Wood Dr.: Get customers to appreciate domestic woods
September 18, 2012 | 12:00 am UTC

Gene Wengert, the Wood Dr., spoke recently at the Lake States Lumber Association about the future for lumber. Here are some of his thoughts from that presentation: 

First, with housing starts increasing to over 800,000, it looks like the softwood market has potential for large increases for both framing and for decks. But what about hardwood use? When building homes and offices, we need hardwood for cabinets and flooring and architectural moldings and doors. Bamboo and imported lumber products are already plentiful (often at the big box stores), so what do we need to do to increase hardwood, especially North American hardwood, usage in homes and offices?

Second, the market for the upper grades, which is how the sawmill made most of its profit in the past, is not strong in the U.S. In the past, it was this grade that was exported to Europe and China/Japan, but they are not buying so much from us (economic reasons and also Southeast Asia has increased its supply). So, now the large price differences between the grades of lumber that we've seen in the past are much smaller. In short, the sawmill needs to make profit on the lower grades too.

Possible solutions include lumber suppliers working more closely with their customers. But more important is to get people (builders, remodelers, home owners, architects, etc.) to appreciate our local woods. What can we do to make our woods more attractive in appearance and usefulness? Should we start branding our woods (inside the drawer, etc.) with an American logo? Do we need to show that although bamboo is a grass with seemingly great eco benefits, the amount of oil-based adhesive makes it less desirable? Do we need to have more decorative features in wall paneling? Do we need to create beauty? Do we need a marketing program like the HMA has but directed at furniture and cabinet 100 percent. Does the consumer need to know what we already know?

Maybe we should back up one step and ask ourselves what characteristics of the lumber itself make our finished product more expensive than necessary? Is it poor lumber widths (Baille model again) which means waste? Maybe it is poor moisture content so repair costs during and after manufacturing are costly? (Conestoga Cabinets in Pennsylvania has a very strict MC requirement for incoming lumber and it works for them, saving hundreds of rejects.) The cost of a cabinet is 75 percent lumber, so labor and capital costs cannot be that overwhelming. Do our manufacturers make a better product...so good that they can give it a five-year guarantee? (Woodcraft in Minnesota does give a two-year guarantee on their doors, using UV ink to date stamp.) Perhaps our industry (not all) is too rooted in the past on how they do business?

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About the author
Gene Wengert

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