Source Material

A few posts back there was a comment asking about my thoughts on the material that we use as workers of wood, where it comes from and how that fits into the ‘bigger picture’. This is a somewhat complex, and for me, vexing question that I have considered from many angles over the years. I imagine that anyone who works with a material in a sensitive or sensible fashion at one point has to ask themselves about where their material comes from, along with how they are using it, in light of current considerations for the environment, worker livelihoods, and so forth. These questions are both practical and ethical in nature. I thought I should try to tackle this issue, though once again I may be plunging in foolishly where others would be more prudent. I regret that brevity does not associate strongly to this topic, and yet what follows is little more than a skim of the issue.

I think all of us who live in modern society have to face the fact that we are enmeshed in a material culture, and the way those materials is obtained, coming as they do from around the globe, is not always in accordance with what we might choose to do in our own back yards, or communities. In fact, we well know that the working conditions in many part of the world do not fall, even remotely, within what many in the west would accept for our own society.

Further, many technological products we use daily are quite complex in nature and source an incredibly diverse array of materials. I speak of items such as computers, cell phones, stereo components, our cars and trucks, and other such products. To use any of these artifacts of modern culture is, lets face it , an acceptance on some level by the consumer of strip mining (or similar degradation) at the production end, or the scenario of incredibly poor people in Bangladesh smashing circuit boards with hammers to recycle valuable metals, and thus exposing themselves to quite toxic materials, at the other end of the cycle of use. Buying clothes and sneakers often means an acceptance of poor people in developing countries working in sweatshop conditions that would make Charles Dickens turn white in the face.

Many of us choose, and I count myself among this group, to endeavor to support Fair Trade products, and to be choosy when shopping, especially in consideration of point of origin. This is getting increasingly difficult in N. America, where it seems like all our material goods come out of China. In many products now, China is the only choice it seems, like phone cords, batteries, and so forth. I’ve been frustrated a number of times, trying to ‘do the right thing’ and trying to support local, though I do persevere in that regard.

Supporting ‘local’ seems like the best choice we can make, though I am perfectly aware that in the sum of inputs to a product, the transportation portion is a relatively minor aspect of the total environmental impact of that product, and thus organic produce from California may well be better than local Massachusetts produce grown with some pesticides. Or is it? It can be a difficult accounting at times, and on occasion I wonder if it’s worth all the effort and balancing of one concern off another to determine which is the most ethical/best choice. It can be exhausting and sometimes I am left with a desire not to look at labels anymore and just have ‘simple’ decisions to make.

On top of this, some products can look very ‘green’ in comparison to others, but it really depends how you look at it. Take the Toyota Prius and every environmentalist’s favorite whipping boy, the Hummer. A report came out a couple of years ago, Dust to Dust, a study which tabulated all data on the energy necessary to plan, build, sell, drive and dispose of a vehicle from drawing board to junkyard, including such items as plant-to-dealer fuel costs, distances driven, electricity usage per pound of material in each vehicle, and hundreds of other variables. The result is a ‘dollars per lifetime mile’ equation, and the Prius comes in a $3.25, while the Hummer comes in at $1.95. The best performer was the Toyota Scion at $0.48 I might add. Now this study may cause some to chortle, knowing the smugness that many perceive to ooze from some Prius owners, however, once you look into the issue a little further, you find plenty of controversy about who funded the study, what biases the preparers of the report may have had, how sound their information was, etc. Thus, there would appear to be no simple answer even for things as apparently obvious as comparing the environmental impact of the flagship of the Green car movement, the Prius, and its apparent polar opposite the Hummer. Buying a secondhand fuel-efficient car is often the ‘greenest’ approach, it seems.

Now, I think that people who buy the Prius may well have good intentions, probably in line with many of my values, and the Hummer for me is a ghastly monstrosity, useless off road or for doing work, and primarily an urban toy for people who derive, it would appear, psychological comfort from being up high in a massive vehicle. I once was a passenger in a Hummer back in B.C., and it was most edifying to note the unpleasant, even hostile looks on many people’s faces when we went towards them and they saw the vehicle.

Anyway, this post is not about cars, or other technological artifacts, I simply wanted to show with a seemingly ‘obvious’ example that the true picture is often a little harder to discern than may be initially apparent. I think the same holds true for wood.

