MSU researchers test lumber quality, strength

By: Keri Collins Lewis

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Posted: 10/28/2015

MSU researchers test lumber quality, strength Photo By: Kevin Hudson

When he walks into a hardware store and starts looking at lumber, he could be your average do-it-yourselfer, ready to start a project.

But Dan Seale, a sustainable bioproducts professor in the Mississippi State University Forest and Wildlife Research Center, is no ordinary weekend warrior building a little something for the house.

Seale is on a cross-country mission, looking for lumber from the Southern pine region cut from dozens of different mills. Once he finds what he needs, he buys it and takes it back to the MSU Forest Products Lab. Seale and his colleagues subject these lumber samples to some of the most rigorous testing and scrutiny in the industry.

Seale works with Rubin Shmulsky, head of the Department of Sustainable Bioproducts and associate director of the Sustainable Energy Research Center. They are in the pilot phase of a randomized sampling project designed to add value to Southern forests.

"Trees are like kids," explained Seale, who is the MSU Warren S. Thompson Professor of Wood Science and Technology. "They eat a lot and grow fast when they're young. This quick growth, coupled with early thinning of stands to generate income, can result in forest products with different characteristics than those created from older timber harvested generations ago."

The MSU team, understanding the significance of the timber industry to Mississippi, is passionate about helping the state make the most of this abundant natural resource. Their goal is to provide a scientific framework for accurately evaluating this important commodity.

Over the past few years, all lumber has come under closer scrutiny, Seale said. Given lumber's many uses, particularly in construction, this scrutiny is necessary to keep people safe.

"If you're walking on a plank four stories up, you want to know that plank is going to bear the load that's on it," Seale said. "Mills continually grade their lumber and periodically pull samples for strength testing. There are industry standards that must be met. It's a serious business."

With a background in agricultural economics, Seale is fascinated by data and how it can be used to support sustainable forest products. So he and his colleagues secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service for a three-year investigation unlike anything they have done before.

Seale, Shmulsky and a team of graduate students are conducting a series of tests related to lumber grade, stiffness and strength. They will characterize the physical attributes of each board and use nondestructive techniques, including stress wave analysis, to predict strength and stiffness. They will then break the boards and analyze the accuracy of the tools used to predict the lumber values. The team will also use industry methods to characterize the break or failure of each board. Each one of the thousands of boards will have more than 50 measurements and resultant calculations.

Shmulsky said the team's long-term goal is to maximize the value of pine lumber and timberland.

"Developing more options and opportunities to assess the performance of lumber accurately translates to higher engineering performance of the lumber and higher economic value of timberland," he said. "Additionally, in this process, we're relying heavily on graduate students, so another outcome will be that we produce a cadre of educated young professionals who will positively influence the industry for the next generation."

Finally, the researchers will synthesize the data and create statistical models that can be used to develop new forest product valuation techniques and standards, investigate new products and markets, and address any challenges they encounter.

Former associate extension professor David Jones, who worked on the project, said this project has the potential to impact landowners and lumber mills in several ways.

"First, it could help create potential premium for logs with properties that the mills desire," he explained. "Secondly, it will help sawmills understand the properties of the product they are producing, so they can make decisions about how they buy logs as well as how they process the logs they bring into the mill. Finally, the largest impact may be to dispel myths about wood quality and growth."

To conduct this testing, an elaborate system has been set up in the MSU Department of Sustainable Bioproducts. It includes a video system that records each board as it is broken, along with several instruments that test different strength factors, such as stress waves and vibration. The system's overall goal is to improve lumber performance and valuation.

"No other university has a setup like this," Seale said. "We're the only one in the wood industry using this type of instrumentation. We are serious about finding ways to enhance the value of Southern forests."

Forest Products