Let the Furniture Buyer Beware: Beetles Tagged Along

By Chuck Ray | Posted: 01/07/2014 1:08PM

 

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations I spent an interesting 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 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.

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 bottom shelf to the drawers.

Houston, We Have a Problem
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.

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 I not 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.)

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.

Battling the Bugs
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.

I sprayed the 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.

Furniture Buying Dilemma
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-1990s 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.

 Read more Chuck Ray: 
Great Designs in Wood Floors of Year Awards
Gift Shopping Ideas for the Wood-wise
House on the Rock: Great Designs in Wood 
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.

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About the Author

Chuck Ray, PennState, Associate Professor of Wood Operations

Chuck Ray

Dr. Charles D. “Chuck” Ray is Associate Professor of Wood Operations Research at Pennsylvania State University. His specialty is in the area of operations research, specifically those operational issues that confront the majority of the wood products sector. He previously spent 15 years in research and quality management for two large building products corporations, Temple-Inland Forest Products and Louisiana-Pacific. Ray is the sixth generation of his family to work in the sawmill industry, the Ray Brothers Lumber Company, established in East Texas before the turn of the last century. He can be reached at cdrpsu@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @ChuckDRay. He maintains an Extension website for Penn State at http://extension.psu.edu/woodpro and also writes a blog on all wood issues called Go Wood which can be found at http://gowood.blogspot.com.

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