Made In The U.S.A.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck was an ecologically friendly purchaser of timber products?

In Adventures on March 30, 2009 at 12:59 am

I have spared you the painful details about lumber long enough. Here’s the thing, you have two issues (if you’re me) regarding buying lumber. One, is it MITUSA. Two, is it the conscientious choice.

I inquired at Home Depot’s service desk about the origin of its lumber. The guy called another guy and they chatted and hemmed and hawed and, while very well intentioned and straight speaking, didn’t know the answer. It literally comes from all over the world, depending. As one of them put it, “How do I say this…” followed by, essentially, Home Depot lumber is purchased based primarily to fit a low price point. That’s why builders complain that it’s always crooked and notty and not yet dry. (Wet, or new, lumber is likely to warp and twist and generally be awful after you use it. That’s a common problem with big box lumber.)

I looked online for more information, and found essentially the same thing. Most dimensional lumber (2×4, 4×4, etc) comes from the U.S. and Canada. But Home Depot sells cheap lumber from all over the world, while maintaining the general appearance of environmental stewardship, ecological friendliness and general good person-ness across much of its marketing materials. When push comes to shove and you want to know where a 2×4 came from, you can’t figure it out no matter how hard you try.

But whether or not your 2×4 came from America isn’t really the issue. The issue is one of stewardship. Earth-friendliness. Responsible logging and farming to avoid the clear-cutting that, let’s face it, is where most of the U.S. and Canadian dimensional lumber comes from. At least most of the stuff that isn’t branded with a paper trail from the FSC–the Forest Stewardship Council. That organization essentially provides certification that the product is delivered in a responsible and sustainable manner–i.e. no clearcutting. When the label ain’t there, it ain’t responsible. That sure seems to be the conventional wisdom everywhere I look.

So the responsible lumber buyer, like me, can look for the FSC logo on the lumber I want to buy. I’ll have to make another trip to the stores to see what I can see. I can say that I looked at a lot of wood labels today, and none had an earth-friendly logo that jumped out at me. Perhaps a boutique seller of environmentally friendly building supplies will have what I’m looking for. Now if only I can find one of them…

Green building is THE buzz word in the building materials industry as far as I can tell. I even picked up a free magazine, Green Builder, from the Pro desk at the Home Depot. It’s ALL about green products, and equally about how to market your greenness. That seems to be the key: I can find no shortage in green marketing materials, but can’t seem to get many cold hard facts about actually what makes it green.

There’s a lot of nuance that makes lumber buying tricky too. First, there’s the difference between the dimensional stuff (the posts in my fence, or the support in a deck, for example) and the surface stuff (the fence pickets or the deck surface itself).Then there’s the difference between treated and raw lumber. Raw fencing is usually cedar or redwood or pine, and won’t last quite as long as treated–especially if it’s in the ground or in contact with it. Treated lumber is soaked in a chemical (my layman’s term) that essentially helps to keep it from breaking down so quickly in the weather.

I am not even going to consider opening the environmental-friendliness can of worms that is sure to surround pressure treated lumber. Suffice it to say that any process involving mass quantities of Chromated Copper Arsenate can not be particularly easy on the planet. But neither is rebuilding your fence every three years.

The distinction between dimensional and surface materials will eventually become a big one for me because, while you can always buy recycled, plastic, wood/plastic composite, and various other surface materials for your fence or deck, you still need the support lumber to make the thing stand. Show me a fence or a deck or a house that you can build without a 2×4, and I’ll be one happy camper. (Oh, of course, if it’s going to be built of plastic so as to avoid clear-cutting timber, it’ll have to be all Made In The USA, too.)

There are lots of popular composite decking and fencing brands, many familiar to those of us who watch This Old House; Trex is the first one that I think of. But there are tons of other options out there, including the ill-named Four Seasons Plastic Lumber company and the much better named Heartland BioComposites.

Turns out that Heartland BioComposites’ PrairieFence materials may be just what I need. It’s manufactured in Wyoming and they make surface materials (like decking and fence pickets) as well as posts and rails–i.e. 4x4s and 2x4s to support my fence. It’s even made from recycled plastic and wheat straw! Problem solved.

Here’s the next problem: what does it really look like? And when I build my deck, can I make it match? I know those concerns might sound silly for someone with my clear mental illness re: buying American. But the fact is that if I had done this last year I’d have used Cedar (which, by the way, is typically clear cut in the Pacific Northwest and is considerably trickier to find, as far as I can tell, from responsible sellers who also make it reasonably easy to buy–i.e. not special orders that take a summer to arrive and cost $1000 for a $250 fence) and matched the fence to the deck and it would have looked nice, been easy to shop for and easy to work with.

But then I would have learned all this and felt really bad about my beautiful, easy and inexpensive fence. Why do it the easy way when you can obsess for days and weeks and spend twice as much money and three times as much time?

That would be unAmerican!


  1. I must say I’m shocked at the even-handedness you display in your posts. Most bloggers dealing with subject matter similar to yours portray and and all corporations as evil, corrupt uber-capitalist pigs. Their level of self righteous glee is usually eclipsed only by their ignorance.

    But I do have to bring you up-to-date on something, though. Pressure treated lumber has not had chromated copper arsenate as the protection agent since it was phased out for residential use in 2003. The newest preservative formulation, namely micronized copper quaternary (MCQ), is not only effective at preserving the wood, but it has earned Environmentally Preferred Product status from Scientific Certification Services (SCS). SCS is a third-party certification services and standards development company. EPA guidelines require that such products have reduced impacts on human health and the environment when compared to other products that serve the same purpose.

    Home Depot actually carries this type of treated lumber. But, as you point out frequently, the apron wearers are not always up to speed on the attributes of the products in their stores.

    BTW, if you want to email me I can help you decide what to use on that fence project of yours.

    • Thanks so much for the compliments, and for the accurate information. I’ve never been called even-handed before!

      I’ll definitely contact you for information about what I should use for my fence, too.

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