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The history of lumber and where its produced

Brief History of Lumber

Lumber has been available and used for thousands of years on an individual and commercial basis to make houses and appliances.

By the thirteenth century, English forests containing hardwoods and conifers were decimated. Starting in the 1540s, British industries began using large quantities of lumber as fuel to power their production. The Parliament passed an act in 1543 that limited lumber from being cut at a fast rate; still, by the 17th century, there was a lumber crunch, which caused lumber prices to soar.

The Virginia Company, a British-owned company, started using the American colony of Jamestown, Virginia to obtain lumber. They started sending lumber shipments to England, but the exports were curtailed by Americans and the domestic industry of sawing picked up pace in the U.S. By the 1680s, southern Maine had over two dozen sawmills.

In the 1600s the lumber began to be used to construct homes, cabins and churches, thanks to increasing availability of tools and building supplies. Wood began to be used commonly to make everyday use items like bowls, tools, boxes, furniture, etc.

International trade in wood picked up slowly by the end of the century, and by 1652, New England was supplying vast quantities of lumber to foreign markets, specially for marine uses. By the 1790s, New England was exporting over 36 million feet of pine boards.

The production of lumber soared with greater manpower moving into the industry. England and Denmark entered into a stiff competition for lumber, which helped the American lumber industry develop quickly. After America’s independence, the shipments of lumber to England stopped, but the American industrial revolution  further fuelled demand for lumber domestically and it was after the industrial revolution that large scale lumbering grew rapidly. Before the Civil war, 90% of the nation’s energy and transportation needs were powered by wood. After the war, the railroad industry became the largest consumer of lumber, using it to build rail cars, stations, power trains, etc.

Technological advancements, including the steam engine, helped lumber reach remote areas inland. But by 1891 the Forest Reserve Act restricted loggers from accessing many forests for producing lumber. North England’s forests began to be depleted and lumber manufacturers moved south and west to reach new sources of lumber.

Through the 19th century, loggers moved towards the Great Lakes and lumber became the main source of building materials, industry and fuel. By 1990, the lumber suppliers had consumed the upper Midwest and went further west towards Idaho. Large industrialists took over sawmills from individuals and families and bought lumber lands as well.

The U.S. produced 5,000 millions of board feet of lumber in 1850, but by 1900, the figure had grown manifold to reach 35,000 millions of board feet.

The Great Depression caused a sharp fall in lumber demand and production. Plus, the advent of cement and steel caused lumber to go out of style in the home construction world.

Whereas in 1920, the US produced 35,000 million board feet of lumber, by 1932, production had shrunk to only around 10,000 million board feet.

After 1933, the industry became highly regulated, and nation lumber codes dictated much of production.

The invention of portable chain saws and other technical advancements helped the industry bounce back. By 1950s, the U.S. generated 30 billion board feet of lumber, and this number remained almost constant for two decades.

Where is Lumber Produced?

Most of the world’s lumber production focuses on softwood, coming primarily from North America and Europe. The lumber futures cover lumber produced only in certain locations in North America.

The total North American production of lumber in 2009 was 42,112 million board feet, which fell from a high of 74,424 million board feet in 2005.

The U.S. is the largest producer and importer of lumber in the world, with China a distant second. The US annual production is over 30 billion board feet, which makes it the world’s largest producer and consumer of lumber. The U.S. is a market leader in the production of softwood and primarily deals with Western Spruce-Pine-Fir.

The U.S. is also the world’s largest exporter, supplying primarily to Japan, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom. Most U.S. mills are in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and California. Since the U.S. has very high labor costs, it sends a great deal of its own raw lumber to other countries for processing and imports back the finished lumber products into the U.S. This leads to high export of raw logs and pulpwood and high import of finished plywood and panels.

Due to strict U.S. regulations, Canadian logging industry has made inroads into the American market and lumber is now one of Canada’s biggest exports to the U.S.


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