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Tuesday
Jun262018

Wood is not immune from the whims of fashion

Back in the 1970s, the Japanese got the urge to go bowling. A big urge.

People tuned in on TV to watch professionals like Ritsuko Nakayama, who in 1970 became the first woman to score a perfect 300,” Japan Today reported last year.

As many as 3,697 bowling alleys sprung up all over the land, the magazine said.Japanese Bowling Alley

Ken Laustsen, the Maine Forest Service’s biometrician, was still in college at the time, but he remembers it. “They couldn’t build bowling alleys fast enough because they couldn’t get enough hard maple flooring. There was this pent up demand that people tried to tap into. Prices went crazy because everyone was competing for the same logs.”

Japan Today reported that, “So high was the demand for the special type of hardwood used to build the surface of the alleys, U.S. suppliers warned that depleted forest stocks would take half a century to regrow.”

Japan’s bowling craze petered out over about five years. Today, fewer than 800 bowling alleys operate in Japan. But the sport seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence and alley operators are seeing increasing numbers of players, with customers reportedly waiting an hour and a half to three hours for a lane.

Does that mean that you, Mr. or Mrs. Woodland Owner, should start marking mature sugar maples for harvest in hopes of capitalizing on what could be a lucrative craze redux halfway around the world?

Uh . . . probably not.

Fads. Crazes. Fashion. Trends. They’ve been around since people started wearing skins, stringing shells on cords and building wood shelters. Nothing, it seems, is immune from the ebb and flow of fashion.

Nothing. Including wood.

Sometimes fashion in wood is tied to the materials themselves.

Pine clapboards went out when vinyl siding came in. You didn’t have to paint vinyl, said Laustsen. Similarly, pressure treated wood replaced cedar decking, he added. Why? Well, perhaps it was simply that a lot of the pressure treated wood was southern yellow pine and it was cheaper, Laustsen said.

Computers and the internet helped kill a lot of pulp mills as we began a move to a “paperless society.” Similarly, mobile phones led consumers to junk their land lines. What happened then? Phone books shrank. “Nobody uses a phone book anymore,” said Laustsen.

Sometimes, however, it’s just a matter of “style” or fashion. Or  . . . whatever.

Photo courtesy of Draftwood Forest ProductsRemember knotty pine paneling? asks Lloyd Irland, a forest economist who runs The Irland Group, a consulting business in Wayne, Maine.

Used to be, if you had a recreation room it likely was paneled in V-match pine. Irland said he and his wife put it in the rec room of their first house. He liked it because over time the pine boards turned a warm golden honey color. “Some of the big pine mills used to do 30 to 40 percent of their production in that kind of lumber,” Irland said. “But you’d be hard pressed to find any new homes built with any now. Or even remodels.”

What about cedar shingles for home interiors? Remember that one?

So, where do these fads and fashions come from?

Sometimes it seems they just appear. But it helps to remember there is a whole industry out there whose business it is to convince you that the choices you made a few years ago when you built or remodeled your house or bought your furniture are no longer “in” or “cool”.

Designers and architects and the media that cover them have tremendous influence over the choices American consumers make. Magazines like Sunset, Home and Design Magazine, Architectural Digest; Better Homes and Gardens and House Beautiful. These days you can add to that the popular cable TV home makeover shows like This Old House, Property Brothers and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

 

And websites. For instance, Zillow, Inc., the internet real estate site, touts “Five Home Design Trends for 2018 (and Three Fads that Need to Go) in an online Zillow Porchlight article. Trends for 2018: “statement floors. From bold colored geometric tiles to soft herringbone-style hardwoods, expect to see fab floors everywhere next year, especially in bathrooms and laundry rooms.” And  . . . “medium and light wood cabinets, particularly with flat fronts and clean lines.” On their way out, according to Zillow: all-white kitchens and . . . bar carts (coffee carts are another matter, they like those at Zillow Home Trends.)

An online article by The Family Handyman magazine predicts “natural wood surfaces” such as live edge will be all the rage this year. That “rustic” accents like shiplap siding in bathrooms will replace this whole modernist trend in the room everyone has to use. And that “white flooring will be everywhere in 2018. Think white  https://www.familyhandman.com/bathroom/13-tile--tips-for-a-better-bathroom/view-all/ and kitchen and white wood flooring in living areas.” Really? White floors? FH is also betting on “wall art,” carts, “small, colorful accents,” and velvet being hot.

 

And those are just a few of the design opinions out there. Start looking and you’ll quickly find yourself mired in a morass of competing opinions about what’s on its way in, or out, even if you’re only trying to figure out what’s hot in wood.

