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Thursday
Oct272011

Once and Future Uses of Wood

 

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine's Future Writer

 

In the mid-'60s Eric Sloane wrote “A Reverence for Wood,” a tribute to the importance of wood in early American life.

 

It's lovingly illustrated with Sloane's skillfully detailed pen and ink sketches of everything wood: burl mallets, basswood berry boxes, up-and-down sawmills, timber frame barns. Butter churns and wooden sap buckets; charcoal making and shingle riving. It's a book that can make you nostalgic for a time you never knew, and one whose hardships you couldn't imagine.

 

Sloane said he got the idea for that book while flying over a wooded landscape with a friend, who warned him if he was going to write it he should hurry “while there are still some trees left.”

 

The friend pointed to the blur of an expanding New York City on the horizon, and then told him “trees and wood are on their way out. Everything is metal and plastic these days.”

 

But Sloane didn't buy it. “Certainly we don't see as much wood as we once did. Yet wood is still with us,” in products we use every day, he wrote in the introduction to “A Reverence for Wood.” “It may be that after we have spent a century or two in expending our wealth of wood to seek the riches of other planets, we will realize that our greatest wealth was right here on earth after all.”

Sloane and his friend are both right.

 

A page from author/illustrator Eric Sloane's "A Reverence for Wood."The friend, High Weidinger, accurately foresaw that wood was doomed to be elbowed aside by plastics in many applications and tree-covered landscapes would give way to house-covered ones as population increased. Sloane was right in that wood is just perfect for many uses, and that new ones for this versatile material will continue emerging.

 

Wood, it seems, is the raw material of the future as well as the past.

 

“Wood and wood-based materials and products are expected to be as important to society in the 21st century as they have been in the 20th century,” a quartet of U.S. Forest Service researchers wrote in a 2009 paper titled “Uses and Desirable Properties of Wood in the 21st Century.”

 

Traditional forest products, they conclude, “will continue to be produced in large

volumes,” but evolving to become “more multifunctional and durable without losing the ability to be recycled and reused.” In addition, wood will find new uses in energy, chemical production and even nanotechnology as the century progresses, the researchers predicted.

 

Wood made civilization.

 

This versatile, malleable, easily transportable, renewable material came in untold varieties with hugely different properties. It could be crafted into ten thousand useful and beautiful things. From the longbow and the spear to hoes, carts, houses, fences. Into casks for wine and ships to transport it in. Into charcoal for cooking. The list was endless.

 

Pottery was wood's main competitor in the early days of human history, later joined by metal: first bronze, then iron. And, a few decades before Sloane's book came out, plastics. The rising material star, rivaling wood in its immense variety and myriad uses, plastic became a replacement for wood, metal and pottery in many items.

 

Without half trying you can probably think of a hundred things that only a few decades ago used to be made of wood, but are now more commonly plastic or metal: coffee stirrers, hammer handles, archery bows, skis, house siding, lobster traps and chicken crates, golf tees. There are even aluminum baseball bats and steel studs.

 

It's a logical, and perhaps inevitable, evolution. And there is no doubt that plastics will gain ground in many applications for some time to come.

 

“Some of the substitutes for wood, even though they may be more expensive, are really just lower maintenance and more serviceable from a customer standpoint,” said Lloyd Irland, a forest economist and president of The Irland Group, a Maine forestry analysis and consulting firm.

 

“The best example is vinyl and aluminum siding. Even some of the major lumber companies are now manufacturing those. If you look back to the mid '80s, 45 percent of the homes built in this country received some type of wood exterior cladding. Now it's below 10 percent. I think that's likely to persist, at least until people think scraping and painting siding is fun.”

 

When it comes right down to it, many of the things once made of wood and now made of plastic are little things, Irland notes, often low cost or even given away free. That reflects basic economics.

 

“For monstrous production runs plastic is cheaper than wood. For small production runs wood is cheaper,” he said. But those production runs are even cheaper when they're made in places like China, Vietnam or India.

 

While the outside of your house may be clad in vinyl, the skeleton is more likely to be made of wood in the form of dimensional lumber, the seemingly ubiquitous two-by spruce and fir. “The dominant framing for most residential and light housing construction is wood. That's not going to change,” said Irland. “What is going to change is the form in which we use wood. Instead of two-by-twelves we're using I joists.”

 

Laminated veneer lumber is one example of how the product changes, but the use remains the same. LVL joins wafer board, or oriented strand board, and the even older plywood among the “engineered wood” products available today.

 

“With laminated veneer lumber you can make long beams. Some engineered products have really been a boon to the wood industry because you can take relatively poor quality wood, debark it, waferize it or veneer it and make these products out of it,” said Peter Lammert, who spent 33 years as the Maine Forest Service's utilization forester and who probably knows more about Maine mills, their products and their markets than anyone else.

 

And sometimes it's just using the same thing a different way.

 

“When I first started (with the MFS in 1976) there weren't many trusses. Now the truss business is a major component of the building industry. I'm familiar with a building today where they're building 50-foot trusses for the roof. The trusses will be four feet apart, made of two-by-fours and engineered for a Maine snowload,” Lammert said. “And so engineering has brought about a lot of these changes, including these structural marvels of trusses that don't use as much wood as the old-fashioned buildings.”

 

Comparisons of present and future renewable energy sources (Graphic: U.S. Department of Energy)“Wood is always going to have uses. And I think it will enjoy a renaissance when the green movement is waking people up and saying that wood is a renewable resource,” Lammert added.

 

It's easy to overlook many of the ways we use wood these days, says Irland.

 

“A lot of wood use is invisible. A perfect example is pallets. People say, 'I don't use wood.' But how do they think their groceries get to the grocery store?” Irland asked.

