Southern Pine Lumber, Not What It Once Was

Any builder or renovation expert has made this statement many times, now it’s official. Having ripped and demolished structures since childhood, I have seen the old pine used in homes throughout the South. Tight grained wood that held up for many years, and wood that still put up a fight when trying to remove it. The American Wood Council has downgraded Southern Pine #2 2×4 effective June 1, showing a decline in its measured strengths in samples.
As the story develops we will follow it. This impacts much of the residential construction industry as the Southern Pine 2×4 is the most popular dimension in home construction, and if the wood is downgraded, the allowable spans will be modified to provide the correct strengths determined by building codes. To most of us in the field, the plantation grown pines growth rings are so widely spaced this finding comes as no surprise. With an emphasis on short planting to harvest, plantation grown pines lack the tight growth rings found in natural growth stands of pine.  A friend showed me his stands of cloned pine trees that were as straight as any pines I have seen.  I can only imagine the grain structure would reflect this straightness and I am curious if stands that have been planted using this method are also being downgraded.  I know these trees cost more and growers bearing this expense to grow better trees I hope have not invested poorly.

Another factor affecting Southern Pine quality  I believe relates to sawmill technology that allows smaller, younger trees to be milled into dimensional lumber.  Younger trees being harvested means a faster return on investment for the grower, but does wood quality suffer because of this practice.  One of my grower friends told me many years ago, you plant pines to pay for your children’s education, hardwoods are for your grandchildren.  It seems that current practices in the pine industry are geared towards paying for your children’s kindergarten and elementary school. 

Regardless  of the downgrade, pine growers have invested heavily and will do what they can to recoup their investment.  Delaying harvest sounds like an easy fix, but growers harvest wood to meet the cost of doing business and when your business plan is based on scheduled harvest, delaying harvest equates with delaying income but not delaying continuing costs as the wood remains in its stands.  Will the allowable span for Southern Pine 2 x 4s move from 16 to 12?  Changes will surely come.  Builders rely on codes, homeowners rely on builders for quality construction. If the building codes are based on information that is no longer relevant to current lumber supply, then the codes have failed us.

For more information check the Southern Pine Inspection Burea’s website and check here to see the changes effective June 1, 2012

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