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  • Clear Vertical Grain Douglas Fir: Where does it come from, and why?

    Posted on April 4, 2012 by Jennifer

    When you’re shopping around for Douglas fir, one of the things you’ll hear advertised often is “tight-grain” Douglas fir. Lumber suppliers like AltruFir pride themselves on the clear, tight, vertical grain of the Douglas fir they sell, and they should--this lumber is stable, strong, and beautiful--among the best building materials you’ll find anywhere. What you may not know is the story behind those claims.

    Much of the tight-grained Douglas fir that’s produced today comes from the forests of British Columbia. Why is that? Why are our neighbors to the north producing large, high-quality logs, while the Douglas fir grown in Oregon and Washington is mostly smaller-diameter? There are a number of reasons why the forests in the U.S. and Canada have developed differently.

    Sit back and learn the tale of two forests.

    Clear Vertical Grain Douglas Fir: Where does it come from? | Altrufir

    Douglas Fir Sapling

    If you were a Douglas fir sapling about 200 years ago, and you planted your roots in the fertile soil of Oregon, chances are you might not have lasted very long. Even before the arrival of European settlers, forests in Oregon and Washington were historically more affected by fire than B.C. forests were. According to a study on the history of old-growth forestsby the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pacific Northwest research station, frequent low intensity fires were a normal part of the landscape in many of Oregon’s forests. “As a result, trees regenerated almost continuously,” the authors wrote.

    But, if you were a lucky seedling, you might have survived to the early days of the twentieth century. Now it’s about 1920, and Oregon is booming. All the gorgeous Craftsman bungalows in Portland were built out of Douglas fir. Douglas fir that was cut during the early days of Oregon’s logging industry. Another study from the Pacific Northwest Research station puts it this way: “The prevailing harvest practice was simple liquidation.” Large tracts of Oregon forests were cut, slash burned, and left to regenerate naturally.

    And regenerate they did--for about 40 or 50 years, or maybe 75 or 80, at the longest. Then the stands were logged and replanted again-and again. Even as timber management practices have improved over the years, the demand for landowners to get repetitive harvests out of their land has not let up. An article in the Journal of Forestry, describes the race for harvest: “The intensively managed plantations being planted today in the Pacific Northwest are growing at rate on par with intensively managed conifer plantations being harvested today in other regions of the world, where the competition has continued to move ahead.”

    Here’s the thing about Douglas fir that’s harvested as soon as it reaches what’s considered “merchantable diameter”--it may be big enough to cut, but it’s not fully mature. A Forest Service study on the characteristics of old-growth Douglas fir forests says that trees younger than 75 are in the fastest-growing phase of their life. “Forests up to about 75-100 years old can generally be considered ecologically young in the Douglas fir region. This is the period of very rapid growth or ‘adolescence,’” the authors wrote.

    Douglas fir grows more slowly as it ages, and the slow growing phases are when it develops those tight growth rings. These adolescent trees simply haven’t had a chance to mature into the kind of trees that produce the beautiful, high-quality fiber we’re looking for. That kind of growth happens when a tree grows slowly and steadily.

    Now let’s imagine that our little Oregonian Douglas fir seedling did manage to survive fire and repeated harvesting. If that’s the case, it most likely means that this tree is by now in a forest owned by the federal government.

    In Oregon and Washington, most of the remaining old, large diameter trees are now on protected land. This isn’t a bad thing--old growth forests are a marvel that should be preserved for the health of the planet and for future generations. But it does mean that few large logs with tight growth rings are being harvested in Oregon and Washington these days. Federal timber harvests have fallen dramatically in the past 20 years. Instead, much of the U.S. Douglas fir is grown on private timberlands that are managed for maximum output, not slow growth and large-diameter trees.

    Cross-Cut Douglas Fir | AltruFir Doug Fir Flooring

    Grain on display in a Douglas-fir.

    Now let’s imagine that our hypothetical Douglas fir seedling instead found itself blown northward on the wind. Imagine that it grew, instead, in British Columbia.

    This western-most Canadian province is big. In fact, it’s larger than Oregon, Washington and California combined, and two-thirds of the province is forested.

    And the Douglas firs that grew here? They simply weren’t subjected to the kinds of disturbance that their southern neighbors were. The study on the history of Pacific Northwest forests, the same one that mentioned the fire disturbances in Oregon and Washington forests, notes that “fire was rare or absent...” In a natural landscape in this area, the small patches of old, young, and maturing trees create a nearly continuous old-growth forest with a fine-grained texture.”

