Getting Better Grades


Getting Better Grades

From BCMC 2012 Educational Session: “Lumber Production,
Grading & Design Values Part 2: From Stick to Truss”

Bunk of lumberDavid Richbourg knows a lot about lumber. He should, he’s been in the forest products business for almost 40 years. He’s currently Plant Manager of H.W. Culp Lumber Company in North Carolina, and yet he still left the BCMC show with a whole new perspective on lumber from the standpoint of the component manufacturer.

“After giving the presentations and talking with component manufacturers, it was clear there is probably a better product we can make to meet the component industry’s needs,” said Richbourg. That statement is nothing short of revolutionary, because it points toward a profound shift in the relationship between lumber producers and component manufacturers. To fully appreciate what it could mean, we need to look deeper into the concepts behind Richbourg’s sentiment.

It Starts with Lumber Properties

Probably the best outcome of the Southern Pine lumber design value change process over the past year is the lines of communication it has opened between lumber producers and component manufacturers. Through those discussions, there has been a clear focus on the fact that anyone who buys lumber for engineered end uses is actually buying lumber strength properties and related characteristics that help to resist applied loads. Builders, framers and the structural building components industry all know the dependence we have on our ability to obtain reliable and accurate design values.

“One of the first things I want to do after coming back from BCMC is visit my local component manufacturing facility and sit down with their designers,” said Richbourg. “I know I need to better understand what design values they really rely upon in the wood they use and what lumber defects they have the most problems with.”

Richbourg is quick to point out that there is a limit to what he can produce. The logs coming in from the tracts of land they won the bid to harvest largely dictate the size and strength of dimensional lumber they can produce. That being said, each mill has flexibility to seek out and produce lumber with particular lumber properties if they are specifically looking for them.

Strength Left on the Table

Mike Kozlowski, P.E., President of Apex Technology in Florida, talks about how different lumber properties can affect the design of the component depending on the application and span. “There are several forces at work within a component, from compression and tension forces to bending and shear forces,” said Kozlowski. “For example, while lower span trusses typically see lighter stresses and can take advantage of lower grades, long span floor trusses require high tensile strength lumber at the bottom chord.”

Kozlowski said one of his takeaways from his discussions with lumber producers is that a typical visual grading of a lumber group results in roughly three grades. While on the other hand, MER or MSR results in better precision and upwards of seven grades. “In other words, the lack of precision in visually graded Southern Pine (SP) #2 means you end up leaving a lot of strength on the table.”

Kozlowski’s belief is that the silver lining of the SYP downgrade is the potential increase in precision. “If the component industry can better collaborate with its lumber suppliers, and attain higher grades for select usages, the component industry can create an even greater advantage over code prescribed construction,” said Kozlowski.

Grading for Truss Applications?

“Right now, we as lumber producers need to understand what the key elements of design are,” said Richbourg. He acknowledges it goes beyond just strength properties; it’s also impacted by lumber quality. “I appreciate more fully how wane and knots have an impact at the component joints and how it affects plating.”

So what’s the next step? Through collaborative efforts like the three educational sessions on lumber given at BCMC, SBCA’s Lumber in Components Council (LCC) is focused on facilitating meaningful and in-depth conversation about the business challenges and opportunities that exist between lumber producers and component manufacturers. By taking a less conventional approach, LCC’s goal is to strip away perceived barriers to conversation and foster direct and honest conversation at the entrepreneurial level.

“Right now, the grades that are out there aren’t exactly what component manufacturers need or want,” said Kozlowski.  “However, if lumber producers understand exactly what manufacturers are looking for, it may not be a massive change to look for it and grade it that way,” responds Richbourg.

Next Steps

A strong understanding of the business needs and interests of these two different, but mutually necessary, businesses will not be arrived at overnight. However, the LCC will continue to foster an environment where forthright discussions can take place that will make a big difference in the future of both industries. 

First, the LCC is currently planning a second Lumber Summit to be held early in 2013 to bring lumber mill owners and decision makers and their component manufacturer peers back to a forum to continue the discussions that began earlier this year in Charlotte, NC and at BCMC in New Orleans, LA. This summit will also allow for valuable one-on-one company meetings, as well as opportunities to discuss mutual actions going forward that will be beneficial to both industries.

Second, the LCC is in the process of collecting and analyzing lumber size, grade, and truss and wall panel use data with the intent of publishing ongoing lumber benchmarks that will shed light on how the components industry is utilizing lumber. These benchmarks will help both industries understand better what has been done in the past, as well as what opportunities exist for the future. 

As one of the Co-Chairs of the LCC, Richbourg’s mission for the council is to foster open and effective communication between lumber producers and component manufacturers in order to address challenges and promote innovation between the two industries for mutual benefit.