Special Feature  



American Hardwood - Introduction to a Proven Sustainable Resource

AMERICAN HARDWOOD FORESTS IN THE WORLD’S TEMPERATE ZONE HAVE A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT COMPARED TO THOSE ACROSS THE ATLANTIC IN EUROPE AND FROM THOSE IN RUSSIA AND THE FAR EAST. IN THE FIRST PLACE AMERICAN FORESTS WERE VIRTUALLY UNTOUCHED UNTIL THE ARRIVAL OF THE EUROPEAN SETTLERS IN ABOUT 1600. SECONDLY THEY ARE FAR MORE DIVERSE IN SPECIES THAN THOSE IN EUROPE FOR GEOLOGICAL REASONS. FINALLY THEIR MODERN PROCESSING AND USAGE IS DIFFERENT.

by Michael Buckley Cherry furniture by Marco Hickory table by SJI Furniture


This special editorial feature, written exclusively for FFE magazine, is intended to give detailed insight into the resource, its diversity and sustainability for today’s wood processing industries – especially furniture and interior joinery. The significance of American hardwoods to the world is that they account for less than 10% of the global hardwood forest resource but supply about 25% of the global supply and over 20% of global exports of sawn hardwoods. Other forests in the temperate northern hemisphere have been exploited for thousands of years and some overcut, many destroyed by wars and universally converted to urban and rural uses. Many have been managed for a few preferred species, such as the Oak-planted forests in France, and lack the natural diversity of North American forests. The last Ice Age in Europe eliminated many species, such as Tulipwood, which was not the case in America.



THE HISTORY: Between 1600 and 1900 America hardwood forests were overcut too, but forest management, legislation and sheer size of the forest has reversed that. Regular U.S. Forest Service inventories demonstrate that between 1953 and 2007, the volume of U.S. hardwood growing stock more than doubled from 5,210 million m3 to 11,326 million m3. There was 15% increase in growing stock between 1997 and 2007 despite strong growth in demand for hardwoods during this period, which is the essence of sustainability. The hardwood forest area of the USA has remained stable for 100 years - a period during which the population has tripled – but what surprises many people to learn is that none are replanted because American hardwoods regenerate naturally and thus their diversity endures. This is achieved through dispersal of seed by wind, animals and birds, which ensures proliferation of species most suited to each growing site. Today the UN/ECE has suggested that the U.S. hardwood resource is “under-utilised”


COMMENT ON AVAILABILITY: About twenty American hardwoods are commercially available, meaning that they are harvested in sufficient volumes to ensure continuity of supply for export. They have been proven highly suitable for specific applications. Exports to Southeast Asia have expanded only relatively recently and have been limited to just a few key species, such as Tulipwood, White and Red Oak, Ash, Red Alder and Walnut; and yet the characteristics and working properties of these and other American species are not always well known throughout Asia’s furniture industry. One way to access more information on individual species is via www. americanhardwood.org which now has a new area dedicated to Southeast Asia. Viewers can access an extensive species guide which allows traders, manufacturers and specifiers to learn more about these species from their general description of characteristics, technical and working properties and their main uses. On page 30 demonstrates the data on American White Oak from the ’Guide to Species’ online. The site also includes articles and case studies specifically targeted for this region; and data is provided in a section on sustainability which has up to date news on AHEC’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and other environmental strategies, “ such as the development of the American Hardwood Environmental Profiles (AHEPs), which are part of the 5 step process of informing the market with transparent science-based data.”

THE ADVANTAGES: What American hardwoods provide is a choice of colours, grains, surfaces, and hardness that is appreciated around the world and in some cases preferred for today’s discerning markets. Continuity of supply is almost guaranteed by the enormity of the resource and the lumber is subject to the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) Grading Rules, which makes for smoother international trade without the need to inspect every shipment in advance. In 1988 the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), with backing from the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, commenced its European office promotion programme to represent the many small and medium enterprises that comprise the huge hardwood sawmilling industry – mainly in the eastern States. Since then AHEC, with additional offices in Mexico, Japan and Greater China, has consistently provided technical information via seminars and publications on grading, sourcing and species performance as well as many other issues on behalf of the industry. Consideration to use American hardwoods thus brings with it all the technical support that AHEC offers.

SOME REFERENCES: As the resource was sustained and the modern hardwood industry developed, the USA became a major exporter of hardwoods to world markets. Even before the Second World War, carpenters at Buckingham Palace in London were using Tulipwood for interior joinery. The great Victorian organ casing in the London church of St Martin-inthe- Fields was made in American Red Oak. And after the war many furniture makers turned to American species in the absence of supplies from Europe. From the time of the settlers arriving in the USA, White Oak, Red Oak, Hard Maple, Black Cherry and American Black Walnut had always been at the heart of the American furniture industry and increasingly were gaining recognition around the world. The following pages feature some key species and some less well known.