If This Wood Could Talk

To most people, wood is a rectangular shaped, fairly ubiquitous product that is purchased from the lumber store.

In an ideal world (at least for the common consumer) wood would be knot free, straight, warp-resistant, and treated to withstand decades of abuse. A pretty design in the grain is always nice, but not strictly necessary for most because it will end up painted anyway. It’s a building material, nothing more.

The things that make wood unique also make it frustrating for consumers. Live-edges become “bark” that disturbs the rectangular prismatic profile and upsets the overall design of whatever we choose to make. We tend to plan around knots and other imperfections rather than showcasing them. In all likelihood, the product would be better if it were more uniform.

In fact, many wood products are made specifically to this end. MDF and HDF, two types of fiberboard, are essentially raw wood that has been ground to a find dust and then pressed into shape under tons of pressure, and with the addition of some adhesive. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but essentially that’s what it is. This product is very pure, very uniform, quite strong (sometimes stronger than the original product), and also very flexible. It is a version of homogenized wood.

But to a wood turner, a carver, a sawyer, or even someone heating their home with logs, wood is so much more. Each tree tells a story. Depending on the use, some woods are prized while others are neglected for a variety of reasons. People who split their own firewood tend to dislike sycamore because the cross-grained nature makes it a chore to split. If you were ripping it into planks however, that same quality makes it a very strong wood that won’t easily come apart. Locust burns hot and makes excellent beams, but it’s a horror on steel tools, dulling and chipping them, especially when dry. And that is just digging into species.

Wood grown in the forest is different than the trees in your yard. Often times, lumber mills will reject a “city tree” because they tend far too often to hide nails, bits of fence wiring, and other chunks of metal within their grain structure. They don’t want to risk an expensive saw blade to encounter such a problem. The trees also grow differently, and will have many more lower limbs (and thus more knots) than a tree in the forest that must grow quickly to reach the upper canopy where its leaves can find light. Forest trees are stalky with dense foliage at the top.

More than that, every single tree, even within a species, can have vastly different engineering values for strength, durability, clarity of grain, etc. Each one is totally unique. Two pines growing ten feet apart from the same batch of seed can look completely different from one another, both inside and out. How fast a tree grows, the nutrients it gets from the air and soil, how much water it receives, etc. can all influence how it will grow.

I see this when I fell a tree, by looking at the stump. Rings will grow closer together (making the wood harder and more dense) during years of light rainfall or drought, or if there is some other problem with the environment. Fast growing years have much wider rings that showcase a very healthy year. This seemingly slight variation can dramatically affect the qualities of the wood.

To a novice picking lumber from a stack, The boards are either warped or straight, cracked or solid, and weathered to some degree. But I look at a piece of wood on the shelf very differently. I look at the grain on the end, and I can tell which trees were healthier than others while growing(oddly enough, the most unhealthy tree is often the best fit for purpose, but eh). I can tell how the saw cut through the board, and roughly where that board was in relation to the center of the tree. And I’m not even an expert, it’s just a quick observation that has become a habit.

Tonight, while working on a small project, I found myself wondering how we take so many things for granted about wood. My house is stick built with several species of lumber in various parts. My walls consist of pine, fir, and cedar from a generic No.2 2×4 pile. It’s possible that every stick was cut from a different tree. Above my head are ceiling joists of southern pine (a species that grows in my woods) and on them are douglas fir beams that hold up the roof. How many trees went into this place? And where did they come from? How did they grow?

Some of the pine boards have quite a lot of tiny knots and showcase a wide face grain, meaning that they came from near the center of a large tree. The little knots were probably early branches that died and fell from the tree long ago, but their skeletons are still preserved in the heart of the wood.

It’s just odd. I’ve gone most of my life thinking of wood as just that, wood. A building material. I knew it was made from trees, but never considered the whole process. When you think about it, the price we pay for lumber is ridiculously cheap considering what each piece must go through. We think of it as expensive when we tally up the builder’s list for a new deck, but it’s silly how cheap it is.

Take a pine tree twenty inches in diameter. The tree itself is likely over forty years old, perhaps much older. If the usable stalk is forty feet high, that’s a pretty big pine tree that would be a prize to me. It has grown on its own is some wooded spot for half a century, either in a tree farm or some natural wood lot, and then one day it was selected for harvest.

The tree must be limbed and cut down with some care to keep it from cracking when it hits the ground, or destroying other timber trees around it. Its value is assessed in board-feet, in this case around 1000 board-feet. The purchase price from the sawmill is about 20 cents per board foot, just as an estimate, so that forty feet of logs is about $200. It would take me all day and some help to chop that guy to length and load it on a trailer, so it’s not exactly a good wage, and the more machinery, the more cost for fuel, repairs, transportation, employees, insurance, etc, so even the big loggers aren’t making that much money.

