By Dave Nicholls, USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Sitka Wood Utilization Station (Sitka, AK)
and Valerie Barber, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Forest Products Program

Red alder lumber has become increasingly important for a wide variety of secondary wood products, as reflected in its overall popularity and widespread retail importance. Recent studies conducted by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service have shown that consumers are generally receptive to character marked features in hardwood lumber products. Many of these studies focused on kitchen cabinets. Other studies have considered lumber grade and volume recovery of red alder harvested in southeast Alaska.

These smaller stems are often characterized by a high proportion of knots, creating relatively high levels of character- marked wood, the source material for the current study. Although this “knotty” material would have little value if graded under standard hardwood lumber rules, its value could potentially be much higher when used for specialty applications in which character features are favored.

Since wall paneling is widespread in new home construction and remodeling markets, it could provide a good “litmus test” for the potential of red alder character-marked lumber for appearance applications. Little is currently known regarding the types and extent of character marks preferred in red alder secondary products. Goals for this study included evaluating preferences for wall paneling samples made from character-marked red alder lumber having a wide range of size, type, and level of character features.

About the Study
To conduct the studies, The USDA Forest Service collaborated with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. In the study, which took place in Ketchikan, Alaska, they looked at character-marked lumber from red alder that was selected to construct tongue-and-groove (T&G) panels. Wood quality ranged from clear wood (Superior grade lumber) to wood that contained large quantities of character (Economy frame grade
lumber). Character mark features typically included knots, bark pockets, natural stain, and surface checking. In a few cases, loose knots and/or knot holes were included.

All panel samples were treated with a clear coat finish that provided a glossy surface but did not otherwise influence wood color. Response data was collected from industrial woodworkers attending the TSI Expo-
Capitol Industrial Woodworking Expo in Fredericksburg, Va., in March 2008. Panels were mounted together to facilitate side-by-side comparisons within the display booth.

Since none of the display samples were identified, respondents had no preconceptions about the grade of lumber or character mark severity that they were rating. Respondents were asked to answer questions as if they were producing the displayed products as part of their business (i.e. for their customers).

Participants could only review about four sample panels. Thus, the degree of character marks was the only feature that was evaluated at several different levels. This way, each of the four panels had a distinct appearance while keeping levels of stain, color and finish relatively unchanged. However, it is important to note that the presence of character marks had some influence on the other variables. For example, panels having numerous character marks (which themselves were often dark in color), often appeared darker than the panel from clear wood. Likewise large character marks sometimes resulted in surface irregularities, which influenced the quality of the finish.

Respondents indicated their preferences for T&G panels by selecting their overall favorite from the group of
four panels. They also rated panels based on selected product attributes including color, grain consistency, character marks and finish. Here, responses were indicated on a 5 point scale (ranging from (1) “poor” to (5) “excellent”). Each respondent also provided demographic information on age, gender, company sales, and product type, and a total of 113 people took the survey during the two-day expo. Most respondents were wood products producers based in the mid-Atlantic region, including Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The Study's Goals
The study attempted to answer the following questions:
1. Which of the following levels of character in red alder is preferred for T&G wall paneling?
-- Panel A - lumber grade 2 (Cabinet & Custom Shop)
-- Panel B - lumber grade 5 (Economy Frame)
-- Panel C - lumber grade 1 (Superior)
-- Panel D - lumber grade 3 (Common Shop)

2. How do wood products producers rate these panels based on the following visual cues?
-- character marks
-- grain consistency
-- overall color finish

Survey Results

Preferred level of character
Here, respondents selected their favorite panel, from among the four panels described above.
-- panels made from defect-free wood were preferred by wood products producers
-- panels made from low-grade red alder were least preferred.
-- niche opportunities may be present for production of panels from intermediate grades of lumber.

Preferred panel attributes
This result was measured by respondents evaluating four attributes (character, grain, color, and finish) for each panel.
-- Clear lumber construction had the highest overall ratings, and the most consistent ratings, with average scores for all four attributes rated between about 3.7 and 4.1.
-- The panel having high levels of character had the overall lowest ratings, with all four attributes rated between about 2.6 and 3.5. Respondents also expressed negative views regarding surface roughness on panels.
-- Of the four attributes evaluated, overall color was generally the highest rated.
-- Finish was the lowest rated attribute for all panels except for highly charactered wood.

Past use of red alder
About 39 percent of respondents indicated some past use of red alder (with 61 percent indicating no use). It is possible that geography could have played a role in the low reported use of red alder. Most respondents were wood products manufacturers in the mid-Atlantic region, far from the red alder resources of the Pacific Northwest.

General interest in character marked lumber
Overall interest in character-marked wood was strong, with more than 73 percent of respondents indicating moderate to very high interest. Only 7 percent of respondents indicated a very low interest in character-marked wood.

54 percent of respondents produced cabinets as their primary product (Table 3)
53 percent of respondents indicated company sales of $500,000 per year or less
58 percent of respondents had 5 or fewer employees
60 percent of respondents were in their 40s and 50s
93 percent of respondents were male

So What Does This Mean?
This study suggests that, even though general interest in character-marked wood was relatively high among wood products manufacturers, clear wood was preferred for T&G wall paneling. Since overall color was the highest-rated attribute, producers could potentially capitalize on the natural color of red alder, while also including subtle character features such as grain variation and/or “birds-eye” patterns. This is important given that wood grain was a highly rated attribute for panels made from clear wood (but was rated lower for panels containing character marks). It is also worth noting that color was rated highly even for the panel containing the highest level of character. Apparently, color has an important influence on panel perceptions regardless of how other attributes are viewed. Thus, the natural beauty of red alder that occurs over a wide range of lumber grades could become an important marketing tool for manufacturers.

In general, panels from clear wood received more consistent attribute ratings versus panels having higher and more variable levels of character. This underscores the importance of consistent and uniform features as a marketing consideration for wood products. However, it is important to realize that clear lumber typically comprises only a small fraction of the yield from small diameter red alder stems (the source material for this study).

Product design has been identified as an important factor influencing how wood products are perceived. However, since T&G panels tend to have few distinct design features (versus other products such as furniture), manufacturers may need to emphasize visual attributes such as color, grain variation, and character mark intensity. In this study, character-marks received low preference scores when they were included at high frequency levels, suggesting that wood products manufacturers could be more amenable to character marks only when included less often and with a less distinct presence.

Although our study indicated that use of clear lumber would be preferred for production of red alder T&G panels, its use would need to be moderated against the cost advantages of using lower grades of lumber that could include more character-marks. For example, common grades of lumber could be available for considerably less than superior grades in many markets.

The fact that most respondents were cabinet producers (a product different than what was being evaluated) was one limitation of this study. Therefore, their perspectives might not be as relevant as a survey which included only T&G panel producers.

Red alder tongue and groove panels constructed from different levels of character-marked wood

Panel A - lumber grade 2 (Cabinet & Custom Shop)

Panel B - lumber grade 5 (Economy Frame)

Panel C - lumber grade 1 (Superior)

Panel D - lumber grade 3 (Common Shop)

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