There is no denying it: spruce is the king of the North. It is one of the most valued species of timber in the northern United States and Canada, and for good reason. Spruce is used for a wide array of products, making it incredibly versatile. It is mostly used for dimensional lumber in construction as well as pulpwood for paper products, but it also is used for specialty products like purlins, clapboard, Christmas trees, and even musical instruments! Moreover, it is a fast-growing and relatively easy to manage species, making it ideal for high-demand markets. Let’s take a look into this tree and its many uses as well as a few differences between the individual species of spruce.
1. Spruce as Dimensional Lumber
Perhaps the most common use of spruce wood is as dimensional lumber. Spruce is a component of what is coded as “SPF” lumber (spruce, pine, and fir). Because of its strength to weight ratio, small, tight knots, and dimensional stability, spruce functions as a superior lumber species for framing lumber, studs, and smaller dimensions such as 1×2 furring strips.
Along with its physical attributes, spruce also has the advantage of being relatively fast-growing and easily managed, making it ideal for the demanding lumber market. In fact, spruce is a favorite species to plant in the northeast due to its growth and market demand. Much of northern Maine and New Brunswick is dotted with spruce plantations for lumber production.
Not all spruce is suitable for lumber, however. In general, only spruce trees above 4 inches in diameter can be sold as logs for lumber production. Additionally, older spruce that is rotted on the inside may be unsuitable.
2. Spruce Pulpwood in Papermaking
When spruce is used as pulpwood, it is a superior wood to use in papermaking, particularly for newsprint and tissue paper. Because conifers have long fibers, they allow for a high degree of strength and flexibility in the final paper product. While spruce (and fir) used to define the paper industry, these days, the industry is far more diverse in terms of products and species used. At one time, nearly every newspaper in America was written on paper made from spruce-fir pulpwood from Maine and the northeast.
When spruce is used for papermaking, it generally comes from less-valuable logs. In particular, it comes from logs that are too small or too rotted for use as anything else.
3. Specialty Products
While the main uses of spruce come from dimensional lumber and papermaking, it can be used for a whole host of other specialty products, thanks to its unique properties.
Purlins are the structural support beams that often span across cathedral-style ceilings. In cabins and buildings going for a more rustic aesthetic, spruce produces the best purlins. Because of its strength properties and relative light weight, spruce works perfectly as a structural support, and it is sought by cabin builders for that reason. It’s beautiful white-colored wood also gives the perfect outdoorsy look for any rustic sporting camp, and without many knots, it does so with a great deal of class. Combining its structural and cosmetic properties makes it perfect!
Spruce can also be used as the main logs for the walls of log cabins, of course, but there are other more rot resistant woods like cedar and pine that are usually used instead. Spruce is mainly used just for structural support on the inside, such as in the photo above.
Typically, only the highest-grade spruce logs are used as purlins. Because they need to be both pretty and structurally sound, purlin logs are large and free of knots, rot, and other defects.
The clean, white look of spruce also makes it suitable for another high-value specialty product: clapboard. Clapboard is the horizontally-lain wooden siding on buildings, particularly popular in the New England region. Because it is put on the exterior of homes, cosmetic quality is important. Only top-quality wood is used for its production, and spruce is up to the task! High-grade spruce logs free of knots, resin pockets, rot, and other impurities is often used for this premium product, and with great result.
“Tonewood” for Instruments
Spruce also has excellent resonant properties, making its wood well-suited for making violins, guitars, pianos, harps, and more. However, not all wood is suited for this privileged use. Only slow-grown, more dense specimens can be used, and so specifications for these logs are extremely stringent. Logs that do qualify and the wood that is ultimately used to make instruments is known as “tonewood.”
Of course, who could forget one of the favorite and time-honored uses of spruce: Christmas trees. Because of its aesthetic and symmetrical conical shape, spruce is a worldwide favorite for every Christmas season. Unlike previously mentioned products, the spruce Christmas tree market is completely disconnected from the rest of forestry. Christmas trees are deliberately planted and grown as such and meticulously trimmed each year to create the most attractive foliage possible. When Christmas time arrives after a relatively short period of growth, it is time for harvest!
Finally, spruce can be enjoyed for more than just its wood quality. Spruce is a popular landscape tree to use as a windbreak or evergreen to bring color and greenery year-round. Unlike hardwoods, the lack of leaf litter from deciduous leaves makes spruce a fairly low-effort tree to grow on one’s lawn. Moreover, while some hardwoods can take years to grow into an attractive piece, spruce look healthy and full from a young age, making the pay off time much shorter compared to other species. Of course, in this context, spruces highest and best value is intact on the stump. Despite all the many uses listed above, we wouldn’t recommend you cut your landscape spruce down.
Notes on Individual species
While all species of spruce have similar qualities and uses, there are a few finer differences and nuances between species that one should be aware of.
Red spruce is the most common spruce in the northeastern forest, and it is a great “all around” species, with uses to be found in all the aforementioned products. It is arguably the most commercially-important species of timber across much of its range.
Black spruce is a narrower and much slower-growing species than the rest. Because of it being smaller, it is often used for pulpwood (particularly in Canada) and its uses for dimensional lumber are often limited to being used for studs and smaller dimensions.
White spruce grows particularly fast and particularly large. It is a popular species to plant for future lumber production, and with a beautiful clear white wood color, it is particularly sought after for specialty products like purlins and clapboard.
White spruce is also a common Christmas tree species because of its attractive bluish-white tone. However, like Colorado blue spruce, it has a rather pungent evergreen smell, making it distasteful to some.
Sitka spruce is a large-growing spruce with notably strong, lightweight wood. Because of these properties, Sitka spruce has a unique history as being used in the frame construction of early airplanes, including the wright brothers’ airplane! Sitka is also valued for its unique resonant qualities, making it sought after as tonewood.
Norway spruce, as the name may suggest, is not native to North America, but is is a commonly planted species nonetheless. Norway spruce has a growth rate that far-exceeds the growth rate of native spruces, and so it is increasingly planted for use as lumber in much of the US. However, this is a new role for the species, being only recently approved for use as structural lumber in 2016 by the American Lumber Standards Committee. It is likely Norway spruce will become increasingly common across the US.
Engelmann spruce is often harvested in the western US and Canada for lumber and pulpwood. Like Sitka spruce, it is a preferred species for tonewood due to its often slow growth in cold, sub-alpine forests.
Spruce is Incredibly Versatile
Maybe spruce deserves its title as king. With so many uses, its easy to see why it is so highly valued. Particularly for timberland owners and public authorities looking to manage forest lands for the future, growing spruce is a top choice. It isn’t going out of style any time soon. Our homes, paper products, and even our violins will be made from this magnificent tree for decades and centuries to come.