Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Let the Buyer Beware

I spent an interesting day Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. But not doing what I had planned...

We had a couple of guests over for Thanksgiving dinner, a Penn State sophomore far from his home in Nebraska, and a doctoral student even further from his home in India. It was a nice meal, everyone was cordial, and all were stuffed by sunset. However, as we lingered at the table over conversation, and the setting sun caused us to turn on the overhead light fixture, I noticed a couple of tiny insects buzzing me at the table. They were bigger than fruit flies, but smaller than anything else I could readily identify. Odd, I thought. It was freezing outside and Pennsylvania is not especially known for flying insects this time of year.

The mystery was solved the next day. The Wife woke up in a Christmas decorating frenzy that Friday morning. One of the first things she decided to do was to re-decorate the sideboard in our dining area, and she started out by cleaning off the top and pushing it away from the wall to clean behind it. That's when I got the call....

The perpetrator.
The sideboard was a fairly recent purchase. We found it at the grand opening of a new home furnishings place in town in the summer of 2012. The store is a national chain that specializes in imported products. The sideboard we purchased was an eclectic piece from India. It was made of solid wood throughout, and those grates you see in front of the shelves are wrought iron. The thing is heavy...it took five delivery guys about an hour to get it into our house, under my professional supervision.

Although it looks somewhat like it came from the set of Pirates of the Caribbean, The Wife liked it and had to have it. For my part, I recognized the value...it was $1,000, which is a lot for a guy like me...but the same piece made by an American or Italian company would cost three to five times as much, far beyond my means. So, I had bitten the bullet and bought, satisfied with the solid tropical hardwood construction and those wrought iron doors.

That was about eighteen months ago. But this Friday morning, as The Wife slid it away from the wall, the sideboard delivered another blast of special uniqueness.


Powderpost beetle frass piles inside as well as out.



I reacted as would any good Pirate....Arrrrgh!

I immediately recognized the scourge of the lumber industry: Powderpost beetles. So that's what had been buzzing me the previous evening...the beetles were in full emergence mode. As you can see from the photos, this was no incidental infestation of a small component of the sideboard...these things were everywhere, from the botton shelf to the drawers. Houston, we have a problem.

The beetles; some still alive, but inactive in the coolness of the morning.

Now, wood pests like this are the target of the global phytosanitary programs such as ISPM-15, and I have shared with you how thorough the port inspectors are in Australia. Such programs are usually two-fold: they require product manufacturers to heat-treat or chemically fumigate their biological products prior to exportation, or to manufacture them from kiln-dried raw material; and it empowers national port authorities to inspect for signs of insects or damage and to quarantine and treat, at the shippers expense, any products found to be infested.

But our Indian sideboard shows the flaws in both aspects of such programs. First, the producer of the product claimed to have manufactured it from reclaimed and kiln-dried wood, which should have guaranteed that any infestation would have been killed prior to shipment.

Organic and Eco-friendly!

Kiln-dried! But..."Some changes are natural and should be expected." Fair warning.

Obviously, either the wood was not thoroughly kiln-dried, or those are some super heat-resistant species of the beetle. The original weight of the piece leads me to suspect the former, and would have tipped me off to the green wood had not I assigned the unnatural heaviness to those iron grates. I wish I would have used a hand-held moisture meter on it when I first bought it. So, the first flaw in international phytosanitary measures...they rely on the veracity of the manufacturer as maintained in the product documentation. Meaning, just because a product is certified as kiln-dried, or pallets are certified ISPM-15 compliant, doesn't necessarily mean they are. (Note: ISPM-15 is a treatment regime specifically for wood pallets and packaging, and as such, does not regulate finished wood products such as my sideboard.  See the update below for some helpful reader feedbck.)

The second flaw in these programs is the relative ineffectiveness of the inspection regime used by any importing country, regardless of how thorough the inspectors are. I won't go into all the statistics; let it suffice to say that in my modest opinion, a very, very small percentage of any infested plants, food, or product imported into any country will be detected. This case shows one reason...some pests remain hidden until well after importation and sale. The powderpost beetle pupae in wood stay in development for months or years, depending on the species of beetle and wood, and the moisture conditions of the wood. In this case, they took at least eighteen months to emerge...my wife's frequent cleaning and the presence of live beetles at our Thanksgiving feast ensures that this emergence was very recent.

