NHLA Lumber Terms: A Rookie's View

By Rick Hill | Posted: 12/03/2012 6:00PM


Woodworking Sales Expert RIck Hill

Timberland Wood Products timber tips

 Steamed Walnut

It is common for kilns to steam walnut. Steaming helps the color of the darker heartwood color bleed into the lighter colored sapwood making the walnut a more uniform color.

When buying steamed walnut, most companies note on their PO's “well steamed”, But this is misleading. The color is affected by the region where the walnut is grown and how long it is steamed. To prevent misunderstandings and possibly losing a good supplier, be clear about your specific needs and what you expect when you say “well steamed”. To assure that the walnut is in the color range you require, ask for pictures of the load prior to shipping.


When specifying lumber the terms are extremely confusing. I realize that many of the terms were written over 100 years ago. (And they sound like it!)

But must we persist in using them?

More to the point, is the National Hardwood Lumber Association’s (NHLA) archaic language leading them to obscurity?

For example, lumber buyers often specify that Maple be pulled to a color specification that enhances the amount of white sapwood in the load.

To get more white color the specifications are broken down into”#1 white”, “#2 white” and “Sap and Better.”

Here is the breakdown.

#1 White Maple: Both faces and both edges of the required cutting shall be sapwood.

#2 White Maple: One face and both edges of the required cuttings shall be sapwood, and the reverse side of the cuttings not less than 50% sapwood.

Sap and Better: Each required cutting shall have one clear sapwood face.

Actually Sap and Better is a slang term used by specifiers meaning they will pay for the 1 clear face of sapwood and anything from the #1 and #2 White that happens to be in the load. It is not an actual NHLA rule, though everyone uses and seems to understand it.

NHLA was founded in 1898 to establish and now enforce a standard uniform system for the measurement and grading of lumber.

The NHLA Rule book is the bible of grading rules for all lumber and NHLA provides a vital role in training inspectors worldwide. They created and gave us standards we all can use to understand what we lumber we are buying, sight unseen. This was extremely important in 1898.

The dilemma is that the world has grown faster than the NHLA and they need to catch up. Using the 1 & 2 White example above, we can see how an uneducated buyer can be confused.

First off, let’s make it simpler: All White, One Side White and 50% White, make more sense then the current rules. Unfortunately, the market has already adopted the confusing slang.

The key words of the rule are “of the required cutting.” Many people get caught when specifying lumber on the amount of white on a board. The amount of white is influenced by the actual grade they are cutting. The amount of white is measured only on the part of the board that meets the grade.

For example, to meet FAS, 83 1/3% of the poor side of the board must be FAS. The other 16 2/3% can be anything. So the “White” rule only applies to the 83 1/3%. (Really NHLA? 83 1/3%? Couldn’t we just change it to 80/20 or 85/15?)

As the economy has shifted, new buyers are often not trained in NHLA specifications. Many of the purchasing agents are buying thousands of items electronically and have never seen an NHLA rule book. Slang that has been adopted by lumber providers, like “uppers, sap and better," and "fall-downs” are not addressed in the NHLA guide.

Without training and clear pictures of what to expect, the NHLA terms and rules cause confusion and create problems within the buyer’s companies.

As a rookie in the lumber world, I know that I do not understand the whole picture of the industry and the history involved. I also see the industry with the different, fresh attitude that many new buyers are facing. Ideally, NHLA training will be given to all the new buyers, and the companies will understand what they are specifying, but tight economies rarely create ideal worlds.

The solution to the dilemma is for the NHLA to step up and go digital. Several lumber mills are already using cameras to show potential buyers the color, grade and lengths of their lumber. A web camera at the grading and sorting lines can show a customer every stick in their load. In a sense these digital mills do not need to use NHLA grades. Email a video or picture, if the customer likes what they see, it is sold.

NHLA should become more than a lumber graders guide. NHLA needs to establish digital standards of their lumber grades, overhaul the archaic language, adapt the terms to the common slang of the market now and stay current. Otherwise, the industry may jump ahead without them.

My goal in future columns is to help you decipher the confusing lingo, the geography, and the specialties ofi the lumber market in a way that we can all understand. 


About the Author

Rick Hill

Rick Hill is a Contract Buyer Specialist with Timberland Wood Products, Sheboygan, WI. Timberland contracts with woodworking companies to help them lower their total lumber costs at timberlandwood.com. Rick comes from a 20 year history in the cabinet and furniture supply industry. On fall weekends Rick can be found banding hawks and falcons at the Cedar Grove Ornithological Park. You can reach Rick at rick@timberlandwood.com.

Comments (6) Leave a comment 

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Danny Conkin    
Sheboygan Wi  |  December, 04, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Suppliers have been hit hard enough. Let the buyer learn a little bit about the lumber business!

Canada  |  December, 07, 2012 at 08:52 AM

If you were new to the tire industry would you know how to decipher their codes ? It's not difficult to understand, I suppose instead of 1C you would prefer a complete description, when I order Hard Maple 1C white, 4' & 5' shorts KD rough, my supplier knows exactly what I want. Requiring mills or drying facilities to go digital will eliminate all but the big guys. I don't see the problem, "don't fix what ain't broke", especially for a few who don't want to inform themselves.

Rick Hill    
December, 07, 2012 at 09:31 AM

Trevor, thanks for the comment. I agree with you that there has to be a system. My point is that the system is based on the trained lumber grader and doesn't take today's buyer into account. Yes, we need NHLA and Yes we need to keep the current nomenclature, but we also need it updated to make it easier for the buyer to understand. Digital is different, but the cameras are cheap and emailing pictures is free.

Georgia  |  December, 07, 2012 at 09:42 AM

You can tell it's going to be an uphill slog when someone suggests the slightest improvements, however needed, and meets hostility and resistance. Make it easier for the customer? What a concept... I take it suppliers don't want to implement the continual improvements priciples that is lean manufacturing.

Canada  |  December, 10, 2012 at 07:58 AM

It's not resistance Jim, I invest in techniques that save time and materials. I wouldn't have time to peruse every photo of every piece of lumber I use. I prefer to trust my suppliers. I have had one company try to sell me "select shorts", there is no such thing, if the lumber is under 6' it's 1C. Clearly they are trying to create their own grade to upgrade a product they paid 1C prices for. If you want to move forward with a technological improvement wouldn't bar codes generated by a scanner be better. In a discussion with Wood Eye (scanner manufacture), they told me about a small company using their equipment who can now tell which company they get the best lumber from and can save by buying from the companies who supply the best material, however that comes with a high price tag. I suppose photos would work buy only if you are buying small volumes. I consider educating myself to be a form of technological improvement.

north carolina  |  January, 08, 2013 at 09:32 AM

a monkey can learn how to grade softwood and plywood in a couple days. that same monkey can not learn how to grade hardwood. it takes some time. you have to think. if anyone has a better idea, write to the NHLA and tell them. or get involved yourself and tell them.


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