The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (13)

You may recall the Maypole Inn story that we covered in GDiW(10). There's another great story of wood construction in England that occurred at roughly the same time, and on a much larger scale.

Westminster Hall is the oldest building on England's Parliamentary estate. In and around the Hall, grew up the major institutions of the British state: Parliament, the law courts and various government offices. But it's history is richer than just a gathering place for Britain's political elites. For instance, the Hall was used as an early modern shopping center, and as a drilling station for troops during 1859-1861 as Britons awaited invasion from the French of Napolean III. In 1833, Charles Dickens, having for the first time seen one of his stories in print, walked around Westminster Hall for half an hour with his eyes "dimmed with joy".

And as he looked up, he would have been gazing at the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day with Wood

My oldest son Charlie is headed back to the Army today. He graduated from Army Medic school in Texas two weeks ago, and he spent the last two weeks here at home catching up with his family and friends. It was nice to have him home again, even for the short time. The timing of his leaving, on Memorial Day weekend, and the day after eight more troops were killed in a blast in southern Afghanistan, caused me to reflect a little more than usual on the challenge he and his fellow soldiers are facing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Talking Wood Production at Fine

Through this amazing world of online publishing, we can share blog content with others in our area of interest. Fine recently ran a two-part blog post by Patrick Kennedy of Superior Woodcraft who asked me several questions relative to challenges facing today's woodworking shops.

You can view the blog postings at the links below:

Should be a "Nittany Lion" and I work at Penn State, not Penn. But Patrick asks some interesting questions that others of you in the industry may also be struggling with. I'll try to interview Mr. Kennedy for a future post on Go Wood in the near future.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wood Biomass and Carbon Neutrality

For those of you who learned about the carbon cycle back in high school or college, you probably knew that the harvesting and use of wood is fundamentally a carbon-neutral process. Or you thought you knew that, until the concept of using biomass for energy became a topic of heated debate.

Now, we have claims both for and against the carbon-neutrality of wood energy almost daily in the news. There are stories like these, that make woody biomass out to be as bad or worse than fossil fuels:

And on the other side, whenever a biomass project is moving forward, the sponsors always claim the carbon reduction benefits of using wood versus fossils fuels. Confused?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (12)

This fascinating structure really exhibits an aspect of wood not usually featured; that is, the architectural interest of the wood components as a system. Usually, wood homes and buildings feature the natural beauty of the wood components in prominent places, while allowing other physical elements of the design to "accessorize" the building, in the process delegating the structural design a less prominent visual role. This home allows you to appreciate the beauty of the wood while you marvel at the structural flexibility and integrity of wood design potential.

From we get an introduction to the home:
"The Guscott Kemp Residence has been designed by Scott M. Kemp Architect, it represents a new approach to sustainable home construction, and is located in Ladner, British Columbia, Canada.
The concept idea was to create a house as a simple shelter based on sustainable features, and to be designed as small as possible in order to allow for maximum flexibility, including adaptability of use with aging residents and subsequent reduced mobility. Also, we have to mention that the house has achieved a LEED PLATINUM rating from the Canadian Green Building Council. The house provides protection and creates a great connection between the indoor and the outdoor space, maximizing the exposure of views to the north with the desire for maximum sunshine."
From the website HomeTrend are these additional comments:
"The house is zero carbon, all heating, including hot water is through a heat pump using a closed circuit system which has a geothermal heat-exchange plate hanging in the river below the dock. The house includes a fireplace and has no connection with the gas. Minimal air leakage was obtained by using SIP panels and careful detailing. The form of construction is designed in accordance with solar orientation, with 90% of south glass shade at midday on June 21 and exposed on Dec. 21."
 Sometimes these cutting-edge architectural showpieces aren't really too livable, but this home really does look like a xylophile's dream. The nice kitchen is small, but functional, and integrates modern conveniences without ostentatious displays of technology. My wife likes more granite and chrome, and she would have to have a cooking island, but if she'd let me build the rest of this home, I'd let her go a little wild with the bling.

The living spaces are airy, yet cozy, and utilize the natural light pattern variability throughout the day to maximize that presence of sunlight so important to folks who reside above the 45th parallel. And exterior views appear to continually draw the resident's thoughts to the natural beauty of the riverside setting.

