Hardwood: Past, Present& Future

American hardwood is widely used in furniture, flooring, furnishing and construction for its environmental quality and physical properties. American Hardwood Export Council chairman Dave Bramlage, executive director Michael Snow and regional director, Greater China & Southeast Asia John Chan and executive director from National Hardwood Lumber Association CEO Lorna Christie share more about this unique material with FDM Asia. By Sandy Sun



FDM Asia: Recently, American hardwood export to China and Southeast Asia hit a historical high. What is the driver behind this growth?


Dave Bramlage (DB): China has turned into a consumer instead of manufacturing country with high domestic demand. 


In the past, we are manufacturing in China and the final products will be transferred to other markets. But now, 60 percent of American hardwood exports to China have been consumed locally. Therefore, the domestic demand in China is very high. 


Although many people are talking about the Chinese economy slowing down, the country is using more domestically than what we have seen in the past. We still see very bright future for American hardwood in China. 


Lorna Christie (LC): I think it is also related to work partnership. It seems that American have a much better understanding of Chinese buying process. 


I have found it interesting that there are American manufacturers here staying in China, and we also have Chinese buyers in US. The relationship between buyers and sellers is still developing. 


John Chan (JC): In addition, the trading environment has been changing in the last few years. There are over 50 companies that store American hardwood in their warehouses in China. They can supply more quantities. 


It is very important just like the American market. You can get one bundle and they can deliver it to you immediately. This is one way to speed up the supply and demand which is different from the past. Buyers do not have to wait for three to five months.


FDM Asia: Today, the world is faced with the shortage of timber resources. How do you ensure that American hardwood is sufficient and sustainable?


Michael Snow (MS): It mainly depends on the way the forests are managed. We have taken effective practice to manage natural forests such as selection harvesting, protecting natural regeneration and helping maintain biodiversity.


Besides, when we cut trees when they are alive, and then use them to manufacture furniture, table and doors, the carbon is still stored in the wood. 


If we cut them after they died, the carbon dioxide will be released to the atmosphere. Our data has indicated that mortality before harvesting leads to the release of 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxideto the atmosphere which is bad for the environment. When we cut the trees before they die, it will also be good for forest growing. 


FDM Asia: You mentioned that forest growing stock has increased and even doubled. Does it mean that forest coverage has also increased? 


MS: Centuries ago, when the US began to expand, many forest lands were turned into agriculture lands. But in the last several decades, agriculture has been much more efficient and requires less land. So that lands that used to be forest and then became agriculture are now going back to be forest. 


That is a big reason why forest land is increasing. The trees are also being bigger. The value is also increasing in the forest as well.


And one of the most important factors that people do not understand about American hardwood forests is that most of the forests are owned by individual farms and not by the government. 


There are about nine million individual forest farms and most of them keep the forests for a variety of reasons like hunting, then they will harvest from trees and forest every 20 years. 


Therefore, most of the wood comes out from private lands and they have economic incentives by selling lumber. Being able to sell trees create economic incentives for the forest to stay because you can make money from forest that the land use will happen.


In the areas of the world where deforestation is happening, two places will come into mind: in Indonesia, we will see the burning of forest lands before disappearing and then using them to plant palm oil so people can gain better economic benefits. And in Brazil and the Amazon, people have to use the lands to raise cattle and grow soybean since the two uses will bring them better economic benefits. 


If you see the areas in world that have fastest increasing forest like US, Canada and Europe, they have most active forest products industries, so there are incentives to protect forest.


The important thing for lumber and timber industry is that if we want to have forest as a forest, there needs to be economic incentive to keep forest as a forest.


That is why even though my job is to promote the American hardwood, you never hear me say do not use tropical hardwood since if there is no market for tropic hardwood, then there is no incentive to protect tropical forest. Therefore, it is important that there is demand also for sustainable timber of tropical forests. 


I promote the American hardwood and the use of wood from sustainable sources at the same time because having that would create economic incentives that protects the forest.


