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Lumber

Lumber is a generic term that applies to various lengths of wood used as construction materials. Pieces of lumber are cut lengthwise from the trunks of trees and are characterized by having generally rectangular or square cross sections, as opposed to poles or pilings, which have round cross sections.

The use of wood as a construction material predates written history. The earliest evidence of wood construction comes from a site near Nice, France, where a series of post holes seems to indicate that a hut 20 ft (6m) wide by 50 ft (15 m) long was built there 400,000 years ago using wood posts for support. The oldest wood construction found intact is located in northwest Germany, and was built about 7,300 years ago. By 500 B.C. iron axes, saws, and chisels were commonly used to cut and shape wood. The first reference to cutting wood in a sawmill, rather than using hand tools, comes from northern Europe and dates from about 375. The sawmill was powered by the flow of water.

The trees from which lumber is produced are classified as hardwoods or softwoods. Although the woods of many hardwoods are hard, and the woods of many softwoods are soft, that is not the defining characteristic. Most hardwood trees have leaves, which they shed in the winter. Hardwood trees include oaks, maples, walnuts, cherries, and birches, but they also include balsa, which has one of the softest and lightest of all the woods. Softwood trees, on the other hand, have needles instead of leaves. They do not shed their needles in the winter, but remain green throughout the year and are sometimes called evergreens. Softwood trees include pines, firs, hemlocks, spruces, and redwoods.

As the number of older trees available for logging diminishes, so does the lumber industry's ability to selectively cut pieces of lumber to the sizes needed for construction. Many of the trees being logged today are second-generation or third-generation trees that are younger and smaller in diameter than the original old-growth trees. These younger trees also contain a higher percentage of juvenile wood, which is less dimensionally stable than older wood.

To counter this trend, the lumber industry is literally taking trees apart and putting them back together again to manufacture the sizes, strengths, and stability required for construction. Actually, they have been doing this for decades in the form of plywood and glue-laminated beams, and some of the new products use similar technology.