Diaries claim that early loggers in what came to be Oregon and Washington often felled 400'-tall trees, each containing enough high-grade lumber to build seven houses! The lofty tree was the Douglas fir, and it still dominates the great forests of the Pacific Northwest.
In 1827, English botanical explorer David Douglas recognized the fir's resource potential. Hoping that the easily grown tree could adapt to his country's reforestation efforts, he shipped seed cones from the Columbia River basin back to the British Isles.
From that introduction, the fir found favor as fast-growing timber first in England, then throughout western Europe. Now, even the adopted habitats of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa boast Douglas fir forests.
In the U.S., Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) naturally ranges from the Mexican border north to Alaska, and from the Pacific coast east to the Rocky Mountains. Often found in pure stands, Douglas fir can attain an average mature height of about 300' and diameters from 10' to 17'.
On older trees, the rough bark may be 12" thick. Younger trees have a smooth bark with frequent blisters filled with a pungent resin.
Tiny winged seeds, released from cones as large as a man's fist, quickly germinate in sufficient sunlight. Because of this, Douglas fir quickly takes over and reforests burned or clearcut areas.
Douglas fir's pinkish-yellow to orange-red heartwood provides a distinct contrast in the growth rings. On flatsawed boards and rotary cut veneer, this translates to an abrupt color change. The thin band of sapwood is often nearly pure white.
In comparison to its weight, Douglas fir ranks as the strongest of all American woods. It is also stiff, stable, and relatively decay resistant.
Douglas fir's coarse texture can't easily be worked with hand tools. And to avoid tearing grain, even power tool blades must be sharp. Yet, the wood grips nails and screws securely, and readily accepts all types of adhesives.
Because Douglas fir contains fewer resins than many other softwoods, count on success with paint and clear finishes. Staining, however, becomes a problem due to the light-to-dark variation between growth rings that causes uneven coloration.
Vast quantities of Douglas fir provide dimension lumber for the construction industry and veneers for plywood. The wood's appearance and easy-working properties have earned it a spot in the manufacturing of windows, doors, and moldings.
Flatsawed, Douglas fir makes attractive, serviceable cabinets and paintable furniture. Sawn as vertical grain, Douglas fir performs well as flooring and looks stunning as cabinetry.
Found across most of the nation as common construction lumber, Douglas fir falls in the inexpensive price range of about $1 per lineal foot. However, sawed for vertical grain and graded for "superior finish," the cost rises by at least three times. Douglas fir plywood in all grades is readily available.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson
Photographs: Western Wood Products Assn.