Did you know that lumber thickness is in many ways a matter of preference and market trends? While the thicknesses you consider “standard” may be difficult to come by in some lumber species, those commonly accepted norms might not be all that important after all. When you’re looking at African hardwoods and requesting sizes such as the most popular North American size of 4/4, you may well have been surprised at the response — and not the delightful surprise, either. The reason isn’t at all related to availability of African hardwoods.
From African Mahogany to Sapele and more, African hardwood trees are both prolific and generously sized. Instead, the issue is related to demand: African mills know that in all likelihood, cutting their precious lumber into those sizes will result in too much waste. So where does that leave you? You actually have a few viable options to consider. (And having options is always a good thing, right?) But before we get to your options, we’ll explore the issue a bit more thoroughly.
Global Lumber Market Norms
While there’s no shortage of opinions about the reasoning for size preferences, we’re really not exactly sure why most Asians and Europeans prefer 8/4 and thicker boards. But the fact remains: they do. And they represent a significant enough portion of the market to make their preferences count — yes, even more than those of us North Americans. While we do, in fact, represent a higher percentage of the market, we’re also pretty picky. And that leads us to another reason why African sawmills understandably refuse to cater to our size preferences: sawing 4/4 boards means extra waste.
For one thing, sawing close to the edge of a log will lead to wider incursions of sapwood. Add to that the fact that thinner boards already have a greater tendency toward stability issues during shipping and drying. The third strike is that the North American market is less open to boards that aren’t FAS, so the resulting Common grade 4/4 Sapele ends up being a complete waste. So it really does make sense that African mills refuse to saw 4/4 boards.
Weighing the Cost of Producing 4/4 Boards
When you add in the fact that sawing 4/4 lumber requires more labor and produces more waste than thicker cuts of lumber, you can understand why African mills would prefer to cut thicker boards. And there’s another major issue too: 4/4 boards tend to be categorized as lower quality. When you saw close to the edge of the log, wider sapwood incursions inevitably result, and the thinner boards tend to lack stability during the drying and shipping processes.
Because the North American market is generally pretty particular about accepting only clear, FAS-level boards, and no one else wants 4/4 boards at all, there is no market for the many Common grade 4/4 boards. Understandably, African mills cannot afford to waste all that lumber and labor on boards which no one wants to buy.
Continue reading with Part 2.