 

Irland predicts paper use in the United States will continue to fall to the lower levels more common in Europe and other developed areas of the world. But he's bullish on cardboard and paperboard packaging: “I don't think that's going away anytime soon.”

 

In fact, Irland points out that cardboard performs some of the same functions that lumber and even pottery did in centuries and millennia past. “All of this stuff comes into the grocery store in big cardboard cartons. We don't use butter firkins and barrels, but we use cardboard and all just the same way. The cardboard box is a pretty damn powerful product, when you think about it.”

 

Both Lammert and Irland agree that there will be further advances in engineered woods that could lead to those types of products supplanting sawn lumber in many applications. “There will be some more ingenious stuff coming from the engineered wood industry,” Lammert said, pointing to Huber Engineered Wood's moisture resistant AdvanTech line of flooring and sheathing as an example.

 

Another area where wood use is expected to grow is fuel. Of course, humans have been warming themselves with wood since the first proto-human cozied up to a lightning-struck burning tree.

 

Tens of thousands of New Englanders heat their homes with wood, whether it's traditional split firewood or the newer version, wood pellets. The U.S. has had a wood pellet industry since the 1930s, but it's only in the last half a decade or so that demand has jumped with the rise in the cost of fuel oil and propane. According to a 2009 report on the wood pellet industry by the U.S. Forest Service, in that year there were 110 pellet mills on line or about to become operational in the U.S. and Canada and “the outlook is positive for further expansion of demand,” the report said.

 

Colorado biofuel refinery (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy)Co-firing of wood biomass with coal at commercial power plants is expected to become more common and wood is poised to become the “leading U.S. source of non-hydroelectric power generation in the decades ahead,” according to the Forest Service's forecast for wood use in the 21st century.

 

And technologies are now being developed to produce liquid biofuels from wood. In Maine, Old Town Fuel & Fiber is building a production refinery to produce such biofuels from spent pulping liquors.

 

Another area where wood use is expected to grow is using wood to produce chemicals and pharmaceuticals, according to the Forest Service's report on future wood use. The paper noted that federal energy analysts forecast that the chemical industry will “increase use of renewable biomass materials fivefold by 2020 and another fivefold again by 2050 and renewable biomass will reach use parity with fossil hydrocarbons by 2050.

 

“This represents an important opportunity for wood-based materials, because the value of chemical products from renewable raw materials in 2020 is estimated to be over $400 billion,” the Forest Service report said, noting that producing chemical feedstocks could likely be done in the same mill where liquid biofuels are produced.

 

Then – and this is a real far cry from barrels and burl mallets – there's the mating of nanotechnology and wood. Nanotechnology, simply speaking, is manipulating materials at the molecular scale, engineering particular properties into them.

 

Nanotechnology could, for instance, be used to develop “intelligent” wood or paper that could monitor forces and loads, moisture and other factors; or new pharmaceutical products or self-sterilizing surfaces; or wood that is substantially stronger, according to the Forest Service report on 21st century wood use.

Nanotechnology is such a new science that where it goes is anybody's guess, but the potential is there for wood to benefit greatly.

 

Of course, exactly how American, and Maine, forest products companies and tree farmers capitalize on these recent and emerging trends and how much they benefit will depend on myriad factors, not the least of which is the chaotic, ever-shifting globalized market for wood and wood products. Another is the trees themselves: how fast they grow, what their properties are.

 

In other words, what the forest of the future looks like.

 

That could be heavily influenced by climate change and invasive insects. The emerald ash borer, Asian long-horned beetle, and other forest pests could have a profound effect on wood's – and the U.S. forest products industry's -- future. Just consider what happened to the American chestnut, and the American elm. And given that a new forest pest enters the U.S. every two or three years, reading those tea leaves is next to impossible.

 

Many of the future uses of wood will require trees with specific traits. Competitive biofuels, the Forest Service researchers said, will “depend on development of desirable wood properties and high biomass productivity under sustainable low-input conditions.” In other words, breeding and growing of trees that will be easy to turn into biofuels.

 

It's going to be genomics-meets-forestry. The authors of the Forest Service report point out that “genomics research with forest trees is accelerating,” with genes being pinpointed that control everything from branch angle to lignin content to wood color. And, if they can pinpoint it, they might, eventually, be able to manipulate it. In other words, designer trees. And you thought GM corn was controversial.

 

With all the talk predicted high-tech future uses of wood – engineered woods, nanotech, biofuels – a person might wonder whether there's going to be a market for high-quality solid wood furniture, of the kind that gets lovingly passed down from generation to generation before ending in an art gallery or museum someplace a few hundred years hence. The kind of table, say, that glows softly in the light. The kind that you can't resist running your hand across to feel it's warmth and explore its beauty with hand and eye.

 

Absolutely, said Irland.

 

“Wood will always be in demand, but the demand is going to shift based on society's needs. There will be new technologies. New ideas. Those I joists are still made out of wood, just engineered in a different way. But the pharaohs had themselves buried in wooden caskets. It's a metaphor for how wood remains a high end item,” said Irland.

 

Probably, centuries from now, a starship captain's private cabin will feature a beautiful, and prized, handcrafted cherry or teak desk in a sea of plastic, metal and other substances we can't guess at now.

 

But perhaps nothing speaks to our love of real wood, and its enduring appeal, like the fact that imitators, whether that budget medium density fiberboard computer desk or the recycled plastic “lumber” on your back deck, have printed overlays or surface texturing that look like wood grain.

 

Joe Rankin is a woodturner and small woodland owner who heats his renovated Cape with firewood he cuts himself.