have a fast growing tree that you can harvest every 20 or so years than it is to have a tree that takes 75-100 years to reach a large size. And coming from my lumber jack brother-in-law, in his area the size of trees taken in by the mills has pretty much been dropped in half since the early 90's due to demand and new machinery that can get more useable lumber from smaller trees than they used to. The biggest trees with the highest grade are often shipped to Japan for veneers. That is especially true in this area for Walnut. They can get very high prices for the veneer logs and they are far more profitable for them than to saw them up for boards.

From contributor N:
Learn to be a master finisher. A good (or even not so good) finish can make as much profit as an excellent piece of wood working. And it doesn't matter if its crotch mahogany or garbage poplar. Around here it seems that people prefer a distressed knotty product with toners and glazings and the quality of wood is not important. We are using stuff that would have been burned or left to rot 15 years ago. I think that 80% of the cabinet and millwork market can be satisfied with fast growing plantation type lumber. The boutique woods like curly maple or cherry, quarter sawn, and tight grained CVG lumber should be reserved for special circumstances, and charged for exorbitantly.

From contributor O:
All the really good wood is exported, but there's still some here. Isn't the rule plant ten for every one that's cut? But what types of trees are being re-planted? Not the same types that are being cut, but fast growing varieties - and tree farms arenít going to wait 60 years for a good harvest. So there very well may be more trees now than when your grand daddy was buying moonpies and RC's for a nickel, but they are not the same kinds. I hope the future likes pine cabinets.

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor Sawing and Drying Forum:
In the USA, we have had more hardwood trees (volume-wise) growing every year since 1909. So there is more hardwood volume and the diameter is actually moving upward slightly too, this year than last year. In fact, we are not even close to cutting at a rate equal to the growth rate. This year we may cut around 10 billion BF of hardwoods. Hard to say that there is a shortage. In fact, last week, there was a continuing surplus of upper grade hard maple. Ceratinly, there can be shortages in a small area (such as a county). Certainly some species are not as plentiful as in the past, such as cherry. But overall, the hardwood supply looks great. Let's hope that we do not get a killer disease, such as was in chestnut and is now in butternut.

From the original questioner:
When I posted this question, I may have sounded like I was having a stroke or something worrying if I was going to get to work tomorrow. I didn't mean it that way. I want to answer some of the things said. I felt like I was hounded for buying ply from China. I believe in buying locally first, but the birch ply (American) that I was buying got to where it was not worth using. The Chinese birch that we use now is the best quality that I have ever seen -7 ply and looks like Baltic birch and is ten bucks cheaper on the sheet which is a lot when you buy it by the bundle like we do.

Second, my door supplier told me that he could no longer supply me with soft maple doors. He said that he was wasting more wood than he was using because of the low quality of the wood. This is why I went to another door supplier (both are local by the way) and he can supply me with soft maple doors but the wood does come from Canada.
I agree with a lot that has been said on this post. We will probably kill ourselves by other means before tree loss kills us. I still think that we are using it up faster than we are growing it, but if they can come up with a way that my Dodge diesel truck can burn corn then they will come up with a way of making cabinets too.

From contributor P:
I'm glad we're talking about this issue. In case we have not been paying attention to where all that nice hardwood is going, take a look at the huge homes that are being built everywhere. Many of these homes use hardwood flooring throughout as well as doors and custom made molding and trim. Back in the 60s, every other car had a big V8 usually around 400 cubes. A lot of gasoline went right out the tail pipe in those old gas hogs. Most of us would be crazy to drive one of those around with gas prices heading towards $4. A contractor is building a $825K home right next door to us. All the roof rafters, joists, and walls are made of solid lumber. He does it that way because the lumber is available. Don't kid yourself by thinking that we aren't using up the world's lumber at breakneck speed. Don't forget about developing countries where demand for wood is going to increase dramatically. I heard a public radio the other day how Haiti is desperately trying to increase their forest cover by 1% and they don't think it will ever happen. Every time I see someone burning wood in their backyard around here, I just shake my head.

