Demand for ash is rising from the depths

22_ashgraph_01For years, ash has been the doormat of hardwoods, obtaining minimal respect and demanding nominal pricing. And to add insult to injury, the Emerald ash borer came along and is in the process of potentially wiping out the species.

In the last decade, Woodshop News has referred to ash as the Rodney Dangerfield of woods because it "got no respect," and as "being in the trash." So, just when things looked the bleakest, there has been a resurgence of the species in the last year or two. Wood dealers can't exactly explain why the ash market has turned around, but with prices eclipsing $3/bf, they're not complaining. One theory is that there has been a sizeable increase in the export market of most grades of the species.

White ash’s specific gravity: .55 to .60.

Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of water.

White ash’s radial shrinkage: 4.9 percent.

Radial or quartersawn boards have a grain running roughly perpendicular to the wide faces.

White ash’s tangential shrinkage: 7.8 percent.

Tangential or flatsawn boards have grain running roughly parallel to the wide faces.

Example: A 12" wide flatsawn White ash board will shrink .196" (about 3/16") from 12 percent moisture content to 6 percent and a quartersawn board will shrink .123" (about 1/8").

"Ash has been more in demand for us, but I don't know why," says Jeff Schucker of Bailey Wood Products in Kempton, Pa. "I don't know if it has just caught on in fashion; I think some of the demand is just lack of supply."

Enter the Emerald ash borer, a wood-boring beetle native to China and eastern Asia. The pest likely arrived in North America in wooden shipping crates. It was first detected in July 2002 in southeastern Michigan and neighboring Windsor, Ontario. The beetle has spread to 13 other states and is responsible for the death and decline of more than 40 million trees.

Typically, the beetles kill an ash tree within three years of the initial infestation. There is no known practical control for this wood-boring pest other than destroying infested trees.

"I think the people that are looking for ash now are scrambling around more because of a lack of supply that has been cut back because of the borer," Schucker says. "That is what I perceive as the reason. Every time I get a report from the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, I see another county that they have found the borer in. I think that is having as much of an impact on it as anything. I understand the overseas market for that is driving it a bit, too."

"Actually the people who buy most of our ash are college students," says Christ Groff of Groff & Groff Lumber in Quarryville, Pa. "We've got colleges all around us within 30 miles and all their students take vo-tech and they do wood projects and every one of them has been down here getting ash this year. Otherwise we get a few cabinetmakers, homeowners, furniture makers."

White ash grows in the eastern half of the United States and trees reach heights up to 80' with trunk diameters up to 5'. The wood is strong and straight-grained with a brown to dark-brown heartwood and its sapwood is nearly white. White ash (Fraxinus americana), also known as American ash, is the most commercially valuable of the 18 ashes in the United States, as well as the most common. White ash should not be confused with black ash (Fraxinus nigra), which is slightly darker and occasionally called swamp ash.

Ash is used for furniture, cabinetry, flooring, doors, architectural millwork, molding, tool handles, baseball bats, hockey sticks, oars, turnings, and is also sliced into veneer. It is a popular species for food containers because the wood has no taste. Ash is an excellent steam-bending wood and can be worked satisfactorily by both hand and machine.

But there is the question of the survival of the species.

"The ash borer will be what it will - there's not much you can do about it," Groff says. "It's like what chestnut went through a few years ago, except if the borer dies out, [ash] will grow back. Chestnut never did. Once that stuff dies, it will gray-stain on you real quick. And when that borer gets on it, it just makes a mess of it."

"About eight to 10 years ago, there was good demand for ash veneer logs and [buyers] paid really good prices for them," adds Schucker. "The lumber wasn't all that active. But now, maybe there is some hype there that people don't feel that they're going to be able to get it. I think it is just those who are still interested in the product have to search different avenues because of the curtailed supply and not being able to get it in the areas that they got it before."

Retail prices for 100/bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS ash, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $2.70 to $3.20/bf in the Northeast; $2.65 to $3.20/bf in the Southeast; $3.10 to $3.60/bf in the Midwest; and $3.74 to $4.35/bf in the West.

Wholesale prices for 1,000 bf of kiln-dried 4/4 FAS ash, surfaced on two sides, ranged from $2,270 to $2,800/mbf in the Northeast; $2,300 to $2,850/mbf in the Southeast; $2,650 to $3,100/mbf in the Midwest; and $3,350 to $3,700/mbf in the West.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue.