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Understanding the Differences Between Farm-Sourced and Urban Woods

Understanding the Differences Between Farm-Sourced and Urban Woods | Alabama Sawyer

May 16, 2022

We certainly are big on the beauty and benefits of urban wood—it is kind of our thing, after all, but we’ll be the first to admit that sourcing your lumber from the city comes with challenges. That’s what we’ll be looking at today—we’re going to do our best to put our biases aside and examine the strengths and challenges posed by urban and farm-sourced woods.

Priceless, Exquisite Beauty

To start, let’s talk about some of the benefits of urban lumber. For us, it’s the beauty of a finished product that comes as an amalgamation of creation between us and mother nature. It’s the ultimate collaboration, to take a piece of gnarled, and uneven oak or old hardwood and work with the imperfections to achieve something that celebrates the wood. Of course, that’s not practical for everybody, but we’ll get to that.

In Harmony with Nature and Cities Alike

Urban wood certainly has character going for it—but what of the environmental benefits? The fact is that every tree that is slated for removal in the city, needs to come down as a matter of safety, so sourcing this wood is simply saving a tree—yes a tree, from landfill. Of course, we haven’t yet spoken of the tree which wasn’t cut down and milled from the forests, and the important roles of supporting the ecology.

Now, there’s also the matter of promoting green spaces in urban corridors. Cities are the worst emitters of greenhouse gasses, so having trees throughout the city helps keep the air cleaner and the city cooler. All very important factors considering the current climate. While we might be somewhat well versed in creating a strong case for urban wood, there’s no denying some of the challenges. 

Embracing Imperfection:
The Art of Urban Wood

One thing we have to keep in mind and overcome is that there are smaller volumes of urban wood than farm-sourced wood. Humans as a species will go and chop down farmed wood by the acre, but we wouldn’t do that near our own homes—go figure. So, we are selective in not only how we mill the wood, but in how we incorporate a design or a technique. Wood is a finite material, it should be treated with some respect. That isn’t the only challenge associated with sourcing urban lumber, however.

The grains of the wood themselves are often much rougher, the wood more knotted. From the standpoint of a carpenter, this presents numerous challenges. Most carpenters don’t bother with this kind of wood, because they’re focused on banging out quantities, and that kind of scale requires a degree of uniformity that you can only achieve with farmed wood. Therein lies its greatest strength. 

Industrial Sameness:
The Strengths of Farmed Woods

Farmed wood is grown, graded, and selected for its grain. It is engineered to be more perfect or void of character, depending on how you look at it. Now, it does have its place in the world. Construction sites that go through lift after lift, bundle after bundle, banging walls into place to quickly and neatly create homes for people to live in. That is a noble life for a stick of farmed 2x4, to be sure. 

That is, in fact, why it is grown the way it is. It is engineered to be as straight and clear-grained as possible so that it can be easily milled into usable pieces that are straight and true. Big, rough old grains would mean that the yield which fit the requirements would be too small to bother with on an industrial level. The clear grains that are needed to build with for projects such as houses, sheds, are the nameless heroes that go into our walls, though the industry is fraught with challenges.

Urban Wood Graveyard

The Costs and Challenges of Current Forestry Practices

Speaking of clear, clear-cutting is often touted as a pros and cons issue, but, in terms of the local ecology, the benefits don’t really seem to add up. It’s kind of like arguing that just because life moved on or moved in after you decimated the home of other life, the practice is somehow natural or ok. It seems sponsored. Deforestation is never good for ecology. 

Even current farming practices are starting to realize that the monocultures they have created after inhabiting land that was deforested, are unsustainable. They are now moving back towards something that more closely resembles a forest and a living habitat to save the soil.  

Inefficiencies of the Industrialized Lumber Supply Chain

Then you have the energy factor. There is so much fossil fuel to be considered, it’s mind boggling. Trees are cut down using gas-powered saws or industrial machines, so we start with those emissions. Next, you have to factor in the amount of carbon being released by the tree and not being sequestered by said tree ever again. From there it is attached to a grapple yarder which drags it to a staging area and the lumber is loaded onto a giant, diesel-powered truck by another machine that runs on fossil fuels.

 It’s then hauled to an industrial mill where the lumber is sawn and again loaded onto a flatbed truck or a railcar. If it is to be shipped overseas, which much is, it must go to a repack yard, where stacks are resized to be stuffed into the backs of shipping containers by forklifts with giant rams attached to them. The process is wasteful and much of the lumber is damaged in the process. 

The Verdict

That is a long way, a lot of fuel, and a constant, industrial stream of precious lumber. It makes you wonder if we shouldn’t be thinking a little bit harder about where we get our wood from, and how we use it. We might have a somewhat biased outlook on the topic of urban versus farmed wood, but, that’s what happens when you’re right. 

Urban lumber has roles to play in land stewardship—removing certain old trees which have lost their immunity to pathogens, selectively. With respect for the tree and the land, it’s from. When you come from a place of appreciating exquisite, natural beauty and see the repercussions of indiscriminate clearcutting—you know at which side of the table you belong.