Wood you believe it? Pandemic sends lumber costs skyrocketing

·3 min read

Cooped up at home and looking to lay down a little lumber in a DIY project, maybe a new deck, home addition or some nice shelving?

Expect to get whacked.

Canada is one of the most forested countries on the planet, but surging demand for wood — much of it from a hot housing market — and mill shutdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to squeeze supplies and send prices soaring.

Softwood lumber prices were up almost 119 per cent in March from the same month a year earlier, when the pandemic began, the largest year-over-year price increase since Statistics Canada began tracking wood prices more than six decades ago.

“Lumber prices have more than doubled in the last year,” said Sue Wastell, president of the London Home Builders' Association.

The price of wood for basic do-it-yourself projects, like two-by-fours, is up sharply, and anyone looking to build a new home can expect to pay tens of thousands more to build it, depending on its size. It's forcing up the cost of renovations, too.

The average price of 1,000 board-feet of two-by-four eastern spruce, pine or fir in North America is now about $1,450, up from the previous 52-week average price of $987, according to Natural Resources Canada.

For the average house, lumber costs have risen about $35,000 since last March, Wastell said.

“Builders across Canada and the United States are busy, so I don’t see demand slowing down,” she said. “Lumber mills are still only working at lower capacity due to COVID, and transportation has been an issue. Maybe when COVID settles down and the mills can distribute more material, we will see some relief.”

Plywood and oriented strand board are in shortest supply, and red-hot demand has forced builders to plan for construction delays, Wastell added.

London wood processor Cole Jordan needs no reminder of the high demand for wood.

The Workers Wood Products owner launched his west-end lumber supply business, producing furniture-grade and live-edge lumber primarily for woodworkers, just before the pandemic struck.

He’s shipping finished wood across the province, from Windsor to Ottawa, and plans to add staff and processing capacity to meet surging demand amid the pandemic.

“I’m expanding quickly and building more kilns because I can’t keep up,” said Jordan, who takes local logs, many from trees that have to be removed, processes them at a sawmill, then dries the lumber.

It can be a long process to get to usable lumber: Logs can air-dry for two months to two years before going into a kiln for another three weeks to two months.

“Everybody has kind of become a DYIer and they’re coming to me to do their home projects,” Jordan said. “A lot of people have started small woodworking businesses, too, and they make high-quality products.”

As lumber shortages mount, Jordan said demand for local wood — mostly cherry, white oak, black walnut and soft and hard maple — produced by a small business is strong.

“People appreciate the personal experience, and since it’s local, they don’t have to travel far from home,” he said.

Jordan said much of Canada's black walnut is exported to other countries.

"It's becoming a lot more competitive and prices are rising, for sure," he said. "It's creating a shortage as well."

Most of Jordan’s finished lumber goes to woodworkers, who are seeing a push for locally made charcuterie boards, tables, shelving, bar tops and signs, he said.

He works with local arborists to obtain trees, all within a two-hour radius of London. “I get a lot of hazardous trees that have to come down or dying trees that are firewood bound or coming to the dump,” he said.

“A lot of it comes from London and surrounding smaller towns. It’s all local . . . (and) it’s very sustainable.”

maxmarting@postmedia.com

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press