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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is Building About to Take Off, or Not?

On my way to work this morning, I took a slightly different route across campus and was taken by surprise by the number of construction projects I was forced to detour around. My first thought was that you Penn State alumni out there who Go Wood would be interested in seeing some of the changes. So I snapped a few photos...

It started simply enough, with a sidewalk detour. But then...
Oh, no! Some of you may remember one of my favorite places on campus, the plaza behind the Music buildings, which used to feature a mid-century modern water fountain and shade trees. They're gone now. I hope the replacement features something watery, or I'm going to be mad.
Just putting the finishing touches on the new water tower project behind the Architecture building.
So far, every project had been functional cosmetic. But...boom! New addition to the Ag Engineering building is huge.
And this even larger building is a new Chemistry building, I think. At least it's where the old chemistry building used to be.
End of this walk, at least. New dorm is nearing completion in the East Halls complex. This one features rooms with sunset views...should be nice.
Penn State always seems to have some construction going on somewhere on campus, but this summer is the wildest in the fifteen years I've been here. Academic boomtown, including State College just across campus, which has three new high rises under construction and a couple of more blocks under negotiation. What is going on here? Is the economy really that good?

All this construction in a large, traditional university seems to fly in the face of technological trends, which all seem aligned against classical brick-and-mortar education in the near future. But we seem to be banking that future generations of 17-year-olds (and their parents) will still be placing a premium value on "the experience" of a few years in the hallowed halls of academia. We'll see.

Are you seeing similar signs of an awakening of the construction industry in your town? You may be, but I'll bet it's not in private housing units. The data there are still reflecting a pretty bare-bones housing economy. In the sense that young first-time buyers are still moving into apartments and condominiums, and the well-off are still buying property with cash and jumbo loans...but the middle of the housing market is still stuck in neutral with flat used home prices and interest rates.

Housing starts have come into line with the "moderate" case I forecast back in 2009, but seem to be really weak this year, and remain near historical lows going back more than fifty years.
The many construction companies I work with were all brimming with expectations of a boom year in 2017. And I mean all of them. I was a little less always seemed to me that policy changes have to be enacted and take effect before enthusiasm can be captured...and that a couple of years seemed reasonable. In my latest visits, the companies down in Northern Virginia and Maryland are all, in fact, having a moderately strong summer...but the further I drove from Washington, D.C., the less robust production seems to be. In other words, the same as it's been for a decade now.

So where's the boom? Well, I plotted another graph today that gives us a hint...

The "Trump Bump" shows up clearly in the stock market...but not yet in housing starts.
Investors, at least a certain class of investors, have been bullish on the American economy this putting money into the stock market. But those folks whose largest investment is a new house, are still a tiny minority of the population actively investing these days.

From an article I saw in the local news last week...
"US housing starts drop for 3rd straight month
AP Economics Writer
Homebuilders slowed down the pace of construction for the third straight month in May, a possible sign that the shortage of houses for sale might worsen.
The Commerce Department said Friday that housing starts fell 5.5 percent in May to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.09 million units. This comes after a 2.7 percent monthly decline in April and a 7.7 percent drop in March. Home construction is still 3.2 percent higher year-to-date, but that increase has been too modest to address the dwindling supply of homes.
Homebuilders remain optimistic about their sales prospects, but the level of construction has done little to meet demand from would-be buyers. The number of existing homes listed for sale has been registering annual declines for roughly two years — creating a dearth of properties on the market.
"The lack of inventory of homes for sale is one of the most pressing challenges in the housing market today," said Mark Fleming, chief economist at First American Financial, a title insurance company.
The monthly declines in housing starts come despite a solid job market with a relatively healthy unemployment rate of 4.3 percent. Many analysts expect the job gains to translate into more home construction. What has generally happened is a decline in the construction of apartment buildings that has been more than offset by the gains in the building of single-family houses.
Groundbreakings in the Northeast were unchanged in May and declined in the Midwest and South. Housing starts rose slightly in the West.
Building permits, an indicator of upcoming construction, tumbled 4.9 percent nationwide to 1.17 million.
U.S. homebuilders have stayed confident. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index registered at 67 in June, a slight decline from May. Readings above 50 indicate more builders view sales conditions as positive. The index has been above 60 since September.
Homebuilding has recovered from the housing bust that tore through the U.S. economy a decade ago. While the rate of construction is generally improving, it still lags the 1.4-1.5 million annual rate that was common in the 1980s and 1990s."
I find a few points in this article interesting. First, that homebuilders are slowing during what should be the strongest time of year for them, even though they "remain optimistic." Perhaps "remain hopeful" would be a more honest assessment of their mood. Secondly, that "many analysts expect the job gains to translate into more home construction." If so, then those are pretty shallow analysts, since any job gains are really a manipulation of government survey statistics, and don't really reflect the flatness (and decline, in real terms) of salaries and wages in most traditional industries. Welders and truck drivers near gas fields can only buy so many houses.

Finally, the statement that "Homebuilding has recovered from the housing bust that tore through the U.S. economy a decade ago" is laughable, or would be, if so many so-called reporters weren't saying it. We're still at the worst housing construction levels in more than fifty years, as the blue line on my graphs shows.

The question is...are we about to finally break out, and follow the optimism of the stock market? Or is the weakness in the housing sector a red flag that shows the stock market bump is about to deflate?

If the construction activity in State College is any indicator, good times are just around the corner.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

No Surprise Here: Maine Lumber Firm is Building a Biomass Plant

From the Bangor (Maine) Daily News comes an interesting update on the ongoing biomass energy front...

