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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

  • Versatility of Douglas Fir: Use in homes, boats, and planes

    Posted on February 8, 2012 by Jennifer

    Clear vertical grain Douglas Fir.

    The Douglas-fir tree: it makes beautiful flooring, paneling, and other finish lumber. If you’re from the Northwest, you’ve probably stepped into a Craftsman Bungalow or two and admired the decades-old Douglas Fir floors under your feet. You may also know that it’s widely used for construction lumber, plus, it’s also great for...boats?

    That’s right. With its strength, durability, and attractiveness, Douglas fir is not only the choice for flooring and building, it’s also commonly used for furniture, boats and aircraft.

    What makes Douglas-fir such a versatile species? It’s all about the science. The way Douglas fir grows naturally means that this Northwest native also has some characteristics that make it fit for a variety of uses.

    The Douglas-fir tree sheds lower branches as it grows.

    Douglas-fir trees, when you see them growing on the lush mountainsides of the Pacific Northwest, may strike you for their towering expanses of limb-free trunks. Douglas-fir is a shade-intolerant species, which self-prunes its lower limbs. This means fewer knots, and long stretches of straight, consistent fibers. Those fibers also give Douglas-fir a superior strength-to-weight ratio and the highest modulus of elasticity of any North American softwood species.

    In simpler terms, that means it’s tough and durable. It can handle a heavy load without bending or buckling. These are important considerations when you’re building a boat or a home-built aircraft. When you’re taking to the sky or the sea in something made of wood, you better be sure it’s a wood that’s not going to fail on you.

    Let’s also talk about stability. Douglas Fir is known for being very dimensionally stable--that means that when it expands and contracts due to moisture in the environment (as all woods do), it holds its shape better than most species, another important characteristic if you’re building something like a boat or an aircraft, when holding a certain shape is crucial.

    Douglas-fir also has good rot-resistance--important for a craft that will be exposed to the elements.

    Sitka Spruce was traditionally used for both boats and aircraft, but over the years the Sitka Spruce has become increasingly rare and expensive, putting it out of reach for amateur enthusiasts. Douglas Fir, on the other hand, is plentiful and affordable. This custom sailboat, built by Nexus Marine in Everett, Washington, uses clear vertical grain Douglas fir combined with Brazilian marine plywood, all coated with layers of epoxy to make it completely watertight.

    For furniture building, hardwoods like oak, maple and walnut seem to get most of the glory. But Douglas Fir is also available in clear vertical grain lengths that meet the specifications of fine woodworking.

    Remember those long, straight fibers we talked about? Turns out they’re not only strong, they’re also quite attractive. Douglas Fir is hard enough that it can be difficult to work with hand tools, but it responds well to sharp power tools. Vertical grain Douglas Fir, once finished, has an extremely smooth, glossy appearance, with long, clean subtle lines running down its surface.

    Douglas fir also has a light, rosy color that’s unique and different from the more yellowish oak species or dark walnuts. You can simply seal it with a clean finish and leave its natural color exposed. If a different tone is required, Douglas fir is also known for holding all types of stains, finishes, and paints very well.

    This custom bedroom furniture set, by Portland-based Big Branch Woodworking, for example, showcases Douglas fir’s natural color and clean, straight lines.

    So whether you’re going for a sail, taking to the air, or trying to dress up your home, think of Douglas fir. It’s good for more than just finishing your home.

    - Jennifer Rouse



    This post was posted in All Entries, Douglas Fir Flooring, Douglas Fir Trim, History and Interest, Douglas Fir Paneling and was tagged with Douglas fir flooring, douglas fir trim, douglas fir boats, douglas fir planes

  • Douglas Fir Trim and Joinery

    Posted on November 30, 2011 by Jennifer

    Everyone knows that a project is only as good as the materials that go into it. If you’re making a loaf of bread, you choose the right kind of flour. If you’re planting a garden, you select the right kind of seeds. But when it comes to picking wood for the trim and joinery of your home, how can you be sure you've chosen the right material for the job?

    douglas fir trim

    Vertical grain Douglas fir trim.

    Now, there may not be one right choice--selecting building materials is, as always, a matter of personal preference. But that doesn’t help the homeowner who is trying to narrow down the selection. The good news is, Douglas Fir is a very good choice for many applications, and it’s ideal for trim and joinery.

    Trim and joinery are the wood-working terms for the pieces of wood that surround the architectural features of a home--window casings and sills, baseboards and moulding, mantelpieces and stairway risers--all the detail items that help complete a room.

    Natural Appearance
    Appearance is paramount when selecting trim and joinery materials, because the eye is naturally drawn to these accent pieces. You need a material that looks good. Douglas Fir is an excellent choice because of the natural beauty of the wood. It has a rich, warm, reddish tone that lends itself well to either casual, rustic looks (think California mountain cabin) or clean, modern rooms (think soothing, Zen-inspired spa).

    Douglas fir is also known for its clear vertical grain. These subtle lines run along the length of each board, giving it a clean, natural look. When Douglas Fir is “machined”--that means cut and planed to a specific shape--a very smooth, glossy surface is achieved.

    Finishing
    If you like the natural look for your home, Douglas Fir works well. With only a clear coating or a transparent lacquer, Douglas Fir trim will be ready to showcase your house for years--no involved staining or painting process needed.

    However, if you do want trim that can be stained to a dramatically dark hue, or painted for a splash of color, Douglas Fir works well for that too. It holds all types of stains and finishes and accepts paint, enamel, oil, and wax easily. No matter what creative finish you’ve got up your sleeve, Douglas fir trim is up to the task.

    Durability and Stability
    Douglas Fir is known for its durability. In fact, it’s so tough that it’s used in all kinds of industrial applications ranging from gym floors to fabricating vats to trestles and tunnels. It has a very tough fiber, it’s very strong in relation to its weight, and it’s resistant to cracking and splintering. That’s important for trim and joinery, because things like baseboards, door frames and stair risers take a beating over the course of their life.

    Douglas Fir is also known for its remarkable stability. That clear vertical grain we mentioned before? It’s not just for looking pretty. All wood naturally expands and contracts in response to moisture variation. However, Douglas fir is unique among similar species because it holds its shape so well. When that naturally stable wood is kiln-dried, it becomes even more reliable. Vertical-grain Douglas fir that’s been kiln-dried is extremely resistant to shrinking, warping or cupping. Once you nail a nice, straight piece of Douglas fir baseboard around your floors, you can be sure that it will stay nice and straight--no shrinking or twisting out of place.

    Douglas Fir is also resistant to checking and showing raised grain. The layman may think checking is a kind of bank account, but to a wood-worker, checking is a defect that occurs when wood dries out. Cracks and splits can appear, due to the surface of the wood drying out at a different rate than the core.

    Raised grain is another problem that you won’t see with Douglas fir trim and joinery. Sometimes when wood is exposed to liquid, the cells that make up the grain swell, raising the grain up above the surface of the piece. However, since Douglas Fir is so stable, you can count on your trim staying smooth and sleek.

    An ideal choice
    Is Douglas Fir the only choice for trim and joinery? Maybe not.

    But is it an ideal choice for most homes? If you’re looking for a trim material that’s attractive, easy to finish, and extremely durable, then you can count on Douglas Fir to fit the bill.

    - Jennifer Rouse



    This post was posted in All Entries, Douglas Fir Trim and was tagged with douglas fir trim, wood trim, douglas fir joinery, douglas fir moulding, wood joinery

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