Durability Dilemma: Scientific Solutions Could Be Clutter Clearing Compounds

Grant Kirker, FPL Research Forest Products Technologist

Grant Kirker, FPL Research Forest Products Technologist

It is truly impossible to divide the wealth and richness of America’s forest resources into two categories, but when evaluated in terms of natural durability, two distinct camps emerge: trees which yield naturally durable wood, and those that don’t. Naturally durable trees tend to produce their own chemical compounds to fight off decay, fungi, and termites, and as a result, products made with them can too.

Unfortunately, naturally durable trees do not always make the best lumber for applications such as construction, and although pressure treating wood with chemicals has helped improve the durability characteristics of their more structurally suitable counterparts, the potential health hazards they pose to humans remain.

Grant Kirker, a Research Forest Products Technologist at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), thinks that he may have stumbled upon a solution to reconcile the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. Kirker’s work with the Durability and Wood Protection Research Unit at FPL involves removing extractives from the forest’s more durable trees and using them to increase the resilience of the less durable ones.

Preliminary research has shown that with these extractives removed, the naturally durable wood quickly loses its fortifications against wood rot fungi and termites, leading Kirker to believe that he is on the right path. He has recently taken his research to the next level, installing several treated wood stakes at field sites in both Wisconsin and Mississippi.

Eastern subterranean termites overwhelmingly preferred extractive free wood in choice tests.  The only exception was honey mesquite, which killed all termites in the test chambers.

Eastern subterranean termites overwhelmingly preferred extractive free wood in choice tests. The only exception was honey mesquite, which killed all termites in the test chambers.

Kirker’s work could not only lead to healthier people, but healthier forests too. Other than the environmental benefits afforded by a reduced reliance on chemical treatments, many of the durable trees are actually invasive species that clog our forests and increase the risk of wildfires. Finding useful products to create with them, such as the durable extractives, can help clear the clutter and maintain a well-balanced and properly managed forest.

As the old adage goes, sometimes the best solutions come from within.