With mills struggling, a Maine lumber firm is building a biomass plant
Source: Bangor Daily News

SEARSMONT, Maine — The shuttering and shrinking of paper mills has forced businesses across the forest products industry to take a fresh look at their approach.
At Robbins Lumber, a 136-year-old family-owned sawmill in Searsmont, the upheaval is prompting a big investment to become not just a lumber producer, but an energy producer.
So the company is building a $36 million, 8.5 megawatt biomass plant, with capacity to sell about 7.5 megawatts to Central Maine Power. The family hopes the project will help bolster the local forest economy, while giving the lumberyard something to do with its residuals — chips, sawdust and bark — in the wake of the paper mill closures. 
- Bangor Daily News
While the promotion of biomass energy has quieted some in the recent surge of natural gas supply, it continues to remain a common sense solution to wood waste utilization opportunities, in those places where the market niche works economically. We did a study here not too long ago that discussed these opportunities. Our conclusion?
Analysis of the results indicates that a targeted response to wood-conversion initiatives will yield the most successful program of fossil-fuel replacement in thermal applications. A ranking index developed in this study through analysis of existing boiler installations and availability of wood feedstocks suggests that the top ten states in the eastern United States on which to focus future messaging, feasibility studies, and policy development for potential woody biomass conversions are:  Maine, Texas, New York, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania (in that order).
- "Biomass boiler conversion potential in the eastern United States
Notice the first state listed for biomass energy potential? That's right...Maine. For where you have wood, and an established wood industry, biomass energy makes sense and will be produced. As we discussed here on GoWood a time ago...

In fact, the Robbins Lumber project has a "multiplier" impact on the local economy, as the BDN article explains...
Robbins Lumber and CMP have ironed out a 20-year purchase agreement for the electricity produced by the biomass facility. The sawmill doesn’t produce enough residuals on its own to fuel the boiler’s 24-7 operations, so it will have to turn to its log suppliers, purchasing residuals from them to maintain a steady stream of fuel for the boiler. 
They’ll need about 15 trailer loads per day to keep it running. Jim Robbins said the construction of the biomass plant should be a boost to local harvesters and woodlot owners, who also are looking for new places to send their residuals in the wake of mill closings.
 - Bangor Daily News
In order to get the necessary economy of scale needed to make the project feasible, Robbins management decided to build a boiler plant larger than their own supply of chips could fill, and thereby gave a boost to other chip producers in the area.

That's the way it works when smart folks do their work, and find opportunity in the face of adversity.

Way to Go Wood, Robbins Lumber.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

New Features and Venues for Go Wood

Go Wood continues to get bigger, better, and badder. On the left you'll see two new "pages" for Sam's Cartoons of the Week, and one for Timberline Magazine.

Sam Richardson is a buddy (can I call you that, Sam?) in Bradford, Pennsylvania, who manages a bunch of hardwood dry kilns for a great company that I will name if they give me a kickback. In his spare time, Sam doodles, and starting sharing his comic relief with his co-workers at said company. And now he's sharing them with you here at Go Wood. Wood humor is rare, and funny wood humor is ever rarer. But thanks to Sam, we have it here at Go Wood, now.

We've also started a collaboration with Chaille and Ed Brindley at Industrial Reporting, a couple of great guys who've spent their whole lives working for and reporting on the wood industries around the world. They were nice enough to start running some Go Wood articles in their TimberLine magazine this month, so you'll find a link to this great magazine here from now on.

And as if this intrepid Penn State wood professor doesn't already suffer enough from blatant overexposure, we've started a Facebook page so you can immerse yourself in Go Wood 24/7. I know you've been looking for a real news alternative to CNN and Fox News, and now you have it. If you're on Facebook, search for us at @PennStateGoWood, and "Like", "Follow", and "Share" the page. I've been trying for years to figure out how Facebook works, and I still don't get it, but if you do, well, you've got it at your fingertips now.

Now if only I could think of something interesting to write.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Keeping Abreast of Improvements in Housing Technology

For those of you in the home construction industry around the Mid-Atlantic Area, the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center of Penn State's College of Engineering is offering the 25th in an annual series of conferences aimed at improving the quality and affordability of housing.

The 25th Annual PHRC Conference...
"provides information and updates on issues of interest to the residential construction industry. The first day of the conference, Wednesday (3/1), focuses on issues related to housing structures and their systems via breakout session in four tracks: Building Science & Technology, Construction & Management, Building Codes, and Multifamily. The second day of the conference, Thursday (3/2), provides opportunities to attend full-day workshops relating to specific areas of residential construction."

This is a nice program that offers local builders to catch up on the latest innovations and regulations while networking with folks that think a lot about the future of housing. And all at a very reasonable cost. Early registration discounts for the March 1-2 conference end in a couple of days, so check it out now.

Details and registration for the conference can be found here. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Notes from the Road (15) - A Day That Will Live in Infamy

No, we're not talking about December 7, 1941, although we Americans will remember that one for much longer than any participants of that day in Pearl Harbor walk this earth.

I discovered another day of infamy, that the horrible Second World War brought us, one not really known by most Americans, but one that Australians will remember for just as long.

February 19, 1942. Seventy-five years ago this weekend...
"The Bombing of Darwin, also known as the Battle of Darwin, on 19 February 1942 was the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia. On that day, 242 Japanese aircraft, in two separate raids, attacked the town, ships in Darwin's harbour and the town's two airfields in an attempt to prevent the Allies from using them as bases to contest the invasions of Timor and Java. The town was only lightly defended and the Japanese inflicted heavy losses upon the Allied forces at little cost to themselves. The urban areas of Darwin also suffered some damage from the raids and there were a number of civilian casualties. 
The two Japanese air raids were the first, and largest, of more than 100 air raids against Australia during 1942–43." 
- Wikipedia,
I had no idea this ever happened, until I found myself on the very dock that was hit on the first wave of the attack.

A striking image, as you're standing on the very dock where this happened.

Lest we forget...
The view of Darwin harbor today, in better times.
The raid on Darwin differed from that of Pearl Harbor, in that Australia had already declared war on Japan. The similarity was that it was just as successful, and that the inhabitants were just as surprised that day as the waves of Japanese planes buzzed down.

The Australian military, as well as the populace, decided it was a good time to retreat a little inland, to let the outback serve as a natural ally against the invasion that all assumed was sure to come.

The military retreated to here, as a first line of defense against the invasion. That's Darwin across the bay, with the harbor line low against the water.

