Photo by Virginia Barlow
When a tree is cut and a log produced, that one
log can be worth hundreds of dollars if it's sold
as veneer or less than a dollar as firewood.
In the world of high-end veneer logs, there’s a lot of money to be made – and a lot of things to watch out for.
High-end veneer logs are an almost mythological subject. These are the logs that are worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars each. There are the stories of people “striking it rich,” of “timber rustling,” where a particularly valuable tree disappears in the middle of the night, and of intrigue in big-money transactions.
What separates the big-money veneer log from one that is simply a nice sawlog? How do you know if you are being fairly paid or taken advantage of?
First, it’s probably a good idea to define just what a veneer log is. In my mind, there are two classes of veneer. The first class comprises products where the criterion is strength, not beauty. These products include construction grades of plywood, linear veneer lumber (beams made by gluing up sheets of veneer where the grain of all the sheets is parallel to the length of the beam), and industrial plywood. These logs are peeled on a high-speed veneer lathe; in a sense they are “unrolled” like a roll of paper towels. Prices paid for this class of veneer logs are generally in the range of those for similar-quality sawlogs – they won’t make you feel like you’ve struck gold.
The other class of veneer logs includes those that go into products where appearance is of the utmost importance. The best of this wood ends up in architectural millwork, such as ornate moldings and wainscoting. Slightly lower-quality veneer ends up as furniture, interior doors, flooring, and “real” sheets of paneling (as opposed to laminates that use paper that is printed to look like wood). This usually comes from hardwood logs, and the value of different species rises and falls as different looks go in and out of favor. The very best logs are called slicer logs, because they are usually cut into slices parallel to their length. Rotary logs aren’t quite as good and are peeled on a lathe. These logs can travel the world, often changing hands several times. This is where the money is. Even the smaller, poorer-quality veneer logs are worth more than top-quality sawlogs, and large ones of excellent quality are worth several dollars per board foot in log form. At the high end for domestic species, a perfect bird’s-eye sugar maple veneer log can be worth more than 10 dollars per board foot.
Here are the characteristics of an ideal veneer log:
Three trees with veneer potential
These trees exhibit types of defects that prevent them from ever becoming
veneer. Left to right: Mechanical damage; logging wound; sweep of the trunk;
overgrown knot; and off-centered heart.
It can make real financial sense and be very satisfying to grow veneer-quality trees. Most high-end veneer logs are the butt log of the tree; it is the rare woodlot that contains many upper logs that are of veneer quality. The two most important things to do if you want to maximize future veneer-log value are to be patient and to do absolutely no damage to the butt log and roots near the base of the tree.
The patience comes in because of the desirability of large trees. For most species, the really high values start with a diameter (measured at the small end inside the bark) of 16 inches, and values are even greater at 18 to 20 inches diameter. This takes big trees: you generally need to add 2 to 4 inches, depending on tree taper and log length, to get the diameter at breast height (DBH) necessary to get this large a small-end diameter. In other words, it will take an 18- or 20-inch-DBH tree to make a log with a 16-inch diameter.
While there is already a lot of money in those 16- to 18-inch-DBH trees of high quality and desirable species, a fantastic return can be realized by growing them several inches larger in diameter, if they are healthy and growing well. At a growth rate of 10 rings to the inch (some trees grow slower, some faster), it takes 20 years to add 4 inches in diameter. If the butt log is a 12-foot high-quality veneer log, and it grows from 15 to 19 inches in diameter, the volume of just that log will increase from 115 to 190 board feet (using the International 1/4-inch log rule). In addition, the value per board foot may well double if the growth brings it into a higher grade of veneer. This would amount to an increase in value of 330 percent for just that log, not including inflation (and the value of high-quality logs has historically increased faster than inflation). And keep in mind that the upper logs in the tree are also increasing in volume and, most likely, in quality as well.
As for damage, any time there is a harvesting operation, there is a real risk of damaging the bole and roots of trees you want to leave for more growth. If you are going to realize the future potential value in veneer logs from high-quality trees, you must do absolutely no damage. Period. If you rub off a bit of bark or drive over the butt swell when skidding a log, you can pretty well forget about a future top-quality veneer log. Even impacts that don’t break through the bark at the time of harvest can cause damage that won’t show up for many years. I’ve heard loggers complain that they have selectively logged a woodlot three times over the last 25 years, and that each time, the log quality has gone down. The problem isn’t with the trees – it’s with the logger: “Taking the best and damaging the rest” is a surefire formula for poorer log quality the next time around.
