What is the future of wood?
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Q. What is the future for wood — furniture, cabinets, flooring, etc.? This question was asked several times at the Wood Pro Expo in Manheim, Pennsylvania. 

A. I am very positive about the growth of the housing market — new and remodeling.

Think growth
One reason to think positively is that the number of people that will be looking for new housing is “already in the pipeline.” Some of these people have started a family and need more space than an apartment or condo provides.  

At the same time, however, new homeowners are not always looking for a four-bedroom house with a separate dining room, many bathrooms, and so on. They seem to be looking for more efficiency with a computerized home office (or two offices), and smaller bedrooms. They are also looking for kitchens that are efficient with modern appliances and computerization.

Hurricane Ian damaged or destroyed 730,000 homes in Florida. (The annual number of new homes built in the U.S. is often around 1.2 million, so this one storm in Florida will have a huge effect. Other monster storms and forest fires have damaged and destroyed many homes throughout the U.S. Cabinets and flooring would certainly seem key in rebuilding.

Although COVID has dropped the life expectancy in the U.S., senior living facilities are bulging at the seams. Longer life expectancy will return soon. New senior facilities all require cabinets and often new furniture that fits the downsized spaces. Many of these seniors have well-funded retirement, so they can afford specialized and upper-grade furniture and cabinets. They also like wood floors, rather than carpets, for ease of cleaning and lowered risk of falling.

I am using the word “marketing” to represent the effort to build awareness of the features and benefits of using wood. In contrast, “sales” is converting the potential customer into an actual customer. Ask yourself and your staff to quickly answer these two questions: “Why should someone use wood, rather than plastic or metal, for cabinets or furniture?” and “Why should someone use wood products from (your company name) rather than from a competitor?” If you cannot answer these questions quickly, how can we expect our customers to answer them correctly?

But, here is a problem: We, as an industry, fail to market wood using the most effective techniques for marketing. My solution is that the various manufacturing organizations need to develop or increase efforts to market wood to architects, builders, and the general public. The power of modern marketing using the internet to collect data and disperse information is tremendously underutilized in our industry.

Is the product we sell made out of oak or cherry? Wouldn’t it sound better if it was made out of Michigan Rose Red Oak? Or maybe Pennsylvania Black Cherry?

How does a customer know the quality of your work? Beauty or quality is more than “skin deep.” How do we tell our customers? How do we exude quality in everything we do? Have you ever opened a pack of underwear and seen a small slip of paper fall out that says Inspector 33 has checked your shorts for quality? Or should we have an “800” telephone number for consumers to call to answer questions about care? There are lots more. This marketing would set us apart from our offshore competitors.

Have you considered laser engraving? Imagine a view of the mountains on cabinet doors. Or maybe a more modern image? Imagine a coffee table with a wood rim but the inside wood being laser engraved to look like slate and then finished with a dark finish so it will look like slate to 99.99% of viewers.

Because wood costs are often a huge cost for a manufactured product, we need to explore techniques for reducing costs by using wood more efficiently, including fewer manufacturing mistakes. More companies are finding finger jointing shorter lengths of wood into long pieces that are then cut into the required lengths add substantially to lower overall costs. Customers do not find an end joint to be distracting. 

Q. Is walnut wood, used for food utensils, toxic to humans?

A. I do not know with 100% certainty. So, you might have “Stumped the Wood Doctor.” But the evidence I have seen says, “not likely.” Yet, when dealing with allergies, it seems likely to me as a non-medical doctor, that someone, somewhere is probably allergic to wood, including wood dust, of any specific species, if not a group of species.

I have seen walnut salad bowls made years ago that are still used today.  I have seen walnut utensils, like salad tongs. I have seen walnut used in cutting boards. And then there is the nut itself, which I enjoy, although I have noticed that over the past 20 years most of the hair on my head has disappeared. I have not heard any evidence that walnut wood is toxic to humans, although we might always have a rare person allergic to the wood.

Here is a quote from a 2021 document from the Extension at the University of Georgia that supports the non-toxicity of the wood: “The fruit, leaves and roots of black walnut trees contain a chemical, juglone, that can have a devastating impact on the roots of other plants. In humans, ingesting even a small amount of pure juglone can cause a serious poisoning effect. Inside the tree, juglone is a clear liquid — called prejuglone — that’s nontoxic.”

Q. We painted some southern pine flooring and the paint, after a year is coming loose. What’s up?

A. This is a common problem with southern pine. The reason is that the film-forming finish (paint in your case) can easily attach itself to the light-colored wood, as this wood is porous. Every springtime, the tree starts growing and makes the light-colored wood — such wood is sometimes called early wood. Then as temperatures warm, the tree slows down growth and makes dense, non-porous, reddish-colored wood — sometimes called late wood. The finish has trouble attaching to the late wood. In addition to poor attachment, the early wood and late wood shrink and swell differently with changes in humidity. This stress can easily exceed the strength of the paint film’s attachment to the wood, resulting in paint peeling.

Oftentimes, a non-film-forming finish, such as a stain, especially if the finish has waterproof-repellent properties, is preferred on southern pine. (This recommendation applies to other so-called hard pines. It does not apply to white pine.)

Q. In the various kiln schedules for drying lumber, there is a temperature given. Is this mandatory? Is it a maximum? Please give some insight.

A. The kiln schedules in the various USDA Forest Products Lab publications, including “Drying Hardwood Lumber,” are suggested temperatures based on estimates of drying speed, energy cost, and the color of the wood desired. As many schedules are from 1950. Even in texts written before 2000, energy costs have changed and color requirements have changed, along with a desire for better machinability. 

Plus, any insects and fungi need to be killed. With electrically powered kilns, the temperature near the end of drying is likely around 140 F, considering all potential aspects. 

For steam kilns, 160 F is a more common suggestion within the industry. At these lower temperatures, compared to 180 F in the past, we also find that it is easier to control the final moisture content.

Want more? To search a full list of Wood Doctor’s Rx questions and answers, go to woodworkingnetwork.com/genewengert

About the author: Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor,” has been training people in the efficient use of wood for 35 years. He is an extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



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About the author
Gene Wengert

Gene Wengert, “The Wood Doctor” has been training people in efficient use of wood for 45 years. He is extension specialist emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.