Starting soon, you’ll see a new species of domestic milled lumber come onto the market for the first time in at least 75 years. Researchers, regulators, and industry officials won approval on Oct. 20 for the use of Norway spruce as a species for construction.
Initially brought to America a century ago by Nordic immigrants, most of today’s estimated 2.1 billion board-feet of standing Norway spruce timber was planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a Depression-era federal agency, to provide ground cover on abandoned farms. Norway spruce can be found in 13 states, but about half is in New York state. It's known for its drooping shape and its frequent use as the Christmas tree that's brought to New York's Rockefeller Center.
Once milled, Norway spruce so closely resembles eastern North America’s white spruce that it was incorporated into the collection of species that gets the SPFs (Spruce Pine Fir south) designation. The addition of Norway spruce probably won’t lead to cheaper lumber, but it will give Eastern mills a bigger selection of fiber.
“There are some mills that cannot wait” to begin working with Norway spruce, says Jeff Easterling, president of the Northeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association and a key figure in the certification effort. He estimates that the Spruce pine timberlands will increase the resources for producing SPFs in the Northeast by 5% to 10%, and he notes it’s all “plantation stock”—wood grown on level land and thus relatively easy to cut.
New York doesn’t have any dimensional lumber mills, Easterling says, so it’s likely that Norway spruce logs will be trucked to New England. That’s a nice benefit for the region’s mills, as it provides backhaul opportunities for trucks that carry lumber out of New England and often return empty.
The project carries special meaning for Easterling for two reasons. The first is that his grandfather worked on CCC crews in Arkansas. “It was something done in the ’30s in which they were just planting trees,” he says of the CCC crews that put in the Norway spruce. “Little did they know then the significance of what they had done.”
Easterling’s second thrill comes in knowing that he’s engaged in something American lumber people haven’t done in three-quarters of a century. Industry groups, testing agencies, and the rule-making American Lumber Standard Committee regularly review existing wood species to set their “design values”—the minimum values for strength and bendability that builders can count on when they put a particular size and species of wood in a building’s frame. To do that, all they need do is go to a lumberyard, pull samples, and send them to a testing lab.
In contrast, to begin testing Norway spruce, teams had to go into eight different forests from Maine to Wisconsin, cut down trees, truck the trees to mills so they could be converted into lumber, and then send roughly 1,200 pieces of lumber to testing labs. “Nobody has done this since the original testing of logs in the 1920s,” Easterling says.
Norway spruce delimbs itself as it grows, so one result is that it yields a high percentage of clear, knot-free wood. Grade-wise, approximately 65% of Norway Spruce is expected to be graded at #2 and above. “We were finding so much #1 [in the test lumber] we had to search to find #2s,” Easterling says. He predicts the standards will be set in such a way that what does get designed as #2s will have a lot of the qualities normally found in the #1 grade.