Knock on Wood: Lumber costs stable; varieties offer alternatives

As anyone who has looked into building a home in the past couple years has found out, building costs have increased. While escalating home costs have made it difficult to find a three-bedroom, two-bath home for less than $200,000, it’s still easier than trying to build one at that price point.

So wood costs have increased, right? Not necessarily. The largest parts of the cost of building are always going to be acquiring the land and the cost of labor.

“The average [cost of a] lumber package for a home is about seven to nine percent of the total cost,” said Scott Williams, president of Kingsley Lumber & Hardware.

Statistics from the National Association of Home Builders show that framing lumber prices peaked about a year ago.

“Today versus last year prices are depressed. Last spring, first quarter [prices] were in the $600-700,000 dollar range per thousand board feet,” said Williams. “Now it’s up in the high three hundreds, up about 10 to 12 percent from a few weeks back.”

Whatever the cost, wood remains a constant in the building industry, from framing lumber to flooring, furniture to cabinets and countertops. Those looking for different, more exotic woods for those or other uses do have some options, such as Rare Earth Hardwood on M-72 just west of Traverse City. Rick Paid has been in the business for more than 30 years, sourcing wood from Panama and Brazil.

An employee in Brazil with a hardwood slab sold though Paid’s company Big Wood Slabs.

Paid said the market for exotic wood flooring collapsed when the recession hit. “People quit building mega-houses,” he said.

At about the same time, competitors jumped in with much less expensive products. “I was one of the pioneers in specialty hardwood flooring. I had eight phone lines here ringing constantly, inventory on the East and West coasts. Then more people got in, had cheap products and the economy collapsed,” he said.

Rare Earth Hardwoods now does most of its business via wholesale. Paid said the staff has diminished from 40-plus employees locally to just two, himself and a part-time bookkeeper. Olive Creek Furniture, located next door, assists retail customers online and in person.

As the market changed, Paid turned his focus to his other businesses, Big Wood Slabs and Amazon Timberframes. The former still supplies customers with unique hardwood slabs, ranging from Brazilian species such as angelim pedra, tatajuba and Brazilian cherry to willow, walnut, red oak and more. The slabs differ dramatically in size and shape.

He’s most enthused about his timber frame company, which he started in 2003. Amazon Timberframe built a home on an exposed cliff in St. Maarten, a Caribbean island. When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, the island was devastated, with an estimated 90 percent of all structures destroyed or heavily damaged. Paid’s timber frame home suffered only minor damage.

Paid said the company is currently working on a wedding barn that will be raised in Milford, Penn. this summer. It will have wide plank Brazilian cherry siding, black tigerwood posts, Brazilian walnut braces, cumaru rafters and angelim pedra roof boards, as his client wanted to have different species for each component of the structure.

Paid also does his best on the conservation side. “We salvage a lot of stuff, dying, dead and down trees,” he said.

A banner on the Amazon Timberframes website reads, “The world’s premier residential and commercial supplier of precision, handcrafted timber frames made from the finest and sturdiest Brazilian hardwoods harvested GREEN under exclusive 3D (dying, dead, and down) guidelines.”

Paid also owns 2,000-acre virgin rain forest as a preserve in addition to a full-size production facility in Santarem, Brazil.

“We harvest, cut and process specialty woods, lumber, slabs and timber frames there,” said Paid, who lives there about half the year.

Another option for those looking for different kinds of wood, though not so much Brazilian species, is the Lumber Shed, located on Garfield Road between South Airport and Hammond roads. It handles walnut, cedar, and various strains of maple, among other types of wood. It also carries some African mahogany, which is used for cabinetry, shelves, table- and countertops, said Dan Rosa, a sales representative for the company.

Owner Ryan Stout says it does custom work for builders and cabinetmakers as well as general retail customers.

“Everything we do is custom. One customer bought a cottonwood slab and hung it on the wall for art,” he said.
He said most of his customers are local, though an increasing amount of his business is Florida-based. That portion largely from people who live in this area but winter in the Sunshine State.

“It’s mostly local people with a second home. They buy it here and take it down or send it there,” he said.
That includes one of the more trendy features, live edge, where one or more sides of the wood is untrimmed and still has bark on it.

“It’s a trend here and in Florida too,” said Stout.