The softwood that toughens up with age
During the last century the bark of hemlock was sometimes worth more than the wood. The leather-tanning and fur-processing industries demanded hemlock bark for its high tannic acid content. Hides and skins infused with a tannic-acid solution become soft and strong. Tragically, stands of hemlock in the eastern United States and Canada were stripped of their bark, then left to die.
It wasn't until the '40s boom in wood-frame house construction that hemlock came into its own as lumber. And then the eastern hemlock's West Coast cousin provided the raw material. Today hemlock lumber from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (where the species represents 60 percent of the mature coastal forest) feeds home construction and millwork manufacturers. Hemlock even gives some hardwoods a run for their money as a lower cost, yet strong, easy-to-work furniture stock. In fact, this softwood actually grows harder with age!
Botanist Stephen L. Endlicher in 1847 christened hemlock with the genus name tsuga. The Japanese word means "yew-leaved," referring to its short, flat, and contrary to legend, non-poisonous needles.
Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) plants its roots from Canada south to Georgia and west across the Great Lakes states to Minnesota. Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), sometimes called Pacific hemlock, thrives in the moist coastal ranges from Alaska to northern California, and also climbs mountain slopes in Idaho and Montana.
Growing to greater size than its eastern relative--which only becomes 80' tall and 36" in diameter in 250 years--western hemlock represents one of the lumber industry's few remaining sources of large, clear timber. Trees 100 years old can be 150' tall with a 24" diameter.
The bark of both hemlock species appears cinnamon-red to brown in color and has broad, deep ridges. Seed-bearing brown cones sprout at the ends of branch shoots.
Little color variance between hemlock's heartwood and sapwood results in a nearly uniform buff color in both species. The wood of western hemlock weighs more (about 29 pounds per cubic foot, dry) than that of its eastern relative. Western hemlock also is harder, stronger, straighter-grained, and resin-free.
You can work hemlock easily with hand or power tools. In crosscutting, however, expect some tearout.
The wood grips screws and accepts all glues without a problem. Western hemlock, with its straight grain and finer texture, sands to a silky, reflective smoothness. Because the western variety is resin-free, it accepts any paint, stain, or clear finish with more satisfying results than the eastern species. Don't use either hemlock species outdoors without preservative treatment.
The construction industry now frames, sheathes, and floors with hemlock. Mills turn the wood into windows, frame-and-panel doors, moldings, and paneling. Due to its strength and wear-resistance, hemlock also becomes reliable ladders and stair components.
Ease of machining and finishing have made hemlock an increasingly popular alternative to hardwood for furniture and cabinets. Lack of pitch and resin also make hemlock ideal for the dry heat of saunas.
Vast logging operations on the Pacific Northwest coast keep hemlock widely available in the West and Midwest. On the East Coast, even availability of local hemlock is spotty.
If you need them, thick boards up to 14" wide is available. And hemlock costs less than Ponderosa or white pine.
Illlustrations: Steve Schindler Photograph: Jim Kascoutas