The site is now the Charles Darwin National Park. I went expecting to find a bespectacled botanist park ranger combing through a treasure trove of  botanical specimens, and found instead a deserted park with deserted WWII ammunition bunkers.

Well, now, this is Australia. An open bunker for anyone to examine. The Australians can still afford to trust folks.

An interesting side story here.  Those pallets the boxes are sitting on...the hundreds of thousands of pallets used to import ammunition and other equipment from the US were left scattered all over the country after the war, and the Allied Materials Handling Standing Committee which had been managing war-time logistics was privatized as the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool. You may know that organization today as CHEP.
Well, I wandered around the park, and as I was once again in an unfamiliar range of forest, without the bespectacled guide I was hoping for, I could do little but walk and shoot.

The rest of Darwin's population headed farther, much farther inland, some as far as Alice Springs, 1500 kilometers away. But the bulk of them ended up in the little town of Katherine, a three or four day walk/ride back in those days, and waited out the war. The anticipated invasion never came, much to the relief of both the Australians and the Japanese soldiers.

The highway between Darwin and Alice Springs today. I doubt it looked this good back in 1942.
Lots of remnants of the war still remain. Here at a roadside park near Katherine are the old foundations of a staging camp.
And as you go farther inland, the terrain gets noticeably rougher. But the natives still find peace there. I saw this young lady jogging barefoot down the road from the camp at Tennant Creek, and when I went back down the road later I saw her sitting up on this outcropping, admiring the view. 
And this was the sunset she was pondering.
I had one more walkabout on the this road, about 200 kilometers north of Tennant Creek the next morning. Much of the land had been burned over, but I found a spot that looked pretty good, and got out to stretch my legs. Once again, I struggle to identify any species, but I invite my Australian friends to identify any species they can, and leave the video time mark and species name in the comments.

The biggest disappointment of my trip is that I did not get to visit the Kakadu National Park, a huge preserve just east of the road I've described in this post, that Ludwig Leichardt and his men stumbled through in the closing stages of their first, successful trip. I was running just a little behind on my trip, and considering how exhausted I was, and that I could use a day in Darwin to recuperate before climbing on an airplane for an around-the-world return to Pennsylvania, I decided to bypass the park and leave it for next time.

But here's a nice slide show on Google Earth that gives us a taste of what awaits our visit.

Well, I could share hundreds of more photos, and a few more stories of Australia, but I guess you get the gist of it by now. A big land, a great people, and a dazzling variety of ecosystems. I hope to make it back again some day.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Notes from the Road (14) - It's Saturday night, and the Pubs in Australia are Full

Well, we've reached the end of another long week, and you're looking forward to relaxing a bit. Looking through my Australian photos, I remembered a Saturday night in Queensland that gave me a break from the bush, and showed me how the real folks relax in the outback.

I had come a long way, and just as sun hit the horizon, I made it to the town of Blackall, Queensland.

Watching the sunset from the upper porch of the Barcoo Hotel in Blackall, Queensland. Don't know what XXXX Gold is, but I think I'll mosey downstairs and try some.
After throwing my bag upstairs, washing my hands and face, and brushing the flies out of my teeth, I casually sauntered down to the pub to grab a bite and a bit of the local color. The food was good...I think I had fried steak, or lamb, and the fries (chips down under) were just right, crunchy and yet light. I had learned to avoid what the Australians call tomato sauce, which is what you get when you ask for ketchup. It's a tasteless, slightly sweet red soup that trickles onto your food, and improves it in no way whatsoever. I'm opening a Heinz distribution company down there someday.

As I ate, I watched the locals come and go. I'm pretty sure everyone in Blackall is either related or knows each other in some way. As each group came in, they all gave a hearty greeting, and if any kids were in tow, they got hugs all around. It was nice to watch, but it made me feel just a bit more uneasy, as it was obvious that I was the only stranger in the place. But the waitress was friendly and acted like there was nothing wrong with a stranger in their midst, so I ate and watched folks drink beer, chat and laugh, and bet on horse races and lotteries above the bar.

Plenty of action in Blackall on a Saturday night.
I did have one problem in this scenario...I couldn't quite figure out what language the folks were speaking. I think it was English, in the same way that a New Yorker thinks that Texans are speaking English; sort of, but not really. I came to understand that the analogy is an apt one, because Queensland, especially in the outback, is to southern Aussies what Luckenbach is to New York City...a quaint place to spend an evening with Willie and Waylon and the boys, but not one to live in.

I felt right at home.

As I tested various species of the local drafts (the XXXX Gold is on their marquee for a reason), a couple of the screens were switched to a "football" game. Now I had tried to watch a couple of "football" games, but I couldn't get them straight...they seemed to be different games depending on where you were watching them. In New South Wales I had seen a bunch of guys named the Swans (really?) running around with a ball, and then kicking it wildly away whenever somebody got close to them. Sort of reminded me of the way my little brother played football in the front yard with me and the guys back in the day. But here in Blackall, the football game had a different whole team lined up, and then the runner on the other team crashed headlong into them, until, bloodied and woozy, he gave up and passed the ball back to one of his mates. Now this, I liked.

But still, the action seemed random, and it never stopped, so I had a heck of a time figuring out what was going on. But I had just enough XXXX in me to muster up the courage to try to ask someone to give me a brief introduction to the game.

Well, there was one particular patron that night, a lady named Sally, who was so into the game that she kept shushing the folks around her so she could hear the game. She also had a jersey of one of the teams on, and seemed to be the only one who really cared what was going on. So in a break, I sidled over to her, apologized for being a dumb American, and asked what I thought might be an intelligent question about the game.

Without looking away from the screen, she said, "Pull up a stool, be quiet, and listen." And she proceeded to give me a running explanation of every facet of the game, play by play. We were rooting for the Broncos, and the other guys were the Cowboys. (Hmmm, sounded familiar.) This was a big playoff game, a semifinal in the championship of the Australian rugby football league, not to be confused with the Australian Football League, in which those sissy Swans played. And you know, the way she explained it, it started making some sense to me, and I actually started getting into the game. Just like two strangers at a Steelers' game, it was easy to relate to the action, especially when one of those darn Cowboys tried to rip the head off of one of our Bronco boys.

