Friday, August 29, 2014

Rare Reading: Hough's American Woods

Kim Steiner made me aware of a most unusual opportunity for the discriminating wood/book collector.

The Society of American Foresters, through the auction house of Bonham's of San Francisco, is offering for sale an original set of Romeyn Beck Hough's reference classic, The American Woods, with an expected selling price of $20,000 to $30,000. These books, which feature thin veneers of 324 species of wood found in United States in the 19th century, were subscribed to and purchased in individual volumes, most often by public libraries. However, complete fourteen-volume sets are extremely rare nowadays, thus the extreme price they bring at auction.

http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21845/lot/219/

These books have a great history history.
"This remarkable work was the lifetime achievement of Romeyn B. Hough, who devoted himself to the study of American trees, and who is best known for his Handbook of Trees of the Northern States and Canada, long a standard reference work in American dendrology. In this work, Hough sought to describe the woods found in America, with a detailed description in an accompanying pamphlet, and with thin cross-sections of actual woods mounted and labeled in accompanying stiff cardboard mounts. These provide a unique record of American wood types, arranged geographically. Generally each species is shown with wood cut on traverse section, radial section, and tangential section. The samples are so thin as to be easily translucent. The age of these specimens gives them tremendous importance from an ecological standpoint, as well as their great interest to students of American furniture and woodcrafts. The trees available to Hough at the time make such an endeavor impossible to contemplate today. Parts I-IV cover New York and adjacent states, part V covers Florida, parts VI-X describe the Pacific Slope, parts XI-XII cover the Atlantic states, and part XIII southern Florida. Part XIV contained a continuation of the work on the trees of Florida with text by Marjorie Hough, using specimens and notes prepared by her father before his death in 1924.
Hough explained the unique nature of the work thus: it is `illustrated by actual specimens, and being in this way an exhibition of nature itself it possesses a peculiar and great interest never found in a press-printed book. The specimens are....about 2 x 5 in. in size, and sufficiently thin to admit of examination in transmitted light...Looked at in reflected light they appear as in the board or log... These specimens are mounted in durable frame-like Bristol-board pages, with black waterproofed surfaces...and each bears printed in gilt-bronze the technical name of the species and its English, German, French and Spanish names. The pages are separable...and are accompanied with a full text...giving information as to the uses and physical properties of the woods, and distributions, habits of growth, botanical characters, habitats, medicinal properties, etc..., of the trees...The woods used for the specimens are personally collected by the author and are sectioned and prepared by a process of his own device'.
Complete sets of this work are very rare. The volumes were priced at five dollars each, a high price reflecting the work involved in assembling them. Since subscribers came and went over the 25-year period of publication and many only bought the volume or volumes on the areas that interested them. The rarity of complete sets can be judged from the fact that Stafleu and Cowan record the work as being complete in 6 volumes."
- www.donaldheald.com 

But if you want to gain possession of the real thing, you have until September 22nd to do your research on the SAF set and settle your mind on your bid. If you win the bid, and care to share its splendor with the other readers of Go Wood, just let me know, and it will be so.

Good luck!

P.S. If, like me, you find the price of this set a little too steep, you can purchase a modern reprint of the set that has been released to rave reviews. Entitled "The Woodbook: The Complete Plates", it can be purchased online at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wood Is Alive!

Some have complained that cutting down a tree is killing a living organism. Philosophically, perhaps, it may be, although stump and root sprouting are scientific contradictions to that notion.  It's awfully hard to kill a maple forest with an axe.

Xylophiles (the Latin word for "wood-lovers") have always understood that wood is alive. Remember when Tess and I peered into that Australian blackwood table top in Bungendore, New South Wales? It was like peering into a dark, deep pool of water that sparkled with mystery. And what about that Sam Maloof rocker I filmed in Palm Desert? You can't watch that clip and tell me that chair isn't alive.

Well, wood artist Keith Skretch found a new way to illustrate the living spirit in wood. Watch and marvel. Thanks to the Woodworking Network and Keith Skretch for sharing.


Waves of Grain from Keith Skretch on Vimeo.

Mr. Skretch tells us that...
"To create this strata-cut animation, I planed down a block of wood one layer at a time, photographing it at each pass. The painstaking process revealed a hidden life and motion in the seemingly static grain of the wood, even as the wood itself was reduced to a mound of sawdust."
Stunning result. But it is a trick of the camera, after all, same as the movement of Mickey Mouse across the screen.

But my new friend and Go Wood reader Dr. Ho-Yang Kang of Chungnam National University in Korea sent me some short video clips that really, really, prove that wood is alive, and moves. First, we see a Western hemlock board getting cozy and cuddling up as it dries out under the warm breezes of forced-air drying.



Next, we see a cross-section of soft-hearted softwood begin to crack and shed a tear under the strain of being separated from its log mother.


And finally, we see a white-oak board doing a break dance.


Now, the wood isn't actually moving quite as fast as the videos imply. In fact, each frame of the video is a shot taken at fifteen minute intervals over a period of weeks. So, if you settle down to watch wood dance one evening, it's likely to be as entertaining as watching the proverbial paint dry. But, with patience, Dr. Kang has indeed proven that "Wood is Alive!" and actually does moves on its own.

For those of you who are wondering how that happens, watch future GoWood posts for an upcoming Wood Science 101 post on the wood drying process.

Friday, August 15, 2014

It's That Time Again to Start Thinking about Wood Heat

Well, maybe not down where you live, but The Wife and I were sitting out shivering at the public pool yesterday watching Little Rays #6 and #7 swimming. Yes, here at least, the autumn chill is starting to settle in, and of course, any logical person's thoughts turn to heating, and whether or not the wood pile is large enough.

More of that in future posts. This time, though, is a nice little video from the folks at the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) up in Vermont, where winter and wood heating go hand-in-glove. Thanks to Adam Sherman of the center who shared this nice video with us.


Ahhh, I can already smell the hot cider! :-)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Loggers of Hollywood

Went home for lunch yesterday, and walked in on my two littlest (ages 9 and 5) and another 9-year-old watching Rio 2, a colorful movie about a bunch of birds fighting for the jungle...against, you guessed it, a bunch of bad guys logging illegally with huge chainsaws and graders. Here's the plot, as its given in Wikipedia...

"Blu and Jewel enjoy life in Rio with their 3 kids, the oldest and music-loving Carla, book smart Bia, and the youngest and mischievous Tiago. Meanwhile, Blu's former owner, Linda Gunderson and her ornithologist husband, Tulio are on an expedition in the Amazon and eventually discover a quick-flying spix's macaw that loses one of its feathers. When word gets out about this through television, Jewel believes that they should go to the Amazon to help find the blue macaws.
Meanwhile, the leader of a group that is in a line of illegal logging named Big Boss, discovers Linda and Tulio's expedition to find the macaws and orders his henchmen to hunt them down to avoid disruptions to their work...While searching for the macaws, Linda and Tulio are eventually trapped by the loggers...Blu visits Tulio and Linda's site, where he discovers a broken CB Radio. After discovering the loggers are destroying the jungle, Blu sends Roberto (who followed Blu) to warn the flock as he saves Linda and Tulio. Blu persuades the macaws to defend their homes, and they easily outmatch the loggers with help from the Scarlet macaws and the other animals. Big Boss tries to blow up the trees as a back-up plan, but Blu steals the lit dynamite...[Finally] Big Boss is eaten alive by a boa constrictor." 
Good old family fun. I happened to walk in right when the loggers were chasing Linda and Tulio with their saws. The kids were glued, eyeballs wide as silver dollars.

