Hunting for Hardwoods in Oregon
Living in the Pacific Northwest instills a bioregional pride. We have the best forests, most beautiful coastline, rich river ecosystems and great homegrown beer, wine and food. It’s no secret that Native Americans sustained for millennia from the bounty that is provided by the forests of the Northwest. What is a secret is the abundance of hardwood species that are naturally growing in these forests.
With forests that are filled with Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), Red Alder (Alnus rubra), Myrtlewood (Umbellularia californica), Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana), and Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), it’s a wonder anyone would specify or build with a hardwood that was grown elsewhere.
However, hunting for hardwoods in the Pacific Northwest, which is dominated by conifers, is a challenge. Hardwood trees in our forests are unfortunately cut and left to rot, burned in a slash pile, or chipped for paper mills. Very few ever get to display their beautiful grain pattern and natural wood tone.
With this in mind I drove to Oakland, in southern Oregon's Umpqua Valley, to get a first-hand look at one of our sources of these great wood products, Oregon Hardwood Company. John Rideout of Oregon Hardwood Company was kind enough to take me for a tour of their facility.
We met in the sorting facility and perused some beautiful Walnut lumber that had been salvaged from an agricultural use. Early settlers brought Walnut to Oregon, so it’s not a native species, but the milk chocolate swirling grain pattern stands out amongst other native species.
John walked me from building to building explaining the complexities of milling and drying Pacific Madrone, Oregon White and Big Leaf Maple. Much of the lumber units we inspected were destined for our warehouse in SE Portland.
John filled my head with so much knowledge that the next day I had lots of questions for Rod Jacobs of Unique Woods in Elmira, near Eugene. Unique Woods provides us with FSC Big Leaf Maple slabs from an FSC forestland near Rainier, Oregon, and other hardwoods that have been rescued from a chip facility.
Rod explains the dilemma for most loggers in western Oregon well. He told me that none of the larger mills that do the majority of purchasing will buy native hardwood logs, so those logs usually end up in the massive log decks of a chip facility near his house, where they are destined to become paper.
After touring Rod’s kiln drying operation we drove to the chip facility to scrounge for some choice Madrone, Oregon White Oak and Big Leaf Maple logs. On a cold winter morning we made our way through the log decks spray painting those logs that met his specification. He showed us how to tell if there was going to be spalting and burling in the log. We were basically dumpster diving for logs that would make a beautiful desk or dining room table, saving the most incredible hardwood logs from becoming paper.
Once Rod was satisfied that our hunt was successful I thanked him for the species and product knowledge that he provided me. The next customer that asks me where our hardwoods come from I will be able to share that knowledge and connect them to a place in our region where the wood originates. You can’t say the same for other surface materials like stone or hardwoods from another region.