By halftime, the pub had inexplicably thinned out, and the bartender told us they were closing up for the night. No problem, explained Sally...there's another pub just down the road, within walking distance. was already past my bedtime, and I had to hit the road at sunrise the next morning, but I wanted to see the Broncos pull this one out, darn it. So I sallied forth with Sally.

We went down a block, turned right and began to walk through a neighborhood. It was dark, but the moon gave us a little light to see the street. I sure didn't see any pub ahead...the town seemed to becoming to a dead end. Sally explained the railroad used to run by this side of town, and the pub was next to where the railroad used to be. I began to have visions of headlines in State College that read something like "Professor's Remains found on Outskirts of Foreign Town" when suddenly there was a light in a window, we went in a little house-looking place, and there was a bar, and a TV.

And interestingly, the place was filled to standing room only...with the same crowd that I recognized from the last pub. By now, I was getting to feel like a regular.

Well, Sally kept explaining, but the game turned against the Broncos, which the rest of the pub seemed to like, since they were almost all rooting for the Cowboys. One of the bartenders came over to us, looked at me suspiciously, and asked, "What'll it be, Auntie?" Sally introduced me to her niece, who looked at me once more like I was an axe murderer after Aunt Sally's hidden treasure, but Sally assured her I was just a dumb American learning about rugby, the real football. Well, the young lady accepted that, but she kept an eye on me the rest of the night.

In the end, the Broncos lost, but Sally took it in stride.  She explained to me that next week, she would be rooting for the Cowboys, because after all, they were a Queensland team going against a club from New South Wales. That seemed a little odd to me...I couldn't imagine the Steelers losing to the Eagles in a playoff game, and me rooting for the Eagles next week just because they were from Pennsylvania. But that's the Aussie way, I suppose.

Sally guided me back to the Barcoo, and we were good enough friends by now that a handshake seemed silly, so we hugged and I thanked her for a night of being a real Aussie. She laughed, gave me her card, and told me to look her up the next time I was passing through...since she was a writer for a local newspaper and they always need good stories. Because, well, you know, nothing interesting ever happens in those little country towns, even in the outback.

The next morning, I was up with the sun, taking in the sounds of the outback birds and road trains, before I headed out once again.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Notes From the Road (13) - The Longest Walkabout: The Story of Ludwig Leichhardt


One of the discoveries I made in Australia is the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, early Australian explorer, botanist, and legend. Without realizing it, I had been roughly following the path of the first of Leichhardt's three forays into the bush...the difference being, that I was riding in an air-conditioned Toyota, and he was really walking it, back in the 1840's.

I had successfully reached the way-station of Barkly Homestead in Tablelands, Northern Territory after a drive of about five hours from Camooweal, Queensland. I only remember that particular leg because it was the most lonesome stretch of the trip...there is literally no sign of humanity between the two places. I had filled up with gas at Camooweal, Queensland, which is on the border with the Northern Territory, and the signs warned me that the next stop, Barkly Homestead, was a long ways away. I went back in the store and grabbed a large bottle of water, just in case.

That drive of 267 kilometers was the most memorable of my trip, just because it was soooo long and quiet. I think only three vehicles passed me in five hours, and two of them were road trains. I stopped several times to walk off the road, to check out the landscape and vegetation.

Just like this, pretty much the whole way from Camooweal to Tablelands...
...and they want to keep it that way.

Good grazing, if you're an Australian steer with your own personal 100 acres.
The soil is thin...
...but the termites love it.
The king of the Northern Territory savannah, the Ghost Gum, Corymbia aparrerinja.
I shot a short piece of video looking at this tree...just the tree, the sky, and the wind. Possibly my best moment in Australia.

I eventually arrived at the Barkly Homestead, and stopped for a late lunch...a huge, delicious burger and fries, icy-cold Coca-Cola, and a shining clean bathroom. Not what I expected for the middle of the Australian outback.

It was at Barkly Homestead that I happened to pick up the book at the top of this post, threw it in the back of the car, and forgot about it until I got home. It was then, while reading of the travels and travails of Ludwig Leichhardt, I realized how incredibly fortunate we are to live in the 21st century, instead of the 19th.

Leichhardt had undertaken nearly the same trip as I, from Sydney up into Queensland (before it was Queensland) and over across to the Northern Territory. He was a botanist with a desire to explore the interior of the continent, to find that magnificent river that all Australians of the time were sure existed...a mighty "Mississippi" that flowed from the center of the continent and drained on one of the coasts. From 1842 to 1848(?) he roamed the Australian outback, collecting and naming plants, rivers, and mountain ranges as he came across them. He took three official expeditions to find the great interior river, and therein is his lasting legacy.

His first trip, from August 1844 to December of 1845, was the best documented and productive. He drove his expedition from Sydney inland for about 150 miles, then turned north and west, roughly parallel to the Northeastern coast of the continent.

By Public domain map from Project Gutenberg Australia,
This long trip was intended to find a route by which Australians could reasonably make an inland trip from the southeastern settlements of Sydney and Moreton Bay to the northern outpost of Port Essington, and thereby open up the continent to settling and development. Along the way, though, the expedition endured floods, attacks from the natives, and near starvation, before finally arriving in Port Essington, emaciated ghosts of the hearty men that left fourteen months earlier.

