Model codes, such as the International Residential Code and the International Building Code, don't let you build with any wood you want to use. They only allow structural lumber that has been graded by the rules set by national grading agencies, with occasional spot-checking by experts from those groups.

But that requirement rules out a lot of perfectly sound lumber that's produced on small woodlots, and sawn by small sawmills who don't have the money to pay for grading by a big agency. In places like wooded, rural upstate New York, that's an unpopular (and impractical) policy.

So New York code officials have ruled, once again, that the requirement for grade stamping won't be included in the New York code when the next version is published. The Watertown Daily Times has this report (see: "NYS Fire Prevention and Building Code Council decides to not change lumber rules").

The New York Farm Bureau, an organization of small landowners, praised the move in a press release (see: "NYFB Praises Rough Cut Lumber Decision"). "New York State has over 450,000 people who own small tracts of forests less than 25 acres in size that are in need of harvesting," the Bureau statement noted. "An exemption provides an important local market for lumber produced from these smaller tracts of forests. There are many remote areas in New York State that are far from retail outlets, and there is no qualified inspection agency within hundreds of miles so it is extremely difficult for rough cut lumber to be graded professionally. Local sawmills are able to step-up and fill that niche to produce lumber that meets the criteria for load bearing use and consumer demand."

The issue is not a new one in New York. Back in 2007, the upstate Watershed Agricultural Council asked lumber expert Al DeBonis of Wood Advisory Services in the Hudson Valley to educate local lumber producers in how to properly identify the characteristics of wood suitable for structural use.

""When you grade lumber, you look at several different characteristics," DeBonis said at the time (see: "Lumber Grading Workshop Educates Local Building Code Officers & Sawmill Operators"). "Two of the most important are the size of the knots and the orientation of the grain, which are two of the strength producing characteristics. In our course, we show people how to guarantee they are producing good quality material."

In an email to JLC, DeBonis said that since he taught his 2007 lumber-grading classes, the program has been discontinued (the official responsible for organizing the effort has moved on to another position). But interestingly, DeBonis says that at the time, the mills he worked with were already marketinging high-quality lumber. "I don't know whether most mills cull the worst defects in response to customer perceptions of quality," DeBonis said. "But the mills that participated in these seminars that I am familiar with, do."

DeBonis explains: "New York State allows sawmills to self certify lumber. It is up to the local building inspector to allow it or not. There is a form that the sawmillers would fill out which said they certified it for general construction purposes. For a couple of years I was actively involved in providing seminars throughout New York State to small sawmillers and building officials. We would go over grading, and I would show them ways to easily provide No. 2 quality material. These seminars were often held at sawmills, or sawmillers would bring lumber to the seminar to use for demonstrations. It was pretty successful and was funded by a New York State program. The individual who spearheaded this program moved on to a different job and the seminars ceased."

"The interesting thing was that I had to bring defective wood samples with me because the material these small sawmillers would cut was generally well above No. 2. They would often say that if they cut material that bad, they would lose customers.  Also, the self certified material was most commonly used for homes, barns, farm structures, et cetera.  If it was highly engineered and needed something better than a No. 2 this process would not be valid."