The sawmill must pay for the tree, and then rip it into boards. At 20 inches, there’s some wiggle room, but converting a round tree into rectangular strips can be quite wasteful. Not all of the 1000 board-feet will be converted directly into 2x4s. Let’s just say they pull five 8-foot logs off of the trunk, and by some internet sorcery the diameter of those logs is a true 20inches from tip to trunk. Now it needs to be divided up. This is usually done by quartering the logs, and you lose a quarter of an inch per cut or more due to the large saw blade. From each quarter, I estimate you could rip around 7 2x4s, and that is assuming a pretty narrow kerf (cutter width) and some fancy maneuvering. Let’s say the lumber mill is smarter than me and they can get seven per quarter, that’s 28 boards per log, and 140 2x4s from the whole tree. These economies drop drastically with tree size, by the way, and I see a great deal of logs smaller than this at the local mill.

fitting 2×4 cuts into a quarter from a 20 inch diameter tree trunk

Each 2×4, eight feet long, is about 5-1/3 board feet. So they started with over 1000 bft, and they are left with less than 750 to sell. They also need to plane the boards down to that smooth surface that you see at the lumber store, as the rough saw cuts would likely annoy most customers. That’s why 2x4s are trimmed a half-inch in either direction for a smaller actual measurement. In addition to the planing, the corners are smoothed down to reduce the chance of us poor end-users getting splinters. Nice of them, right?

2×4 boards sell for around 50 cents per board foot. So at the end of the day, our sawyer has made about 175 dollars off the tree, about the same as what the logger got, and both of them have plenty of costs in energy and equipment maintenance that went into slicing it up. That’s if the sawyer sells straight to the consumer. If they sell to a wholesale company, they need to shave a bit so the wholesaler can make some money too. The logger also likely had to give some share to the landowner for letting him cut trees. Then there’s trucking for transporting the log and the the boards, etc. All in all, the forty-year life of that tree reaches the end consumer for a market value of about four hundred bucks. About ten dollars for every year of growth. That’s how much your trees are worth.

Assuming the tree were not pine (pine isn’t a “good burning” log for numerous reasons), we might consider the value of the tree as firewood. Though firewood isn’t measured in board-feet, it’s measured in ricks and cords. Since cord is a true volume measurement (4x4x8 feet), we’ll go with that. A hardwood tree of the same size would stack up to about 2/3s of a cord of firewood, which runs about $400 per cord (depends on everything). So our tree is worth maybe a touch less than it would be as 2x4s, and far less than an oak or elm sliced into boards for finer woodwork.

But, give that same wood to an artist, and our $400 tree could turn into much more. It could live on, in the shape of a prized desk, a special dining table, a luxurious chair, a sculpture, a pen (or a few thousand pens, :P) or anything else. After death, it takes on a new life.

As an added bonus, many of those little defects we talked about in the beginning? The more clever the carver, and the more unique the piece needs to be, the more each tiny defect begins to become important to the final outcome. When I make axe handles, I look at the flow of slightly twisty grain to build my handle around for maximum strength. Expert woodworkers can take galls and burls from the sickest trees that would be rejected by every sawmill, and turn them into the most wondrous works of art. The more unique the tree, the higher its value.

Of course, a really “perfect” tree can also hold higher value as a veneer log. Veneer can only be cut from prime specimens due to the exacting nature of the veneering process, and these logs are often sold at a premium. But depending on the cut, a wood turner might pay several times more per board foot for a tiny chunk of a really “imperfect” tree.

Every piece of wood though, from the straightest, clearest bit of veneer that covers the cheap MDF underlayer of office furniture, to the wildest marbled burl pattern on an expensive fountain pen, contains in the structure a glimpse of the past. The rings show through as streaks of dark and light, and the history of the wood persists from the growth patterns of the tiny sapling to the final soak of varnish. Each piece has a story, and every story is totally different.

It’s hard to look at something as ubiquitous as “wood” in any kind of special light, but take a moment to consider where all that stuff that holds up your walls came from, and the long journey it took to get there. Before a tree becomes a 2×4, it passes through a great many hands, from the logger to the sawyer to picker to the wholesaler to the store to the contractor to the carpenter and finally to the buyer of the house, with lots of sawing and sorting along the way. Each piece is special, and if I’ve done my job here, you might never look at a piece of wood the same again.


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