The whole way, their path was driven by the need for water. Wherever water might be, that's where they went. Wrote Leichhardt:
"The detection of isolated waterholes in a wooded country, where there is nothing visible to indicate its presence, is quite a matter of chance, We have often unconsciously passed well-filled waterholes, at less than a hundred yards distant, whilst we were suffering severely from thirst. Our horses and bullocks never showed that instinctive faculty of detecting water, so often mentioned by other travelers; and I remember instances, in which the bullocks have remained the whole night, not 50 yards from the waterholes, without finding them; and, indeed, whenever we came to small waterholes, we had to drive the cattle down to them, or they would have strayed off to find water elsewhere. On several occasions I followed their tracks, and observed they were influenced entirely by their sight when in search of it; at times attracted by a distant patch of deeper verdure, at others following a down a hollow or a watercourse, but I do not recall a single instance where they found water for themselves....
In looking for water, my search was first made in the neighborhood of hills, ridges, and ranges, which from their extent and elevation were most likely to lead me to it, either in beds of creeks, or rivers, or in waterholes, parallel to them. In an open country, there are many indications which a practised eye will readily spot: a cluster of trees of a greener foliage, hollows of luxuriant grass, eagles circling in the air, crows, cockatoos, pigeons (especially before sunset), and the call of Grallina australis and flocks of little finches, would always attract our attention.
Much, indeed the greater portion, of my journey had been occupied in long reconnoitering rides; and he who is thus occupied is in a continued state of excitement, now buoyant with hope, as he urges on his horse toward some distant range or blue mountain, as he follows the favourable bend of a river; now all despairing and miserable, as he approaches the foot of the range without finding water from which he could start again with renewed strength, or as the river turns in an unfavourable direction, and slips out of his course. Evening approaches; the sun has sunk below the horizon for some time, but still he strains his eye through the gloom for the dark verdure of a creek, or strives to follow the arrow-like flight of a pigeon, the flapping of those wings has filled him with a sudden hope, from which he relapses again into a still greater sadness; with a sickened heart he drops his head to a broken and interrupted rest, whilst his horse is hobbled by his side, unwilling from excessive thirst to feed on the dry grass. How often I have found myself in these different states of the brightest hope and the deepest misery, riding along, thirsty, almost lifeless, and ready to drop from my saddle with fatigue; the poor horse tired like his rider, footsore, stumbling over every stone, running heedlessly against the trees, and wounding my knees! These were the hours of deepest despair on this long expedition, accompanying the men on their every step. But suddenly, the note of Grallina australis, the call of cockatoos, or the croaking of frogs is heard, and hopes are bright again; water is certainly at hand; the spur is applied to the flank of the tired beast, which already partakes in his rider's anticipations, and quickens his pace - and a lagoon, a creek, or a river is before him. The horse is soon unsaddled, hobbled, and well-washed; a fire is made, the teapot is put to the fire, the meat is dressed, the enjoyment of the poor reconnoiterer is perfect."
Now, if you think that sounds pretty rough, let me tell you, those are some of the rosiest passages of Leichhardt's memoirs. His first venture was counted as a brilliant success, considering that all but one of his party of nine emerged safely from the bush at their intended destination. But his second venture didn't go so well...
"Leichhardt's second expedition, undertaken with a government grant and substantial private subscriptions, started in December 1846. It was supposed to take him from the Darling Downs to the west coast of Australia and ultimately to the Swan River and Perth. However, after covering only 800 km the expedition team was forced to return in June 1847 due to heavy rain, malarial fever and famine."
That description of the second expedition glosses over one of the most excruciating journeys you're ever likely to read about. Here are a couple of the "highlights"...
"When we first came to Erythrina creek, a great number of blowflies suddenly appeared which not only blowed with maggots our sheepskins, but all our blankets, our shirts, and tarpawlings. These nasty insects were equally frequent...during the last 3 days and as the moist weather allowed the maggots to live, we scarcely could defend ourselves against their numbers. My poncho for instance had a piece of opossum cloak round the slit. This was blown and as it commenced to rain and I put my head through the slit, thousands came into the hair of my head and beard and I was teeming with maggots all over my body which, worse than lice, tried my substance, boring most eagerly into my skin. I washed, I combed, I brushed  and with the latter I tolerably succeeded in cleaning myself, most terribly disgusted with the filthy things."
"I cannot record all the miseries, all the anxieties of the last week. By God's mercy we are out of them in part and are out of a camp, where we had to stop from the 20th of April to the 2nd of May. I myself got very ill, a severe attack of fever took hold of me in consequence of eating too much of the broth of the young tainted meat and shook me most mercifully for several days. My feet were swollen in the ankles and a dark transparent spot formed within my left eye. Mr. Bunce, Mr. Turnbull, Perry, Hely, Mann, Brown all got worse and Wommai crawled only slowly along. In such a state, how could we attend to our rambling horses and cattle, how find our last 3 horses!" 
Somehow, after losing all their livestock and most of their horses, they managed to stumble back to an outpost, and thereby survive the ordeal. Not one to be so easily dissuaded of his dream of finding the promising heaven of the interior of Australia, Leichhardt rested a short while, recruited a new bunch of "explorers", and headed out once more. As author Hans Wilhem Finger describes it...
"In the early morning of 5 or 6 April 1848, when the meat from their first slaughter had dried sufficiently to be stored, the long procession left to follow the Cogoon to the north. Leichhardt rode ahead, reins in one hand, compass in the other, followed by Classen, leading the most amenable mule laden with essential equipment. Nineteen mules followed in a row, accompanied by one or two men or horseback; the cattle brought up the rear surrounded by the remaining mounted men and dogs scurried in between. A thick cloud of dust enveloped them all.
Unknown land stretched far in front and the convoy disappeared into a wilderness that devoured it for good." 
Neither Leichhardt nor any of his men of this third and final expedition were ever heard from again. After about three or four years, Australians began to wonder about them, and finally to assume they were lost forever. The legend of Ludwig Leichhardt was cemented in history, and Australians have spent the succeeding century and a half looking for any trace of them. A few small finds have been made, but none that could be confirmed and linked definitively to the party.

I hope they never do.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Best Forestry Video Ever?

This may be the single best forestry video I've ever seen. It conveys the sense of stewardship that most professional foresters share with so many forest landowners, and helps even non-landowners understand that forestry, well-done, is a commitment to the well-being of the land, those who live on it, and even those who just rely on it to be there, generations from now. Share it with your friends.

