Our history with the Japanese furniture market & how it has helped us make such superior hardwood floors today.
I was able to talk with “Uncle Leo” the other day and he told me his his side of Hickman Lumber’s rift & quarter sawn history in details regarding him and the Japanese furniture market. I grew up knowing Leo & his family while we were doing so much business with them in the 90s. He would always refer to himself as “Uncle Leo”.
Leo and Denny Hickman had gotten in contact around 1988. Denny had told him about these big beautiful red oak logs with tight growth rings that we had and were wanting to quarter saw. Leo came to PA , saw these great logs and wondered if we could get more so we could start doing business together.
At the time there were only 3 sawmills in the USA that were quarter sawing lumber, and the Japanese customers were not happy with any of them. The Japanese had a very tight spec for their lumber. In the 1960s the Japanese were an export market for lumber that was sent to Europe. The Northern Island of Japan, Hokkaido, had been producing loads of lumber at this time. They had met Europe’s high specs and adopted them for their own standards of quality.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Japanese market was booming, but it was difficult for North American lumber to break into this market with the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) specs. They do not meeting the high standards the Japanese customers demand. Lumber from Japan was expensive and there was more demand than supply available so Leo was working on a way to get quality American lumber to Japan.
After the initial meeting between Denny and Leo plans were made for Leo to return with one of his customers to see the logs and the sawmill. Unfortunately a fire in 1989 burned Hickman Lumber to the ground. Leo and his customer, KG, decided to come anyways and see the logs and they talked about what the rebuilding of the mill would look like.
Some time had passed and Leo said he was still interested in doing business with Hickman Lumber once they started quarter sawing and got the mill running again. They created their own specs for the rift and quarter sawn boards, and threw the NHLA specs out the window. Leo brought pictures and examples of what the finished furniture look and design was. This showed all the reasons why the specs were the way they were, and they could manufacture the lumber with the end product in mind. Together they created a Rift & Quarter Sawn product that was far better than what the other mills were producing.
Some examples of these specs for the white and red oak were the straight tight grain and heavy on the rift sawn. The color was not that critical because the style at the time was to stain the wood darker. Grain pattern was crucial to the end product.
Business was really good with Hickman lumber for a decade or so, then the Japanese market began to shift from North America to Russia and China. The Chinese came to shore with a full vessel of R&Q oak from Russia and Chinese forests and said name your price. They could sell for so cheap because the government owned all the land and they wanted to start exporting. North America could no longer be players in this market.
Recently however, Putin has raised the export duty tax by 80% on hardwoods from Russia. The quality has also diminished and the price went up, Leo is again working on getting North America into the Japanese furniture market.
This relationship we had built and our learning and compliance in creating a far superior lumber product was a huge advantage for Allegheny Mountain Hardwood Flooring by differentiating itself from the typical hardwood flooring available. Having total quality control from the forest to the floor gives us the confidence to declare that we make the best R&Q wood floors in the country.
We have kept our standards high for the lumber and what we put into the flooring. One of our lumber grader’s told me once that he knew how to grade from what he learned in NHLA school, but then there were the “Larry Hickman Rules”. I understand that now after talking to Leo and understanding the higher expectations we have for our lumber and that flows directly into our quality flooring product.