It’s hard to figure out how trends, which some define as a fashion that hangs around and gets updated over time, or their even briefer cousin, fads, start out. But once set in motion they often travel by word of mouth. In other words, we’re often heavily influenced by friends or family.

Irland, for instance, said he and his wife recently redid their kitchen. His in-laws had redone theirs in cherry. So . . . Irland said his wife wanted cherry. He would have liked to put in something cheaper, he said, but. . . Well, whataya gonna do? The cherry looks good, he said. Beautiful wood.

Fashions change because “sometimes you want something different from your grandmother’s house or your mother’s house.” And “novelty is appealing, the unfamiliar, the new,” Irland said.

When it comes to wood, said Irland, “a lot of it is based on color. Not too many consumers know much about wood.” They may not be thinking in terms of species, but simply color[1] .

Laustsen agrees. “In hardwoods it’s the dark versus the white woods. the dark hardwoods are sugar maple, our oaks, to some degree yellow birch. Where white woods are beech, ash and paper birch. You see this dynamic that flips between white and dark and dark and white.”

Paul Sampson, who owns A.E. Sampson and Son Ltd., a custom wood flooring and trim mill in Warren with his wife Jula, said “the color thing” often determines what woods people want for their house.

Sampson & Son offers products in dozens of species of domestic and imported woods. Though Sampson likes to promote Maine woods he sounds resigned to the constant shifts in fashion.

“It really all depends on what the designers are doing, whether it’s clothing or wood. That’s how a designer keeps the job, by always having something different. And it’s going to work its way down the supply chain,” he said.

Recently it was what he dubbed “50 Shades of Gray.” “The design industry went on that bandwagon because it was time for grays and blacks to come in and then the book came out,” he said. “That actually let a variety of species be used because you were going to paint it or stain it or use plastic laminate.

Photo courtesy of Joe Rankin “That movement really didn’t help my business one iota,” he added. That fashion trend started to dissipate about three years ago and Sampson, for one, won’t be sorry to see the back of it.

Trying to keep up with fashions in wood is tiring and tiresome, and, well, virtually impossible, he said. But he has to attempt it, keeping an eye out for design or architectural magazines that might be informative.

For that reason he recently found himself in front of a magazine rack in a Tractor Supply Co. store looking at a magazine featuring farmhouses. He ended up buying it. He found that “kind of weird,” but said in his business it’s part of the job to keep up with the trends.

Sampson notes that sometimes fashion is tied to the health of the economy. And not always in the way you might think. Lower priced woods generally come into fashion when the stock market is down. But, somewhat counterintuitively, more expensive woods might be selling well. His theory: people that have money but aren’t getting a great return on their investments  in a down market, may decide to sink some of it into a new home or a home renovation. And they’re not going to be pinching pennies.

In the last recession, Sampson said, dark woods became more popular, think mahogany and teak. “The general market can’t afford them, but folks that have lots of cash want it.”

That’s another aspect to the wood trade, notes Laustsen. It’s not just local or regional, but international, with tropical hardwoods competing with woods from the American south or the northeast or European woods.

One thing that wood has going for it is that it’s as much an investment as a purchase. After all, how manyPhoto courtesy of Joe Rankin people are going to rip out and redo their kitchen every year or two, or rip up their floors and replace them? Not many. It costs too much and is too disruptive.

That’s why trends in wood use in houses and the furniture that fills them tend to take longer to shift than changes in clothes, said Irland. After all you can squeeze a few shirts or skirts or even jewelry into a tight budget, but a kitchen remodel, well . . .

And trends aside, it’s also true that there’s a certain timelessness about natural wood, whether it’s floors or cabinets or furniture.

It’s been around a long time and, as is the nature of things, if it’s not “in style” now it probably will be in a few years. Irland notes the enduring appeal of Maine-made Thomas Moser chairs, for instance, or Shaker style cabinetry. “The oak floor is never going to go away, though it might fluctuate in its market share,” he said.

For landowners in the northeast, where growing seasons are short and it takes decades to grow a nice tree for market, trying to take advantage of a shorter-term trend in the market is tough, though if you or your forester keeps up on the latest design trends you might be able to capitalize on it, said Laustsen.

Takes a lot of effort, though. And luck. Lots of luck.

All things considered it might be better to follow a common piece of advice ladled out by financial advisers:  take the long view and don’t try to time the market. Instead, grow the types of trees that grow best on your land and grow larger trees that will give you more options for sawing down the road when you do harvest them.

 

 

Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature. He is pretty much immune to trends and fashion, though every 20 years or so he finds what he’s wearing is actually in style.