Take a mental tour of your lumberyard. Now, imagine going on that same tour in 20 years. What will the products look like? What new goods will be there in 2028? Which on your shelves today will become extinct?
From the forest floor to your front door, significant trends are altering North America's lumber industry. Those factors will help determine the fortunes of most pro dealers, which typically rely on lumber for up to half their sales volumes. Some of these influences are so big, they can be viewed from space; others are so small, a standard microscope can't detect them. And some of the biggest factors that will determine wood's future have nothing to do with building homes.
These changes also will be deceptive because many of them won't affect the look of the products you sell. What will change is just about every aspect of that lumber before it reaches you, including who owns the wood, where it's grown, the way it's cut, how it's milled, what's added to it and, ultimately, what the finished product can do for a home.
Getting an accurate picture of wood's future requires you travel across the continent visiting logging sites, mills, industry groups, research institutions, and lumberyards. I've been doing that for the past year. Here's what I've learned, and what you can expect.
"The Future of Wood" package -- download a PDF of all the articles below.
Engineering the Future
Like the Six Million Dollar Man, lumber companies are taking trees apart and rebuilding them to be bigger and stronger than nature made them. Solid-sawn lumber will suffer.
North America's loggers once cut down trees that were so enormous?such as this one, probably located in California?eight men could stand in the notch.
Unlocking the Wooden Cell
Researchers are manipulating wood and its related products at microscopic (and smaller) levels in hopes of producing everything from straighter trees to siding that changes color.
Constantly spiraling energy prices could make it more valuable to burn, distill, or palletize wood than to cut it into 2x4s. And even when wood does become lumber, how much will it cost to transport the stuff?
These critters remind us that humans aren't the only species that will affect the future of wood.
Owning Up to the Problem
The reasons vary, but wherever you go, there's less interest in owning forests as timberlands.
Kicking the Fiber Diet?
In some parts of the house, wood's importance already is shrinking. But when it comes to framing a home, don't believe everything the steel and concrete people say.
What To Await in 2028
What kinds of wood can we expect to sell in 20 years?
Web Exclusive: Facing the Ax
Today's timber men are markedly different from their ancestors. So are trees they cut.
Web Exclusive: Movin' on Up
Maximization of solid-sawn lumber was a key achievement at mills over the past generation. Now the challenge is to make those parts worth more.
Dealers contend grading standards have deteriorated. Vendors say the dealers have become pickier.
Editor's Notes: Long Shadows
Not long ago, I visited a sawmill just west of the Continental Divide that's making a business out of our ancestors' mistakes. Intermountain Resources' operation in Montrose, Colo., expects this year to saw 40 million board-feet of lumber largely from lodgepole pines that are growing?dying, actually?on federal land. Those pines' story is largely the story of wood in America for the past 120 years.