The construction detail exhibits beauty and power that goes with good, simple, wood engineering. And all this was achieved at a construction cost of $230/sq. ft.

"The house is constructed with two building systems: SIP panels (structural insulated panels) and exposed timber framing. Sip panels make up the southern portion of the house (garage and workshop including the side walls) and the roof. The remaining portion of the house is made up of an exposed timber framing. The framing is not, however constructed from large heavy timber sections but conventional dimensioned timbers (2×6, 2×8 and 2×10) intertwined together to create a heavy timber expression. The lattice joints form a truss to provide lateral bracing."
And the home even has a great story from the wood sourcing standpoint...
"No trees were cut to build the house. All the timber was milled from salvaged logs harvested from an elk reserve on Vancouver Island. A significant number of trees were blown down during the large winds storm that hit the west coast several years ago. The fallen trees presented a significant fire hazard as well as obstructing the natural migratory routes of the elk."
A lot of thought went into the execution of this dream home. In a perfect world, all homes would reflect a sensitivity of our space on the planet as well as this one does. And no building material helps us make that connection better than wood. Unless we build in a hole in the ground.

I'll take the wood home.

More pictures of the house can be seen here and here.

Go Wood!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

WoodPro loses the IT Wars

I've been on the front line of the IT (Information Technology) wars for a long time now. Back in the 80's I was researching AI (Artificial Intelligence) under the legendary Wood Operations professor Joseph G. Massey, who, based on his life experiences with information technology research, has retired and done his best to go entirely off the grid. Lives out of an Airstream and surfaces occasionally with brief emails letting me know his remote location in the wilds of Alaska, or the deserts of Arizona, or wherever. He knows something we don't.

I took that background under Joe into industry and immediately found that the IT powers in corporate America like to call the shots when it comes to employee communication. My first conflict was in pushing the radical concept of using PC's to monitor manufacturing processes and communicate that information to others in the company. The operations and marketing guys loved the idea, but the IT folks claimed network security risks and spent years trying to kill the idea. That was in the early 90's. Today, the concept is standard IT networking technology.

More recent IT oversight has extended into employee emails and web viewing. Those of you who work in the corporate world know what I mean. Most corporations have obtuse IT policies that give the IT folks complete control of employee emails and any other contact with the outside world. Nowadays, we pretty much take for granted what we thought was shocking when we read "Nineteen Eighty-Four".

Now, again, you're thinking, wood? I'm getting there.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Future of Energy

Penn State has a rich history of energy research and development. The School of Mines was established in 1896 and energy has been a cornerstone of the academic program at Penn State ever since. Pennsylvania has been at the center of the energy industry, from the first commercial oil well in the country at Titusville, PA, to today's unfathomly large natural gas phenomenon, the Marcellus Shale. I mention this just as a backdrop for  the excellent video I'm posting today, a replay of the WPSU show, To the Best of My Knowledge, hosted by Penn State President Graham Spanier.

This show was entitled "The Future of Energy", and aired a little over two years ago. The guests were Dr. Amy Glasmeier and Dr. Tom Richard, both of Penn State. They addressed both technology and policy issues, and answered a bunch of diverse and interesting questions. Dr. Spanier himself asked some very insightful and relevant questions.

Go Wood followers may note that in answering a question on wood heating, Dr. Richard mentions that Penn State had sent a small team to Austria to study the state of the art in wood heating and other bioenergy technologies. I had the privilege to participate in putting that program together with Mr. John Karakash, now principal of The Resource Professionals Group, and to be part of the team that made that trip and study of Austrian technologies. The entire group that went has been influential in educating Americans across the country about biomass heating potential for the last three years.

The entire video is nearly an hour long, but when you get the time, kick back and give it a listen. A lot of fascinating issues are raised and answered on the show. You may not agree with every comment made, but the program certainly provides a lot of food for thought, and gives one a good background for the kind of energy issues we have been discussing here at Go Wood.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (11)

The imposing edifice you see here is the Sakyamuni Pagoda of Fogong Temple in Ying CountyShanxi province, China. It was brought to my attention by a visiting scholar working here in my lab at Penn State, Mr. Jianwei Ren, who is a native of Shanxi province.