Timber Harvesting for Private Landowners from White Cliff Productions on Vimeo.

While this story was produced in Montana, most states have similar programs and resources. In Pennsylvania, here are some great places to get involved.

Pennsylvania Forest Landowners Conferences

Pennsylvania Woodland Owners Associations by County

Pennsylvania Forests Web Seminars

Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry News and Events

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Wood Science 101(27) - Hardwood and Softwood, Re-visited

One of the more popular posts on GoWood over the years has been "Wood Science 101(5) - Soft hardwood, hard softwood, and vice versa" which was posted back in June of 2012.  As technical stories tend to do, it required fourteen paragraphs to tell the story in the shortest possible way. Thanks to those of you who waded through it.

In the spirit of re-examining this important topic, here's a nice video that tells the same story in a way the most ADD-addled brain will appreciate. He never actually goes into how the "hardwood" and softwood" designations evolved, because, I guess, he never read our GoWood post. Nevertheless, he gets all the rest of the pertinent facts correct, and adds a few I didn't cover.

Get this straight, and you already know more about wood than ninety-eight percent of the people in the world. So, Go Wood, you!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Twelve Trees You Won't Believe Actually Exist

Here's a fun way to start out the new year on Go Wood. The title is self-explanatory, the video is snappy, and the trees are real.

Now I have to go dig through our Penn State wood collection to see how many of these we have. It is really amazing the stories behind all of the various tree species in the world. I'll start a new series this year on Amazing Woods, and share their stories as we Go Wood.

Friday, December 30, 2016

"2017 is Going to be Better Yet"

If you care to reflect back on 2016, I'll bet you'll have a reaction somewhat like mine...that is, you might not know what to think of the year just concluded. So let's review...

On Go Wood, we started out at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which really got the year off to a great start. We followed that up in February with a trip out into the winter woods with Ivan Sopushynskky and Andy Blazewicz. And in March, we visited our friends at Rigid-Ply rafters to watch beams and trusses being built.

But then the year began to take a weird twist. We discovered a new breed of woody guys called lumbersexuals, and examined their techniques in firewood and in chainsawing. And we discovered a dedicated group of folks that re-created an 18th-century windmill in Holland. Perhaps the most outrageous thing we discovered this year was the Amazing Marble Music Machine. But really, that was not as weird as the Earth People of the Australian outback.

But as the year closed out, it seemed like everything else took a back seat to our American election, which certainly has to go down as one of the weirdest events in human history. Even as I traveled halfway around the world, when people found out I was American, all they wanted to talk about was The Election. And I found myself reflecting deeply about how the world really is working these days.

That is, the world seems to be being run from the screens of our smart phones. People seem to know more about what is happening in the latest virtual hot spots around the world than what is happening around the block from them.

And most of that seems to be bad.

Which is why I like this year-end observation from UK parliament member Daniel Hannan...

Yes, the world seems to be getting weirder, but I find that the folks in my town, my church, and in the plants I visit, are the same as always, warm, and kind, and caring. They share my concerns about the rest of you out there in the crazy world, but they don't seem to get too worried about it. Most are concerned about the health of their family, friends, and perhaps the company they work for. It seems like almost everyone is being touched in some bad way by the proliferation of drug abuse in the country, yet that topic rarely makes the headlines or political discussions, unless some actor overdoses. The problems and concerns of regular folks just don't seem to count for much in a world driven by ratings-hungry news organizations.

Which is why my new years resolutions for 2017 are a little boring, and will never go viral, but I think they should. Because we all need to focus a little closer to home.

In 2017, I resolve to purchase at least one wood product a month.Whether it's from an American company, or from a third-world country on Amazon, that wood product was made by someone who has their hands on wood and eats from the fruit of their labor. So my purchase dollars will support a real person going wood.

In 2017, I resolve to subscribe to the local newspaper and follow current events in my town more closely than the latest ramblings of any of the crazy nuts all over the world. Let the folks in their neighborhood deal with them...I'll pay attention to what my own city council and school board is doing.

In 2017, I resolve to double the number of real, flesh-and-blood close friends I have in the world, which means I have to make the effort to find two more. I really appreciate all you virtual friends out there, and I'm amazed every time I meet one of you. But I need a couple of more buddies to kick things around with, just to keep me grounded and honest with myself. Nobody does that like your best friends.

In 2017, I resolve to kiss my wife at least once a day, and hug my kids once a week. Those really are the best moments of my life, and I don't spend  enough time doing them.

Finally, in 2017, I resolve to improve the content of this Go Wood blog in any way I can. 2016 was a record year in the number of views of the blog. Over 30,000 views in December alone set an all-time monthly record, even though I didn't get to post much this month. If I've been given one professional duty to perform in life, its seems to be to provide you folks with entertaining and informative stories about wood. That's a good thing to be able to do for a living, and I vow to try to live up to the honor. Thank you for spending your time with me here on Go Wood.

And may you be blessed in 2017. It's going to be the best year yet.


Friday, December 9, 2016

Kiln-Drying Time Again

2017 Kiln Drying Workshop 
 January 9-12, 2017 
SUNY-ESF, Syracuse, NY 

 If you've been meaning to go to, or send employees to, a hardwood kiln-drying short course, you have that opportunity once again. For the sixteenth consecutive year, the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry is holding its annual kiln drying workshop again next month. If you're drying hardwoods, or thinking of drying hardwoods. don't invest another dime until you've spent some time with Dr. Bill Smith and his team in Syracuse.

Click here for all the information.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Santa Claus Goes Wood, Naturally!

One of the more amazing and useful sites on the internet is Zillow. You simply enter an address, and you instantly get details on the house at that address, including square footage, list of features, and Zillow's estimate of the current value of the property.

Which led me to wonder what kind of digs Santa and Mrs. Claus have up in their North Pole retreat. Hollywood movies such as The Santa Clause have the jolly olde elf living in an icy winter palace. But, you'll be pleased, and probably not surprised, to find that the Claus' homestead is predictably a warm, cozy timber-framed cottage near North Pole Enterprises.

