Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wood Hunt'r


Probably like many folks in the business of working wood, I find regular visits to the lumber yard both exciting and depressing at the same time. Exciting, for reasons obvious to any lover of wood as a material, and depressing because of how rapidly one can observe changes in the wood supply, for the worse. While Albert Bartlett remarked once that, "the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function," I think that as woodworkers we have an opportunity to see firsthand how our wood supply can drastically change in short order. Is this a manifestation of exponential growth in action?

It seems that if you are at the yard one day and see the recently-arrived 'X' species, fabulous boards of good width and length and with clear grain, and think, "oh, there lot's of that to be had, so I can wait a bit" - you can be sure that the next time you are at the lumber yard the pile you once saw will have dwindled precipitously to a few scraps, and what has come in to replace it is noticeably narrower, shorter and of poorer quality - if any comes in at all. Sometimes it is as if you can tell that 'they' just got to the end of the logging road or something like that, and inevitably one regrets not obtaining the wood of species 'X' when the 'good stuff' was on the shelves.

In truth, the picture isn't  quite so neat and tidy affair as some sort of exponential supply/demand curve. In fact, the global economic slowdown has manifest itself in the wood supply business as a contraction in supply. One would normally think that a decrease in demand would lead to a overflow of supply on the shelves, and dropping prices, but this is not so. Those that cut trees and supply logs have learned from past experiences with economic slowdowns to conduct their affairs a little differently than one might expect. In such a situation, those who have the logs tend to sit on them rather than cut, as they are unsure of sales. Those that wholesale the material tend to want to clean out their existing stock rather than bring in new wood they might have trouble selling. And finally at the retail end what one sees is a drying up of supply and decrease in quality.

Then couple this with wars breaking out in certain areas of the globe - war being somewhat of a constant among the civilized and primitive alike - and one can see a shortage of supply even when plenty of logs are available. It's obviously hard to move logs out to port when the road may be mined. Then there are those species which have been essentially logged out of existence and are now banned for trade, with more species being added all the time.  And this happens both domestically and in exotic locales. I remember the moonscape of Vancouver Island very clearly - one of the clearest examples on earth of the results of unsustainable cut rates for a couple of hundred years.

There are other factors also affecting the supply of a given species. Climate changes which lead to differences in insect pest populations have devastated softwoods on both sides of the North American continent. Introduced pests, both insect and fungal, have wiped out certain trees - the Elm and the Chestnut being to obvious examples. In an online piece written for Fine Woodworking Magazine, Jon Arno describes changes to the domestic Black Cherry supply over the years, and the factors which contribute to that:

"In the lumber trade, cherry logs are where you find them, and being able to find them in sufficient quantities to meet demand seems to wax and wane from generation to generation. Because we rely on nature to replenish the growing stock, and because cherry is not a particularly well-adapted long-term player in the species mix of mature forests, the supply of this wood is cyclical. Once cherry performs its role in nursing fallow land back to its natural forested state, it tends to die out. As a result, the supply of cherry seems to follow times of turmoil in human history: It begins to become plentiful about 80 years or so after large areas of land that have been cleared by logging, devastated by fires, or abandoned as farms are allowed to naturally reforest. For example, it has been suggested that the ample supplies of cherry we enjoyed during the mid- to late 20th century were in part the result of the Civil War, which caused large numbers of farms to go fallow when so many soldiers failed to return to work the land. Whether this tale bears a germ of truth or is just a romantic embellishment, there is definitely a correlation between how we manage land within cherry's native range and how much of this fine cabinetwood we will have in the future. As forest management practices shift from clear-cutting to selective logging throughout our hardwood forests, we can count on an ever-diminishing supply of cherry. Because of this species' extreme shade intolerance, cherry saplings do not do well under the relatively undisturbed canopy of a forest that is being managed via careful selective cutting."

Another factor affecting supply is fashion and its fads. Interior designers will suddenly get on an Anigre bent, or a Wenge fetish, and the supply of that wood will suddenly be gobbled up. Another factor is the increased use of veneer in factory produced pieces, and this has accelerated the consumption of the material.