That's how Hollywood sells movies these days. I'd be willing to guess that Corporate World has been the "bad guy" in 90% of the action movies since 1970. That makes at least two generations, now, that have been raised on a steady diet of producers killing the world.

It wasn't always this way. Movies, at least movies put out by the government, used to promote technological advances in industry as good things, to be aspired to and worked at. We saw one of them about two years ago in a great short about woodworking in the 1940's.  Here's another in the series, an excellent look at logging in 1940. In it, you'll hear that yes, logging and related practices were once wasteful and hard on the land...but that America had awakened to the danger and was now (as of 1940!) practicing productive, sustainable professional forestry. It's pretty much been just as depicted in the video, for the past 75 years!




Which is why we now have as much standing timber as we had 150 years ago. We adjusted our harvesting to sustainable practices, and the forest recovered after having supplied the wood for every city, town, and home in our booming country.

The next to last line of the movie is a pretty succinct statement of what foresters have been trained since, well, forever...
"If you do go into forestry or one of the industries, you will be part of work that has a future, for the aim of all foresters and far-sighted owners of timberlands is a perpetual supply of products through proper management."
Modern portrayal of the logging profession and timber industries paints the whole barrel in the same light as the occasional bad apple, and extrapolates the negative impact to mean permanent deforestation the world over. Which will happen, I suppose, about the time that Richmond, Virginia, becomes a coastal resort. My 5- and 9-year-olds will not let that happen. They will save the world, right along with the millions of others that don't seem to understand that demand must have a supply to be met, or things will get ugly. Ironic, isn't it, that the Battle of Rio to save the rainforest is set in a country that today has riots in the streets as people starve in massive ghettos.

I started to walk out of the room after watching a few minutes of the birds battling the loggers. But I couldn't resist turning back and saying to the kids, "You guys know loggers really aren't bad guys like that, right?" To which my son replied, "They're chopping down all the trees!"

"Well, loggers only chop down enough trees for us to use to build things out of wood. And then the forests they cut down grow back..."

The 9-year-old neighbor girl cut me off at the pass. "They're going to build a city there!" she exclaimed, her eyes bright with passion. "But they wouldn't build a city in the middle of the jungle," I kindly explained. "Yes, they're going to cut down the whole jungle!"

I was defeated, right along with Big Boss and his Amazon loggers, and retired to do battle another day.

I retreated back to my home office, where, while pondering this exchange, I happened upon the following video. It's an excellent, high-quality story produced by the BBC about the story of the forest ecosystem...how a fish feeds trees, and how insects feed Canadian lynx.



The video is a full hour, and I suggest you watch when you have the time. But I want to take you to a sequence beginning at 24:30, where begins an interesting explanation of the relationship between the Canadian lynx, the snowshoe hare, and the spruce budworm.

The British host tells an interesting story of the Canadian lynx, and his preference for a tasty snowshoe hare now and then. And how the hare depends on low-growing forage and cover, that wouldn't be there if it weren't for timely infestations of the spruce budworm. He explains...
"Now...the springtime assault by these caterpillars is bad news for the trees...but for other inhabitants of this forest, these caterpillars are heroes." 
"Whilst these dramatic natural events might be a catastrophe for the established trees, for anything trying to grow on the forest floor, they're an absolute bonus. In here where it's dark, there is little, very poor diversity, just some mosses and a few ferns. But as soon as there's a break in the canopy, and the sunlight can flood in, well, look at the difference.  Lots of wild flowers, there's a young maple coming through here, there a mountain ash, and most importantly of all, regenerating spruce and fir.
Now, the hares essentially need these regenerating conifers as shelter. And of course, what's good for the hares, is good for the lynx...And that's why the lynx needs the caterpillar." [Cut to shot of deer grazing in an open meadow. Point proven.].
Now, any resident of Maine and Quebec can tell you that a little spin is being applied here. The story infers that the spruce budworm is a convenient forest pest, one that opens nice little openings in the forest floor that shelter bunnies and feed deer, thereby creating a link in a cozy little natural cycle of life.

The reality is slightly different...
"Bob Wagner, a University of Maine forestry professor, describes Maine’s upcoming spruce budworm infestation as a slow-moving hurricane. The state’s large landowners, forestry experts and policymakers know it’s coming and can track its path south from Canada. They estimate the pest will start destroying forest stands in northern Maine within the next two to four years. And they know from previous experience that the damage to the forest products industry and, therefore, jobs could be extensive."
- Bangor Daily News, 12-29-2013 

So, in essence, the spruce budworm is poised to be, as it has been in past cycles,  a reason for forest devastation on a massive scale, magnitudes of order larger than any modern logging operations. And yet, the BBC can tell a pleasant story about the budworm opening a nice little opening in the forest canopy, while a logging operation that accomplishes the same ecosystem effect on a controlled basis, is demonized by Hollywood.

We have to get past the idea that if man does it, it must be bad. Millions of little minds, and their future means of having a good life, are at stake.

The birds won't be able to save us from misguided education and entertainment. Let's turn the story around.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"It Never Happened Before" - The Crazy World of Real Estate Markets

On the way into work this morning I caught an update to the "ghost city" situation in China. Hint: It's not getting better.

Consider some of the stats. Last month, prices fell in 79 of 100 cities surveyed by a regional real estate company. Land sales have dropped 30 percent. In Wuxi, subject of this morning's NPR story, has experienced a drop in prices of 15 to 20% this year.
"There's nothing you can do," says Huang Jiqiang, an agent with Central Plains Real Estate here. He says supply and demand are completely out of whack.
"Now all the new housing complexes are dropping their prices and doing promotions because there are just too many homes. There aren't that many buyers and the pool of buyers is getting smaller and smaller. Homes are still under construction out there."
 - www.npr.org 
One comment in the story especially caught my attention. A finance professor in Shanghai states matter-of-factly
"Since the beginning of this year there is a kind of switch of the mood. People have become more cautious. It never happened before."
That comment reminded me of our situation here in 2008-2010, when housing prices were falling all over the country. Much was made of the fact that people had invested in real estate, even at what seemed to be exorbitant prices, for the simple fact that home prices had never before fallen significantly in our history, certainly not on a national scale. It never happened before.

First of all, the statement is silly. Certainly, real estate prices have crashed, cities have dried up, all over the world, as the ebb and tide of history takes its toll. Sure, real estate prices have increased over the centuries, but I've never seen a definitive study that shows real estate outpacing natural inflation over long periods of time. And wherever people move away from, or where local economies have tanked, home prices have fallen. In some cases, dramatically. Here's an interesting story of six ghost towns in North America, including our own Pennsylvanian town of Centralia.

But the scale of, and the reason for, the people-less cities in China is unprecendented. That's what makes it an interesting story to continue to watch. It's not just the ghostly feeling of being in a deserted place...but the disquieting notion that perhaps, this greatest of all real estate booms is likely to be followed by the greatest of all financial crashes.

I began working with truss plants here in Pennsylvania at precisely that peak in the market, fall of 2007. (Hopefully that is ironic coincidence, and not cause/effect). I've watched and worked with truss and building component manufacturers as they've struggled with the realities of the downturn. This week, my visits to a few plants revealed a guarded optimism based on order files that have extended from a few days, to a few weeks.

But housing starts, both single-family and multi-family, took a significant downturn in May. The National Association of Homebuilders is still forecasting a sharp upturn in starts (which coincidentally, they have been doing for several years now) that will see a 50% increase in starts to over 1.5 million starts by 2016. This in spite of the fact that they also forecast a 1.5% increase in mortgage interest rates over that same time frame.

