Our love for cedar stemmed from Mikes early days on and around boats. Cedars have been used for decades in boat yards around North America, and even longer in Native American canoes. An excellent wood choice for water craft, cedars are workable and light softwoods with good strength-to-weight ratios. What makes it good for boats, makes it good for boards.
The first handful of Grain boards we built using Western Red Cedar. While it was grown out west, it was readily available at local lumber stores. Once board orders started to pick up the decision was made to find a locally sourced wood. Here in the state of Maine, we have Thuja occidentalis, commonly known as Northern White Cedar.
Our first load of white cedar came from Pat Lovely who then owned Portage Mills. With just one phone call, Pat bundled up 6 planks of rough sawn cedar and mailed them down to us. We quickly fell involve with the material, with Pat and with Portage Mills.
To this day, just about all of our cedar needs have been filled by that same family operation. Today the mill (now called The Maine Cedar Store) is owned by J. Rocheleau and his family who carries on the same traditions and values that Pat started out with... sustainability, community, and taking care of customers. Not long after we give him a call, J. makes the roughly 350 mile journey traversing the state to deliver a trailer load of cedar to our shop and a few other "southern" boat builders.
We do our best to be sure the Northern White Cedar we purchase is sustainably harvested, even though it is not officially certified as such. The Forest Stewardship Council (the certifying authority) and the Maine Forest Service have determined that there are no producers of northern white cedar in Maine that are actually certified for sustainable harvesting of that particular forest product.
While Sustainability Certification would definitely be a guarantee of sustainable practices the absence of that guarantee doesn't mean that the forest product isn't sustainably managed. In fact, Peter Lammert, a leading forester with the Maine Forest Service, has told us that it would be difficult to find a forest management plan anywhere in Maine that targets sustainable harvesting of northern white cedar in Maine simply because it grows so abundantly there. In other words, the resource sustains itself without active management at current harvesting levels.
In the long run, this is no consolation - human history is riddled with failed civilizations that once thought their resources were so abundant that they didn't have to plan to preserve them. Also, FSC certification includes standards for habitat preservation, forest soil conservation, and metrics related to sustainability of other than the forest product itself - none of which are guaranteed just because cedar sustains itself without management in Northern Maine.
The Maine Cedar Store ensures us that they share our concern for a lasting forest resource. Their website promises that "purchases superior cedar logs from local professionally certified logging contractors whom [sic] practice sound sustainable forest practices.
If we consider the recent ecological history of Maine, a broader perspective comes into view. 89% of the state is currently forested1, due to the northern region never being clear cut at the magnitude of the rest of New England in the 18th century wave of European migration and farming, and that much of the land that was cleared has since reverted back to forests in the 20th century. Cedar is one of the many conifers that has invaded the abandoned fields of the north east. Northern White Cedar is considered a species of least concern by The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), noting "as Thuja occidentalis is extremely widespread and in some parts of its range increasing by invasion of abandoned farmland, it is assessed as Least Concern." 2
1 Butler, Brett J. 2017. Forests of Maine, 2016. Resource Update FS-128. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 4 p
2Farjon, A. 2013. Thuja occidentalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T42262A2967995. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2013-1.RLTS.T42262A2967995.en.
There is a longer story to tell about the "sustainability" of cedar in Maine, involving a more thorough definition of sustainable, "Chain of Custody" certifications, Certified Logging Professionals, and organizations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Maine Forest Service. You can read more about it in our sustainability FAQs.
Waste No Waste
While the primary use for Grain’s shavings and splinters is as animal bedding or garden mulch, any wood that harbors even a hint of utility is saved in dusty corners of the shop to await its full potential. Then one day, inspiration arrives - and suddenly it seems obvious that edgings from straightening rough planks can be used to make bead and cove strips; that all short blocking and leftover stringer stock should be made into handplanes; that longer offcuts and leftover surfboard planks should be made into Sea Sleds. Even our short and thin plank cutoffs can be used for internal blocking, surfboard fins or our handmade gift certificates.
We’re so dedicated to the practice of doing more with less that we limit production of these products to the times of year that we have the most scrap piles built up, typically in the fall and winter months after a busy summer season of classes, kits and custom boards. We continue to think of ways to “close the loop” on our own waste stream, and even how to fold into our operation more recycled material and waste-stream elements from other industries like our handplane straps which were designed around the availability and functionailty of recycled bike inner tubes and wetsuits.