So, it remains a complicated picture, but it's also a simple story: for the most part, the woodworker faces a reality that each time they go to the lumber yard, in most species, most of the time what they will find is inferior to what they saw the last time. I've certainly noticed this, time and time again, and if I have learned one thing, it is this:
                                carpe lignum
What I mean by that, and I realize my Latin may not be the best, is 'seize the wood'. If you see something you like, buy it. It almost certainly won't be there the next time, and if you held off just for the sake of saving a few bucks, you will likely regret it once you see that material become unobtainium, soon to be sold on a 'by weight' basis rather then by board foot.

I picked up a fabulous piece of Makassar Ebony (diospyrus celebica) in San Francisco back in 2004. A beautiful stick of wood with loads of whispy tan streaks, about 48" long, 4/4 thick, and 11" wide. I paid $100 for the stick. In the intervening years I have kept an eye out for more of this wood, thinking that if only I could obtain a couple of similar pieces I would have enough to build a cabinet. No such luck. While the odd slender little piece does crop up here and there from time to time, the wood is not particularly available to buy. It seems that the Chinese are buying up most of the supply, which is also the case for Cocobolo (dalbergia retusa).

A few months ago I came across an ad for some wood in Rochester NY, which included Makassar Ebony. Apparently the seller was a retired GE engineer who had a hobby of wood turning and was now too old to continue his engagement in that pursuit. I phoned them up and expressed interest in what they had and eventually received a list of all the wood they had for sale, which included more than a dozen pieces of Makassar, one being a 2"x11"x110", a size virtually unheard of these days. I then asked for photos of the material, however the seller's wife was also quite elderly and in failing health herself, and the wood was apparently too heavy to move to take pictures. Then I learned from a phone call that someone had been by and had bought some pieces, which set off the alarm bells. I asked them to ascertain if the big stick of ebony was still left and after they confirmed that I sent them a deposit of $100 to hold it until I could come by and take a look. At this juncture, the elderly couple were to set off for their annual stay in Chatauqua NY and wouldn't be back for a couple of months. They assured me they would hold the wood for me.

Time came last week when I expected they were back from their sojourn and I made, or tried to make I should say, contact again. I tried to set up a time to visit, but that didn't get too far. I figured they were older and didn't get on the computer too much, so, what to do? By accident, I made contact with their son, who lived in NYC, and he was much more knowledgeable about the wood they had on hand and agreed to make the drive up to meet me there. I rented a van, got some cash out of the bank, booked a hotel room and set off last weekend with my wife.

It's a 6 hour drive to Rochester from my place. About 4 hours in I decided to ring up the son just to check in and let him know where we were at. Then I learned that he had forgotten about our planned meet and was still in NYC. My astonishment turned to relief when he said he could get his sister to meet us there in his place, and though she wasn't knowledgeable about the wood, he would liaise with her on the phone as we looked at the pieces.

We got there at the appointed time and the sister came out, along with her 77 year old father, who looked me square in the eye and said, "hello, my name is John, pleased to meet you." He seemed personable enough and in apparent good health so I was wondering why he had stopped working wood.  I surveyed the scene, which was a residential garage. Boards of various kinds were stacked in piles and leaned up against the back wall. I was looking back and forth to see the piece of Makassar I was chasing, but I didn't see it anywhere. It's the sort of wood that would be fairly easy to spot in a pile, given its distinctive appearance. Puzzled, I started looking through the stacks a little more thoroughly, to no avail. I then asked the sister if she know where the piece of wood upon which I had put my deposit. Phone calls and flurried activity followed, and about 15 minutes later it emerged that the piece of wood was no longer there.

I was starting to get a little cranky at that point, having driven 6 hours to get there to find this exciting news, however I then learned that affable John had some very good reasons for giving up bowl turning: he suffered from both Alzheimer's and dementia. Further conversations with the son on the phone revealed that someone had likely come by and creamed the pile of wood, dealing with John who probably gave most of it away, probably with a innocent smile on his face. Or possibly someone simply ripped him off and shoved a few token bills in his hand, I don't know. In any case, the wood I had come to get, with much anticipation, was long gone. That's the way hunting goes sometimes, you win some you loose some, yada-yada. I managed to find a few boards that were worth having, negotiated a price with the son, paid and left. They were very sorry about what happened, and I suppose there is some irony to the fact that after having carefully saved those precious boards for many years, forming a nest egg to be re-sold in retirement, the turner's dementia and memory challenges led to him giving it away for pennies or having been taken advantage of by some unscrupulous buyer.