However, in stark contrast, noted financial market analyst Martin Armstrong, who has made a life's work of constructing an artificial intelligence (AI) model to forecast global economic trends with stunning accuracy, posits that the global real estate business cycle is a 78-year cyclical wave that peaked in the third quarter of 2007. From that peak, it fell into a trough that bottomed out in 2012, and the world is now experiencing a mild real estate recovery. But his data and models foresee the current recovery lasting only until the third quarter of 2015, after which the global real estate market will be in a free fall until the end of the 78-year cycle...in 2033. At that time, we will have been in a global real estate market contraction that will have lasted 26 years, and will take us back to the level of demand last experienced at the beginning of the 78-year cycle, that is, back in 1955.

Interestingly, my own analysis of housing starts potential back in 2009 forecasts a similar downturn scenario for precisely September of 2015. You may remember the following graph, which I've shared in the past.

Source: Penn State Wood Operations Lab, 2009-2014

The blue line is the number of actual, total housing starts. The purple line represents the "official" forecast in the summer of 2009. It was calling for a strong rebound, which would have normally happened in previous cycles. The pink line, which I labeled "worst case", is my own formulation of housing starts based on indicators as I read them at the time. The yellow line I calculated as a "moderate case"...in reality, a compromise between my own forecast and what mainstream economists were forecasting.

The actual housing starts have fallen between my own "worst case" scenario and the compromise model I calculated. In other words, much worse that the official forecast of the time, but not as bad as my own, thankfully. The interesting point, with respect to today's subject matter, is that these forecasts all contained a cooling-off period after the recovery. The official story was that we would have a strong run-up until fall of 2012, a one-year cool-off until fall of 2013, and then a more gradual but steady increase thereafter.

My own forecast, the pink line, was for a much more modest recovery until September 2015, to be followed by a two-year decline. At the time of my original work, I wasn't aware of Mr. Armstrong's long-cycle data, so my analysis then forecasted a modest recovery from late 2017 into the future. Much of that, I reckoned, was due to the fact that I believed we would probably be realizing the impact of policy changes brought about by the demands of the electorate in 2016.

However, Mr. Armstrong's analysis tells a story of a world in crisis, created by global government policies aimed at creating wealth out of thin air, or should I more correctly say, out of devalued money. Which is why the Chinese real estate market is so fascinating.

Consider this quote from a recent Business Insider story.
"...it's important to remember, too, that the ghost city phenomenon in China is partially due to how local governments are forced to finance themselves. Local governments in China are in a perpetual cash squeeze because they have to hand over a bulk of their tax revenue to the central government and because the central government often orders localities to build all sorts of infrastructure projects but Beijing often neglects to help with funding. Because the Party owns all of the land in China, local governments solve their funding problems by seizing land from their poorest residents, giving them a paltry sum in return, and then they sell the land to developers, essentially flipping real estate on a massive scale. Of course this has the added benefit of raising GDP figures, increasing the chance that local leaders will be promoted within the Party."
-Rob Schmitz, quoted in Business Insider, June 9, 2014 
Hmmm. This scenario which once might have been viewed as an oddity of China's version of party politics is starting to sound slightly not so unusual. Might the snowballing market backlash against this reality-blindered governance be a precursor of a global downturn so bad it will make 2010 look like the good old days?

Let's hope not. But just in case, I'll examine the issues, and logical actions wood businesses can take to prepare for the possible alternative futures, in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Fruit of the Earth: Reality and Religion

Here's a follow-up to the post on "How to Build a Wildlife Habitat Snag".

After a short segment on fighting birds away from their cherry tree (with that great view of Mt. Ranier in the background), Wranglerstar gives us an update on the wildlife that has moved into his snag. It's a great lesson on the forest food chain...from plant, to bug, to bird, to carnivore.

And then, he takes us on a trip into his back forty, where he had been working a small fireline around a brush pile that had escaped its intended spot. As he does so, he gets into a discourse on the realities of hands-on forestry that you might find interesting. In more ways than one.



Wrangler demonstrates that he really understands well the concept of forest management, at least from an ecological standpoint. But his short discourse beginning at 9:00 against "modern logging practices", which he calls  "an abomination against this earth, and an abomination against God" is where his practical knowledge of the subject, and his religious intuition reveal an inner turmoil that he hasn't yet been able to reconcile.

I won't get into the war raging in people's psyches between Mother Earth and Father God. But I would like to say that in this particular discourse, Wrangler exhibits a belief shared by many folks...that individuals are better stewards of the earth than companies that use its fruits for the benefit of mankind (and, to make a profit along the way).

Certainly, Wrangler is a shining representative of the notion that individuals, given a piece of land, a good education, and a strong work ethic, can manage that land sustainably and produce good outcomes from their effort. This stewardship model, perhaps first best codified in America by Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac and his numerous other writings, works well on a personal level, and it's not hard to see how folks like Wrangler who "return to the land" adopt those values. I relate to them myself, on my own tiny corner of the world.

But it is in criticizing other models that folks often go awry in their thinking, and wind up "conflicted", as Wrangler so obviously is in the final moments of the video. He can see how the techniques he uses work for his family on their land...but those techniques are not very productive, in terms of the number of people they support per acre. Therein lies the conflict.

Timber companies, like commercial fisherman, industrial farmers, mining companies, and energy companies, have to produce vast quantities of natural resources from the small portion of the earth that they manage. In order to do this, they have developed techniques, technology, and labor systems that allow them to produce and harvest more per acre than you or I would given the same amount of land. The visual impact of these systems can be stunning, and many folks have felt that sense of stunned outrage when they happen upon a large clearcut...or even when they view one from fifty miles away on a mountainside.

The emotional response felt in those moments is the source of the conflict. People's minds tend to frame the vision in terms of personal impacts...a clearcut forest is far beyond the physical impact one can cause, and so its magnitude is overpowering. Our mind has a difficult time processing the scene...we see devastation, and imagine dead birds and rabbits laying under all the dead trees. Bad...bad.

But professional foresters and loggers see something different, because they have experienced the long-term cycle of forest re-growth. They understand that those large, beautiful trees are, in essence, a mature crop, ready to be harvested for conversion and use by millions for homes, heat, and hutches. And the millions who will benefit from that harvest don't have the blessing of their own patch of woods to produce their own...they rely completely on the experience and work of the timber company to provide that wood.

Further, they understand that the scene that Wrangler calls "an abomination" in fact produces a thriving new forest in an incredibly short period of time. One that supports a far wider range of wildlife, with far higher rates of growth, than the mature forest just harvested. And all that new growth contributes to and  thrives on the carbon cycle, the key process in sustaining life on earth. It is difficult to see how a process that drives life can intelligently be called an abomination.

True, harvesting practices have not always been as good as they could have/should have been. But in the more developed countries, they certainly are getting pretty good. And it is difficult to point to damage even in the less developed countries that is resulting in permanent or irreversible damage to the forest. In that sense, the earth has shown an incredible power to recover from even the worse humans can do to it.

The 1,660 square miles of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has now become one of Europe’s largest wildlife preserves.
Source: https://www.asme.org/engineering-topics/articles/nuclear/chernobyl-25-years-later
So, yes...Wranglerstar would not want a timber company clearcutting his land. Most of you would not want that. But that does not make their business of timber harvesting on land managed for that purpose an abomination, any more than miles of wheat harvested in Kansas, million of chickens grown in East Texas, or tons of coal mined in Alberta is an abomination.

A true abomination would be returning to the Dark Ages (or the 1930's Soviet Union), where only the wealthiest or well-connected had homes and good food, while the rest of us huddle hungry in our makeshift huts. Which is where we will be, if the industrial producers of the world are prevented from performing their business of providing for the world.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (54) - The Hannah Cabinet

Nothing I can say would add to the impressiveness of this work. Best listen to the master himself explain the work.


