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Understanding timber as a Commodity

Prices, product classes, value

The value of timber trees is based on the value of the products that can be made from them. This is dictated by size (height and diameter), species and quality of the trees. 

The price paid for standing timber is called “stumpage.”

This is the amount the landowner is paid in a timber sale. Stumpage will be expressed as dollars per cord, dollars per ton, or dollars per thousand board feet.

The amount the timber brings at the mill is called the “delivered price.”

Product classes are generally expressed in terms of diameter measured at breast height (DBH).
  • Pulpwood: 6-9” DBH. Pulpwood trees are chipped into small pieces, chemically treated, and made into paper. Pulpwood is measured in tons or standard cords.
  • Superpulp: This is an unofficial designation used to describe pulpwood-sized pine trees from which one 2 x 4 board could be cut. Superpulp is more valuable than regular pulpwood, but markets for this product are not always available. Another name for superpulp is “canterwood.”
  • Palletwood: This is an unofficial designation for low-quality hardwood timber that is not good enough for lumber, but can be sawed into slats for pallet-making. Palletwood is sometimes called “skrag.” 
  • Chip-n-saw: 10-13” DBH. By using a combination of techniques, these mid-sized trees produce chips for pulpwood as well as small dimension lumber. Chip-n-saw is measured in tons or standard cords. Value is heavily dependent on tree quality.
  • Sawtimber: 14”+ DBH. Trees are cut into lumber. Waste material is converted into chips for fuel or paper production. Sawtimber is measured in tons or board feet. Value is heavily dependent on tree quality.
  • Veneer: 16”+ DBH. By means of a large lathe, the tree is converted into continuous sheets of thin wood. This is used in the manufacture of plywood and furniture, depending on the type of tree. Veneer is measured in tons or board feet. Value is heavily dependent on tree quality. 
Loading a log truck at Manchester

Timber, like any other commodity, experiences price fluctuation according to the laws of supply and demand; prices may vary significantly from one part of the state to another. The price paid for any product class also varies according to quality. 
Terminology complicates understanding of timber value. In SC, there are two accepted, quantifiable standards for measuring pulpwood and chip-n-saw: standard cords and tons. A standard cord is a stack of wood measuring 4’ x 4’ x 8’ (128 cubic feet); a ton is 2000 pounds of raw wood, including bark. 
Occasionally, pulpwood volume is quoted by the “unit.” This is an undefined quantity; it can mean just about anything. Timber owners should insist that any pulpwood quote is based on standard cords or tons.
Sawtimber is even more complicated. There are three recognized methods of computing the number of board feet in a given tree. Called “log rules,” these are tables estimating the amount of lumber that can be cut from trees of various sizes. The Scribner Log Rule is the commonly accepted measurement standard for pine sawtimber in SC; the Doyle Log Rule is frequently used to estimate hardwood timber. The third rule, International Quarter-Inch, may actually the most accurate but has never gained much acceptance in the state. Sawtimber volume is usually quoted in thousands of board feet (MBF). 
Any of the three log rules are legal, but all give a different estimate of timber volume in a given tree. The seller should understand that an offer of $200 per thousand board feet on the Scribner rule usually returns more money than $200 per thousand board feet on the Doyle rule. There is no easy way to convert among the three. There are some standard conversion factors for products. Here are a few commonly used equivalents:

Pine Pulpwood
5350 pounds = 1 cord*  
2.675 tons = 1 cord  
Mixed Hardwood Pulpwood
5800 pounds = 1 cord*
2.90 tons = 1 cord
Pine Sawtimber 
1000 board feet = 2.8 cords
7.50-7.75 tons = 1000 board ft
Hardwood Sawtimber
1000 board feet = 3 cords

*Standard established by SC Code of Laws 39-9-130 

An 18-wheel truck/trailer can haul about 25 tons of timber. This is the equivalent of about 9.3 standard cords of pine pulpwood or chip-n-saw. If the load is sawtimber or veneer size, the truck can haul about 3.3 thousand board feet.