The Memphis-based National Hardwood Lumber Association carries on a century-old tradition of grading lumber.
photograph by Arturs Petersons | Dreamstime
In the beginning, there were the sawmills with enormous circular saws doing the work of hundreds of men. Whole trees went in one end and even, uniform lumber was ejected from the other. It was the turn of the twentieth century with improving technology, and people were developing new methods of smart work in an age-old industry defined by hard work.
The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) was founded in 1898 to provide the establishment, education, and enforcement of the hardwood lumber grading rules. Today, the NHLA represents “more than 1,200 companies and one million hardwood families that produce, use, and sell North American hardwood lumber, or provide equipment, supplies, or services to the hardwood industry at all career stages,” according to its website.
Memphis has been home to the headquarters of the NHLA since it moved here from Chicago in 1980. To drive the highways of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi around Memphis, and in passing acre after acre of the straight yet soft pine trees that abound, one may not realize that this area is considered the hardwood capital of the world. In fact, says Mark Barford, executive director of the NHLA and a trained forester, “most of Tennessee is forested, 60 to 70 percent is forest. Out of that, of course, there is a fair amount of pine, but there’s a lot of hardwood — it’s predominantly hardwood throughout Tennessee.”
Memphis in particular, at one time, was home to a number of different hardwood sawmills, distributors, buyers, consumers, and shippers, all concentrated due to the logistical advantage of the Mississippi River, numerous railroads, and highways. Anderson-Tully, the largest hardwood manufacturer in the United States, was once based out of Memphis. Due to downsizing and mergers over the years, the group now works more from its Vicksburg, Mississippi, headquarters. While most of the industry’s production has moved to the east and north and states such as Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, Memphis is still considered its nexus.
The NHLA HQ moved from Chicago three decades ago for the lower overhead of a smaller city and because this was already the home of its training school. Established in 1948 through the help of the Lumbermens Club of Memphis, one of the strongest and largest membership associations in the country at the time, the NHLA Inspector Training School has seen more than 7,000 graduates since its founding.
“Over time, when that school kept growing and getting bigger, it just made sense to put both the offices and the school together, so they put them together in Memphis,” Barford says.
The Inspector Training School is a showplace where each room is themed with a different species of hardwood. Located on 10 acres at the Whitten Road exit of I-40, it also has lumber storage and dry kilns. First built in what was then the country, Barford says, there were no places for visiting students to stay. “The only place really for people to stay was in the local houses, so we used to go out and around and bang on people’s doors and say, ‘Hey, would you have a room you could possibly rent?’” Now, they’re put up in extended-stay hotels and there is an active discussion regarding the addition of dormitories to the school for students who travel from all over the world to learn how to grade lumber.
In an age when an office can be run from anyplace in the world, the headquarters stays in Memphis, for the most part, because this is where the school already is, readying men and women for careers as lumber inspectors. If the association were just being formed today, Barford says, it would probably find a home in someplace like Washington, D.C. Though the association itself doesn’t lobby Congress, it does work closely with trade associations and lobbyists such as the Hardwood Federation and with other representatives to help craft legislation beneficial to the industry.
Hardwood lumber is traded internationally with a universal system in place to ensure a uniformity in grading rules for the measurement and inspection of hardwood lumber so that quality stays the same from market to market with no variations. During the 14-week course, students will learn the 52-page grading book line by line, word for word. Rules are involved and complicated, and the school in Memphis is the only place to learn them.
Though the school can train 75 students at a time, classes these days may be fewer than 10. This summer the school will be hosting a class exclusively from China with instructors who speak the language.
The issue of declining enrollment is that hardwood lumber is, pardon the pun, not a growth industry and is near capacity for the number of lumber graders needed. “The demand for new lumber graders is not that strong other than just replacing the ones that might be retiring,” Barford says. This is a testament to the graduates the Memphis-based school has sent into the world.
By the middle of the century, following World War II, the population would be booming, and a generation of returning GIs needed homes for their growing families. The houses built were of wood, inside and out. The floors were actual hardwood, standard and fashioned from actual oak planks. The sawmills buzzed steadily, day and night, and the hardwood lumber industry had never known a more robust time.
Hardwood lumber saw its ups and downs over time, including a resurgence during the housing bubble in the mid-2000s when homes were being built at an alarming rate. But it would turn out to be just that, a bubble. “Now that industry is about half the size it was just 10 years ago,” Barford said. “It’s really come back down with the recession.”
In this digital, virtual world, much of the process of processing lumber is still based in a technology nearly a century old. While there are those sawmills using modern techniques, where logs and boards are scanned and computerized solutions are created to make a higher quality board, Barford says, “the predominance of the sawmills have not taken on that technology. Most of the sawmills are still sawing logs as they have for the last 50 to 80 years.”
The rise and fall of the business follows a fascinating arc with the earliest suppliers made up of family-owned operators. As the corporations and conglomerates saw that (pardon the pun, again) money did seem to grow on trees, they began buying up and assimilating those businesses. The transportation and processing of lumber, though, would prove to be less than cost effective and the overhead needed to run those sawmills too much to bear. The industry has once again reverted largely back to family-owned operations. Many of those, however, are backed with investments by the conglomerates, though they are now run, nearly 100 percent, by the families.
“That makes it kind of fun,” Barford says. “It’s a group of people who are in it for their life and pass it on to their kids. It’s a good group.”
Through it all, Memphis, seeing a forest of advantage for the trees, has maintained its position as home base.
“We’ll see where the future is,” Barford says. “There’s a lot of hardwood lumber made in other places around the globe, so world competition is going to be very important to us in the coming years.”