I've watched it three times now and am still seeing things that amaze me.

I like one of the comments on YouTube...
 If I have some spare time this weekend, I might knock one of these out. :)
The Bungendore Wood Works Gallery, which I visited back in 2011 and shared with you in...

The Bungendore Wood Works Gallery 

The Best of the Rest - Bungendore Wood Works Gallery, Part 2

...and in which the Hannah cabinet was displayed in the summer of 2013, has a web page with more information and pictures of the work...and they offer a complete DVD on it for sale. This is one for the collection of serious woodworkers out there.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (53) - The Wooden Pallet

This post is long overdue. While we tend to think of great houses, fine furniture, and unique products when we think of designs in wood, the humble wooden pallet may be able to claim to be the greatest design of all.

Wooden pallets, as the title of the video below states, literally move the world.



In fact, Slate Magazine recently called the pallet the "Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy." From the article:
Pallets, of course, are merely one cog in the global machine for moving things. But while shipping containers, for instance, have had their due, in Marc Levinson’s surprisingly illustrative book The Box (“the container made shipping cheap, and by doing so changed the shape of the world economy”), pallets rest outside of our imagination, regarded as scrap wood sitting outside grocery stores or holding massive jars of olives at Costco. As one German article, translated via Google, put it: “How exciting can such a pile of boards be?”
And yet pallets are arguably as integral to globalization as containers. For an invisible object, they are everywhere: There are said to be billions circulating through global supply chain (2 billion in the United States alone). Some 80 percent of all U.S. commerce is carried on pallets. So widespread is their use that they account for, according to one estimate, more than 46 percent of total U.S. hardwood lumber production.
Companies like Ikea have literally designed products around pallets: Its “Bang” mug, notes Colin White in his book Strategic Management, has had three redesigns, each done not for aesthetics but to ensure that more mugs would fit on a pallet (not to mention in a customer’s cupboard). After the changes, it was possible to fit 2,204 mugs on a pallet, rather than the original 864, which created a 60 percent reduction in shipping costs. There is a whole science of “pallet cube optimization,” a kind of Tetris for packaging; and an associated engineering, filled with analyses of “pallet overhang” (stacking cartons so they hang over the edge of the pallet, resulting in losses of carton strength) and efforts to reduce “pallet gaps” (too much spacing between deckboards). The “pallet loading problem,”—or the question of how to fit the most boxes onto a single pallet—is a common operations research thought exercise.
Pallet history is both humble and dramatic. As Pallet Enterprise (“For 30 years the leading pallet and sawmill magazine”) recounts, pallets grew out of simple wooden “skids”, which had been used to help transport goods from shore to ship and were, essentially, pallets without a bottom set of boards, hand-loaded by longshoremen and then, typically, hoisted by winch into a ship’s cargo hold. Both skids and pallets allowed shippers to “unitize” goods, with clear efficiency benefits: “According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.” 
Wooden pallets can be made in just about any combination of boards imaginable, in order to carry whatever load they are designed to carry. The two most common designs of pallets are the "stringer" pallet, most common in the United States, and the "block" pallet, the most widely used pallet in the rest of the world. Stringer pallets have typically three or four boards running lengthwise on edge, onto which the wooden deckboards are nailed.

Stringer pallets.
In contrast, the deckboards on block pallets are fastened to stringers or frames, placed flatwise, that connect typically nine or more wooden blocks. This design allows for what those in the logistics industry call "true four-way entry"; in other words, the loader approaching the unit load with a forklift or pallet jack can insert its forks into whichever side of the load the loader happens to be approaching. This flexibility in handling allows for more efficient use of the pallet in loading and unloading operations, especially in those which utilized automated load handling systems.

Block pallets.
While the sheer volume of pallets used around the world in conveying goods is staggering to contemplate, perhaps the best evidence of our designation of the wooden pallet as a "great design in wood" is in its frequent "second life" as affordable and personalized do-it-youself furniture. A search of YouTube with the simple word "pallets" returns around 144,000 video results...and I'd be willing to bet over 90% of them are folks showing some creative use of wooden pallets in and around their home. I've shared some of these before, and here's another great one.


Anything that can be used in so many ways, even after serving its useful primary life, surely must be called one of our "Great Designs in Wood." In fact, the lowly wooden pallet may be THE GREATEST design in wood, ever.

Friday, June 20, 2014

How to Build a Wildlife Habitat Snag

My tendency the last few months is to give you a feel-good post on Fridays, because we all need to feel good on weekends, right? And for many folks, the best way to feel good is to do something physical, and productive.

About three weeks ago, I shared a video of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wranglerstar as they identify themselves, taking on an unusually large project...sawing down a tree by hand. In this video, the same Wranglerstar shares with us a unique project that many can achieve, even though we may have to be a little more modest with the size of our project. Nevertheless, as a little weekend warrior inspiration, this video is great.

If you think the part where he tops out the tree looks dangerous, you're right...it is. Experienced climbers and saw handlers only need apply for that job.


In the last couple of minutes of the video, Wranglerstar makes some interesting comments on the value of snags in the forest ecosystem. He's right on. Although, when I studied forestry many years ago, we were taught to leave what we called "den trees" in any forest harvest we planned and executed, and at about the same density he proposes, one to two per acre. I don't know where they ever taught foresters to "clean" the forest bare as he claims in the video, but if they did, they were wrong.

Glad he has taken the time to shoot his project and explain the reasoning behind it. He recently posted a follow-up video that shows the results of his project...I'll share that and comment a little more extensively on the topic next week. In the meantime, get out and do a little outdoor project of your own this weekend...and feel free to share it with us in the comment section below.

To my buddy Tom up in Boston...no, lifting pints of Sam Adams does not qualify as physical productive activity. Even if it follows a round of golf. Get out and Go Wood, Tom.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Chaos of the Masses

The young Lebanese woman, eight months pregnant, was desperate. While trying to join her husband in the Land of the Free, she had suffered a cruel disappointment...she had been turned away by officials at Ellis Island in New York City and returned to the turmoil of Beirut. Her husband had sent her money from his job in the rail car plant in Michigan City, Indiana, and she was now making a rougher, more dangerous journey to the promised land...through the back door, that is, the back streets of Juarez, Mexico. She had given most of her money to a man who had gotten her from Panama City, Panama, where she had relatives, to Juarez, and now her jewelry was going to another stranger who was smuggling her across the border into El Paso, Texas. Her hope was that, once on the American side, she would meet one of her husband's relatives who would take her on the long bus trip to Indiana.

She made it just in time. On October 12, 1917, my grandmother was born in a small shack in Michigan City, the first generation of my mother's family to be American by birth. I don't know if my great grandmother ever became a legal immigrant, or not.

This was all brought back to me by some events of the past week here in my neighborhood.

I was walking the floor mop Sunday afternoon, and as I passed the high school soccer fields, stopped to watch a large group of Hispanics playing soccer. Many were decked out in soccer jerseys, all were shouting in Spanish, and they were good. Real good. Better than I was used to seeing here from our local kids.

It was notable to me because this was the first time I had seen such a thing in the neighborhood. I made mention of it to The Wife when I got home, telling her, in fact, that it was bringing back some nice memories of our time in Diboll, Texas. Hispanics are common in Diboll, home to a large, old sawmill since the turn of the last century. Old folks in town used to tell me that Mexicans used to travel across Texas, and the only two towns they knew of were San Antonio and Diboll, because of the number of jobs there. So now, Diboll, along with most of the rest of Texas, has a large population of Hispanics, many whose families have been there since long before the fall of the Alamo. And some who have come more recently, say, yesterday.

