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


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Pallets and Bonfires on All Hallows' Eve

Some folks will find a use for pallets on any occasion. And when you put pallets and Halloween together, good things happen...behold, the Halloween wood pallet fence.
You might be surprised that wood and Halloween have a long relationship. From the earliest pagan festivals, bonfires were used to ward off evil spirits and the dark of winter.
Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while "some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead calledParentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain", which comes from the Old Irish for "summer's end". Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in IrelandScotland and the Isle of Man. It was held on or about October 31 – November 1 and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Brittonic Celts; for example Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany). Samhain and Calan Gaeaf are mentioned in some of the earliest Irish and Welsh literature. The names have been used by historians to refer to Celtic Halloween customs up until the 19th century, and are still the Gaelic and Welsh names for Halloween. 
Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the 'darker half' of the year...Special bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them. Their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and were also used for divination. It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter.
As Christian culture merged with the pagan holiday schedule, many of the traditions evolved, but bonfires seemed to remain a central component of the celebration. And after all, who doesn't like a good bonfire, especially on a cold autumn evening?

The tradition of the Halloween bonfire was captured for eternity in the 1940 film "Meet Me in St. Louis." If you're a Judy Garland fan, you remember the movie well...but do you remember the dark Halloween scene, starring the darling Margaret O'Brien? It was the most fascinating part of the movie, to me, as it captured a mischievous spirit of past times that, if enacted by children today, would land them in juvenile detention halls and counseling sessions for years.

As you're out walking your little one this evening, flashlight and band-aids in hand, try to imagine turning the corner and coming on the scene of ten- and twelve-year-olds throwing wooden furniture onto a bonfire in the middle of the street. Or imagine opening the door with a bowl of candy in your hands, and being dowsed with a sackful of flour. And then think, how would I react?

Yes, times change. But wood will somehow, and in some way, always be with us. And that, unlike a sack of flour in the face, will remain a good thing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Timber Theft: Little Noticed, but Serious Illegal Drain of Forests

Timber theft goes on wherever forests stand. We like to think that it is a phenomenon that occurs only in the wilder, more remote backwoods of the world. But in fact, I've had several folks relate to me about illegal logging activity off their land right here in the United States.

The following video is an eye-opening report by the Wall Street Journal on timber theft in far east Russia. It gives one a sense of how serious this issue can be when you're down at boot level. I witnessed the same feeling several years ago as a forest marshall in Bulgaria described to me his frequent shoot-outs with timber pirates in that country.

The investigator in the video makes a good point...that once timber is sawn, it is nearly impossible to tell legal from illegal timber. Thus, the secrecy you see in the video at mills "operating on the edge." And there is another good point made...that permits to access stands specifically for small-diameter harvesting or thinning can be used to gain access to the more valuable fully-grown trees.

The story opens with a Russian landowner telling of his struggle to protect his linden trees from timber pirates. The linden trees referred to are of the genus Tilia; cousins of our own Tilia americana, or American basswood. The flowers of most Tilia species are productive havens for honeybees, and the nectar the bees collect from the trees is especially favored by bee-keepers for its light and subtly-rich flavor.

A hidden cost of timber theft; no trees, no bees.

One could question the opening line of the video that begins, "The last forests of the world...", when we know that much of the world's land mass is still heavily fact, growing at an astounding rate in many parts of the world. Hyperbole in unnecessary in telling this story. Last forest or not, the situation should be remedied, not only for the benefit of the legal owners of the timber, but for the improvement of legal timber market economics.

Friday, October 25, 2013

When You Learn Something, You Learn It

These have been interesting times, lately, with folks cussing and discussing issues relevant to our Constitution and its intent. And of course, it's nice to know that we've all been ingrained with the principles of our founding document from our earliest schooldays.

Good ol' Barney. What a guy.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (48) - The NWFA 2013 Wood Floors of the Year

Wooden floors run the gamut from utilitarian planks in camp houses to the finest pieces of wooden art one can imagine. These winning floors from the National Wood Flooring Association's 2013 Wood Floor of the Year competition fall in the latter Click on the link above to see and read about all the winners. One is even in the Hermitage, the Winter Palace of the Russian czars, and it looks the part. Think of the history that floor has seen.

