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Let's Reminisce: The world's most expensive board foot
By Jerry Lincecum
Oct 10, 2017
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When I try to think of something specific I learned in high school, usually it takes a long while and maybe I even forget what the question was before an answer rises to the surface.  But when I picked up a book on the history of wood in our culture and found a discussion of “the world’s most expensive board foot,” I immediately recalled Mr. Roe Jackson’s course in Vocational Agriculture that I took way back in 1956.  It combined book learning with the practical experience of building things in a carpentry shop.

Our major project was to build a wooden calf feeder.  First we had to figure out how many 2x4s, 1x4s, etc. would be required and then calculate the number of board feet the lumberyard would be charging us for.  That’s when I learned that a board foot is a piece of board one inch thick, twelve inches wide, and twelve inches long.  The only time I really made use of this knowledge after ’56 was when I remodeled our house by converting half of the double garage into a bedroom for my then-teenage son.  I at least understood how the cost of the lumber I had to buy was calculated.

So what would you expect to be the most expensive wood in today’s world?  Certainly not the soft yellow pine Mr. Jackson purchased for us to use in constructing our calf feeder, the total cost of which was less than $50 (in ’56).  Nor would it be the rough-sawed oak that my grandfather harvested from his own land when he built the big barn on our farm in the late 1940s.  No, we’re talking tropical exotic hardwoods, like African mahogany, or maybe 50,000-year-old kauri trees reclaimed from New Zealand peat bogs.

According to a writer named Spike Carlsen, in his book A Splintered History of Wood, there is a company called Ancientwood, located in Ashland, Wisconsin, which sells the oldest workable wood on our planet.  He visited the company and viewed a slab of wood from a kauri tree that was growing in New Zealand in 48,000 B.C.  This tree died of natural causes, but instead of falling to the ground and decomposing like most logs, it fell into a peat bog, which is an oxygen-starved and fungus-free environment that preserved the timber in nearly pristine condition. 

While touring in Ireland I learned that peat bogs often preserve otherwise perishable things for thousands of years, including human bodies that have been recovered with hair, organs and skin intact.  Ancient oak trees have also been recovered from Irish bogs, but the kauri logs from New Zealand are in a class by themselves.  After a couple of weeks of sanding and finishing, one described by Carlsen was as smooth as glass and it glowed.  It was also expensive.

How does a tree that grew 50,000 years ago in New Zealand make its way to 21st century Wisconsin and become one of the most expensive pieces of wood one can buy?  Most of the ancient trees are found buried in bogland pastures, where they reveal themselves initially as a small exposed section crops up.  Nothing will grow in that spot, and if the section rots, a cow can stumble into it and break her leg.  So the farmer brings in a backhoe to investigate and see if there’s a log he can dig up, maybe using a chainsaw to cut it into movable pieces. 

Carlsen watched a video of the reclamation process, in which a huge log weighing 60,000 pounds was sawed into pieces that could be winched out and rolled on to massive flatbed trucks.  Since the trees have reached a saturation point of 100% in the bog, drying them out takes a long time.  According to Carlsen’s book, the going price for kauri wood is $35 a board foot.  If you’d like to see what 50,000-year-old wood looks like, go to www.ancientwood.com.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com