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Monday, December 9, 2013

More Christmas Shopping Ideas for the Wood-Wise

This Christmas season finds me a jollier old elf than usual. In past years, I inclined more to the thought that Scrooge had a point.
"Christmas a humbug, uncle!" said Scrooge's nephew.  "You don't mean that, I am sure." 
"I do," said Scrooge.  "Merry Christmas!  What right have you to be merry?  What reason have you to be merry?  You're poor enough." 
"Come, then," returned the nephew gaily.  "What right have you to be dismal?  What reason have you to be morose?  You're rich enough." 
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said "Bah!" again; and followed it up with "Humbug." 
"Don't be cross, uncle!" said the nephew. 
"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this?  Merry Christmas!  Out upon merry Christmas!  What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?  If I could work my will," said Scrooge indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.  He should!"
But this year, for some reason, I've been infected with the silly optimisim of Scrooge's nephew.
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol 
Assuming you are also putting aside the Bah! Humbug! for a couple of weeks, and intend to squander some of your hard-earned dollars on someone special to you...and that someone special has, or should have, an interest in all things wood, then I have three suggestions for you.


The first I received myself just a few weeks ago. Go Wood reader Keville Larson of Mobile, Alabama, was nice enough to send me a coffee-table copy of a wonderful book shortly after my post on the longleaf pine, Royalty of the Southern Forest.  The book, entitled Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, is one of those books that you pick up just to look at the pictures, and can't put down once you start to read the stories.

Here's an example of one of those stories, which happens to mention my new friend Mr. Larson...
"At the heart of Langan (Municipal) Park in Mobile, Alabama, surrounded now by the city's sprawling suburbs, a thirty-five-acre remnant of longleaf seemed like a poor prospect for restoration. Initially, city officials simply shook their heads in disbelief when supporters from the Mobile Botanical Gardens - including Bobby Green, forester Keville Larson, and members of the Longleaf Alliance - came to them with a proposal to burn a forest so thick no one could see through it, a fire hazard surrounded by expensive homes and the city's art-museum complex.
But they presevered; they introduced fire carefully and systematically, and the forest has been burned every year for nearly a decade. For the middle-class homeowners around the park, the idea of burning the woods seemed at first not only strange but just plain wrong. With supporting dialogue from the local media, scientists, and foresters, many of those neighbors now look forward to the clean, green look of the forest after the burns. As the low flames spread on the day of a burn, some homeowners even amble out to discuss the finer of longleaf and wildflower response to fire. Living with fire, they feel more comfortable with it. Complaints are now rare, and a few confess that they've even come to relish fire's fragrant return, like winter's first puff of hickory smoke.
To everyone's surprise, the endangered and rare species on the property are not only holding their own; they're actually increasing. Scientists had long believed that the forest, thick as it was, supported a single, lonely old gopher tortoise, one of the few remaining tortoises west of the Alabama River. Now scientists believe that there may be eight or more of these threatened tortoises lumbering across the property, including some very young juveniles. Just as remarkable, the little patch of isolated urban forest rings with the sound of 'bob-bob-white'. That call isn't lost on old-timers, who remember when quail were once abundant here and now clearly see that in spite of fire ants, dogs, cats, overstocked raccoons, and other hazards of modern life, the quail can return if they are just provided the longleaf habitat they prefer." 
- Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, pages 144-145 
What a great book. I intend to spend some time with it myself this winter as I gaze out at the frozen Pennsylvania landscape.

The second I can recommend, and not far behind in pure wood reading pleasure, is Oak: The Frame of Civilization.  I especially enjoyed one chapter that introduced me to the finer art and enjoyment of being a balanoplage...an acorn-eater. I had tried the acorns of red oaks in my experimental days, and my mouth still dessicates at the memory. Wondered how deer, squirrels, and pigs could stand the things. But now I know that not only did people eat acorns, there is pretty substantial evidence that many, many early cultures survived primarily due to the nutty delights. But there is a trick or two in partaking of the woody nut that the book shares, and I look forward to trying one of these days.

I'll leave it to you to explore the other fascinating aspects of oak that have left an indelible imprint on human history. If you'd like to read more about the book, let me suggest this excellent review posted on The Guardian.

Finally, if your sentimental someone is more of the hands-on type, you may want to consider a gift that you can't find in the mall. The International Wood Collectors Society sells sets of wood samples in a box. These sets contain samples of some of the most common, and the most rare, woods in the world. The gift might be just a few hours fancy for some, but for just the right person the wooden rectangles may lead to a life-long passion. I know I love spending time with the University's collection, wondering especially about the differences in species and why and how they came to be that way.

But be warned, wood collecting can get out of hand. Many a wood collector has had their domestic arrangements tested by their propensity to haul slabs of walnut, maple, or mahogany into the house...and even go so far as to hang them on the wall. And it doesn't stop there...most wood collectors begin to collect wood working tools of various specialties, and to spend copious amounts of time in the basement throwing wood shavings in all directions.

But if you really love that certain other someone, and want to see just how much they love you, get them a set of wood samples this Christmas. And watch for that expression that comes with utter surprise. Worst case, they will throw the box at you, and it's a heavy booger. But tell them to rub and smell the wood, and if they don't have you committed, you've got a wood lover for life.

And possibly, you will hear those words Mr. Scrooge uttered that Christmas morn so long ago...

"I shall love it, as long as I live!"



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...