First things first. I had to take action. Returning the piece was out of the question...those five delivery guys had sworn never to return. Besides, the wife loved it. So, I determined to fumigate the piece...I was going to tarp it in place with duct-tape to seal it, and blast it with the meanest-looking aerosol I could find at the local hardware store. But close reading of the various labels, warning of the danger to the various small and medium-sized children, dog, and tropical fish in our home, gave me pause. This was clearly going to be a job for a professional, with everyone out of the house for a few hours, if I wanted to fumigate it safely.

So I opted for the next best action, which I hope will work. I purchased a bottle of Bayer Advanced insecticide that claimed to be formulated for wood-infesting insects, and to be effective for up to twelve months. Borate-based insecticides are usually recommended for powderpost beetles, as they are better at penetrating the wood. However, the hardware store didn't have any, and although I located a couple of products online, I wanted to take action so that The Wife could get on with her Christmas cheer. I needed her to be of good cheer. Beetle frass did not have her in a cheery mood.

I sprayed that entire 24-ounce bottle of Bayer Advanced on the sideboard...on top, sides, bottom, inside, and all drawers. I used the soak spray setting in the joints of the piece, soaking them well under the notion that the wood would soak up the chemical at the saw cuts. And I used the mist spray setting on the flat surfaces, and wiped the whole thing to distribute the insecticide evenly over all the wood. Within an hour, the sideboard was dry...the wood really did suck up the liquid. I'll keep an eye on the piece over the next few weeks, and if I see anymore emergences, things will have to get more drastic.

So much for the problem and the treatment. But of course, there is the bigger issue. The purchase of the imported hardwood in the first place.

Okay, I had to come clean about buying imported wood products in order to write this post. I could have claimed to have nothing but good old American hardwood in my home, but that wouldn't exactly be true. We do own a great dark oak bedroom set that we purchased in 1997. It is a beautiful four-poster king-sized bed, two dressers, and two bed stands, made in Virginia by one of our venerable old furniture companies. One that ceased making furniture in 2005. We love it, and it looks even better today than it did when we bought it.

But that set cost about $3,500 back in 1997, and the only reason we own it is that my Dad left us a little insurance money when he went on to that great mill in the sky in December of 1996. After paying all the bills, we decided to purchase some real furniture for the bedroom and the family room. All American-made, we felt good about that furniture. But honestly, we haven't been able to purchase any like it since. And there aren't any relatives left to usher into their eternal resting place...unless you count me, upon whose passing The Wife will finally be able to replace that family room furniture.

The problem is, most of our American furniture is some of the most expensive in the world. We've been able to improve the productivity of our mills and furniture plants, so that a $3,500 bedroom set in the mid-1990's is roughly about the same cost today. But there are fewer companies here making them, and fewer workers employed in the furniture business. And part of the blame lies at the feet of folks like me, who have purchased competing products from overseas at half or less the cost of similar products made here.

As the saying goes...you get what you pay for.

It turns out that purchasing manufactured wood products has always posed the buyer with a moral/economic dilemma. A century or more ago, that dilemma wasn't in as clear a focus as it is today. And even today, with all the information we have concerning our purchasing options, the moral high ground is still hard to define, while the cost differences are not.

More on that, in the next post.

Update, 12-4-13. Much helpful feedback, including this note from John McDaniel of the American Lumber Standards Committee...
"The article discusses ISPM 15 and that it is directed at pests such as powder post beetles which is correct.  Furniture, however,  is not a regulated product under the ISPM 15 standard.  The ISPM 15 standard is only applicable to wood packaging material such as pallets, crates, boxes, packing cases, etc. made from solid wood greater than 6mm in thickness.  Thus ISPM15 is not at fault as the problem was with the wood that was used to make the piece of furniture which is not regulated under ISPM 15."
Mr. McDaniel is correct, and I mistakenly associated my sideboard with ISPM 15, which was developed precisely because wood pallets and packaging were not typically treated and inspected as manufactured wood products. Thus, the specific piece of furniture in the article would not have been treated and inspected under the ISPM 15 program. It was however, subject to the same expectations of appropriate phytosanitary treatment and inspection as any other food or agricultural product, and should have been bug-free, regardless.