    Basically, if you were a Douglas fir seedling growing up in British Columbia, nothing happened to you. Ever. To this very day, according to the best estimate of the Canadian government, 68 percent of the trees in British Columbia are 160 years old or older.

    That doesn’t mean that if you grew in Canada, you were immune from the possibility of harvest. On the contrary, logging has been historically and continues to be a huge part of British Columbia’s economy. The difference here is the sheer size of the province’s forests.

    The majority of Canada’s timber land--93 percent--is owned by the government, and it’s managed differently than the privately-owned forests in the U.S. The forests that are cut, planted with a single species, and then cut again in a few decades? They’re virtually non-existent here. In fact, B.C. does not have any “intensively managed” forests that meet the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s definition of a plantation forest. Even Weyerhauser, one of the largest timber companies in the world, says that it does things differently on its Canadian lands: “Because of differences in weather, soil conditions, and ownership, we manage land in Canada less intensively than we do land in the United States and Southern Hemisphere, working to maintain natural forest qualities and serve a wide range of community interests while still producing timber.”

    So, let’s sum up: if you’re a Canadian Douglas fir seedling, you’re much less likely to have been torched by fires when you were young; the land you stand on probably isn’t owned by a company that feels pressured to harvest as soon as you get to 40 or 50 years old; and there are so many millions of you big, old trees that the government is still able to harvest some of you without worrying that doing so is depriving the world of the last 100+ year-old trees in the province.

    Does this mean the second- and third-generation Douglas fir grown in the U.S. is worthless? Certainly not. Douglas fir is one of the best construction materials around, and the trees harvested today produce thousands of board feet of valuable timber each year.

    But when it comes to the lumber we favor at AltruFir, it’s the large-diameter trees from B.C. that are more likely to pass our inspections and give us the kind of tight grained, high-quality wood fiber help us live up to our advertising.

    - Jennifer Rouse

    This post was posted in Douglas Fir Flooring, Douglas Fir Trim, History and Interest, Douglas Fir Paneling and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, clear vertical grain, douglas fir trim, douglas fir paneling

  • Douglas Fir in Your Great Outdoors

    Posted on March 21, 2012 by Jennifer

    You may know that Douglas fir makes beautiful floors that will last for decades inside your home--but did you know that Douglas fir can make the outside of your home look great too?

    Turns out Douglas fir is more than just a good-looking wood. Its durability and resistance to rot and insects make it a favorite choice for outdoor projects like porch decking as well.

    In fact, vertical-grain Douglas fir has been a traditional choice for porches on historic homes for more than 100 years. Builders chose it back then for its widespread availability and its durability--the same reasons builders continue to use it today.

    What makes Douglas fir so good for the outdoors? For one thing, it’s a very dimensionally stable wood, with few knots. When it expands and contracts in response to moisture--as all wood products do--it does so evenly. It’s unlikely to warp and buckle, especially if you select clear vertical-grain products.

    It’s also naturally resistant to rot, decay, and insects. According to research done by the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, completely untreated Douglas fir will last 10-15 years in outdoor uses.

    It’s generally recommended that if you’re using wood for an outdoor purpose, you’ll want to treat it with something that will extend its life even further. According to the University of California’s research, Douglas fir that was treated with ACQ (a water-based fungicide and insecticide made of copper oxide and an ammonium compound) will last for 30 years or more. Paints, stains, and finishes designed for outdoor use will also help your Douglas fir stand the test of time.

    So now that you’re convinced Douglas fir can stand up to the elements, let’s talk about what you can do with it. Or, how about a more accurate question: what can’t you do with it?

    One typical use for Douglas fir is siding. Real wood siding is not only a historically accurate choice if you have an older home -- it also provides more aesthetic appeal than aluminum or vinyl siding. Whether you’re restoring an old home or building a new one, with periodic care Douglas fir siding will outlast its synthetic competitors.

    Douglas fir is also good for an often-overlooked part of your home’s exterior: soffits. What’s a soffit, you may ask? It’s the underside of the eaves of your house. Still not sure what we mean? Go outside. Look up at the piece of the roof that extends out above your head. The wood on the underside of that overhang is called soffit. Perhaps you’ve never given much thought at all to what wood is used in the soffit of your house. Perhaps that’s because you’ve never used Douglas fir. Using attractive solid wood for a soffit can turn it from an unnoticed architectural necessity, to a subtle design feature that adds to your outdoor living space.

