Knocking on the Door: Western hemlock strives for acceptance in hardwood furniture applications.

 

Family Name

Tsuga heterophylla of the Family Pinaceae

Common Names

Western hemlock, Alaska pine, hemlock spruce, Pacific hemlock, British Columbian hemlock

Height/Weight

Average height is 200 feet, with diameters of 6 to 8 feet. Average weight is 30 pounds per cubic foot.

Properties

Wood has medium bending and crushing strength.



Low hardness and stiffness.



Wood has moderate steam-bending rating. Works well with both hand and machine tools with little dulling of cutting edges.



Wood has a natural luster and can be glued, stained, painted or varnished.

While many may still associate the term “hemlock” with the killing of Socrates, the wood itself has developed instead a reputation as a quality lumber and veneer, with an increasing number of uses.

One of 10 native hemlock species, western hemlock is considered a premier timber of the Northwest United States, growing in abundance from the coastline of central California north to Alaska, east to Idaho and Montana. Used for interior and exterior joinery, construction and paper, it also is a popular choice for doors, flooring, paneling, broom handles, crates, pallets and packing cases.

One timber supplier said he would like to see it used in traditional hardwood applications as well. “The wood used in many of the construction applications is really from the ‘hem-fir group,’ a mix of western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and other species of fir,” said Erich Hall, product manager for Weyerhaeuser Hardwoods & Industrial Products.

According to the Western Wood Products Assn., the hem-fir group consists of western hemlock, California red fir (Abies magnifica), grand fir (Abies grandis), noble fir [Abies procera], pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) and white fir (Abies concolor).

Yet when used alone, without the fir species, western hemlock has properties that can be used in cabinetry, casegoods, millwork, upholstered furniture and other traditional hardwood uses, Hall said. “We believe that by singling out western hemlock and offering it as a stand-alone species, [it displays a] color uniformity not seen when the six species are mingled. Single-species resource reduces variances in product characteristics, commonly found in hem-fir,” he added.

“One of our distributors in Mexico reports that his customers are using the hemlock in kitchen cabinets, furniture and doors,” said Bonnie Camarena, account manager at Weyerhaeuser. “The response from the public, according to the distributor, is that they like how the grain stands out after it is finished. They like the widths because it gives them better yields. It is easy to work and they really like the color.”

Branching Out

If western hemlock lumber and veneer gain acceptance in traditional hardwood applications such as furniture and cabinetry, it will not be the first time the species has branched into new markets.

In a 1955 issue, Time magazine described western hemlock as one of the “Cinderella” trees — a tree that some 30 years earlier was considered “little more than a forest weed,” according to Harold L. Zellerbach, then executive vice president of Crown Zellerbach Corp. “Then research scientists and wood technicians unlocked some of its secrets and the western hemlock emerged as a Cinderella tree. It has become one of the finest sources of fibers for paper making.”

According to the Time’s article, other products developed in the mid-20th century using western hemlock included dimethyl sulfide, which gives an odor to natural gas, that could otherwise seep into house without being detected; and Conidendrol, which is produced from hemlock wastes and retards oxidation.

Hemlock Highlights

A plentiful species, more than 3 billion board feet of western hemlock is harvested annually in the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. In addition to growing in the United States and Canada, western hemlock also has been planted in Great Britain.

The tree’s heartwood is a pale, cream color with distinct growth marks, a straight grain and fairly even texture. Hemlock weighs 30 pounds per cubic foot when seasoned. The Encyclopedia of Wood editors caution that careful drying is essential with hemlock. According to the book, “The initially high moisture content of this wood demands careful drying to avoid surface checking and ensure uniform drying in thick stock.”

In the book Know Your Woods, author Albert Constantine Jr. writes that western hemlock differs from eastern hemlock in that “the wood is of very fine texture, light in weight and straight in grain, and it has about the same workability as pine.”

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is smaller in stature than western hemlock, with trees typically reaching 80 to 100 feet, although some as tall as 160 feet have been known to grow on the East Coast. Eastern hemlock is the state tree of Pennsylvania, while western hemlock is the state tree of Washington.