But Hispanics are not too common in Central Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, Philly, Reading, Allentown, yes. But immigration controversies are rare in State College, other than the visa difficulties graduate students may have during their time at Penn State.

So it came as a surprise when I heard sirens in the neighborhood yesterday morning...and then this.


What made this event very personal was that it was close to home. Literally, close to home...the restaurants in the video are about two blocks from my house. The Wife and I eat at them frequently, and even know the owner by name. That was because he is (was?) a neighbor of ours. He owns several of the Chinese food establishments in town and about half of the ones that were raided yesterday.

He purchased the house next to ours about a year ago, and was using it as sort of a halfway house for his employees. I see some of them on my nightly walks, they walking home from work every night. The Wife took them cookies once, and said that the Chinese are on one floor and the Hispanics are on the other.

I should make a note here that the food in the establishments is great, the employees are real friendly...but we had a suspicion that at least some of them were illegal. Not being able to speak English is a tip-off.

But I've worked with and around illegal aliens all of my life. First as a dishwasher in a high-end Houston restaurant, where all the dishwashers were Hispanic except me. I especially remember one guy named Juan, who had fled the civil wars in Nicaragua, who didn't say much and didn't like me for some reason. Maybe I asked too many questions.

Later, as a construction superintendent for a large Houston home builder, I shared in the barbequed pigs-head lunches (weird, but tasty) brought out to the Hispanic foundation crews by their crew chief, who was by the way, the only one who could speak English. I remember wondering if they were all illegal aliens, but since they were sub-contractors, hired by superintendents like me on site, it never seemed to be an issue. All the concrete crews were Hispanic, so it was just an accepted thing. Don't ask, don't tell, before that policy was even heard of.

Then as I moved into the wood products industry, I found that there were certain types of operations that had more suspect workers than others. The wood components industries, like truss plants, and pallet operations, in particular, seemed to have more than their share of non-English speakers. Not surprisingly, these industries have some of the toughest jobs out there. If you've ever seen workers standing on their feet at a station tearing apart old pallets for eight hours a day, at about one pallet per minute, you'd understand that there are certain jobs out there that most Americans just won't do.

You may remember the most high-profile illegal worker case, a raid on several operations and the arrest of several managers of the Houston-based pallet company IFCO in 2006. Again, I was pretty close to those folks...they had cooperated with me on a large industry study on supply chain costs I conducted in 2005. When the raids came down, I remember wondering why, this particular company, now? I could think of dozens of companies in several industries that operated basically the same way with their employee supply.  Finally, I concluded that some company had to be selected to raid, and a few had to go to prison, to remind folks that our new Homeland Security folks were still on the job.

I know, that's a cynical viewpoint, but for a guy who's the product of at least one illegal alien, and who's basically been surrounded by them for most of this life, I just look at our immigration policy and enforcement as a counter-productive farce with multiple hurtful unintended consequences. Now, I'm not saying that we should have stricter or more open borders...I'm just saying, what we do now doesn't work well and hasn't for a long, long time.

You probably wouldn't be surprised to know that some economics professors have figured that eliminating restrictions on the flow of migration (i.e., "open borders") is by far the best way to go. In their paper entitled "Productivity differences and the dynamic effects of labor movements" professors Klein and Ventura state..
"...a powerful case can be made that regulation of labor movements is one of the most severe distortions facing the world today. Taking the results of the applied general equilibrium literature seriously, hardly any policy reform at a global scale, either drastic trade liberalization or worldwide tax reforms, would deliver comparable output gains. Hence, in order to defend current restrictions on labor mobility on efficiency grounds one would need to come up with some very powerful arguments indeed. Clearly, arguments to restrict labor mobility do exist (e.g. congestion of some public goods, burden on the welfare state), but it seems doubtful whether they are powerful enough to make a case for the severity of current restrictions.
The analysis of this paper illustrates the need to design and study the effects of alternative migration and transfer policies in dynamic frameworks. Although the removal of migration barriers generates long-run output gains that are sizeable, there are winners and losers in the short run. An open challenge is then how to capture these gains while making nobody worse off."
Ahh, that's the trick, isn't it? Because in the same paper, they find that...
"... the oldest individuals in the rich...location gain when barriers are removed, while the opposite occurs in the poor...location. This is straightforward: as natives of the rich location hold all land in this location and the oldest individuals have mostly asset income, lifting barriers to the movement of labor will lead to gains for these people if the value of their land increases. This is precisely what occurs as the increase in the labor input in the rich location increases the future marginal product of land, which in turn leads to an upward jump in the price of land in the rich location at t0. Of course, the reverse happens in the poor location.
Second, individuals born at t0 gain in the poor location and lose in the rich location, and the smaller are idiosyncratic moving costs on average, the greater the welfare gain (loss) for natives of the poor (rich) location. Notice, in particular, that individuals in the poor location gain substantially on average even when only a small fraction of them eventually moves to the rich location. This is accounted for by the fact that prices change in a favorable direction for newborns in the poor location as wage rates there increase over time.
Overall, the removal of barriers to labor mobility has non-trivial consequences for welfare, but these consequences differ substantially across locations and cohorts. At the date when restrictions are removed (t=t0) old and middle-aged rich location natives gain, while young rich location natives lose."
And they become members of the Occupy Movement, and go on food stamps.

I think it boils down to, one way or another, everyone working in our country ought to be legal residents, abide by the same laws, and pay the same taxes. How we get that to be, is the debate that seems to have been with us since the founding of our country. And lately, we seem to be making things worse, not better. "Comprehensive immigration reform" sounds to me like another iteration of increased ineffective bureaucracy at ridiculous expense. A wise man once said...

"If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”
- Winston Churchill 
Hmmm...I know a few folks who can relate to that.
Seems to me that we must already have some "comprehensive" laws in place. Well, whaddya know...

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 

It's even revised as of 2013. So it doesn't sound to me like we need "comprehensive reform"...just a better and more even-handed way to carry out the law, and to revise it when necessary. There's a novel concept.

In a day where the government is supposedly monitoring everything we think, do and say (at least, on-line) there ought to be a way to enforce one consistent set of laws without starting over from scratch. I'm guessing that it would require more resources in both processing applications and border enforcement. And in analyzing the economic and human impacts of labor flows. How tough can it be?

Even Mr. Churchill would think that we'll eventually get it right. He once also said this...
“The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”
In the mean time, the good folks of State College, Pennsylvania will have to do without our Chinese food.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wood Science 101 (15) - What Houses are Made Of

This video really impresses on the viewer is how much wood actually goes in a typical American home. Most folks think kitchen cabinets, wood floors, and decks when they are asked about wood in their homes...but as this video shows, there is much, much more wood that they don't see. Wall plates and studs, floor and ceiling joists, door and window headers, floor and wall panels, roof trusses, fascia boards, stair wells and treads...the list goes on and on. And none of this lumber is ever seen by most folks, except when they crawl into their attic.



