America’s Oldest and Largest Hardwood Trade Group Looks to the Future

National Hardwood Lumber Association
Written by Nate Hendley

The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), the largest and oldest organization of its kind in the United States, has been advocating for its members, fostering the commercial hardwood sector, and educating the public for over a century.

The NHLA publishes the hardwood lumber grading guide that has become the industry standard, trains lumber inspectors, and offers lumber grading and quality control services. While the association does not maintain state or local chapters, it recently joined forces with other hardwood groups in a broad coalition to promote common interests. These include sustainability and prudent forest management, notes Director of Marketing and Communications Renee Hornsby.

Founded in 1898 and headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, the NHLA represents the entire hardwood supply chain in the U.S. and Canada. Members range from Amish enterprises that shun mechanization to high-tech lumber firms that are “completely automated. We serve the entire diversified hardwood lumber industry,” she says.

Common hardwoods include red and white oak, walnut, hickory and maple. “In grade school language, most hardwood trees lose their leaves in the fall. When you go by and see barren trees with their leaves gone, those are hardwoods. There are hundreds of species of hardwoods.” Such trees have a myriad of uses.

“For consumers, I explain that hardwoods are usually the things in the home that you can see. Hardwoods are not inside the wall; that is softwood. The framing of the home does not involve hardwoods. The hardwoods are visible in the windows, the doors, the moldings, the millwork, the staircase, the floor, the cabinets, the furniture,” says Hornsby.

Industrial hardwood products include pallets, truck bed liners and hardwood crane mats. By-products from sawing can be made into pet bedding, pellets for grills, paper goods, or fuel for sawmill kilns.

The association works closely with a group called the Hardwood Federation to lobby legislators for favorable regulations. COVID put a damper on in-person Washington, DC fly-in visits, so advocacy work has largely been conducted by other means. Unlike many trade associations, the NHLA represents more than just the interests of its members.

“We are also here to help anybody who is involved with the hardwood lumber industry. If they call on us, we are here to help. We are here to educate. We are here as a whole industry supporter,” Hornsby says.

In addition to the above tasks, the association tries to enlighten lawmakers and the public about the benefits of hardwood.

“There is a blanket misconception that using wood is bad. In fact, using wood is part of the carbon climate change answer. When you cut the tree and turn it into a product, it stores the carbon. If the tree is left to rot, all the carbon it has been absorbing gets released back into the atmosphere. So, it is better to be proactively managing the forests,” says Hornsby, noting that managing the forest removes diseased, undesirable trees, lowers the risk of fire and allows the younger trees to grow and mature.

Sustainability, she is quick to add, is a key component of proper forest management. Removing every available hardwood tree for the sake of short-term profit would be a recipe for disaster.

“You manage the forest because you want it to last another hundred years. We would all be out of a job and nobody would have anything if we cut it all down,” she explains. “We are good stewards of the forest. Hardwoods are not a crop that is grown like a pine. In the United States, most hardwood comes from individual landowners, and most of those landowners own fifty acres or less.”

Hardwoods naturally spread seeds which grow into new trees. When they mature, hardwoods are typically removed in a ‘select harvest’ process in which loggers or harvesters mark individual trees then cut them down. The largest trees usually go first.

“If you don’t take the big trees out, then the smaller trees can’t get enough sunlight, and the canopy gets too big. So [big trees] will be marked, then the logger will come in and individually take those out and leave the ones that still need to grow,” Hornsby explains.

Felled trees are generally sold to sawmills. Some sawmills own property where trees are grown and maintain loggers on staff, while other mills buy logs from independent operators. Once in the sawmill, logs are divided by species and diameter before being debarked and cut. Cut lumber is graded, sorted and stacked, and shipped to be transformed into end products.

The hardwood lumber industry used to be something of a free-for-all, with little structure or uniformity, says Hornsby. In the late 1890s, a group of lumbermen met in Chicago to bring some badly needed order to the sector. From this gathering, the NHLA was born. One of the association’s first projects was to develop a standardized grading system for hardwood lumber. Published in a guide called the NHLA Rules for the Measurement & Inspection of Hardwood & Cypress, this grading system brought consistency and stability to the hardwood lumber market.

