If you’ve heard it said before, “They just don’t make wood the way they used to” – that would be a correct statement. They don’t. Our grandfathers’ (and maybe our fathers’) wood was almost all sawn from first-growth, or old-growth, trees. Those trees fought with nature, the weather patterns and competing trees in ways that today’s second-growth, or new-growth plantation trees do not. Those old growth trees were much denser, had much tighter growth rings and were therefore harder and more stable.
Here are a few other factors affecting lumber quality in today’s world:
- Mills are squeezed between high log costs and low finished lumber costs (due to high demand for logs overseas and low demand for lumber domestically). They are reacting to this profit squeeze by “pushing the grades”, basically lowering quality to the lowest level and still technically make the grade, and speeding up the drying times in the kilns.
- Prior selection of lumber by big-box retailers and exporters. Many mills now pull out the best appearance lumber (with limited or no wane), and this practice leaves behind uglier lumber for their #2&Btr grade. Unfortunately, there is typically no “Better” left, but only barely passable #2 grade material. The pre-selected lumber is packaged and sold to ultra-picky DIY’s at a premium or exported as J-grade or otherwise to Asia.
- Mills are now set up and designed to handle small logs, rather than the big logs of old. You can imagine why there is more wane (bark) on lumber now, because they are trying to get 2x6’s out of 6 – 8” logs. Not only does this increase wane, but small logs are much less stable and more at risk of warping. Growth rings and density matter! Pick up a 2x4 8’ SPF stud from any lumberyard now, and compare it to a stud that you demo out of a 1950’s home. The old stud may weigh twice as much! If you cut it in two or try driving a nail into them both, you can’t help but notice the difference. Check out the number of growth rings and the spacing of the earlywood (lighter less dense) vs. the latewood (darker, more dense). For plantation grown trees that have been pruned, thinned and fertilized, there is a marked difference from old-growth trees that fended for themselves against the elements. Great lumber that is strong, durable and suitable for your particular needs is still out there and available, but expect to pay a little more for it.
- It is critical to purchase your lumber from lumberyards like Davis-Hawn Lumber Co. who specialize in serving quality builders who build to last. Large lumberyards catering to tract home builders buy primarily based on low price, and unfortunately often have to sacrifice quality in doing so.
Know what you are buying!