Likewise, my comments on the flaws of the ISPM 15 program and import inspection programs remain relevant, unfortunately. Several folks noted that the sideboard could have in fact been properly kiln dried, but infested during storage or shipment. It is likely that the furniture was either strapped onto large wooden pallets or loaded into wooden or steel boxes from which the beetles could have resided from previous infestation. So we still have a problem in the process...either the piece was not manufactured from kiln-dried lumber, was not heat-treated as a finished product, or was likely infested from a source that should have been phytosanitary under the ISPM-15 requirements on wooden packaging. Either way, "the system" failed to stop the transportation of the beetles.  Ahh, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray...

7 comments:

Mike Messina said...

I purchased on office chair for my home years ago that came in a cardboard box. Assembly required. The chair was mostly upholstery, except for the five-part base where the wheels attached. It was a dark-stained wood of some unidentified species. I suspect it was foreign since so much is anymore. When I opened the box I saw sawdust in the bottom and small emergence holes in the wood. I knew immediately what I was dealing with and hurriedly taped the box closed. When I returned to the store and mentioned "powder-post beetles", the young clerk looked at me like I had spinach in my teeth. But I got a different chair out of the deal. So, I suspect you are correct about things slipping past inspection. Buyer beware, indeed!

Jeff Wartluft said...

I don't know Chuck, but should the wood have had small pinhead sized holes in it? In other words, it might not have had small holes even with the insects inside?

collin said...

Crazy story Chuck...I appreciate your honesty about the purchase..Alot of the American-made furniture in my house are re-finished antiques, though I do have a coffee table made in Denmark with tropical hardwood...Its hard to find American furniture that is affordable for the middle-class but some domestic makers have bargained by using lesser sought after species like red maple, yellow birch, alder, tulip poplar with a cherry or walnut stain. This can bring the price point down significantly in some cases allowing the entry point into American-made more accessible to the 99 - percenters. I suspect I am not sharing something you and your readers don't already know.

Chuck Ray said...

yes, Jeff, the wood had many of the pin-sized holes you mentioned. Had some good pictures of that but didn't post them. Some filled with frass, which indicates that the beetles had re-entered the wood and packed frass behind them. The poison should penetrate the frass well, and catch up to them.

Chuck Ray said...

Another reader emailed a question about my concern for the rest of the house. Powder post beetles need relatively fresh, unfinished wood. If my house were new, I would be a little concerned about studs and trim corners. But since the house is over 5o years old, I have little concern. The only thing they might find to like is some firewood downstairs, and if they dig in there, too bad for them.

Nevertheless, I'll be watching closely over the next few months.

Peter Griessmann said...

Just an observation. We sell a lot of hardwoods both domestic and imported. I read your posts and there is always something new to think about as your stories invoke thought. Thank you for sharing these with us. So back to the powderpost beetle. We have experienced similar issues with this pest and they seem to attack certain types of wood more aggressively than others. We know for a fact that some of our domestic woods, although not kiln dried were clean and absent from powderpost and all of the sudden there appeared the powderpost. We have since adopted a regimen on spraying all cut wood as soonas we can with a product called BORACARE as this is a residual for the beetle. We also noticed that the powderpost loves certain woods over others. They absolutlely go bokers over Pacific Myrtle or Bay Laurel, They also like sapwood walnut and ash. Our approach is to spray all newly cut wood as soon as possible and do maintenance spraying on the already dry. But my point is that these critters WILL attack certain woods over others and it may be that the bugs in your case were POST importation and not transported. But again it is just an observation to consider all the best Peter Griessmann WoodworkerNetwork.com

Chuck Ray said...

Thanks, Peter. Your guess on when the infestation occurred is as good as mine. I had assumed pre-importation because most of the piece was finished in India. However, there is a small amount of unfinished wood on the bottom so it is possible that the beetles found their home in transport or afterward. Emergence holes were found almost entirely on finished wood.

Eric Allen of the Canadian Forest Service has volunteered to ID the bugs if I find any more of them, and that could give us better information on when the infestation actually occurred. I'll advise readers when I post an update on this piece.