    Speaking of outdoor living, we’ve already talked about porches, but when you think about the areas for outdoor entertaining, don’t limit yourself to the front of the house. With the right Douglas fir, you can also build beautiful decks, patios, and pergolas, perfect for summer entertaining. In an article by syndicated home and garden columnists Bill and Kevin Burnett, they recommend using Douglas fir for a backyard deck, choosing it over redwood for its extra durability. “If you select vertical grain fir, cure it properly and prime and paint it thoroughly, it will perform...and will resist heavy foot traffic and dings a bit better,” they wrote.

    Once you’ve got a nice Douglas fir deck, don’t stop there. The current trend in landscape design is to view the entire back yard as an extension of the house, creating an “outdoor living room.”

    Because Douglas fir is widely available, more-cost effective than redwood or cedar, but doesn’t skimp on durability and appearance, it makes adding an outdoor living room a real possibility. A Douglas fir gazebo for relaxing outside, a covered fire pit for roasting marshmallows, a trellis for climbing plants--whatever feature you can dream up, your builder can create a Douglas fir structure that will fit your needs. Especially in the Pacific Northwest, having a covered pavilion outdoors means the party can go on no matter what the weather.

    And--because you know that Douglas fir will stand the test of time--you can keep on planning those parties for years to come.

    - Jennifer Rouse

    This post was posted in Care & Maintenance, Douglas Fir Paneling and was tagged with douglas fir paneling, douglas fir porch decking, douglas fir soffits, douglas fir siding, outdoor living room

  • Douglas Fir Finishing Touches

    Posted on February 15, 2012 by Jennifer

    One of the things that we like so much about Douglas Fir is its versatility. It’s the wood version of the little black dress--it’s classy and stylish all by itself, if you like to keep things simple.

    If simple’s not your thing, you can add on special effects to make it fancier, or take it down a notch with rustic styling. Light or dark, glossy or distressed, Douglas Fir wears anything well.
    First let’s talk about the surface of the wood itself. You have some options here. Douglas Fir can be planed and sanded to a completely smooth finish--this is especially popular for applications like joinery and trim. Or, Douglas Fir lumber can be left rough-sawn, with the marks from the saw still discernible.

    Douglas Fir Flooring

    Maybe you’ve chosen reclaimed Douglas Fir. This material in particular often comes with its own set of bumps and scrapes, part of the patina that has developed over time. For some people, those aren’t imperfections--they’re a highly desirable way to let the wood tell the story of its former life as a barn, factory, or gymnasium.

    In fact, some people like the weathered look so much that they want to create it on new boards. To achieve this effect, new Douglas fir is scraped with hand tools or brushed with a wire brush in an effort to create the perfectly-imperfect look and feel of an aged board.

    Now let’s move beyond texture and talk about color. What shade do you want your Douglas Fir to be? Its natural tone is a warm, rosy, golden brown. For many people, that natural beauty is what they want to see. Interviewed in “Veranda” magazine, interior designer John Saladino remarked on the “quietness” of natural Douglas fir. “It acquires a rich hue similar to a cigar box,” Saladino told Veranda.

    To achieve that subtle look, you can simply apply a clear or lightly pigmented finish. If you’re not sure what type to select, read our blog for a complete lowdown on stains and finishes for Douglas fir and other woods.

    Thicker stains and paints are also available if you want to transform the color of your Douglas fir and hide the grain for a formal, elegant look.

    Remember that aging process we talked about for adding texture to wood? You can do that for the wood’s color, too. Douglas fir can be stained with a mixture of silver and brown hues for an aged, weathered look; coated with a semi-solid white stain for what’s called a “pickled” look; or even sand-blasted and bleached, as designer Ron Mann did for this Douglas fir plank chair.

    Or, you could just keep it classic. Like that little black dress, people have been appreciating high-quality Douglas fir for a long time--longer even. Take a look at what lumber magazines were saying about Douglas fir a century ago:

    “At this time fir is used for all purposes of inside finish in buildings of high class and when properly kiln dried is susceptible to stain of various tones, giving the home-builder opportunity to harmonize tone of finish with the furnishings of the room...The special selected clear stock possesses characteristics of grain in the flat sawed stock that cannot be found in any other wood in such variety, the grain possessing curly, mottled, wavy and variegated effects that are very pleasing.”
    --January 1910 issue of the “The Timberman” (emphasis added)

    We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Keep it classy, Douglas fir lovers.

    - Jennifer Rouse

    This post was posted in Douglas Fir Flooring, Douglas Fir Trim, History and Interest, Douglas Fir Paneling and was tagged with douglas fir finish, douglas fir stain

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