Now called NHLA Hardwood Grading Rules, the guide is currently published in French, Spanish, Mandarin, and English to facilitate international sales. The guide is distributed to all NHLA members and its contents are reviewed every four years. New rule proposals are voted on by the membership. If accepted, new rules became part of the standards and the foundation of “the entire hardwood lumber industry,” says Hornsby.

Creating rules was one thing; implementing them was another matter. In the past, a team of National Inspectors were trained by and worked for NHLA, and performed all the lumber grading and inspections for hardwood companies. In 1948, to meet the demand for trained and knowledgable lumber graders, the association opened the NHLA Inspector Training School. The school was based in Memphis, then the “hardwood capital of the world,” according to Hornsby.

Memphis once sported dozens of sawmills within its municipal boundaries. The association moved its headquarters from Chicago to Memphis in the late 1970s, even as the city’s sawmill business declined. The training school has also remained in Memphis.

“We have graduated more than 7,500 people since we started the program. We have people who have come from all over the world,” states Hornsby.

NHLA National Inspectors have the authority to determine if lumber that is manufactured, bought, or sold is ‘on grade.’ The NHLA National Inspectors are positioned throughout the U.S. and Canada and are available globally. They help companies educate employees on the rules, conduct audits of processes and procedures and generally are available to help companies with any hardwood lumber related issues. They also manage the Association’s numerous certification programs.

Should a dispute arise and a lumber shipment appear to be off-grade, the association can intervene if called upon. It retains “a chief inspector who handles dispute claims. He will review the dispute, evaluate the product and grade, and present his finidings. His word is final,” Hornsby says.

The association also offers quality control services. Member companies can arrange for a NHLA National Inspector to review their manufacuturing processes and determine how efficient operations are. After visiting the premises, conducting extensive tests and consulting with company staff, the Inspector will issue a report with suggestions on new processes or equipment to boost profits and reduce waste.

Association members receive Hardwood Matters magazine which features member profiles, economic forecasts, and articles about industry issues and sector trends. The NHLA also maintains a blog, has a strong social media presence, and hosts an annual convention. The next conference is scheduled for September 21–23 in Cleveland, Ohio. After COVID spread in March 2020, the association developed a webinar series for members.

To be sure, COVID hit the lumber supply chain hard. Lumber prices have been wildly fluctuating, and this is compounded by driver shortages and other supply chain issues, as in many industries. “I think we’re looking at another year of supply chain disruption before it all settles back to normal,” Hornsby says.

Not counting COVID, she lists labor as the biggest challenge facing the hardwood sector. Many sawmills are based in rural locales with low population densities. Such areas lack a large pool of potential candidates for hire. This situation has been compounded by another development; with the economy returning to life, unemployment has dipped in many regions, meaning fewer people are looking for work.

To address this issue, the NHLA actively promotes career opportunities within the hardwood sector and supports programs designed to train skilled workers or establish apprenticeships. The growth of technology within the sector is also opening new career paths.

“A lot of people are thinking, ‘How can we automate some of these positions?’ With automation comes another skilled workforce set, because you need someone who understands automation, who can program the new equipment and can keep it online,” she states.

Going forward, the NHLA is excited to be part of the Real American Hardwood Coalition, a voluntary, industry-wide organization made up of hardwood associations and individual companies. Established in 2019, the coalition wants to present a united front to boost sales, promote research, and develop products. The coalition also hopes to “educate consumers and raise public awareness about the benefits of Real American Hardwood products,” according to its website.

“It’s a collective group who are passionate about spreading the sustainable message of hardwoods and increasing the consumption of hardwoods instead of replacement products. We would rather see the use of real hardwood than a plastic molding piece or bamboo flooring. We want consumers to be aware of the positive attributes of real hardwoods and the sustainable practices of the industry. That’s why the program exists,” states Hornsby. She believes that the coalition is “the biggest thing that’s going to change the association and change the industry over the next five years.”



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