Bursting with curb appeal, but the curb is missing.
Charm oozes from every detail of this finely-crafted wooden home. Here's the listing...

Santa's HouseThe North Pole

3 beds2 baths2,500 sqft

A toy-lover's paradise nestled on 25 idyllic acres at the North Pole – perfect for spirited reindeer games. The home, constructed in the 1800s of gorgeous old-growth timber logged on site, is steeped in Old World charm but offers modern-day amenities, thanks to a 2013 renovation.

A welcoming entryway leads to the living room with a floor-to-ceiling river rock fireplace for roasting chestnuts. The gourmet kitchen is a baker's dream, boasting an oven with 12 different cookie settings. Cookies are served directly from oven to table in the adjoining dining room.

Boughs of holly deck the hall leading to the master bedroom, which features sprawling mountain views. Jingle all the way to two charming guest rooms that guarantee visitors are never left out in the cold. Cuddle close to the wood-burning stove in the queen suite. Or bunk up in the cozy loft. The more, the merrier.

Tiptoe down the hall to Santa's quiet study. An impressive writing desk is flanked by the same sewing table Santa used to make the original teddy bear. Substantial built-in shelving stores toy prototypes.

Over the river and through the woods is a state-of-the-art toy-making facility with workstations for 50 diminutive craftsmen. Nearby are a garage, with space for Santa's all-weather sleigh, and stables that board eight live-in reindeer, plus a bonus stall for red-nosed company, eagerly awaiting Christmas Eve. 


  • Lot: 25 acres
  • Floor size: 2,500 sqft
  • Home type: Single Family
  • Year built: 1822
  • Last remodel: 2013


  • Santa's Toy Workshop
  • Reindeer Stables
  • River Rock Fireplace
  • Sleigh Parking Garage
Sounds pretty nice, and looking pretty good for a home built in 1822. Another testament to the durability of solid wood construction.

You can see a video and slide show of Santa's pad here...

Enjoy this good holiday season, and when buying gifts, remember to Go Wood. Everyone loves it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Notes from the Road (12) - The Crichtons of Maryvale

The highlight of my two weeks in Australia was a day our group spent at Maryvale, an outback sheep/cattle station. Our hosts, Robert and Jenny Crichton, were characters straight out of one of our Western movies...think John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara with Australian accents. I told Jenny she was my dream woman...a finely dressed, elegantly coiffed lady running a ranching household about fifty miles from the nearest civilization. Which is where I'll have to be when The Wife reads this.

Jenny Crichton welcomes us to Maryvale.
I'll let Mr. Crichton tell you about the station...

I passed up the 4WD tours of the station, opting instead to re-charge my batteries napping on the porch, listening to the birds, squawk, rattle, chirp, and ring away the hours while I slipped in and out of consciousness. Upon awakening, I discovered a small group of men discussing the wood collection owned by the Australian government and their future disposition in times of budget-cutting, and found a common theme...those wood collections that exist in public and institutional hands seem to be slowly but surely disappearing. Fortunately, not in Pennsylvania.

Robert's favorite tree on his spread...a lemon-scented gum, Corymbia citriodora. When you crush the leaves between your fingers, you get the freshest, most pleasant smell of lemon. Easy to see why it's a favorite.

Out back in the outback.
On a walkabout on Maryvale station.

A porch I'll always remember.

A few cants were sawn for the wood-workers in attendance on this Lucas mill, an amazingly adaptable portable mill that can saw really large diameter logs.
Easily the best picture I took on the trip. Two of the Crichton grandkids, enjoying our presence in that carefree way only three and four-year-olds can grasp.
After doing a short walkabout of the property around the house, it was time for a barbeque. The Crichtons, with the help of some of their neighbors, put on a feast of beef and local delicacies that we enjoyed as we watched the sun set on the Queensland horizon. A really great day had drawn to a close.