From contributor Q:
"In the USA, we have had more hardwood trees (volume-wise) growing every year since 1909...." These fast-growing "hybrids" produce wood of such low quality that even dog houses are now plastic. I challenge anyone to show me evidence that the garbage we get today is the same as it was just 10 years ago. Don't be misled by USFS bogus reports - there are billions of acres of fewer trees. The hybrids are not growing as fast as they are being cut - that is physically impossible by anyone other than God. Don't take my word for it, travel about and see for yourself. For every bogus US Gov't report there are a dozen more to rebuke them with the truth. The problem is, the truth is being told by so-called radicals, who appear to be losing more credibility every year due to the fact that the American people will not stand for the painful truth. They will only accept what they want to hear. I've read the book that predicts an impending end too, and I know how it ends.

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum :
Where do you get your information about hybrid trees? We do not have commercial forest land in the USA with hybrid hardwoods, so I am afraid that your comments about hybrid trees are bogus indeed. Remember that we are discussing hardwoods.

What garbage are you getting today? Are you saying that wood quality has gone downhill? Sorry, but you are incorrect. Further, what is your source of information about billions of acres of hardwood forest disappearing? The total USA acreage of all land is only 2.3 billion acres. You are totally incorrect about this indeed. The total forest acreage is only 762 million acres. It was constant from 1900 to 1963. From 1963 to 2002, the acreage did decrease by 13 million acres. In fact, the SAF (non-government) states "the amount of forest land in many states has been decreasing, a result of providing our growing population with land needed for residential and commercial development as well as highways and other infrastructure. SAF believes that much of the permanent loss of forest land occurring today is avoidable and too often the result of uncontrolled urban expansion, lack of thoughtful land use policies, over regulation, and limited economic incentives to own and manage forest land. "

How much forest land do you own and are you protecting from development and also allowing wise harvest so we can provide the needed wood resources? With all the blatant errors you have (or do you think that the government is wrong about the total USA land area being just over 2 billion acres), how can we even think that your comments are worthwhile?

From contributor Q:
You cannot rebuke what my good eyes see. Hardwood quality, especially, but not limited to, plywood, is at an all time low. I see more barren land than forests. I see more forests disappearing each year. What I see replacing them are 3í- 6' "sprouts" that take a generation to mature (if they're hybrid - much longer if not). This is what I see. I also see more waste every year due to poor quality. I see more warpage (even on the domestic supply) than ever before. I hear many, many other shops making the same complaint. Listen to them. Then drive around the country and see what's happening. Hiding from the truth doesn't make it go away my friend.

From contributor R:
It sounds like the doom and gloomers are grasping at straws. The quality of your lumber has to do with where your supplier buys it. There are good suppliers out there and bad as well. A good one may dry the wood properly where another one will try and cook it too fast causing the warping, checking and honeycombing that we all see sooner or later.

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
In what country do you see this barren land? Not the USA, as I travel over 25,000 miles by car in the USA and it is not true. Data above shows that loss of acreage. Plywood quality (hardwood) has not declined. You need a new supplier. Indeed, less hardwood acreage exists today, but much of the loss is for hardwood forests that are not commercial. (If they were commercial, they would not be destroyed.) Hence, their loss does not mean less hardwood on the marketplace. We never would have used those woods anyway for furniture, cabinets, etc. In some countries, such as Haiti, the main use of wood is for fuel and not wood product manufacturing. With such a shortage of affordable fuel, it is easy to understand why forests cannot be grown. A lot of people think they can plant a bunch of trees in Haiti and stabilize the land, etc., but so long as the shortage of fuel for cooking is not addressed, it will never happen.

Incidentally, by forbidding the harvest of tropical hardwoods, we destroyed the market and their value. Hence, the landowners who want to make money from their land must clear the hardwoods and plant grass for cattle grazing, etc.

From contributor S:
"Incidentally, by forbidding the harvest of tropical hardwoods, we destroyed the market and their value. Hence, the landowners who want to make money from their land must clear the hardwoods and plant grass for cattle grazing, etc."

Good point, and the only point on this thread I'm going to remember. Makes me wonder if that could become a paradigm to show the indigenous people another way?

From Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
Regarding the price of hardwood lumber, it is not at its peak price today for most species. For example, red oak prices in April 1996 were $1218 per MBF for FAS, $825 for No1 Common and $540 for No.2 Common. This is on the large marketplace and not small quantities. In June of last year, prices were $1150, $840, and $530.

I would say that the price is relatively constant, but then considering 9 years of inflation, the price of red oak lumber (which is about 1/3 of the hardwood lumber market) has actually dropped. That is indeed strange to see if indeed we are running out of hardwoods. I would have expected that the price of lumber would have at least kept up with inflation, so prices should have been about 30% higher in 9 years.