Some fact checking reminded me that one 2400 square foot home may typically use 16,000 board feet of lumber, and 14,000 square feet of other wood products. And that's a good thing, as the USDA discovered and admitted in 2011.
USDA Leads the Way on Green Buildings, Use of Wood Products
 WASHINGTON, March 30, 2011 -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today USDA's strategy to promote the use of wood as a green building material. At an event this evening to launch the International Year of the Forest, Secretary Vilsack will lay out a three-part plan addressing the Forest Service's and USDA's current green building practices.
"Wood has a vital role to play in meeting the growing demand for green building materials. Forest Service studies show that wood compares favorably to competing materials," said Vilsack. "In keeping with the Obama Administration's America's Great Outdoors conservation agenda, USDA has made a strong commitment to conserving and restoring our forests to protect watersheds, recreation, and rural jobs."
The strategy includes the following parts:
1. The U.S. Forest Service will preferentially select wood in new building construction while maintaining its commitment to certified green building standards. USDA will also make a commitment to using wood and other agricultural products as it fulfills President Obama's executive order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.
2. The Secretary has asked the U.S. Forest Service to examine ways to increase its already strong commitment to green building by reporting to him on ways to enhance the research and development being done around green building materials.
3. The U.S. Forest Service will actively look for opportunities to demonstrate the innovative use of wood as a green building material for all new structures of 10,000 square feet or more using recognized green building standards such as LEED, Green Globes or the National Green Building Standard.
In carrying out this initiative, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell issued a directive to all units this week calling for increased use of locally milled timber in all new agency buildings and facilities. Secretary Vilsack also directed the heads of all other USDA agencies to incorporate the Forest Service policy of using domestic sustainable wood products as the preferred green building material for all USDA facilities and buildings.
"Our country has the resources, the work force and the innovative spirit to reintroduce wood products into all aspects of the next generation of buildings," Tidwell said. "As we move forward with restoring America's forests, we are getting smarter and more efficient in how we use wood products as both an energy and green building source, which will help maintain rural jobs."
A recent Forest Service lifecycle analysis found that harvesting, transporting, manufacturing and using wood in lumber and panel products in building yields fewer air emissions – including greenhouse gases – than resource extraction, manufacturing and using other commonly-used building materials. In fact, wood –based wall systems can require significantly less total energy for manufacturing than thermally comparable houses using other common material systems.
Research arms of the U.S. Forest Service are also experimenting with new and innovative ways to use smaller diameter timber and leftover branches and limbs for wood products, which includes nanotechnology advancements and the use of laminate technologies.
- US Department of Agriculture, March 30, 2011 
Some folks still haven't gotten the message, though. For instance, the Resource Conservation Alliance, formerly known as WoodConsumption.Org, is on a mission to reduce wood usage under the assumption that wood consumption is a bad thing. In a section on their website entitled 'Is There Really A Shortage of Wood?', they say,
"The U.S. timber products industry spends millions of dollars each year promoting the idea that building with wood is an environmentally sound choice. Their ads claim that there are more trees in America today than ever before. The subtle trap is that these statistics do not differentiate between young sapwood trees and high-quality heartwood, or between diverse natural forests and single-species tree farms.
In the U.S. today, less than five percent of our original forest cover remains, and the clearcutting of old-growth forests continues. Intact forests support indigenous peoples, shelter wildlife, maintain the quality of fisheries and watersheds, conserve soil, moderate the global climate, and store much of the planet's genetic material. They may be our most important natural resource.
The construction industry uses 46 percent of the softwoods harvested in the U.S., for framing lumber and plywood, most of which comes from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The U.S. Forest Service predicts that harvests from the Pacific Northwest have peaked and will fall steadily over the next ten years (Adams, 1994). Present demand has exceeded our forests' ability to supply lumber, even with the industry's prevailing unsustainable practices. British Columbia, however, now has one of the highest logging rates in the world: an acre of old-growth forest is clearcut every 66 seconds (Rainforest Action Network, 1995). It is imperative that we reverse this trend.
Changing the way we use wood in construction can alter the course of forest destruction, allowing us to save some forests from being turned into tree farms and preserving forest ecosystems for future generations."
The astute reader will note that the question put forward by the title of the section is never answered. Rather, there is sentence after sentence of somewhat related, and entirely misleading, statements that, if taken together, may lead some to think that...Yes, there really is a shortage of wood! When nothing could be further from the truth. North American forests are growing as wood consumption declines and rural development slows. And recent increases in lumber prices have much more to do with new regulatory costs, alternative uses and oil price increases than they do with timber supply.

Even more disturbing in the misinformation treadmill is the tendency by some local and state governments to take anti-wood stances in their definition of "green" development. Somehow, the folks in the Nebraska statehouse didn't get the memo from Mr. Vilsack. On the "Official Nebraska Government Website", we find these badly slanted talking points in a "factsheet" entitled "Minimizing the Use of Lumber Products in Residential Construction":
  • Although the U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the global population, it is responsible for over 15 percent of the world's consumption of wood.
  • A typical 1700 square foot wood framed home requires the equivalent of clear cutting one acre of forest.
  • Within U.S. national forests alone, at least 70,000 acres of old-growth timber have been harvested each year since the mid-1980s.
  • Tropical hardwood is especially vulnerable: 42 million acres of tropical hardwood were cleared in 1990, a 40 percent increase from 1980.
  • The traditional building method of stick-built framing has declined from approximately 86 percent in 1995 to 78 percent in 2000. By 2005, the forecast is for stick-built framing to decline further to around 71 percent.
- http://www.neo.ne.gov/home_const/factsheets/min_use_lumber.htm
 Let's take these point by point -

  • Although the U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the global population, it is responsible for over 15 percent of the world's consumption of wood.
Is that a bad thing? In other words, it's wrong that we consume more wood per capita than the folks in Iceland, or Greece, or South Africa? Could the reason be, perhaps, that we also produce 25% of the world's wood? 

Source: http://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/jrnl/2014/nrs_2014_bumgardner_001.pdf


  • A typical 1700 square foot wood framed home requires the equivalent of clear cutting one acre of forest.
Well, that sounds terrible, doesn't it? Of course, when one considers that the size of the forest in the United States has remained stable at around 750 million acres for the last 100 years, then a truer picture of the situation emerges. Let's say our economy booms again, and we get back up to two million housing starts per year. That's two million acres of forest, right? But two million acres is only 1/375th of U.S. forestland harvested in that year...in other words, it would take 375 years to harvest all the forest. But since typical forests in North America regenerate themselves every 50 to 100 years, that means...that's right, we'll never harvest it all. It's growing back much faster than we harvest it.
  • Within U.S. national forests alone, at least 70,000 acres of old-growth timber have been harvested each year since the mid-1980s.
What is old-growth timber? 100 years old, 200 years old, maybe 375 years old? Or perhaps old-growth timber is that lot across the road that has been there since you were a kid. Of course, old-growth timber will be harvested...and more is produced every day of every year of every decade. Today's 20-year old stand will be the old-growth timber of 2114.
  • Tropical hardwood is especially vulnerable: 42 million acres of tropical hardwood were cleared in 1990, a 40 percent increase from 1980.
Here's a hot-button issue. More tropical hardwood is being harvested. That's definitely a bad thing...unless you're a logging, sawmilling, or transportation family in Indonesia, Brazil, or the Congo. Then, the increase in international trade of your region's beautiful wood is bringing food to your table and prosperity to your country. Funny how that works.
  • The traditional building method of stick-built framing has declined from approximately 86 percent in 1995 to 78 percent in 2000. By 2005, the forecast is for stick-built framing to decline further to around 71 percent.
And the point is what, exactly? That home construction is getting more efficient? Why is that a case for using less wood in construction?

Come on, Nebraska. Get with it, and Go Wood. Remove or revise that silly fact sheet, and join the growing numbers of people in the world that understand wood is the best, most renewable and sustainable, building product Earth has to offer.





Monday, June 9, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (52) - The Kerf I-Phone Case

In writing this blog, I've discovered that there are very few things in the world that can't be made in wood...and made better.

Case in point...the wooden cell phone case.

The Kerf case...in quartersawn cherry.