Harvesting for high value
Rotary logs are unrolled like paper towels, while
slicer logs are cut in slices parallel to their length.
High-value hardwood veneer logs are normally bought in one-foot increments, from 8 feet through 16 feet, though 9 feet is the minimum for many buyers of sugar maple, black cherry, and red oak. A 9-foot log will need to measure 5 or 6 inches longer than 9 feet; the additional length is known as trim, and different mills have different trim requirements. In general, veneer logs need more trim than sawlogs; this is because indicators of problems on the ends of the logs, such as gum, mineral, and worm track, are easier to see on a freshly cut surface. To get a fresh surface, the veneer buyer will usually cut a thin slice off the small end of the log when evaluating it. When the log is resold, that buyer will also want to see a fresh surface. A log with inadequate trim will be scaled as one foot shorter.
Before I fell a tree, I take a good look at the bole, noting any and all defects. I make a tentative decision about where the veneer-quality wood ends before felling the tree. Once the tree is on the ground, I again examine the bole, looking for any indications of defects I might not have seen before. I then carefully measure the bole up to the first defect and mark the bucking location, allowing the correct amount of trim. If the defect is evidence of a long-gone branch stub, I will want to be far enough below that defect so that it won’t show in the end of the log; knowledge of the species’ growth habits and experience come into play here. If the length is longer than 16 feet, I consider whether or nor I should cut it into two veneer logs (usually yes) and decide the best location for that cut. I use the old maxim to measure twice and cut once. After cutting, I take a long, hard look at the end of the log. Might it be upgraded by making the log a bit shorter? If I can increase the value of the log 50 percent by cutting off 10 or 20 percent of its length, that is a worthwhile tradeoff.
If you are inexperienced at cutting veneer logs, you can leave potential veneer material over-length (cut the bole at some really obvious major defect) or tree-length and ask a veneer buyer to make the decisions. Many veneer buyers are happy to come to your landing and make the bucking decisions, and their experience will increase the likelihood that the best bucking decision is made. (See the accompanying story on a veneer buyer in action.)
Avoiding sleepless nights
Selling veneer logs can be fraught with uncertainty. How do you know you are getting full value? We’re talking lots of dollars here, so uncertainty can lead to sleepless nights and second-guessing.
On one side is the realization that one aspect of a veneer buyer’s job (or any log buyer’s job, for that matter) is to get an adequate supply of desirable logs as cheaply as possible. On the other side is the buyer’s reputation: if the buyer wants to be able to buy logs in the future, the sellers will have to feel like they have been treated fairly.
Knowledge is your best ally when it comes to being treated fairly. By learning what veneer buyers look for, you can make a good evaluation of the quality of your logs. By knowing the going rates for different species and qualities, you will know if the amount you are offered is reasonable. And by knowing how to scale logs, you will know if you are being paid for the full scale. With this knowledge, you can also time your harvests for when your species are selling for a relatively high price.
If you have 20 good veneer logs (even fewer if they are particularly large), it’s reasonable to ask two or even three veneer buyers to give you a quote. But don’t abuse this; if you ask for multiple quotes on a regular basis for just a few logs, the buyers will get tired of you. Instead, try to build up a long-term, trusting relationship with a buyer. If you don’t waste the buyer’s time by having him or her come out to look at one or two marginal logs, and the buyer thinks you may be a good supplier over the years, you have the basis for a long-term relationship. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your eyes open; keeping up on the markets and options is the best way to get full value for your most-valuable logs.
Welcome to the world of high-end veneer logs. There’s a lot of money to be made and, yes, a lot of things to watch out for. But given the high value of the best logs, it can be well worth sorting out a single veneer log from a harvesting job and even making a special trip to sell it.
A few years ago, I salvaged trees that had been severely damaged by an ice storm some years before (waiting a few years showed me which trees would recover nicely and which would not) and thinned some areas to release the best trees for more growth. Because I produced more logs than I wanted to handle with my own sawmill, I decided to sell most of the sugar maple logs, since the prices were particularly good. It turned out to be very worthwhile to sort out the veneer logs – in fact, it would have been worthwhile even if there had been only a few:
If I had sold the veneer logs as sawlogs, they would have been worth $2,822 at the going rates, or $4,975 less. In other words, I would have gotten only $13,622 rather than the $18,597 I actually received. Some other numbers to note:
Irwin Post is a forest engineer living in Chester, Vermont.