When it comes to the U.S. lumber market, 4/4 is the most popular thickness by far; however, that same preference is not the case across the global market. As African species such as African Mahogany, Sapele, and Utile have become more popular in the U.S., they’ve run into shortages of 4/4 thicknesses.
The issue isn’t at all that there’s a dwindling supply of these species, just that the supply of 4/4 thicknesses hasn’t yet caught up with the increased demand for it. In fact, there’s plenty of 8/4 and 12/4 lumber available, thanks to plentiful, large African trees that produce plenty of wide, thick lumber.
The limitation is simply due to the U.S. being the only market that demands 4/4 sizes. Not only can knowing this help us breathe a sigh of relief, but it can also lead us to a better understanding of the lumber industry. The more each of us understands how the industry operates, the better; knowledge truly can mean power.
Most of the World Prefers Thicker Lumber
We’ve discussed this kind of thing before, but usually the U.S. market seems to go with the bigger-is-always-better philosophy. While the U.S. market does seem to prefer more wide, long boards than the rest of the world, Europeans do seem to prefer thicker lumber. Maybe it’s because their architecture involves stockier buildings, or historical styles call for thicker boards. It may be more practical, tied to the fact that thicker lumber performs better in wetter climates like Europe’s. We’re guessing it’s probably a combination of those things and just plain tradition that makes both European and Asian markets more prone to prefer lumber that’s 8/4 and thicker.
Mills Respond to Global Demands
Now, put yourself in the position of a sawmill owner or manager. If the majority of the market requests lumber that’s 8/4 and thicker, what will you tend to cut? When you consider that 4/4 lumber takes even more time and labor to produce and leads to waste, you’re even more motivated to saw as many thicker boards as possible. You really have nothing to lose by sawing thicker cuts.
How the U.S. Market Complicates the Issue
Make no mistake about it: Many mills do conduct North American production runs where they saw only 4/4 lumber. However, they usually end up losing out. Because of how the grading system works, 4/4 lumber ends up including lower quality common grades, which the U.S. market will not accept. (That preference is another topic for another day, but it is definitely an issue.) Since European and Asian markets don’t want any 4/4 lumber, no matter the grade, the majority of 4/4 lumber ends up being wasted. So the mills who try to accommodate U.S. preferences lose out. We really can’t blame them for not wanting to saw 4/4 lumber. They end up sawing mostly 8/4 and thicker lumber because it makes sense for them.