This impressive pagoda was built back in the year 1056, or 40 years before the First Crusades were begun. That's a long time ago. And besides its stunning beauty and amazing longevity, it has another claim to fame that should be celebrated here at Go is the tallest existing wooden structure in the world! At over 67 meters, it would be nearly 20 meters taller than that 9-story wooden apartment building that was built recently in London. The closest wooden buildings that I can find in height are some WWII blimp hangars out on the West Coast...I'll blog about them in the future; they are also amazing in their own way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Bumpy Road to Biomass

Not a pun directed at our last posting, but a reference to a fine article posted yesterday at

Biomass Energy - Mixed Signals Abound

The author, Eric Kingsley of Innovative Natural Resources, LLC, gives us a detailed perspective of the economic hurdles real biomass projects are facing on the ground. And after covering the difficulty facing the biomass power generation, he makes an excellent observation we've made several times in many different ways here at Go Wood:
"Of course, biomass electric isn’t the only use of wood for energy.  Biomass thermal – heating homes and buildings – remains a largely untapped opportunity in a region with heavy dependence on oil for heating."
This is a theme that we will all have to carry around on our collective sleeves, if we want to see biomass make a real and long-term impact on the nation's energy supply. For as many other ways that biomass can be converted to energy, it is still in heating that biomass is most efficient, economic, and accessible.

We'll leave it to Mr. Kingsley to make today's final point:
"Changes in oil prices or not, biomass thermal is often cost competitive in today’s market – but the fear that prices will soon spiral out of control can certainly lead consumers to make the investment in a new pellet stove or boiler, creating a market for decades to come.  Similarly, we are seeing a number of schools and colleges switch from fossil fuels to wood heat – providing nice local markets (with the added benefit of directly connecting students with the local forest industry).... 
What hasn’t changed – and won’t change – is that biomass energy is renewable, local, and helps sustain the region’s forested landscape. "
Well said.

Some great words of advice from former Pennsylvania Congressman John Peterson at the end of this video.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Warning, do not attempt this at home...

My friend John Krier tipped me off to the dedication (is that the right word?) exhibited by Russian log truck drivers, and the brute power of their vehicles. Can't say I'd like to ride along with them...

Watch for the guy in the third video to climb out of the cab and tweak the engine in mid-river with his front wheels in the sweat!

Flash Update: From Bruce Shields in Wolcott, Vermont: "The logger in the 3d video is not "tweaking the engine."  He is hoping to transfer enough weight onto the bumper to pull the front end back down.  We have these things in Vermont also."

Warning: You may want to turn down your speakers a little, unless your boss is really into Russian ballads...

To timberdude in Alaska, who mentioned that his customers are always complaining about the price of lumber: you may want to show them these videos!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Following in Europe's Footsteps (2)

A couple of weeks ago we discussed following too closely in the EU's footsteps with regard to energy policy. That conversation addressed power generation policy for the most part. I thought you might be interested in another facet of the same problem relative to biofuel production, that appeared in a couple of European articles during the past week.

First was an article entitled "Growing pressure to change EU biofuel policy" from It begins...
"Powering cars with plants once seemed like an unstoppable idea. Biofuel was sold as a way to reduce Europe's oil dependency on autocratic regimes, meet climate-change targets and help Europe's struggling farmers. But since the European Union agreed laws to promote biofuel, doubts have sprouted like weeds. Now it looks increasingly likely that the EU will have to rewrite bioenergy laws to guard against their unintended consequences.   
The problem that early biofuel enthusiasts did not anticipate was that every change in the natural world has a ripple effect somewhere else."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wood Science 101 - Cellulose

I've been meaning to start a feature for a while now that addresses some of the simplest, but most common questions I get from the general public. No discourses on topics like self-organizing microtubule networks or the cell wall structure of wood. I rarely get questions on those topics, and when I do, I usually back away slowly.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Great Designs in Wood (10) - The Maypole Inn

The recent May Day weekend reminded me of one of my favorite wooden that I've never actually seen. But it's clear as a bell in my mind's eye...