The alder advantage: Gaining popularity, red alder is poised to enter new markets.

Family Name

Alnus rubra of the Family Betulaceae

Common Names

Alder, red alder, western alder, Oregon alder, Pacific Coast alder

Height/Weight

The average height is 50 to 65 feet and taller. It has an average weight of 33 pounds per cubic foot, with a specific gravity of 0.53.

Properties

Alder dries easily and somewhat quickly, with little degrade and movement in service.

The wood works well with hand and machine tools. Experts recommend a reduced cutting angle to alleviate problems in planing.

The wood has good nailing and gluing properties. It takes a variety of stains and finishes well.

Growing on the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada, red alder (Alnus rubra) is one of some 15 species of alder in North America, and approximately 30 worldwide. In fact, Alnus rubra is considered the most common hardwood in the Pacific Northwest, although at 33 pounds per cubic foot, it is moderately light. Use of red alder has been steadily increasing to include cabinetry, doors, furniture, musical instruments, turnery, carving, plywood corestock, woodenware and veneer.

When Wood of the Month last covered alder, we noted that it is one of those woods with a wide range of looks, from “clear” to the more rustic, knotty look. Alder also yields figures reminiscent of figured maple and cherry including bird’s-eye alder. Jim Dumas, owner of Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY, said another alder figure features a combination of knots and curls to give a champagne bubble look.

“In decorative veneer form,” William A. Lincoln writes in World Woods in Color, “[red alder’s] natural defects are exploited, such as knots, burr clusters, minor stains and streaks, stumpwood etc., and for paneling in contemporary style.”

Music to the Ears

Although Myles Gilmer, owner of Gilmer Wood Co., Portland, OR, is located near the center of alder “country,” about the only alder he said he sells is for guitar bodies. “Many of the large wood traders who send shipments of alder to China and the Far East are in the Portland area. Four to five years ago, before the housing and economic downturn, companies were shipping 70 to 120 40-foot containers of alder a month to China and other countries,” said Gilmer.

Gilmer said he has seen a dramatic change in the usage of alder since the 1970s when it was primarily used for upholstered furniture interiors. “Alder is an excellent wood to glue and it holds screws and staples well, so it was a popular choice for furniture interiors. The advances in finishing and dying helped alder enter a new phase.”

Gilmer said it also resulted in a new grading system for the red-toned hardwood and expanded product options. “Today there are more than 20 grades of alder offered. We buy superior grade alder for our guitar bodies and sell it glued or as a single-piece body.”

Alder is well suited for guitar bodies because of its acoustic properties. “Alder is one of those woods that has decent sustain,” said Gilmer. “If you tap it with your knuckles, it carries a melodious tune. Some woods absorb sound. Alder carries it. It is also lightweight, which is an important attribute for guitars. Musicians would prefer to carry something that weighs 4 to 6 pounds as opposed to 10 to 12 pounds.”

Exploring New Markets

A recent joint study on the market potential for character-mark features in red alder mouldings was conducted by David Nicholls of the USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, Sitka Wood Utilization Center, in Sitka, AK, and Valerie Barber, of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

The basis for the study noted: “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?”

While the estimated $7.6 billion moulding and trim market has been dominated by ponderosa pine and western hemlock, a lumber supply shortage has led to opportunities for other species, including stain-grade hardwoods. The joint study evaluated the acceptance rate of red alder with character mark features within the moulding market, and investigated the types of character marks preferred by woodworking business owners.

The study featured 25 moulded lumber samples using five different types of character wood, including: large and small bark pockets, grain variation, spike knots and a figure known as punky knots. All the red alder used in the study was from southeast Alaska.

Nicholls, a Forest Products technologist, said that mouldings are typically divided into either paint grades or appearance grades. The study found strong preferences for appearance grades. “We found that 88 percent of the respondents preferred clear samples, or those with small bark products. However, almost 69 percent of respondents had used character-marked wood in their businesses.”

The study by Nicholls and Barber is available here. Other red alder reports, including an evaluation of red alder in tongue-and-groove panels and edge-glued panels, are underway. For more information, visit fs.fed.us/pnw/sitka.

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