Like short lumber and odd-length decking, 4/4 lumber is kind of a U.S. thing. It’s definitely the most popular thickness we sell. Other markets are willing to accept a greater variety of widths, so mills outside the U.S. are used to turning out a variety of widths. Because African Mahogany, Sapele, and Utile are increasingly popular in the American market, though, they’ve experienced a shortage of 4/4 lumber.
What the Shortage Doesn’t Mean
Just because there’s a shortage of 4/4 boards in no way means there’s an actual shortage of those species, mind you: There’s plenty of it available, and plenty of milled lumber available. Just not 4/4 lumber. If you wanted thicker lumber, such as 8/4 or 12/4 lumber, there’s no issue. (For an explanation of why 1-inch-thick boards are referred to as 4/4, check out this post.) Those African species are prolific and grow to be quite sizeable, making large amounts of thick, wide lumber easy to find. So don’t worry.
What the Shortage Does Mean
The issue here is simply an indication of the market. Sawmills are far safer to produce lumber sizes that are in-demand in more than a single market — yes, even if the market is as significant as the U.S. lumber market. Since 4/4 is not as popular in other markets, it doesn’t make as much sense for mills to produce it.
For some reason, the rest of the world likes thicker cuts of lumber. Why? We’re really not sure, and neither are the mills, but the fact remains: European and Asian markets prefer 8/4 and thicker lumber. So mills produce lumber to meet that demand.
Of course, sawing 4/4 lumber also takes more labor and leads to more waste, so even if the markets were even, they’d probably rather produce more of the thicker cuts. And if you or I were in their shoes — let’s be honest — we’d do the exact same thing.
What Happens When Mills Concede?
Now, the U.S. market certainly isn’t insignificant. So some mills have been willing to accommodate our idiosyncratic requests for 4/4 lumber. They’ll do entire runs of only 4/4 boards, just for us. We should feel special. More often than not, however, the scenario ends up hurting the mill, overall.
You see, sawing 4/4 lumber, by nature, leads to a higher percentage of lower quality boards. (Why is that? Basically, the thinner boards require mills to saw closer to the edges of the logs, which means more sapwood is included. Besides, the thinner lumber isn’t as stable, particularly during the shipping and drying processes.)
Because the U.S. market is so incredibly picky about quality (an issue for another day!), the Common-grade 4/4 lumber ends up wasted. We don’t want it because it’s Common grade, and other markets reject it because of its thickness. So much of the 4/4 run ends up wasted, and the mills have to absorb the cost. It’s a losing battle.
So what’s the answer to this dilemma? Continue reading to find out.