Walnut Grading Rules
Why is walnut lumber graded lower than other hardwoods?
Part 2. The rebuttal (or the real answer).
By Bucky Pescaglia
In April, I read an article published on the Woodworking Network by Scott Wunder entitled Why is walnut lumber graded lower than other hardwoods?
Since this was published and distributed on the internet, I assumed that this must have been written by an expert. As a person that has spent the last 36 years in the walnut sawmill business, including 8 years as a lumber inspector, I was very curious to read the article. As soon as I finished reading it, I questioned his expertise and knew that I had to contact Mr. Wunder to give him a view from a different perspective. I emailed him and told him that I had read his article and that there were some statements and opinions that he shared that I wanted the opportunity to help clarify. To give my opinion credibility, I told him that along with being the president of our family owned walnut sawmill in Fayette, Mo., I was the current president of the American Walnut Manufacturers Association, and have served on the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) Rules Committee for 20 years. I invited him to come visit our mill and give him a tour of our operation. I thought it would be great to get to show him firsthand how the resource is handled, sorted, and processed. My goal was to hopefully have him write a follow-up article with new information that didn’t project such a negative image of American Black Walnut nor bash the mills that produce the lumber.
Mr. Wunder replied that he was happy for the invite and welcomed all the input he could get on the issue. He wrote: “I want to present the clearest picture I can, and if you have additional insight you can share that would be appreciated.” He said that even after he finished the article he thought of a thousand things he could have included so there may be enough for a follow-up post. That was great news but he also wrote, “I talked to another large mill owner and I didn’t feel like I was getting straight, well-educated answers, so none of his input made it into my blog.” This reinforced my thought that this article was written from only one perspective without seeing the whole picture.
Mr. Wunder has since decided that he would not be able to come and visit mostly because we were 130 miles away. Since that is the case, I have decided to write my own follow-up to the article in defense of the walnut resource and its’ grading rules.
In the first paragraph, Mr. Wunder writes: “A few weeks ago I ordered 300 board feet of 12’, #1 common walnut from a wholesaler that I use on a regular basis. The customer I ordered it for doesn’t mind knots, so #1 common, which is not the highest grade, is usually a fine choice – except in walnut.”
He goes on to complain that half of them looked like “pallet wood” and were “painful to look at and painful to use.”
My first comment is about the interaction between the customer and the wholesaler. If a customer requested 12’ lengths in 1-common from me, I would ask them what they were going to try to use it for. I would make sure they understood that the boards are graded by a percentage of clear wood and not to expect to use the board as a whole. In the industry, the grade of #1 common is commonly referred to as the “cabinet grade” because of the sizes of clear wood (cuttings) the lumber inspector needs to use to make the NHLA grade, are similar to the sizes needed to make kitchen cabinets. The grade is designed for the practicality of having the boards cut into smaller pieces by chopping and ripping out the clear areas to be used in the final product. The areas of defect have very little restriction when establishing the grade since they are not in the calculation of clear wood required. Even if his customer “doesn’t mind knots” the lumber inspector is only accounting for the clear wood in the boards, not the defect. Whether or not a knot is pretty, ugly, sound or unsound, it doesn’t affect the grade. He explains the grading concept in a later paragraph but doesn’t seem to understand the concept when it applies to walnut.
In the next paragraph, Mr. Wunder comments that every time he orders walnut, the quality of the wood is always worse than he could imagine but he continues to be surprised by it when it is delivered. He says that he ends up using it or selling it but has to explain to his customers that it’s just the way walnut is. We have finally reached a point of agreement. It is the responsibility of the buyer and seller to educate themselves about the product.