All the floors are breath-taking, but one in particular caught my attention: the winner of the Commercial Collaboration category, executed by Gaetano Hardwood Floors, Inc., of Huntingdon Beach, California. Naturally, a zig-zag striped floor of alternating wenge and maple strips will catch anyone's's stunning. But I really liked this floor because it showcases so well what can be done in the commercial environment, and the benefits of doing so. The custom furniture client's customers are presumably put into a buying mode by the appeal of the display of the furniture...and they might well inquire about then floor designer while they're looking.
Display product through commercial collaboration...another great way to get your customers to Go Wood.

Friday, October 18, 2013

October Morning at Penn State

Thank goodness, another weekend is here. The fall weather in central Pennsylvania is one of the best things about this part of the country. My walk in to work this morning really felt like Halloween was closing in, so I shot some video, first from my deck, then on campus. Warning: you Penn State alums out there will probably get homesick watching it.

Have a great weekend, wherever you are. More great wood next week.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Grown in Britain, from Tree to Table

Here's an interesting video produced in the UK by several wood products companies, explaining their commitment to and strategy for marketing home-grown and produced wood products. It's one of those feel-good videos that makes you hope for their success, even though the realities of the marketplace may be telling you otherwise.

We have a similar iniative here at Penn State, called the Penn State Elms Collection. Like the effort in the UK, the collection is a niche market developed specifically for folks who value the local, historical ties of the trees from which the wood is taken. And for some, that intrinsic value is just as important, if not more so, than the functional value of the product, and those folks will pay the extra price of that intrinsic value.

Not everyone's cup of tea, but in its own way, a great way to Go Wood.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (47) - The Caravel

Today is one of the oddest, I think, holidays of record. Here we know it as Columbus Day, but it has other names in other parts of the Americas. Most Americans simply regard it as a day in which we don't get our mail, since, in 1934, our famous Progressive president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declared it a federal holiday, but forgot to give the rest of us the day off. But loyal Italian-Americans have some nice parades and festivals in honor of the great Italian explorer, Cristobal Colon, otherwise known as Christopher Columbus, who in 1492, sailed the ocean blue, and crash-landed on a rock on an island that came to be called Hispaniola.

In the ensuing five hundred and twenty-one years, Columbus and his feats have become the focus of perhaps the most far-reaching and widely-disputed discussions on the beginning of what we now refer to as "globalism". To some groups, Columbus is the hero that led the rise of European civilization in the name of God, as depicted in the famous painting above that went along with our American elementary-school education. To others (represented by the three nervous natives in the shadows) Columbus was the first of many invaders who brought slavery, disease, and death to a civilization that had been, up until then, one of the greatest and most populous on the planet.

A more balanced view is that as presented by our friend, the author Charles C. Mann, in the sequel to his enlightening exploration of the western world before white man, 1491. In 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Mann summarizes this event, which he borrows from the historian Alfred W. Crosby in calling "the Columbian Exchange", in the following light.
"The Columbian Exchange had such far-reaching effects that some biologists now say that Colon's voyages marked the beginning of a new biological era: the Homogenocene. The term refers to homogenizing: mixing unlike substances to create a uniform blend. With the Columbian Exchange, places that were once ecologically distinct have become more alike."
Even today, the homogenization of the worlds populations, cultures, and species continues to be controversial and the primary source of disagreement between peoples in all corners of the world.

But in his day, all Admiral Columbus was hoping for was to find a short cut to the fabulous wealth of India and China, by sailing westward into the unknown. And the only way he had to get there was an unassuming little ship called a caravel.