During the media convention, we have not only mentioned that the forest growing stock has doubled in the past 50 years, you can also found that the private forests are increasing much quicker than public forests since their management is more consistent with scientific development. 


There is a misunderstanding for government that “We cannot touch and cut the trees.”However, if we manage the forest correctly, remove the old trees before they die and allow new trees to grow, it will instantly increase the standing timber and forest growing stock. 


DB: I have some timber lands in my farm, and in the last 30 years, I cut that timber in my small forest three times. Each time I cut it, there are more timbers we can offer and the quality is better because we manage the forest correctly. 


FDM Asia: What do you think need to be done to promote wood use? 


MS: We certainly hope we can use the technology to increase the consumption because more people now are realising that wood is more environmental friendly. We can use wood in more ways because of its low carbon and renewability.


We have shown the production of hardwood lumber over the years. In 1999, we produce more than 12 billion board feet of lumber, that is going down in the last couple of years to eight billion. Therefore, we have plenty of opportunities to increase production without risking the sustainability. As I have mentioned before, one of the problem is that we are allowing too many trees to die. 


And more demand is also good for forests. We can increase our production by more than double. We make sure that there will be many more trees growing than the trees we have removed, so the long-term sustainability remains very strong even as we increase the consumption by a lot. The more demand created by new technology, the better for the industry and the forest.


LC: We also see the consumer trends in the US. The natural feel and natural looking of wood is much welcomed by new generation consumers in the market place. 


We have to do our jobs to market the lumber and timber products. When people found it is environmental friendly, the consumer trends will certainly accord with the development trends of wood industry.


DB: Today we have introduced two technologies including cross laminated timber(CLT) and thermally modified timber (TMT) and both of them are in the primary stage of development. 


Using TMT technology can improve stability, change the workpiece’s appearance and create better value for wood. In Indiana, we will display the first cross-laminated project of hardwood this September. The project is the first that makes use of hardwood.


As Michael Snow has mentioned before, in Europe, people have used hardwood CLT to construct building. Therefore, there is still enough space for the development of these technologies. Although the project has just started, we can guarantee that the production will meet the demand of the market.


FDM Asia: Eight years ago, China was the largest importer of American hardwood. In the last two years, has the number increase or fall? What are the more popular species that are exported to China?


MS: The last three years saw the highest numbers in terms of exports to China and the world. Therefore, you can see that our production must be increasing in the past three years.


The red oak is the biggest species to come into China. Europe, our second biggest market, has a preference for white oak. 


Actually, it is good for the balance because when you promote and use wood, the demand for species matches the species of imports. 


Red oak is our most abundant species in the forests, so the fact that Chinese use so much red oak is a very good thing.


We also have beautiful and popular species like Walnut, but it only occupies three percent of forests. However, there is a high demand for this species, so it is imbalance for the forests. Therefore, it is important that the demand matches the supply that the nature provides.


The other popular species are ash, tulipwood and white oak. The demand for white oak in China is not very high, and it is more popular in Europe and America.


FDM Asia: What are the advantages of CLT hardwood over CLT softwood?


MS: From the performance perspective, hardwood is stronger, but also lighter and has better weight capacity. 


It means when you make the same structure, the thickness of the panel can be largely decreased, while the weight capacity stays the same. That gives architects and designers the ability to have the same strength, but with thinner pieces. The final products would not be very heavy.


If you look into the testing of bending strength, there are five species with the same density, and we found that the hardwood’s bending strength is better than the softwood and it is much stronger, but still lighter.


From the perspective of aesthetics, softwood like pine has a plain appearance, but hardwood looks much warmer with nice grain patterns. By using hardwood, you can get much more beautiful finished product for interior decoration and construction. 


DB: Another advantage of using CLT hardwood is that the panels’ degree can be lower. For example, when we make furniture, if we do not use CLT hardwood, the panel’s degree should reach No.1C or No.2C. 


But if we use CLT hardwood, N0.3C panel can be used. We will display a CLT hardwood project in this September. This will be the first time that CLT hardwood is used to make a commercial building. 


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