I think I should have hopped in the car as soon as I saw the ad for the wood months back, but of course, the sight-unseen aspect makes it tough to justify a 6 hour drive.

I've realized that the furniture I most admire -Chinese Ming furniture -was made from woods that are virtually unavailable these days, and that for even those woods which would be fairly reasonable substitutes for what the Chinese used, the supply is getting quite constrained to say the least. Many of those species are banned for trade so really the only way I can get my hands on them is by finding people who bought such lumber 20, 30, 40 or more years back and have it squirreled away in some shop or storage locker. So, the hunt continues, and, as Elmer said, be vewy vewy qwiet!

4 comments:

  1. Chris,

    Stories like your one of the unrewarded trip, help reveal why woodworking trades often evolved where there was a readily available local source of timber to fulfill the needs of the craftsman living in close proximity. Sometimes the wood served to stock a whole town full of craftsmen, plus the jobs that were created to turn the logs into lumber.

    A very good example of that is the town of High Wycombe, in Great Britain, around which where the Beech grew like "weeds". http://www.wycombe.gov.uk/council-services/leisure-and-culture/local-history/furniture-making-in-high-wycombe.aspx

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  2. Dennis,

    good to hear from you. What you say is true, particularly before the industrial revolution radically changed the nature of transport and allowed manufacturing to take place away from rivers. However it is also true that wood has been a subject of international trade for thousands of years. Britain has been importing wood for hundreds of years, from far-flung places like the Americas, Siberia, New Zealand....

    I well remember going into B.C. lumber yards, surrounded by Douglas Fir trees and yet being unable to buy Doug. Fir lumber on the racks. It all got exported, to the US, Australia, and Japan. Here in western MA building yards I can find superb quality Western Red Cedar vertical grain material on the shelf - not something you can readily buy in any B.C. lumber yard though that is predominantly where it originates. The globalization of the economy has intensified such bizarre situations.

    The Chinese in the 1500s were running out of Zitan and having to source it from as far away as India. I'd love to see what that wood is like to work however I doubt I'll ever have the opportunity. It can be obtained if you have $10,000 or more to spend...

    ~C

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  3. Have you read "A Splintered History of Wood" by Spike Carlsen? The forests of Serbia/Croatia have not recovered yet from the logging done by the Venetians centuries ago to supply the poles that support their city.

    I am interested in this topic because I have a tract of land I've reforested and spent many hours,days, weeks, months working. It has taught me to pay attention to the general forestry practices around me. For the most part you can say that our collective approach to woodland management is to take the best and leave the worst.

    There are massive amounts of wide, select boards to be found and purchased out there in all species. They will decrease over time as populations chew into remaining woodlands and guys like John sell the last of their stock. The 150 year old clear oak logs that windsor chairmakers bust up into small sections because they work easily will be fewer and fewer. The furnituremakers who have to have that perfect tight grained wood for their aesthetically marvelous pieces will be more and more frustrated and complaining.

    I look at it as a challenge. Find some way to work wood that doesn't involve using the last of the best. Turn things around and do your best work with less than "perfect" material. Like it or not, that's what it will come down to.

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  4. At least in my part of the world, I have observed much more fine usable wood with the potential for other more cherished purposes, ground up and turned into sludge for the paper industry, compared to the number of desirable trees that have found use by woodworkers. Often to the people working at the pulp yards, it's all merely cellulose, and that includes the wide logs, the rarer species, and the trees that have magnificent grain. As long as the length requirements are met so that it fits between the sides of the roller conveyor, up it goes to horrific destruction. Fortunately for some of us, the pulp yards have fallen on hard times, and many have had to shut down.

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