A caravel. Source:
The Iberian workhorse known as the caravel was one of the most important ships not only in Iberian history, but in the history of the world. The caravel was a vessel of paramount importance in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was used to traverse the immense barrier to the New World. During these centuries, the caravel was a ship with a distinctive shape and admirable qualities. A gently sloping bow and single stern castle were prominent features of this craft, and it carried a mainmast and a mizzen mast that were generally lateen-rigged. Along with its shallow draft and ability to sail windward, these qualities helped the caravel achieve fame as it was propelled across the Atlantic and southward along the rocky western coast of Africa. This is the vessel that was used for the majority of transatlantic exploration as well as other famous expeditions, such as the numerous journeys made to circumnavigate South Africa in attempts to reach India during the Age of Discovery. Popular explorers such as Bartolome Diaz, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus relied on the caravel in their many sojourns into the unknown. Why did they choose this diminutive vessel, with humble origins in the 13th century as a coastal fishing boat, for the vanguard into the New World and other unexplored realms?"
 - George R. Schwarz
The simple answer to that question, in Columbus' case, was that he used what he had.  The King and Queen of Spain had given Columbus three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the larger Santa Maria, on a flyer somewhat the modern equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. They didn't expect the crazy Italian to have any success, but if, for some reason, he was right, the Spanish could corner the market on trade with the East. He did, and they did, and the rest is a crazy, chaotic mix of local cultural and ecological histories.

Modern replica of the Nina. Source:

Modern replica of the Pinta. Source:

Modern replica of the Santa Maria. Source:

Now, finally, we get to the key issue for Go Wood readers. What type of wood were these famous ships built of? And here we find the most likely answer a somewhat surprising circular reference back to one of our previous posts.  Researcher George Schwarz shares a summary of a 16-century treatise on the construction of such ships, and interesting enough, we find the author of O Liuro da Fábrica das Naus has dedicated two entire chapters on the type and harvesting of the best woods for such ships.
"Chapter 2: On the Types of Wood that are Suitable for the Building of Ships
Chapter 3: On the Time when Woods Should be Cut: and the Manner in which they Should be Cut

Chapter two describes the types of woods that are suitable for shipbuilding, and Oliveira suggests the two most appropriate kinds of wood for a ship were cork-oak (Quercus suber) and pine (Pinus pinea). The cork-oak was used for frames, and the pine for planking."
- George R. Schwarz
Naturally, we wonder if the cork-oak (the wood, not the bark) had any qualities that made it the choice over other oaks or woods of similar strength; and we wonder what made pinus pinea, the Italian stone pine, especially preferred for the planks. The obvious answer, is, that these two species just happened to be the oak and pine species most abundantly available to ship builders on the Iberian peninsula, and like other oaks and pines the world over, are exceptionally useful and reliable where superior strength to weight ratios are required.

And so, Columbus set off in these oak and pine space shuttles, determined to prove that he wasn't crazy.
"On Christmas Day, 1492, Colon's first voyage came to an abrupt end when his flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground off the northern coast of Hispaniola. Because his two remaining vessels, the Nina and Pinta, were too small to hold the entire crew, he was forced to leave thirty-eight men behind. Colon departed for Spain while those men were building an encampment - a scatter of makeshift huts surrounded by a crude palisade, adjacent to a larger native village. The encampment was called La Navidad (Christmas), after the day of its involuntary creation (its precise location is not known today). Hispaniola's native people have come to be known as the Taino. The conjoined Spanish-Taino settlement of La Navidad was the intended destination of Colon's second voyage. He arrived there in triumph, the head of a flotilla, his crewmen swarming the shrouds in their eagerness to see the new land, on November 28, 1493, eleven months after he had left his men behind.
He found only ruin; both settlements, Spanish and Taino, had been razed. 'We saw everything burned and the clothing of the Christians lying on the weeds,' the ship's doctor wrote. Nearby Taino showed the visitors the bodies of eleven Spaniards, 'covered by the vegetation that had grown over them.' The Indians said that the sailors had angered their neighbors by raping some women and murdering some men. In the midst of the conflict a second Taino group had swooped down and overwhelmed both sides. After nine days of fruitless search for survivors Colon left to find a more promising spot for his base."
- Charles C. Mann, in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
Certainly an inauspicious start for an inauspicious holiday. And wood made it all possible.

I bet Native Americans of both continents (and Africans, and Chinese, for that matter) wish Europe had been one immense grassland. A thought shared in sentiment, I presume, by those thirty-eight sailors that watched the Nina and Pinta sail away.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ghost Cities Update, and the Mystery of the Biggest Building in the World

It's been a couple of years since we initially looked at the "ghost cities" of China. At that time, there was a feeling that the development just couldn't go on forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but it has continued at least this long. As the following report on Australia's "60 Minutes" TV show illustrates, the cities are still going up, although at least one mega-city project has been put "on hold" for the time being.

