Special Report: Hops, Barley, And Tropical Wood

By Brian Kraemer
Published in the June 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

I like to drink beer. I’ve drank a lot of it and for the most part, I’ve found that wherever I go, the beer usually tastes the same. Not too long ago, I took a tour of the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO. I was interested to hear about the Coors brewery in Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. When I asked about the taste of the beer, the tour guide told me that Coors has a recipe for the water it uses to make all the beer it brews taste Rocky Mountain fresh-no matter where it’s made.

The Seattle, WA-based Weyerhaeuser company employs a similar operation with eucalyptus trees. Recently, it began introducing wood from these trees as an alternative to more expensive tropical hard woods like mahogany and cherry. With manufacturing plants in Uruguay, South Africa, and Brazil, Weyerhaeuser doesn’t discriminate where Lyptus comes from, because the company has developed a recipe to harvest wood of consistent quality.

Eucalyptus is a tree that manufacturers of things like case goods and flooring thought would never work in their markets-even though it can grow almost four times faster than other tropical woods. Ian Firth, director of marketing and sales for Weyerhaeuser forest products, says “Historically, eucalyptus doesn’t have a good name. It tends to cup, twist, or warp. Basically, it’s not a straight wood.” The upshot is that a company looking to make floorboards wouldn’t consider using it, because it is difficult to straighten warped wood in order to make quality floorboards.

Weyerhaeuser, however, has a method of growth and harvesting for eucalyptus that addresses the issue. “The tree grows quickly,” says Firth. “The best time to cut the trees is after 14 to 16 years of growth when they reach about 150′ and have a diameter of 2′.” That is an admittedly long time to grow one crop, but the results are superior to wood that grows quicker and just as sufficient as wood that can take a longer time to mature.

The quicker option is rubberwood which can grow to that height in six to eight years. However the wood that is yielded, according to Firth, “is going to be too thin and unsuitable for the North American market.”

Perhaps the best known tropical wood option is mahogany. Everyone has had some experience with mahogany. “Mahogany takes 50 to 60 years to reach the same size as our eucalyptus trees,” Firth explains. This long maturation period drives the price of the wood up, because it takes so long to reach the market. Lyptus is produced at a much faster rate, which allows the demand for tropical wood to be met in a more timely manner. This short turn around time also helps keep the cost low. But the short growth period doesn’t effect the quality of the wood. In fact, Lyptus gives customers the option of purchasing tropical wood at a lower price, which can offer a facility manager the feel and style of an expensive wood at a lower cost.

Manipulating Lyptus to be straight enough to work with is a carefully controlled process and begins the moment a tree is cut down. “We try to minimize the time from harvest to opening up the log,” Firth explains. “We try to keep it under three days. And then the drying process begins.”

The way the wood is dried, according to Firth, is what allows it to maintain its straightness. “We dry the lumber carefully. For example, a 50mm piece of lumber takes over a year to dry. From the time we bring the logs in and cut them to the time when we have wood that is ready to ship, the lumber is put through a long, carefully monitored process.”

Instead of using the more traditional three day, high temperature drying system that an Australian pine manufacturer might implement, Lyptus is subject to an air and a kiln drying process that cures the wood to the proper degree. “We’re not trying to dry it fast, we’re trying to dry it well. The process is constantly being tweaked,” says Firth.

Once Lyptus is dried and prepared for market, the applications of the wood are far ranging. “We make Lyptus into both solid and engineered flooring. It has minimal upkeep and lasts a long time. The wood is comparable to maple in that regard,” Firth explains. “Or it makes a very strong chair, table, or anything else you can do with wood. It has good abrasion resistance characteristics and takes to fine machining very well. Depending on the finish that gets put on, it can look very tropical and grainy or very soft.”

The best implementation of Lyptus comes where a material is needed to stand up to heavy use: colleges and universities. “Lyptus is an indoor wood,” says Firth. “It doesn’t hold up very well outdoors, but it’ll do just as well as any other hardwood in any indoor application. In particular, we’ve found that dorm furniture is a good choice for it. Lyptus keeps its appearance. It doesn’t oxidize to an unattractive brown like walnut will as it gets older, and it doesn’t fade like cherry.”

Lyptus and beer are not too different. Both come from all over the world and both perform their job admirably. The one difference is that facility managers know beer. But this dark horse wood offers facility managers the opportunity to furnish their buildings with a quality wood that is going to look just as great as a freshly poured pint of frosty beer-but Lyptus last longer and serve more customers.