By:



David Nicholls

USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Sitka Wood Utilization Center, Sitka, AK

Valerie Barber

University of Alaska Fairbanks, Forest Products Program, Palmer, AK

Introduction

Red alder lumber has become increasingly popular for use in cabinets, doors, and other products. Character-marked lumber can have aesthetic and economic advantages for a number of applications- but what about for moulded products? This article evaluates the acceptance of red alder with character-mark features within the moulding market, as well as the types of character marks preferred by woodworking business owners.

In 2003, total demand for moulding and trim in the United States was more than $7.6 billion, with interior mouldings comprising almost half of this total (Forintek 2004). Although paint-grade mouldings are typically manufactured from softwood species including ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophyla), recent shortages have led to opportunities for other softwood species and for stain-grade hardwoods. As recently as 2001, the hardwood market for residential mouldings was dominated by the oaks (red and white (Quercus spp.)) and yellow-poplar (Liriodendron spp.). Red alder (Alnus rubra) played a much smaller role, comprising only about 3 percent of this market segment (Table 1) (American Hardwood Information Center). Despite this limited use, red alder mouldings (including those having some character features) have become popular niche product offerings for many firms and include numerous styles and profile patterns (Knotty alder mouldings 2009, Orepac 2009). In this paper we explore the market potential for including character-mark features in mouldings produced from red alder harvested in southeast Alaska.

Mouldings are typically divided into two grades. The “N grade” is suitable for appearance applications with visible wood grain (also referred to as “solid”, “clear”, or “A-grade”). The “P grade”, or paint grade, is for applications where the wood surface will not be visible and can also include use of fingerjointings, blue-stained wood, or medium density fiberboard (Forintek 2004). This distinction could be important for red alder mouldings in applications where visible character features would be undesirable, yet painted mouldings would still be suitable.

Character-marked lumber can contain a variety of features often considered to be defects, including loose and tight knots, bark pockets, checks, and natural staining. Use of this lower grade lumber in higher value moulded products could help create attractive business opportunities for entrepreneurs and mill workers throughout red alder’s natural range, including southeast Alaska. In Alaska, there are at least 26 planers and 13 moulders in use at dry kiln sites (Nicholls et al. 2006), and the expansion of the softwood moulding industry in Alaska has paralleled the expansion of the dry kiln industry.

Our goals

This project evaluated preferences for interior moulded products constructed from red alder lumber that contained a wide variation in size, type, and level of character-mark features. Information
gained in this study may help identify which types of character markings, if any, would
increase market acceptance of red alder moulded products. Research objectives included
evaluating preferences for red alder mouldings having different types and levels of character-
marked wood, ranging from clear to heavily charactered. This research was conducted to help
explore product options for a potential red alder industry in southeast Alaska, even though little or
no red alder lumber is currently produced in this region.

What we did

This study was a cooperative project between the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the USDA
Forest Service. We produced 25 moulded lumber samples, selected from five different types of
character wood including bark pockets (large and small), grain variation, spike knots, and “punky”
knots. All samples were from red alder trees harvested in southeast Alaska, and
were moulded to a standard 2.25 inch wide casing profile. Samples were approximately 18 inches
long. A limitation of the study was that the short display samples did not emulate actual in-use
conditions for moulded products (where longer samples would be the norm).

Response data was collected from industrial woodworkers attending the TSI Expo-Capitol
Industrial Woodworking Expo in Fredericksburg, Virginia in March 2008. As part of the survey, they
evaluated all 5 character-mark types in one scene (Figure 1), and also provided information
regarding company size, overall interest in using character-marked lumber, and past use of red
alder. Respondents answered demographic questions on age, gender, company sales,
and product type. A total of 54 responses were collected over 2 days. Most respondents
were based in the mid-Atlantic region, including Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and
Maryland.

Respondents indicated their preferences in a two part survey, based on potential use of the mouldings in their own businesses. In part 1, they selected their favorite character feature from among a group of five mouldings, each having a different type of character mark. These included large bark pockets (typically measuring about 1 inch maximum dimension), small bark pockets (measuring about 0.5 inches or less), “punky” knots (unsound knots having pockets of visible decay) and spike knots. The fifth group was comprised of clear samples (i.e. no distinguishable defects) that also included some grain variation. These defect classes were selected based on representative samples of red alder lumber sawn as part of a lumber recovery study in Ketchikan, Alaska. The 4 defect types were frequently found in this lumber.

In part 2 of the survey, respondents considered four new samples, each of which contained the type of character mark selected in part 1. They then chose their favorite from these four samples having a range of character mark intensities (from light to severe). Respondents also provided preference ratings for character marks, grain consistency, and overall color (on a 6-point scale, ranging from extremely good to extremely bad).

All moulded lumber samples were displayed unfinished, with no stains or finishes. Sample groups
were mounted together on one display panel, to facilitate side-by-side comparisons within the
display booth (Figure 1). It is important to note that each moulding sample included only one
character mark feature (usually located at about the midpoint of the sample), ensuring that
respondents were observing and rating only one feature. None of the character marks or display
samples were identified (thus respondents had no preconceptions about names given to the
character marks they were rating).

What we found

Clear mouldings containing limited grain variation were preferred by a clear majority of respondents . The second most often preferred group contained small bark pockets, which were also indistinct features. Despite this preference for clear wood, most respondents (more than two-thirds) indicated some past use of character-marked wood in their business.

Overall interest in character-marked wood was strong, with more than 80 percent of respondents indicating moderate to very high levels of general interest. However, fewer than half of all respondents (about 45 percent) indicated a past use of red alder lumber in their businesses . This could have been primarily related to geography, as most respondents were from the mid-Atlantic region, far from the red alder producing regions of the Pacific Northwest. Most respondents were male, produced furniture or cabinets as a primary product, had company sales of less than $500,000 per year, and were from small companies (having five or fewer employees).

This study suggests that manufacturers of red alder moulded products with sales less than $500,000 per year and approximately five or fewer employees give consideration to using the following types of lumber:



• clear, defect-free lumber

• lumber containing limited grain variation but no other defects

• lumber containing indistinct character features such as small bark pockets.

We found considerably less potential for mouldings that contained greater levels of character (such as spike knots, unsound knots, and large bark pockets). From a manufacturing standpoint, unsound features in mouldings could either reduce yields (if removed) or create problems with product integrity (if included). This is shown, as 88 percent of respondents preferred either clear samples or those containing small bark pockets, both of which were sound features.

Although the product on display was mouldings, it is important that most respondents indicated their primary product line as something other than mouldings. Therefore, the general interest that respondents expressed in character-marked wood could bode well for the use of red alder character-marked wood in other products that they were more familiar with (including cabinets and furniture), however we can not confirm this through our study.

From a practical standpoint, we would have preferred to attend an expo exclusively or primarily for moulding producers, but for convenience attended this event at which an unknown percentage of moulding producers would be present. Since only a small portion of respondents (about 13 percent of total) indicated mouldings as their primary product. this could help explain the apparent contradiction between strong preferences for clear mouldings on the one hand, and a generally high interest in use of character wood on the other hand.

Acknowledgement:

The authors would like to thank Iris Baker Montague, USDA Forest Service Northern Region, for her assistance in collecting data for this project.

Table 1. Hardwood use in residential mouldings (2001).

Table 1. Hardwood use in residential mouldings (2001).

Species Percent of total
oaks (red and white) 52
poplar 11
maple 8
ash 5
cherry 4
alder 3
other species 17
total hardwoods 100

Source: American Hardwood Information Center.

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