And if you've been put off by our government throwing its weight around by shutting down parks and monuments in the current shutdown, wait till you see how the Chinese government respects property "rights" that stand in the way of the development. Wow.

Now, at least one western investigator claims that in fact, these ghost cities are just future cities that are running slightly ahead of their occupancy...and that the people will come, and are coming. If he's correct, then it perhaps gives us some insight into how the Chinese government can justify the projects. Of course, issues of the efficiency and waste of this process make Western thinkers scratch our heads.

In the midst of all this "progress", it's not surprising that the world's largest building has just been completed and (apparently) occupied. But in a twist that just continues to make this whole story seem even more bizarre, the developer of the New Century Global Center in Chengdu has disappeared, following the last mayor of Chengdu into the mysterious realm of the missing.

One thing I'm not seeing in these videos is a lot of wood products or construction. I know it's there, since China has continued to grow its imports of North American lumber products. It's just dwarfed by the scale of and preference for concrete and glass. Somewhat like the America of the 1950's and 60's, the Chinese apparently see progress in shiny and sterile materials. I suspect they too, will grow out of that phase and back to the good things like wood.

But in the meantime, we will hold our breath with the Australians, hoping for the best in the face of apparent economic insanity.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On National Wood Heating Policy and Woody Biomass Conversion of Boilers in the Eastern United States

From Collin Miller at the Northern Forest Center I received this...
Dear Friends and Colleagues: 
Ever wonder why more U.S. homes, businesses and institutions aren’t heating with wood? In fact, 84% of the fossil fuels consumed in the Northeast are used to heat buildings. Yikes! 
We’re trying to change that but we need your help…
Click here to sign onto our letter by October 11th to show your support for federal policies that give biomass (chips, pellets, bi-products of ag/forestry co-products) a fighting chance as a renewable thermal energy source.  Read on for more context….
The letter goes on to provide background on the organizations and the justification for their lobbying effort on behalf of biomass thermal heating. Specifically, the letter we're asked to sign is lobbying our national government to:
  • Provide tax credits for the installation of woody biomass energy systems.
  • Fund the Forest Service Woody Biomass Utilization Grants Program to advance the design and engineering of biomass energy systems.
  • Reauthorize and fully fund the Community Wood Energy Program in the next Farm Bill.
The second of these objectives caught my attention, because it was through funding of the Woody Biomass Utilization Grants Program that I was able to conduct research last year on the potential growth of biomass heating in industrial and commercial buildings in the 37 easternmost United States. My research partners Lew McCreery and Jan Wiedenbeck of the US Forest Service, and Tom and Dan Wilson of Wilson Engineering Services, were interested in evaluating each of the states in the described regions for their potential for conversion of existing non-wood boilers in industrial and commercial buildings to woody biomass boilers, so that they could better target states for their efforts in proposing woody biomass conversion feasibility studies.

Our results were interesting and at least partially unexpected. From the abstract of our recent paper published in the journal Renewable Energy:

In total, 3,495 oil and coal boiler units in industrial and commercial buildings, and 1,067 major wood energy facilities in the 37 eastern states were identified. These represent a subset of existing and potential conversions from fossil fuels to woody biomass.  Based on this sample and energy consumption data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), we estimate that there are currently 31,776 oil, coal, and propane boiler units over 0.5 MMBtus/hour capacity in these 37 states, representing a total energy consumption of 1.7 quadrillion Btus, or roughly the equivalent of 287 million barrels of oil. Were these units all converted to woody biomass fuel, they would consume a total of 121 million dry tons of wood per year, about three times the most recent US DOE estimates of woody biomass availability in those regions. Since only the most economical conversions typically occur, the reality of woody biomass market availability combined with thermal fossil-fuel consumption patterns suggests that roughly one-third of all potential projects could be achieved under sustainable utilization of existing biomass feedstocks in the three regions. 
Analysis of the results indicates that a targeted response to wood-conversion initiatives will yield the most successful program of fossil-fuel replacement in thermal applications. A ranking index developed in this study through analysis of existing boiler installations and availability of wood feedstocks suggests that the top ten states in the eastern United States on which to focus future messaging, feasibility studies, and policy development for potential woody biomass conversions are:  Maine, Texas, New York, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania (in that order).
We looked at three primary aspects of what makes for high potential conversion opportunities: the number of industrial and commercial boilers in each state, the types of fuels used in those existing boilers, and the amount of biomass energy currently generated in that state. By combining these factors into an index and ranking the states by these combined factors, we produced the following table.

