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Local Food, Local Wood

Can we use more local lumber from local sawmills for home construction?

Posted on Mar 12 2009 by Carl Seville

I picked up my weekly box of locally grown organic food today — not exactly a farm co-op, commonly knows as a CSA, but a small, farm-based business that distributes these fine products to individuals and restaurants in the region. I’ve been doing this for a few weeks, and it is interesting that what's in the box — the contents of which are unknown to me until I open it — dictates my diet now, rather than what looks good to me in the market. Right now cabbage, root vegetables, and lettuce are in season, so I’m eating more of those. I also got some nice strawberries and some peppers. I never ate last week’s peppers, so I am currently on overload. Maybe it’s time for chile rellenos.

The quality is excellent, and the price, while not as cheap as the supermarket, is less than Whole Foods, and I feel good that I am supporting local businesses.

Why do we buy wood from across the country when it is available around the corner?
This concept of buying local got me thinking about the national and global industries that I have been railing about recently. From cheap Chinese and Korean electronics and tools to framing lumber shipped from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast, we are addicted to getting the lowest-priced product, no matter how far it travels to get to us.

The standard framing lumber used in the southeast is spruce/pine/fir, logged and milled in the western U.S. and Canada. It's inexpensive, easy to work, and readily available, and contractors rarely think twice about how far it travels to their job sites. I live awfully close to what an old bluegrass song refers to as “Georgia Piney Woods,” but rarely do I see any local wood used for studs in buildings around here.

Low price/long distance is not a good long-term strategy
Up until a few decades ago, this very lumber was used almost exclusively in home construction, and those homes have held up very well over time. What market forces have caused this change, and is it for the better? It could be the fact that local yellow pine is harder and more prone to warping than the western white woods. It is certainly tougher to work with, and in our do-it-fast, do-it-cheap world, this is an inconvenience by which we simply cannot abide.

Like buying local food when it is available and in season, we should work to change our behavior and use the perfectly suitable lumber that is harvested practically in our backyards instead of shipping truckloads of it thousands of miles across the country. We may have to work a little harder, but, like eating locally grown, in-season foods instead of exactly-what-I-want-when-I-want it, using local products and reducing our global impact in the process might just be better for us.


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1.
Mar 19, 2009 11:16 AM ET

Local Wood?
by T.C. Feick

Carl- Southern Yellow Pine is regionally available in the southeast, and in the northeast most of our SPF (especially in narrows) comes from maine, NH, vermont, and southeastern canada. I agree that regional sourcing is a no brainer.


2.
Mar 19, 2009 1:47 PM ET

SYP
by Carl Seville

I know that SYP is available in the south, my point is that it is not used for much anymore. Studs are mostly SPF from the northwest, joists are mostly TJIs or Trusses. We have this great supply of lumber that does not see much use.


3.
Mar 10, 2017 5:04 PM ET

Locally cut?
by Ethan T ; Climate Zone 5A ; ~6000HDD

What about milling wood from the site as it is cleared for construction? It is so odd to see a pile of wood destined for a burn pile on the side of a lot and a bunch of lumber being trucked inl


4.
Mar 10, 2017 5:24 PM ET

Response to Ethan T
by Martin Holladay

Ethan,
It's fairly common in Vermont to use a portable bandsaw mill to mill the trees that are felled to clear the site. There are a few disadvantages to using green lumber for framing, but it's quite possible. I've done it.

-- Martin Holladay


5.
Mar 10, 2017 8:12 PM ET

Options
by Charlie Sullivan

There are a lot of options:

1) Hire a portable bandsaw mill operator to come saw the lumber on site, and either build with it green or stack it to air dry before use (ideally for a year or so).

2) If you live near a small sawmill, get the logs from the site trucked to the sawmill, sawed, and perhaps kiln dried before they are trucked back.

3) Buy ready-milled or custom-milled wood directly from a local saw mill.

4) Buy regionally produced wood from a lumberyard that includes that in their offerings.

Being lucky enough to live an area that includes all of those options, I've done all of them, and even sawed some logs up myself with a chainsaw mill. With milling lumber from the site, it's a bit of a challenge to plan the quantities and sizes of lumber needed and figure out how to best use the available logs for that, and the timing can also be a challenge if you want to build with dry lumber. It's also important to keep in mind that if you want wood for trim or floors or the like, the labor involved in final milling can be a lot more than the labor involved in sawing, particularly if the equipment available is marginal for the job. But having visible trim or floors that came from trees on site can be a nice touch.

All in all, I think option 3), buying from a local sawmill, is often the best option, as the cost savings can be real, the quality can be high, and you avoid the challenges associated with trying to match the available logs to the needs of the project in time, dimensions and species. But if you have logs from the site that can be made into good lumber, by all means, do something with them: get them sawed on site, and dry them to use in a future project, or sell the logs to a local sawmill even if you get next to nothing for them. And if you are willing to take on the complexities and costs of building with the site-milled lumber, it can be very satisfying.


6.
Mar 10, 2017 8:48 PM ET

Lumber grading
by Malcolm Taylor

There can be a couple of complexities to using site-cut wood:

Our codes require all lumber used in construction to be graded. Often you can get a grader to come to your site and approve it, but that can cost more than the difference in buying from a yard.

Lumber with sizes outside those listed in our building code require an engineer's approval - even if they exceed the size of the dimensional lumber from the code tables they are to replace.


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