J Gibson Mcilvain Company Wholesale Lumber

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Yes we visited DAP and we learned a little about them. But before we rolled downtown, we (Barry & I) had the opportunity to stop over and visit Shannon at J. Gibson McIlvain Company – one of the oldest and most prominent lumber wholesalers in the country.

Shannon, as @McIlvainLumber, and I tweeted back and forth for a time. And my pop in to McIlvain Lumber was long promised (or is that — “threatened”?).

Now, while I am a super big fan of wood, in fact — I love it, I can’t claim to really know all that much about it. Or at least this is how I felt after walking the yard with Shannon Rogers.

Shannon, you see, is not only McIlvain‘s Director of Marketing, but he is also a furniture maker, an instructor and, well, a blogger. And quite a prolific one at that.  (I reprinted an article on Understanding Lumber Grading here in early October.)

And apart from holding down McIlvain’s blog, it turns out, he has another web home. You’ll also find him at www.renaissancewoodworker.com.  Here, Shannon posts his notes from his own shop work.  Through the site, too, you’ll find information on a series of classes that he has produced. They cover, specifically, working with hand tools. The Hand Tool School — a Virtual Woodworking Apprentice Program.

But this of course was only an added bonus. Our mission that day – visit a lumber wholesaler.

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Where exactly does wood for your Floor, your Deck, your Furniture, etc. come from?  

Answer: A Lumber Wholesaler

Painted Ends of Various Species J Gibson McIlvainMcIlvain is a 7th generation lumber company, and not to be confused with other lumber wholesalers with the same (last) name. Their roots are traced back to 1798. They moved from Philly to just north of Baltimore (and coincidentally into the same zip I was raised in) in 1960.

Their 80-acre yard is backed by a series of railroad tracks, which were once used to transport their products. Still there, and just past their vast air-drying field, you can hear the trains running throughout the day.

The company processes roughly 8 million board feet a year. To put this into context, someone like Georgia Pacific processes around 60 million. GP of course is dealing with softwoods, more, as Shannon would put it “domestics.” While McIlvain does work in softwoods too, they are known more for their hardwoods, and most specifically for imports, including what are called “exotics.”

pre milled lumber J Gibson McIlvain

McIlvain Lumber Specializes in Exotics

McIlvain as I found out is the largest importer of Burmese (Malaysian) Teak in the United States – and of course I know what you are thinking … just like me, “decking!”  And yes, they do do that; they supply outdoor furniture makers too, but it is in fact the boat builders that drive a large portion of their market here.

Ipe, too, and absolutely becoming very common in outdoor living designs – McIlvain is the 3rd largest importer.  (As a quick aside:  Shannon calls Ipe — “the perfect decking wood.” . . . “Worth its weight in gold,” he says.  And if you have seen this material’s waxy and tight surface, you would understand why it gets a Class A fire rating, and why it is resistant to rot and insects.)

They are one of the country’s largest importers of genuine mahogany . . . and woods with names that would make a Hells Angel blush:  Utile (generically, a type of African Mahogany), Cumaru (Brazilian Teak), Wenge . . . .

Jatoba J Gibson McIlvainAs we stood next to a large stack of Jatoba (Brazilian Cherry), and Shannon always quick with the species names, he points out some of the nuisances of working with imports.  European drying standards for example are much more lenient than they are in the US.  And that leads us right into a discussion on some of the key points McIlvain‘s process.

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How Imported Wood is Processed

If you caught Shannon’s post on the grading of lumber *reprinted here), you would know that McIlvain inspects and works their products to the highest standards.  In fact, when the large straps of lumber are delivered to the yard, product is inspected, segregated and culled as it passes through a large shed at the front of the yard.  This shed houses a piece of equipment called “the chains.”  Of course not all of the material they receive makes the cut (no pun intended) for some of their clients (read: flooring manufacturers, among others).  Often what is not right for someone makings floors or someone selling decking, may be perfect for a cabinet, or even a furniture, maker.

The Chains J.Gibson McIlvainLumber passes through this building sometimes up to four times before it reaches its final destination (and how’s that for quality control? – rhetorical).  Undoubtedly all woods that enter the yard get at least some time in the property’s air drying field, with still some being so lucky as to get a good little baking in one of the yard’s seven kilns.  (More of course go down for some milling later.)

Lumber Production is Sustainable

“Shorts” and what Shannon calls “uniques” that are too short or too “flawed” are sold to local retailers.  Scrap is turned into sawdust and this sawdust is used in an “atomizer” to fire the kilns.  (As we learned, this practice is not uncommon in the lumber industry.)

We can credit the lumber industry for such common sayings as “run of the mill”, “dovetail”, etc. But it could also be known for its efficient and sustainable practices. Shannon provides this link. About it, he says, “This is a post about exotic lumber and how continued buying is actually essential to preventing deforestation. It kills many myths about lumber being a non-green material.”

Continuing, he says, “These forests are simply very well managed, which in turn makes these materials a very sustainable option.”

For more on the sustainability of wood, you might see our articles focusing on timber framing.

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Clearly, Shannon & McIlvain are a match made in heaven.  Shannon, the wood guru and blogger, working with a prominent lumber supplier . . . doing what he loves.  What a pleasure it must be to buy wood from someone who actually knows how to use it and what it will do.

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For more Tours and Interviews from Building Moxie, please see those categories. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed. ~jb

Can’t get enough?  Shannon provides this link for those interested in getting a premium wood deck. This post covers the major species.