Question

Which species of wood are the most sustainable?

Asked by Judy Torrance, Houston, TX

Can you tell me which species of wood tend to be more sustainable? We are looking at maple, oak, cherry, birch, and hickory.

Answer

J Neufeld

Answered by J Neufeld

December 4, 2008

There are two ways of answering this question.

  1. The first answer is what most people believe based on how many years it takes a particular species to reach maturity and be harvested.
  2. The second answer is what I believe, based more on the relative hardness of the wood and its aesthetic qualities.

Durability and aesthetics determine the useful life of a wood product in your home. While certain species—such as cherry with its reddish tone—tend to go in and out of style, other woods, like birch or maple with their neutral colors, can adapt over time to new finishes or furniture.

Let's start with the first answer

A birch tree, which takes a third to half as long as an oak tree to reach maturity, is often seen to be a fairly sustainable wood source (out of the five species you list).

  • You can get two to three times the amount of flooring material from birch that you can from oak in the same time span because of the greater number of harvests.
  • Cherry trees also have a fairly short lifespan, with maple trees a close third.
  • Oak and hickory can grow for several hundred years, and while we don't wait that long anymore to harvest them, they still take substantially longer to reach harvest maturity than the other trees you mention.

Answering on the basis of hardness and aesthetics

On the other hand, if we base sustainability on hardness and durability of the wood, the most sustainable species are maple and white oak.

  • Both are very hard woods with a proven track record of durability in turn-of-the-century houses.
  • Based on the simple fact that maple has a shorter growing life than white oak, I would be justified in saying that maple is one of the most sustainable tree species of the five you list.

Other considerations

You should also know that the finish you use and how you care for your floors is one of the biggest factors in its durability.

A very soft wood like reclaimed Douglas fir or heart pine can outlast a hardwood like maple if you apply a repairable finish and maintain your floor.

From a cost perspective, birch, oak, and maple are generally the least expensive for flooring. Cherry typically costs 15 to 20 percent more, and hickory costs an additional 10 to 20 percent above that.

Tagged In: lca, wood flooring

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