The wood that the carpenter or furniture maker uses may come from a variety of sources – freshly logged, wind-downed, reclaimed/salvaged, re-used, and so forth. It may come from your own woodlot or from the other side of the planet. Wood has been a trade item for thousands of years, and countries have gone to war over it, with Crete a good example of a place that was squeezed by outside powers for its natural bounty of timber, and is now largely denuded – Lebanon would be another example, once famous for it’s Cedar trees, it is now a desert.

I have sourced wood for projects all these different ways. I’ve cut saplings off my own lot and dragged them out of the bush for the use in building a cob (mud and straw) house. I’ve gone down to the beach with an Alaskan chainsaw mill to salvage old logs – only to find later that such activities are illegal in B.C., since all the wood is owned by established salvage rights. I also found that sometimes you could do backbreaking labor for days out in the bush with the chainsaw mill and produce but $100 of timber, and I was left thinking it might be best to leave that side of the wood equation to the sawyers.

I’ve often tried sourcing wood ‘locally’. It is a curious thing about British Columbia, which supplies the world with softwoods like Douglas Fir Western Red Cedar, Yellow Cedar, Spruce, and so forth: if you go in a typical B.C. lumberyard, often ringed with Doug Fir trees, sometimes you can’t actually buy any Douglas Fir in the yard. Or good Western Red Cedar. The reason? B.C. exports most of its raw materials (this is the story of Canada, the supplier of much raw material to other countries actually), and the local B.C. market is left with just a tiny slice of that – the dregs in fact. I’ve seen some lovely Western Red Cedar from B.C. at the local Cowl’s Lumber here in Western Massachusetts, and I’ve had a similar experience in a Japanese lumber yard. There is no significant use of Yellow Cedar in North America, and most of B.C.’s Yellow Cedar is cut by specialty mills for export to Japan, where it goes into high end homes and temples. The Japanese in fact own a fair proportion of standing big Yellow Cedar in the province.

So, I concluded at one point that it would be better to go to small local sawyers for my material, and indeed sourced a lot of Yellow and Red Cedar from a small outfit that specialized in salvaging timber from old clear cuts. However, their supply was intermittent and seasonal, and often they didn’t have the lengths or sizes I needed for certain jobs.

A couple of years back I got involved in a project to build a Mansard-roofed workshop for a local drum maker. He appreciated fine wood and wanted to use quality local material in his building, in preference to the stuff produced by the big mills, the usual 2x stuff. I got a lead to a fellow named Eugene who has a mill in a place on Vancouver Island called Cobble Hill. Eugene had freakish stuff in his yard, like 5′ thick Doug fir logs, 40′ long, the sort of stuff you don’t see many places on the planet. Then I found out that one of those pristine logs was to be sliced and diced entirely into flooring, for a client who wanted ‘good color match’ in his new residence. That, unfortunately, is not an atypical use for a 1000 year old tree, and it grieves me.

I selected some smaller logs out of his pile and gave Eugene a detailed cut list of what I wanted along with the particular specifications for grain orientation and cut- namely, Free-Of Heart-Center (FOHC), primarily quarter sawn or rift sawn. The plan was that he would cut the timbers 0.5″ oversize in height and width, then he would dry the wood in his kiln, and then re-mill the material afterward all sides with a 4-side molder (termed ‘S4S’ milling) to produce nice straight square material I could readily go to work with. I was to make a timber frame with it -a hybrid frame with both joined timbers and some dimensional 2x material for rafters. Well, that was the plan anyhow, and I gave Eugene a 6-month lead time, which seemed more than adequate.

However, at Halloween some vandals were playing with fireworks and burned his kiln to the ground. Then all kinds of other ‘events’ intervened in Eugene’s personal life, which I’m not going to get into. In the end, he supplied me with a partial shipment, several months late. Some wood was as I had asked for, however a lot of it was under-dimension, or was at dimension but not square, or even over dimension in a few cases. Very inconsistent, in other words. Thus, I re-squared much of the material and as a result had some parts nearly 0.5″ under size when that was done, and had to re-draw most of the plans to adjust the dimensions accordingly. Some of the material had rotten punky wood in places, some had the heart center, and so on and so forth. Months of hassling later, I finally had to give up on Eugene. I left it to the G.C. on that job to wrestle with him about the shortfall, a process that went on for many subsequent months and may in fact be still going on for all I know.

Part II to follow…

Anything to add?