"KERF, founded in 2013 by Ben Saks, is rooted in a passion for craft and an exacting attention to fine details. Ben, a designer passionate about precision, fine craftsmanship, and natural materials was unsatisfied with existing wood iPhone cases. While working at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture, he spent an evening in the wood shop and created the first KERF case.  Over the course of six months, the KERF design was revised, tested, and revised again.    
"Kerf" is the thickness of material removed from a saw blade, usually measured in 1/1000 of an inch. This standard wood working term is important to KERF’s philosophy, as it represents the precision needed to make our cases. KERF Cases use a patent-pending technology to hold your phone inside the case using only friction. This leaves no part of the front of your phone obscured, no snapping your phone into a case, and no parts to assemble. Just press your phone in, or press it out. It's that simple.
Made from 100% wood, by their nature every case is unique."
- kerfcase.com 

And perhaps the greatest thing about this design - is where the wood comes from.

"Our story starts in the hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, carpeted in a mixed deciduous forest. KERF wood products are designed, machined, finished, and shipped from Pittsburgh, PA. Once the center of American steel production, Pittsburgh has transformed into a technology-centered city nestled in an urban forest. Our forest is comprised of Oak, Maple, Walnut,Cherry, Ash, Sycamore, and many other species of  hardwood trees. Every piece of wood has a story. A piece of reclaimed flooring, or beautiful burl wood from a locally harvested tree which was damaged in a storm. 
KERF wood is sourced locally and sustainably. Most of our wood comes from our friend Jason Boone at Urban Tree. Jason works with Tree Pittsburgh to reclaim sick and damaged street trees and local trees. Jason and his team of arborists safely fells, and mills trees which would otherwise end up as mulch.
What will be the story behind your iPhone case?"
Right here in Pennsylvania, wood from the streets of Pittsburgh ends up in cell phone cases going all over the world. Great idea, great design, great story.

Now, if they could make a sycamore case for a Samsung Note...

Beautiful sycamore.

If you're an I-Phone user, or know someone who is, why not Go Wood, and replace that silly piece of plastic that everyone else carries? Check out their many great woody options at their website, Kerf Collections...


Friday, May 30, 2014

Yard Work on Steroids

You may have a weekend of yardwork planned ahead, as I do. The Wife and I are not especially fanatics of yard work, but when forced (like this weekend, when we'll be prepping for a yard-based graduation party), we can get out and enjoy the sun and fresh air that goes along with a little hard work.

And then there's this couple.



Now that's true love :-)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

More of that 1930's West Coast Logging

Old logging and sawmill videos are just about the most popular posts on Go Wood, and this one rates as one of the best. Great close-in filming, detailed narration, and even some old-time cowboy background music make this a thirty minutes well-spent.

And if you don't know what a Davis raft is, you'll want to stay on until the end to watch an "island of wood" being built for trans-oceanic delivery to the sawmills of Vancouver. Wow.

Next time you're in a home or building built pre-1950, look up at those beams and woodwork and think of the folks of the logging companies who made those old wooden castles possible.




Friday, May 23, 2014

Groundhog in a Fix, Threatens Suicide

Enjoying my breakfast yesterday out in the back sunroom, my eye caught a brown furry blur streaking through the undergrowth in the back yard. Sure enough, the invader was a central Pennsylvania groundhog (Marmota monax), which is not too surprising; we've had several share our hillside over the years. This sighting took a little different twist, however, when the little fellow decided to tour our deck. Groundhogs are shy critters and usually only seen by roadsides munching clover within a quick scamper of cover. But this one was feeling brave...until I followed him out onto the deck.




What we call groundhogs, here in Pennsylvania, are often called woodchucks. Which is a name I have heard myself called, probably a couple of thousand times. So I feel a kindred spirit to the furry fellows, even though they're not too friendly...can be downright mean, in fact.

I've wondered why they're called woodchucks...do they really throw wood chunks around?




I've never seen them act like that. Those must be Canadian woodchucks.

Actually...
"The etymology of the name woodchuck is unrelated to wood or chucking. It stems from an Algonquian (possibly Narragansett) name for the animal, wuchak. The similarity between the words has led to the popular tongue-twister:
      How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? 
     A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood!"
          - Wikipedia

So now you know...a real woodchuck won't chuck at all. Another myth of the world of wood debunked here today on Go Wood :-)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When a Tree Speaks

Just when you think you've seen all there is to see, someone finds another unique use of wood on the internet. Thanks to Andy B. who sent this along to me.


YEARS from Bartholomäus Traubeck on Vimeo.


So that's what it feels like to spend a lifetime growing in one spot in a forest. Somewhat melancholy.

Being an audiophile myself, I noticed right away that the position of the stylus changes throughout the video, and is not always in sync with the recording. However, from 0:35 to 0:56 of the video the strumming we hear is in sync with the stylus crossing the knot. Very interesting...but is it real?

The folks at the website Realfarmacy.com must have wondered the same thing, and they did a little research on the video.  This is what they have to say about it:
"This is an excerpt from the record Years, created by Bartholom√§us Traubeck, which features seven recordings from different Austrian trees including Oak, Maple, Walnut, and Beech. What you are hearing is an Ash tree’s year ring data. Every tree sounds vastly unique due to varying characteristics of the rings, such as strength, thickness and rate of growth.
Keep in mind that the tree rings are being translated into the language of music, rather than sounding musical in and of themselves. Traubeck’s one-of-a-kind record player uses a PlayStation Eye Camera and a stepper motor attached to its control arm. It relays the data to a computer with a program called Ableton Live. What you end up with is an incredible piano track, and in the case of the Ash, a very eerie one."
Very eerie indeed. Sounds like this ash was suffering through an attack of the Emerald Ash Borer just before it was harvested.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bill Maher and Mike Rowe Discuss What Dirty Jobs Mean to America

Besides the great comments submitted on the last couple of posts, I had some insightful feedback via email. One especially interesting comment came from Glen in Arkansas, who said...
"The attitude of entitlement projected by so many of the young folks we interview at EFS is an epidemic. It's not, "What can I do for your firm and clients?" it's "What are you going to do for me?"
He went on to describe the reasons he believes this attitude is so common. I know, as the father of seven kids, five who are now teens and twenty-somethings, that their approach to life and values are different than mine were forty years ago. They definitely don't want to get dirty. I thought getting dirty was the fun part of work.

Generational differences, I suppose, have always been so. The important thing is to acknowledge and react to this different culture in a way that produces positive outcomes, those that bring production of goods and services back to its important and respected place in our world.

Quite by accident, I stumbled across this video of a Bill Maher television show from last summer, in which he interviews Mike Rowe, the host of a great show called Dirty Jobs. You may know him better from his Ford commercials. He has become a spokesman for hands-on work, in a way. The video is a funny but spot-on commentary on the jobs gap, and what can be done about it. Turn the volume down some, Maher's language is salty, as usual for him.



One way to re-instill the importance of strong work ethic in our society is to push back against the biases discussed by Rowe and Maher above with the message of pride and satisfaction in a job well done. The National Association of Manufacturers has taken on this task with an excellent short video that accurately reflects this feeling that too few of us seem to relate to these days.




It's a start. The challenge to those of us currently in the wood and forest industries is to make sure our companies offer the kind of work environment that really does allow folks to achieve The American Dream. The Dream changes slightly for every generation...but unless the work gets done, that dream will become very small, indeed.

Monday, May 12, 2014

More on Employees, Employment, and Life

Last time, we were considering the state of the modern wood products company, with respect to recruiting and keeping its employees. I hinted at the fact that higher education is actually a competitor for your best future employees.

