Nov. 20th, 2018, and the snow is already falling in the yard.
Nov. 20th, 2018, and the snow is already falling in the yard.

At the risk of sounding like we just want to complain about the weather, we’re going to follow up the recent blog post about 2018’s record rainfall with a little talk about cold weather, the lack thereof, and why that makes bowling alleys and basketball courts a little bit browner and uglier.

We’ve had a number of large maple orders recently. As we plan for the year, we’ve been reflecting on how winter impacts these orders. Proper logging, milling, and drying is a seasonal business, but maybe not in the way you’d expect.

A snowy, frozen winter might seem to be the perfect time to hide out indoors next to a warm fire, but this is when logging can really thrive. Deep cold is essential for a productive spring as well.


Hard frozen ground

During a long, cold winter, the ground and dirt roads throughout the woods freeze. Trucks drive over the logging roads and compact the snow and ice, driving the cold deeper. Mud, and the concerns that we outlined in our last post, are literally frozen in place.

In a shady Pennsylvania forest, these logging roads can stay firm and frozen long after the winter breaks. This lets the logging continue into the spring, and keeps the supply of logs rolling.

Snowy Weather in Benezette
Snow blanketing white, or paper, birch in Benezette Township, PA.


   Cold winters make white wood

Cold weather is also important for processing white woods and hard maple logs in particular. Maple can be stained brown as the result of a chemical reaction that occurs with the wood and sap as it is waiting to be properly kiln dried.

These reactions happen very quickly in warm weather. They affect both round logs and sawn lumber, flitches, and boules.

One way to manage this is through speed. Large volume production mills process maple trees to dried lumber in very quick succession year-round. 

While effective, this doesn’t work for a specialty mill like Horizon. We saw a wide variety of species, have a focus on quality over quantity,  and often do extra thick stock that needs long, slow drying times.

We like to control browning using the traditional method: clever use of the weather. Prolonged cold slows the chemical reactions that cause browning. The cold weather also forces the sap down in the maple tree before it is cut. 

Loggers know these tricks, too, so many prefer to saw maple once the temperature drops. This is especially true for the high-quality logs we demand. They don’t want to risk ruining good material.

Since Horizon’s focus is always quality over quantity, we use the winter to buy, store, saw, and dry high-quality maple at smaller volumes with a lower risk of browning. We can take our time and dry it right, without trying to beat the clock.


A warmer, snowier winter

However, recent climate trends have been impacting our industry. Pennsylvanian winters are warmer than they used to be, and this hurts us in a few different ways.

Historically in a PA winter, the temperature drops, and the cold wind blowing over Lake Erie carries moisture inland. Lake effect snow blankets the region.

As the winter progresses, the great lakes gradually freeze over. Since the colder air can carry less moisture overall and the lake’s water is capped with ice, less moisture makes it inland.

Average temperatures stay low and less new snow falls. Existing snow and ice linger. This creates perfect conditions for logging and sawing, particularly for maple.

Today with higher average temperatures, we yo-yo above and below the freezing point. The temperatures don’t stay low long enough for the lake to freeze, and snow and moisture keep coming inland.

Counter-intuitively, we get higher than average snowfalls that come in fierce storms all winter long, but most of that snowfall melts in between storms. We sometimes see rain and thunderstorms in the middle of winter

Rinse and repeat this process all winter, and instead of solid, frozen roads, we get record snowfalls, muddy woods, and a narrower window to mill perfectly white hard maple.

A rainy Christmas tree, Dec. 20th
Horizon's Christmas tree on a rainy December 20th, 2018. See all the light reflected off the puddle?
A frozen log yard, Feb. 1st, 2019
Snow again in the log yard on February 1st, 2019. We had a lot of freeze-thaw cycles between all of these photos.


A greener alternative

Fortunately for those of us who love and appreciate the natural beauty of wood, one of the things we can do to help is to use MORE wood, not less.

Although any material has impacts, many governments, regulators, and research groups worldwide identify the important role wood can play when combating climate change.

Wood, if properly managed, is a renewable resource. Trees pull carbon out of the air as they grow, so wood can act as a carbon sink, especially when we make quality products that users enjoy for generations. 

Many other materials have a disconcerting array of environmental impacts.

  • Plastics are made of out of petroleum, which brings long-cycle carbon out of the ground. 
  • Metal relies on energy intensive and disruptive mining and smelting.
  • Concrete requires lots of energy in the coking process. It also releases massive amounts of carbon as a chemical byproduct during manufacture.

While this is obviously a simplification of a complicated problem with many variables, designers should factor in the impacts of what materials we use. By this metric, wood is an excellent choice.


Horizon’s role

Horizon is focused on creating beautiful products in a responsible way. We want our boules, flitches, and lumber to be used in products that are enjoyed for generations. Read more in our Evergreen initiative.


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