Mad About Science: Forest Products

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Editor’s note: In commemoration of Idaho Forest Products Week, Brenden Bobby has dedicated this week’s column to the many uses of forest products.

Our forests are pretty remarkable things. There isn’t a single planet elsewhere in our solar system that has lush, beautiful, green forests rolling like a prickly carpet over its mountains – trust me, we’ve looked!

Beauty isn’t the only export from Idaho’s forests. Idaho’s trees touch our lives, protect us from the elements, clean up after us, carry our goods and so much more.

Where to start?

Trees are inherently organic, built from the ground up by living cells that split and multiply. Wood is primarily cellulose and lignin, advanced structures of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that gives the tree structure, rigidity, and the ability to transport water throughout its structure. It’s also what keeps the tree from rapidly decaying, something invaluable for building a long-term structure.

Lumber is one of our most valuable and prolific resources. Lumber is cut straight from the tree, think a standard 2×4. There are also boards made of several bits and pieces called composite boards. There are several ways to make composite boards, but here are two cool ones:

We take sawdust, woodchips and other pieces from the mill we don’t use and mix them together with glue and plastic bits, then squeeze it through a board-shaped opening like a giant candy bar.

The other method requires us to take similar pieces, mix them together, then smash them with extreme heat and pressure. Composite is great because it’s durable, and it uses all of the stuff that would just get thrown away or incinerated, anyway.

We can’t use all of the tree for building. The bark doesn’t serve a whole lot of purpose when building a house, because it’s brittle and not uniform. Rather than just throw it away, we’ll often break it into smaller pieces and use it for mulch in the garden or dump it en masse at playgrounds under places where kids are most likely to fall. (Swings, monkey bars, literally everywhere else in a playground). The chips are soft, aromatic and they’re organic, so they degrade naturally over time — no residual petroleum chemicals stinking up your park.

Even the needles, cones, stumps and other random bits can be useful. Using steam distillation, we can pull natural oil from the bits and pieces. Don’t think about changing your engine’s oil with this stuff. Pine oil is an aromatic lubricant, but it’s better suited for things like cleaning wood products or making your house smell nice.

Pine oil is a primary ingredient in Pine Sol, along with various forms of ethanol.

Much of the wood in our forests ends up being devoted to paper production. If you’ve ever wondered how a towering tree turns into a tiny piece of paper you can crumple up and shoot baskets in the office with (Kobe!), you’re about to find out.

To make paper, we need the cellulose fibers, but we can’t have the lignin glue or it will gum everything up. To extract the cellulose, we turn the wood into a wet pulp. We can break this down mechanically (into wood chips and dust), or chemically, but the result is generally the same.

The pulp mixture is basically a ton of water with a little bit of cellulose. Papermakers will spray the pulp mixture into layered mesh sheets that will catch the cellulose fibers and filter out the water. They’ll collect enough to make giant sheets as wide as 30 feet, but can roll to be hundreds of feet long and weigh thousands of pounds. From there, papermakers can use more machines that will precisely cut and stack uniform sheets of paper, bundle them up and ship them off.

We also mix wood fibers with cotton fibers to make things like paper towels, towelettes and toilet paper. You know, for sensitive tasks.

Paper isn’t a single-use product. Paper can and should be recycled.

After you drop your paper into the green bin, it goes to a sorting facility where it’s sorted by types and grades so it can be used for cardboard, office paper, or newsprint. It’s washed to remove ink and debris, then deposited into a vat to create a slurry. After that, it’s just extruded back into giant sheets and the process starts all over again.

The Reader you’re holding in your hands right now has gone through that process at least once, maybe even more times than that.

Recycling wood is a very different process, but very rewarding; and you can even do it at home!

In the age of social media, repurposing excess building supplies is as easy as twiddling your thumbs. There are several groups on Facebook and other websites that let you broadcast your spare supplies to people that could use it. One man’s junk, am I right?

Wood pallets are another big item that are easy to recycle. Some of our stores will cycle them back into their distribution, but some need to just pay to have them hauled away. If you have a project that needs some wood in a hurry, it never hurts to call up some local stores and see if they’d be willing to part with their pallets for a few bucks. They get paid to not throw their junk away, and you get to make a sweet end table and feel good doing it!

Don’t forget to recycle this Reader when you’re done with it. You just might end up reading it again one day.

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