At right is an interesting infographic from the video "Timber! There's a Gold Mine Out There" produced by the members of the Keystone Wood Products Association, a wood industry association here in Pennsylvania. The video, which is intended for viewing by middle-school and high-school students, begins with an educational story about the environmental value of sustainably-managed forests, and then goes on to provide the young folks with a look at the wood products industry, its role in harvesting the forest and converting the wood to value-added products, and the types of careers to be had. The infographic is especially interesting for a little-discussed issue in many high schools...in this case, that 85% of all the jobs in this particular industry can be had with simply a high-school education and on-the-job training. In other words, without the investment of time and money in higher education.

Recognizing this, the members of the KWPA decided to get into the education business themselves, and produced the following video. Their intent is to show young folks that careers in the industry are green, interesting, and available to all, not just those with higher education. Which is not to say they're against higher education...in fact, they discuss careers specifically requiring post-high school education. But they also send the message that a great and fulfilling career can also be attained simply by succeeding in high school and working hard on the job.



This message may seem a little sacrilegious to two or three generations of folks who were raised to think that a college degree is required to succeed in today's America. But I can tell you from personal experience, it just isn't the truth anymore, and probably never was. Sure, in a whole bunch of professions, higher education is an absolute necessity. But because the market balance of labor has shifted and technology has greatly improved, blue-collar jobs in most cases are now just as safe, secure, and profitable as most white-collar jobs. And for those who like to work with their hands and be a part of seeing things made, they can be tremendously rewarding. Not everyone was created to be chained to a desk.

So the first message to companies looking to hire future superstars is, get out there and develop your own educational message, and compete for those young hearts and minds. Spend more time involved in local school and civic activities...keep your company name out there, and make yourself and your company accessible to young folks who might just have that spark of interest that, left unfanned, will be doused by peer pressure to join the lemmings on their march to the university. You'd be surprised what a simple message in the high-school newspaper or on the high-school baseball team's outfield fence will yield.

But getting them is really the easy part. Keeping them is vastly more important, and difficult.

Do you know your workforce? Really? What motivates those who stay to stay, and those who leave to leave? What makes some employees grow into great employees with twenty years of experience, and others to linger around with one year of experience, twenty times?

The time of most human resource managers (or owners, in smaller businesses) are tied up with making sure employees are legal, safe, minimally trained, and paid. There just isn't much time for personnel development beyond that, with orders and regulatory deadlines to meet. But employee turnover is a primary reason! If you could retain your best folks, and gradually weed out the slackers (after getting to the root cause of their poor performance), then you could spend more time improving the ongoing improvement of your workforce...which is the real key to the competitiveness and success of your business.

One thing I sometimes suggest to companies is to look at their employee behaviors statistically. When you ask companies why employees leave, they will rattle of a list of reasons, mostly faults inherent in the employees themselves. But there are underlying causes that will help you improve your company, if you examine them analytically.

For example, look at the chart below. It shows a company history of employee terminations categorized by the numbers of years of employment at termination.


From this, we see some results that may be familiar to you. A high number of employees terminated in the first year of employment, and an even higher number of employees staying with the company for more than twenty years. Sounds like a typical company, and one that offers a fairly stable work environment.

But it offers a few pieces of data that provide areas of investigation. First, let's look at the first year terminations. Naturally, a few of them just didn't work out...they were unreliable, they dislike the work, they moved, or got thrown in jail. But what of the others...the ones who were working out great, and then just surprised you by taking their last paycheck and quitting on the spot?

I once had a young man march into my office and quit in his seventh month on the job. I was flabbergasted. I had recruited him out of a college half a country away, and he was already one of my favorite employees. He was hard-working, and I frequently complemented the quality of his work. I could tell that he would someday be one of the company's best employees.

But he gave as his reason for his leaving...that I disrespected his work. I thought I was hearing him wrong. Yes, yes, it was true...he was a degreed wood scientist and I simply didn't recognized the full contribution he brought to the research team. Then, he added, he and his wife really didn't like East Texas...the slow service in the local restaurants drove them crazy.

I didn't realize the validity of his second point until I moved to the Northwest a few years later. Yes, he had a point. East Texas restaurants are a little slow. But then again, everything in East Texas is a little slow. There just isn't much of a need to be in a hurry there. Most of us think that part of its charm. This fellow (and his wife, he made a point of saying) obviously didn't find it so charming.

But I have a suspicion that if I had recognized the first point, that of perceived disrespect, and taken appropriate steps to help the fellow feel a little better about his job and contribution, the fellow and his wife could have learned to slow down a little with the rest of us, and he would have contributed to our efforts for a lot longer that seven months. Which would have made us a better team.

Now, back to our termination graph above. What of that increase in terminations in the fifth and sixth years of employment? The natural assumption is that they grew in their job, became more highly qualified, and turned that experience into a new opportunity with another company. But did they necessarily have to leave? Or did the company environment make that the easiest path for them to take?

The easiest out for companies to take is that the competition paid them more than they could afford to keep them. But paradoxically, these are often the same companies that maintain that rate of pay isn't everything in a job. And they would be right. But while it may not be everything, it certainly is a primary factor. The fact is, we have to become more creative with what is sometimes called "at-risk" pay, compensation in the forms of bonuses, profit-sharing, perks, etc.

Most companies have at-risk incentives for at least higher-level white collar positions in the company. But think about it...given their training and expectations of performance in their jobs, are white-collar employees any more in need of incentivization than other employees? And couldn't incentivization produce just as good results in the blue-collar positions as they do elsewhere? View it from another perspective...couldn't poor attitudes on the shop floor hurt the company just as badly as poor attitudes in the front office?

When you really think about well-trained employees, usually your best, leaving for another company for a 10-20% increase in pay, and then think of the impact on the operation of losing that person, you may realize that an increase in pay, especially if it could be made as incentivized pay, would be cheap indeed.

Finally, what about all those employees that stayed on for 20+ years? Good for them. But have you really analyzed why they stayed on while others didn't? What made them special? Try this - break them into two groups, one of those that you think of as good, productive, employees, and the other as those who stayed on because they probably had to.  Which group is larger? If it is the second, your company environment is rewarding the wrong things.

I'll leave you with one last story. One of my first assignments out of college was to work with a team of managers and supervisors of a wet-process fiberboard plant. It was a big, hot, sweaty, dark place with leaky pipes and steam shooting everywhere. I loved that place.

One day,  I called a meeting to outline the components of a continuous improvement effort I thought would help motivate employees and improve efficiency of the operation.  It was going badly. At the time, their production numbers were down due to process problems, they were behind on orders, and upper management was pushing hard. And now they had to listen to a dumb college boy tell them how to improve the place. They were not in good moods, and their silence at my suggestions showed it.

I was working hard to get the enthusiasm in the room turned up a little. But I believed in what I was saying...that the plant really could become a different kind of place to work. That it could be fun to work there again. And then, in a final bit of over-the-top enthusiasm, I blurted out, that we could turn that plant into a place that we would be proud for our children and our grandchildren to work in.

For a second, there was dead silence in the room. They, as they looked from me to each other...they simultaneously burst out into the loudest, heartiest laughter that plant has probably ever heard. These guys were killing themselves precisely so that their kids and grandkids could stay away from that hot, smelly, steam-bath. My suggestion seemed so preposterous, it was just hilarious.

I have to admit, I laughed right along with them. In the moment, it was really funny.

But they were wrong in the root of their laughter. Even if they couldn't turn that old plant into a place where they wanted their kids to work, they would have been far better off for trying. And if they had, and the company had really supported their efforts, the last thirty years around there might have been a lot better, and more profitable.

After all, as the saying goes, it's not the destination that matters, but the journey.