A manufacturer’s guide to American softwoods

In October, the wood and wood products sector in Malaysia was treated to a day of learning about American softwoods. The info session should give furniture manufacturers more options when selecting species for their next project.

Participants taking a closer look at the different softwood species and grades

The Malaysia Technical Assistance Programme for US softwoods was held on October 3 in Kuala Lumpur. The full-day programme gathered over 50 participants from the furniture industry in Malaysia. Jointly organised by the Malaysia Wood Industries Association (MWIA) and the US Softwood Export Council (SEC), presentations centred on understanding American softwoods—their different species, characteristics, applications and grading.

For SEC, the event was part of an effort to expand export markets for value-added primary and secondary softwood products. Welcoming the audience, MWIA President Goh Chee Yew raised the fact that there is low demand for American softwoods simply because the industry understands little about it. Its properties are different, varying from species to species.

“So learning about it is definitely crucial to know how to apply it in projects,” Mr Goh said. “I hope this seminar enhances your knowledge and brings you good insight. I hope you have a fruitful participation here with the speakers.”

Back to basics

It may seem like a pointless exercise to describe the main parts of a tree or ask “what is wood”. But what Dr Chris Knowles was trying to explain was that each species is unique because of their anatomy. Going back to the basics on density, texture and moisture content was necessary as it ultimately determines challenges and informs how you would use it in furniture production.

A significant amount of time was spent discussing the tricky topic of moisture content. “Ideally, you would want to source lumber as close to the end-use conditions of the product as possible,” Dr Knowles offered. For example, for products that are going to be used in indoor conditions with air conditioning or heating, this is typically eight to 10 per cent. Ambient conditions without air conditioning or heating can range from as low as four to about 18 per cent.

He added that the Wood Handbook, published by the USDA Forest Products Lab, is a useful resource to understand the equilibrium moisture content based up temperature and relative humidity.

Dr Knowles later gave a brief overview of various softwood species found across the United States. Many of them, such as the western pines and spruce are used in windows, doors, moulding and millwork; while Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock are common as structural elements.

Talking technicalities

Jerry Hingle, consultant for the Southern Pine Council, introduced softwood species found in the US South and shared on the industry’s sustainable forestry practices. He also touched on pressure-treated wood, which makes it more resistant to rot and termites. A tip: fasteners and connectors used in pressure-treated wood should be hot-dip galvanised and made of stainless steel. And do not use aluminium with pressure-treated wood! 

Moving on to the very complicated topic of lumber grading, Dr Knowles explained that grading was necessary as most building codes require structural lumber to meet certain standards. Otherwise, for appearance grades, the number of available cuttings in softwood grading is rather similar to the hardwood lumber grading rules by the National Hardwood Lumber Association.

It takes about three seconds for a grader on the grading line to determine the grade for each piece of lumber. These days, there are automated systems for the job. Such machines not only identify defects, they can also measure the size of knots to a 99 per cent accuracy.

For sure, a 45-minute session is too brief a time to pick up everything. Professionals spend a serious six months studying the science of grading and training to become a certified grader can take up to 12 months.

Before the end of the day, Nick Clark shared his experience using American softwoods in contemporary furniture, kitchen cabinetry and joinery design. At 16 years old, Clark began his apprenticeship with a leading joinery contractor in Sheffield, UK. “I made every mistake known to mankind, which taught me many valuable lessons,” he said.

Today, softwoods account for about 30 per cent of his work. When choosing the right material, he always considers the species’ structural ability, visibility and grain appearance. Clark wowed the audience with some of his designs, proving that apart from structural elements, cedar, Douglas fir and spruce can work very well for interior and exterior furniture.

Nevertheless, feedback from the floor ranged from “very technical” to “informative”. Judging from questions raised during each presentation, it was clear that the event was a much-needed session for the local furniture industry. The day should have ended with them knowing a little more and how to overcome softwoods’ unique challenges in furniture manufacturing. 

From left: Dr Chris Knowles, Associate Professor, Oregon State University; Xu Fang, Director, American Softwoods; Nick Clark of Nick Clark Design; Jerry Hingle, Consultant, Southern Pine Council.

The speakers:

Chris Knowles holds a PhD in wood science from Oregon State University. He is an associate professor in Forest Products Marketing and the Assistant Director of the Oregon Wood Innovation Center (OWIC) at Oregon State University. His research interest is in international markets, the role of wood products in sustainable design, and developing local markets for wood products.

Jerry Hingle has 20 years of experience developing international markets for value-added U.S. wood products. For 10 years he directed the international marketing and trade policy programme of the Southern Forest Products Association in more than 20 countries.

Nick Clark has over 30 years of experience in both contemporary furniture and joinery designing and building. He began his career as a formal apprentice in Sheffield, England, and earned Master Joiner before moving to Berkeley, California, to launch his own furniture making business. Nick also developed invaluable expertise through completing a two-year fine woodworking programme at the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, California.