Table 4. Boiler conversion potential to wood of each state, listed by overall weighted rank.  From Ray et al,  "Biomass Boiler Conversion Potential in the Eastern United States", Renewable Energy 62 (2014) 439-453. 

We conclude the paper...
The New England states have been more inclined to utilize wood for electricity, wood pellet production has been more focused in the Mid-Atlantic and Gulf regions, and wood combustion for heat is common throughout the entire Northeast, South, and Lake States regions. In total, this study identified 1,067 wood-based energy facilities in the eastern United States. These 1,067 facilities together consume roughly 86.2 million dry tons of wood per year. 
The focus of this study was to estimate the population of oil, coal, and propane-fired commercial and industrial boilers in the eastern 37 states as potential targets for conversion to wood. Using data compiled from EIA sources, we found that coal, oil, and propane (an oil-derived gas) still account for 25% of all boiler installations. By our estimates, this represents a total of 31,776 oil, coal, and propane boilers of interest across the thirty-seven states, with a total energy consumption of 1.665 quadrillion Btu’s, or the equivalent of roughly 287 million barrels of oil. 
Conversion of all of these installations to wood would require approximately 121 million dry tons of wood. However, since the most recent estimate of available woody biomass for energy by the Department of Energy in the 2011 Billion-Ton Update [8] is only roughly 80-100 million tons per year (assuming a mix of 50% logging residue and 50% forest thinnings) for the entire United States. When available logging residue amounts and simulated forest thinning volume estimates for the 37 eastern states included here are separated out, the Billion-Ton Update suggests we can convert only about one-third of these targeted boiler systems (requiring roughly 40 million dry tons) at sustainable levels of biomass harvesting. 
Traditionally, the conversion of oil, coal, and propane thermal heating systems to wood-fired systems has been undertaken in rural, forested areas of the country where availability of woody biomass is high and inexpensive. However, when the entire population of oil, coal, and propane-fired commercial and industrial boilers is surveyed, it becomes apparent that the best opportunity for further conversion projects may be in highly-populated areas that have an abundance of commercial and industrial development and are fairly near to abundant sources of woody biomass. 
The toughest constraint against the development of an economical biomass supply chain is the low density of customers in an area attempting to procure wood. Were biomass project opportunities approached in clusters where commercial and industrial coal, oil, and propane boilers are plentiful and dense, potential suppliers would be able to optimize delivery economics and potential customers would be able to acquire a less costly non-fossil fuel for their thermal heating applications. The data accumulated and analyzed in this study support the notion that perhaps wood biomass conversion projects have the greatest potential impact in high-density population centers, not the traditional rural locations where wood bioenergy is normally utilized. However, we expect to see rural operations continue to lead the way in conversion to wood-firing.
The link to the full paper above works by subscription only; if it fails to work for you, and you would like a copy of the paper, send me an email request and I'll send you a .pdf file of it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

How Big is Our World, Really?

Researching a different topic, I stumbled across a website that really made me stop and think. Click on it and see if you agree.

The True Size of Africa

I've known since grade school that our schoolroom maps distorted the sizes of countries, depending on how close they were to the poles...the closer to the poles, the more artificially inflated they appeared on the maps. Which is why we grow up thinking that Antarctica and Greenland are the largest places on Earth.

But reality is in the reverse...that the countries that are nearer the equator appear smaller on the maps than they really are. Which means that Africa and South America are really the geographic giants of our planet.

And since they are also two of the least densely developed continents on the Earth, it would seem that the future growth in markets, resources, and populations are destined to be on those two continents.

I don't know how that may relate to your company, policy beliefs, or other future plans, but it's food for thought, at least.