In the next few paragraphs, Mr. Wunder attempts to explain why walnut is graded differently. He says that the only “tidbit” he can find on the internet that sounds like a “real” reason is that it is difficult to get good quality wood out of the walnut log supply. He says that they want you to believe that walnut trees don’t grow tall and straight and don’t get a decent diameter, so there just isn’t anything good to choose from. He says that this is only partially true. He says the “real, full and complete truth is” that it is because the high quality logs never make it to the sawmill. He says that the best logs are being shipped overseas because they are even “more valuable”. “These logs don’t have a chance of being cut into lumber because the sawmill can make just as much or more money selling the logs for veneer instead of wasting their time cutting, drying and selling them for lumber.” He goes on to say that the demand for walnut is high and the supply is limited as he points out that walnut represents less than 1% of the hardwood forest. He also contacted the chief lumber inspector of the NHLA, who are responsible for implementing the current grading rules, and found no time when the rules made any sort of abrupt change and has always been in demand and in relative short supply. These are more facts that we agree on. If he understands this information, then why is he chastising walnut manufacturers for selling some of our logs to someone that gives them more value and allows the sawmill to make as much or more profit. Our 45 employees are counting on us to operate our business at a profit to remain employed. For our company, only about 10% of the logs we buy make a veneer quality log so the impact on the overall production is minimal.
In the NHLA rules book that he referenced there is a paragraph in the Forward that states: From the adoption of the earliest hardwood rules, no major alteration of standards has occurred that was not prompted by a noticeable change in the character of the hardwood timber supply. Practical hardwood operators have an awareness of the obligation to strive to make the rules bear a reasonable and practical relationship to the general quality of the available timber supply. Conservation is promoted by the maintenance of this type of sensible relationship between the lumber rules and the raw material from which the lumber is produced.
With a long history of good demand and the undeniable fact that the supply is limited, the grading rules have allowed the limited resource to be utilized to the fullest. If walnut was held to the same grading requirements as the abundant species of red oak, there would only be a fraction of the higher grades available and nearly half of the average production that would be graded below 2 com. The demand for walnut has outpaced the supply utilizing the current grading rules many times over the years. One of the biggest problems with walnut is that when it gets in such high demand, the ability to supply the market becomes nearly impossible. A furniture factory or flooring plant cannot operate without lumber. If they cannot receive a consistent supply of the walnut they require, they will be forced to choose a different species. Forcing walnut to meet the same grading requirement as red oak would only compound the problem by reducing the volume of an already limited species.
His next issue with walnut is the sapwood. The photo of the log end that he included for reference is very helpful in my defense of the rules. It shows that ¼ of this log is sapwood. We have already talked about the limited supply, now we need to eliminate even more of our available supply? I remind you that the forward states that the rules need to show a sensible relationship to the raw material. Limiting or eliminating the sapwood is not sensible. Oh, and another point is that sapwood is almost always 100% clear. How sensible is it to eliminate clear wood?
Mr. Wunder states that some jobs require all dark heartwood and is almost impossible to get. That is simply not true. There are several walnut manufacturers that sell heart sorted material but don’t chastise them for attempting to get more for this limited commodity. They too are in business to make a profit.
The process of steaming walnut is an expensive and necessary process that walnut producers have developed over the years. Although we agree that it does not turn the white sapwood the same chocolate brown color the heartwood is, it does soften the contrast to an acceptable level to the majority of the industry’s customers.
In his article he writes “Allowing steamed sapwood to not be a defect, just like the other special walnut grading rules is done, as they say, “to make better use of this valuable resource,” or maybe just to sell more lumber.” Mr. Wunder purports that both of his wholesalers told him that it wouldn’t break their hearts if they never sold another walnut board again. I guess he believes the walnut industry is living by the old P.T. Barnum creed of a sucker is born every minute but I remind him that American manufactures cut and sell tens of millions of feet of walnut lumber every year to a vast majority of repeat customers. The difference is that we work to educate our customers as to the unique qualities that make American Black Walnut one of the most desired hardwoods in the world. I believe Mr. Wunder’s article suggests that we should just be in business to produce only the best quality lumber and sell it as cheaply as possible so he isn’t surprised when he orders his 300’. I strongly agree with him that it all does come back to economics. The current rules don’t work for everybody but if they didn’t work for the majority then we wouldn’t be able to sell what we produce.
I really wish that he would have come to visit our sawmill or at least included the input from the other large walnut producer he contacted for his story. I truly believe that he would have attained a much different perspective and could have conveyed a more accurate reason as to why walnut is graded lower than other hardwoods.
Bucky Pescaglia, President
Missouri-Pacific Lumber Co.