A couple of days later, I caught up with Robert, and he graciously agreed to tell me a little more about what it's like to be a cattleman these days in Australia. I think you'll find the conversation interesting, and somewhat familiar, no matter where you live.
GoWood: You've lived on the station for your whole life. What are the biggest changes from the time of your youth in both culture and stewardship of the land?
Robert Crichton: Certainly. Some of the biggest changes I've seen are the number of people we can support. When I was eighteen I came home from school, and the place was twice as big as I've got now, but it supported four families, my father's family and the families of the support staff. Not only were there the four families but there were several single people as well. I think that's the most significant change, the number of people that actually live on the the station, and that's very typical of most of the places out here.
GW: How many acres are on the station now?
RC:  Fifty-five thousand.
GW: What about the productivity of the land?
RC: That's another very significant change, and that's all about the first big change, changing from sheep to cattle. When we could no longer run sheep because of the dingo problem, plus the fact that the price of wool was not particularly high, we moved to cattle because the dingoes did not impact the cattle herds as much. It was terrible, the cost it was, particularly for breeders. We bred sheep at home until we could no longer keep our numbers up, then we tried buying sheep to make an effort to keep up, and that didn't work, so we gave in and moved to cattle.
GW: If the dingoes hadn't become a problem, would the sheep still been profitable enough to run?
RC: Well, that's another question as well, but I think we probably would have, because there is sheep country and there is cattle country, and we were in a better wool area than for cattle in a lot of ways. Although today, with all the supplements that are available to feed the cattle, to make use of the pasture, and all the mulga we have that the cattle that convert, cattle make more sense now.
GW: Nick Swadling mentioned that on his place he needs about thirty acres per head of cattle, is that about right at Maryvale?
RC: I think at home it's more acres per beast; I think if we could run a thousand animals that would be very good, and that would be fifty-five acres per beast, see? It depends on the area and the vegetation. With the problem we're facing currently, with this germination and thickening of younger mulga, which is so thick you can hardly walk through it, that's going to have a devastating effect when it matures to the point that it will be no longer available to the animals because it will be too high. 
GW: Our South Texas ranchers have had the same problem with mesquite...
RC: Yes, yes, same problem...I did some work some years ago, ten, twelve years ago with two government departments here, looking at the relationship between trees and grass, and the effect of the trees on the grass production. It was quite staggering, the increase of canopy cover, the extent to which it reduced the grass underneath. It's a lot more severe than a lot of people could understand.
GW: I understand the exclusion of fire has changed all the land dynamics in the country.
RC: Ohh, all of our vegetation is subject to fire to a certain degree, but I think I'd be reasonably correct in saying that the species that are most susceptible to fire are the areas that we're having the most problem, and mulga are highly susceptible to fire. It's a useful plant to have in terms of being a useful fodder tree, but you can have too much of it. If you have all mulga, with all the drought, you pasture is pretty questionable.
GW: Are you restricted by the government from burning the land to sufficiently produce pasture?
RC:  We're not prohibited from burning, we're prohibited from clearing a lot of it, it's a very complex situation...our biggest problem is not being able to self-manage.
GW: They've got a prescription, you've got to follow.
RC: Exactly, exactly...there have been laws introduced to conserve trees because of their carbon value, and there hasn't been a sufficient research effort into the impact of that on the total productivity of the land. 
GW: The policymakers are driven by a lot of conflicting agendas, and they come up with compromise regulations, which by definition of the word compromise means it's not the best solution for anybody.
RC: No, that's right. Well, here in Australia, particularly in Queensland, where we had in some cases no control over it [policy making]. I have here a free-hold property, which means we have free reign over it for a fifty-year period. And then all of a sudden they tell us that we can't touch the trees on it. And even though they admit that I own them, I'm not allowed to touch them...
GW: That would drive me crazy (laughing)...
RC:  (Not laughing) More than crazy...It has a big impact on us, because some people had cleared [for grazing] about ninety percent of their [land] before this hit us, but through circumstances of mine that were different, I hadn't cleared a big lot of it. I've only got about forty-five percent of my place cleared, and when the controls came upon us, those other folks were sitting pretty, because the controls had very little impact on their productivity or production, whereas in our case effectively fifty-five percent of our land is taken out of sustainable production.
GW: That's the tough thing about making natural resource policies, they tend to make them apply across all situations to keep them "fair", but everyone's situation is different.
RC: No, that's right. The Green movement, the Greens as we call them, which are a political party, have had a huge influence, even though in a lot of cases they don't have any actual seats in Parliament, but they become, because of our voting system which is called "preferential voting", gets very complicated because the fellow who runs second gets all the more minor parties added to his total, and he becomes the winner with a bunch of small groups of folks who have tremendous influence over him.
GW: So you wind up with an attack on private property rights by small groups of people who don't own that land, resulting in all sorts of overbearing and questionable land use regulations. I don't think we've had that in the States as bad as you've got it here, but the impact we're seeing is that of increasing property taxes forcing people to subdivide and ultimately give up their land, often "donating" it under passive coercion to green organizations for the tax breaks available for donations to those organizations.
RC: Yes...I remember when these things started to hit us maybe some twenty years ago, when some of these laws were first introduced, I remember saying to one of the managers in a government department, that I wouldn't see it in my time, but the demand for food by the human race on this planet will override some of these decisions that are being made and forced upon us. It's not coming yet, but it's a worry. 
GW: Yes, it is. 
RC: I want to go back to our change from sheep to cattle, the impact that is different because the way the animals actually graze the trees. When the mulga trees were little, the sheep used to eat up all the little trees, but the cattle only take a mouthful off the top and leave the side, which changes the structure of the tree [causes it to spread more densely at ground level] until the browse finally reaches above the heads of the cattle, at which point the cost of sustaining the cattle is greatly increased. I think in our country we're very, very sadly seeing a lot of degradation now because of this factor, and it's going to take a lot of correcting, because it's gone so far is some areas.
GW: We visited an olive you see a future for nut and fruit crops in the outback?
RC: Yeah, look, they do some of that on a small scale, but I just don't think it's economical here yet...maybe one day. It's interesting you asked that 1965, fifty years ago now, we had a little oil well drilled on the property by a little oil company from Texas, Orion Oil company..
GW: I remember the company.
RC: Two of their senior executives came out here while they were drilling these holes, and one of their comments was, "Why aren't you growing fruit trees here?" Their first impression of the soils, the climate, it's fruit-growing country. But we're just too far away from market.
GW: Yeah, you really have some distances out here. Maybe you could put an airstrip out on the ranch and just fly them straight out...
RC: Well, I don't know that I could grow enough to make an airplane land out here...
GW: You might have to have your own airline (laughing)...
RC: Yeah, well, look, a lot of those concepts are brought up, but there aren't many of them really feasible.
GW; One last question then. You mentioned out at the station, you're looking into the future, your daughter's families aren't going to live on the station...
RC: No, I'm going to sell the place, because I know their families can carry on, so it will be sold and we'll move on. Which will be a pity, because I've spent my whole life there, and after I've made the decision...
GW: I know how hard the decision must be. I've seen your beautiful little grandchildren. 
RC: Well, no, no, that's right...but there are changes that are occurring in social structure, too,
GW: I guess you think about all the changes you had to put up with over the years, and you hate to think that your children, and grandchildren, would have to go through even more of that.
RC: Look, I think it's a matter of really being sensible, and looking at the opportunities. And the opportunities are there, but the economics aren't. And the asset I've got here would be far better employed somewhere else.  So, to ask my grandchildren, or my son-in-laws, even, to take it on...
GW: Would be like inviting them to captain a sinking ship, I suppose.
RC: Exactly. They all have business enterprises of their own, and doing very well, and to come back and take over for me, or buy it from me, would be asking them to take over something that's nowhere near the sort of enterprise they need to be involved with.
GoWood: Well, thank you for sharing all that with us, Robert. It's been great to spend time at Maryville and to get a personal perspective to be a station owner in these days.
Robert Crichton: You're welcome. Come back and visit us again some time.
I'll be there again one day least in my dreams.