Criswell is the Architectural Marketing Manager for Frank Miller Lumber and represents them to architects and designers around the world. Criswell has been in the hardwood business for 30 years and has represented Frank Miller Lumber for 22 years. He has served on the Board of Directors for the Wood Products Manufacturers Association, the Western Hardwood Association and the Hardwood Federation PAC in Washington D.C. Criswell is a cancer survivor and now serves on the Patient Advisory Council for a new Kettering Cancer Treatment hospital in Kettering, Ohio.

How Vertical Integration Can Be of Help to the Design Community

A few years ago Frank Miller Lumber got involved with supplying the quartersawn red oak for the floors of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. I have written about the advantages of working with the mill source on projects like this, since in doing so the project team minimizes its variables. That project, for example, was never delayed due to lumber shortages. The same was true for the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia and several other high-profile projects.

About a year and a half ago, Frank Miller Lumber acquired a high-end architectural millwork company, Indianapolis Woodworking International (IWI) in order to offer millwork services to the design community. In the world of bespoke commercial and residential designs, IWI can help to make a designer or architect’s dreams a reality through collaboration and integration with a skilled millwork partner.

In my role with Frank Miller, I assist architects and designers in adjusting specifications to match the realities of the resource.  Likewise, Gary Riegle, president of Indianapolis Woodworking International, can do the same thing, moving the design process along with samples and advice. For the design community, this synergy can be of immense value, working directly with a high-end millwork company that can help make your vision a reality. Just as flooring companies can be specified for a project, a millwork company can also be specified.

I was in Dubai a couple of years ago talking with a millwork company that produced the First and Business Class lounges for Terminal 3 at the Dubai Airport. The construction of those lounges was a herculean task. To give you some perspective, the architecturally sequence-matched American walnut veneered panels cover more than 1.6 kilometers. By the time the design fell to the millwork company for production, the timer had already been ticking for quite some time. The pressure to obtain material for the project was intense, and the project would have moved along more smoothly with advanced coordination between the designers and the millwork company.

The team at IWI has decades of experience behind them and has produced some gorgeous millwork over the years. You can see examples of their projects at Let IWI help you in the same way that Frank Miller Lumber helps architects and designers.

Mercurial Quartersawn White Oak Prices

For more than 4 years I have explained in my presentations to architects and designers the difference between Red and White Oak. “Tyloses” in White Oak give the wood a closed cell structure making it resistant to rot and water.  I use a device to distinguish the difference in porosity between Red and White Oak, which lies with the letter “W”.  I say that the “W” for “White” (Oak) works with “water”, whiskey” and “wine”.  You can build a boat with White Oak, not Red.  Likewise you can build wine and whiskey barrels with White Oak, not Red.

As you settle down with a nice glass of whiskey or bourbon, keep in mind that the delicious brown liquid in your glass was aged in a Quartersawn White Oak barrel.  Right now the world is experiencing an unprecedented surge in demand for whiskeys and bourbons of all kinds.  Distilleries can’t produce it fast enough.  Even if they could produce at a significantly higher volume, they would have trouble procuring the barrels.

The cooperage business has basically gone through the roof.  What this means is monumental pressure on the White Oak resource, driving up prices for logs.  At the same time that the world has developed a voracious appetite for whiskey and bourbon, it has also developed a strong desire for White Oak flooring.  What all of this means for the consumer is that the price of White Oak flooring, especially Quartersawn, is going to increase significantly over the next couple of years.  Here is an example of the bourbon industry sounding the alarm.  This is an excerpt from a press release from Buffalo Trace last month:

May 8, 2014
The bourbon boom shows no signs of letting up.  At Buffalo Trace, the 228 year – old Distillery continues to take steps to mitigate the problem, but shortages still remain.  About a year ago, Buffalo Trace Distillery warned consumers a shortage was looming, but many markets across the nation are just now feeling the full effects.
“We’re making more bourbon every day. In fact, we’re distilling more
than we have in the last 40 years,” said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller. “Still, it’s hard to keep up. Although we have more bourbon than last year when we first announced the rolling blackouts, we’re still short and there is no way to predict when supply will catch up with demand.”

At the moment there seems to be no easy resolution to the conflict between the barrel stave mills and lumber mills like Frank Miller.  The cost of the quartersawn White Oak barrel as a factor in the selling price of a bottle of Bourbon is insignificant.  This allows the stave producers to consistently outbid Quartersawn mills for logs.  No one is predicting how high logs costs will go in the coming weeks, months and years, but expect to see price increases for lumber and flooring on a regular basis.  Maintaining timber sustainability remains a primary goal for the hardwood industry.  This foretells of a continuing battle for a resource whose volume is constrained.

If White Oak is your choice for flooring, expect to pay a premium for the reasons outlined here.  However, Red Oak pricing should stay relatively stable in the coming years.  In terms of appearance and performance in a floor, Quartersawn Red Oak will produce a gorgeous floor of similar strength and longevity.

Wood Supply Chain

I want to start this edition of “Criswell’s Corner” by telling you all that the hiatus I took this winter was actually due to a cancer diagnosis I received in October of 2013. I have been focused on my treatment and recovery and am happy to report that two weeks ago I had a PET scan that was free of cancer.

It was a difficult period, but I am proud to say that Frank Miller Lumber stood by me and my family throughout the entire ordeal.  In the world of commerce, the character of a company is very important.  If I am going to align myself with a company who will play a crucial role in the outcome of a project, I want to align myself with a company of integrity and true character.  I have proudly represented Frank Miller Lumber for nearly 18 years, the first 14 as a salesman and the past 4 as an architectural marketing consultant.

Through good financial times and bad (we all remember 2008, right?) Frank Miller Lumber has consistently produced some of the world’s highest quality quartersawn hardwoods.  The company has never waivered and my cancer treatment showed the kind of commitment that the company makes to its employees as well as its customers.  If one is judged by the company they keep, I am proud to be judged by my association with Frank Miller Lumber.

As a designer or architect it is more important now than ever that if high quality hardwoods are an aesthetic feature of your project you should forge a strong alliance with a premium mill like Frank Miller Lumber.  Leaving the successful outcome of your project to the vagaries of the lumber market can often result in heartache and disappointment.

Unlike other materials that will be used in your project, many factors affect hardwood lumber supply.  Let’s look at the current situation in the market.  After the financial recession of 2008 many log suppliers went out of business, as did many sawmills.  The strongest companies, Frank Miller Lumber among them, stayed the course and remain healthy to this day.  The market for quartersawn hardwoods is stronger than ever as is the market for plain sawn lumber around the globe.  Supply is the problem now.  Demand has classically outpaced supply.  In September I was speaking to architects and designers in Saigon with a group of American Hardwood suppliers.  One hardwood mill representative told me that he was very anxious about going out the next day to talk to his customers because they all want plain sawn red oak for their furniture manufacturing and there was simply not enough wood to go around.  He was actually going to have to cancel some orders.  It is my guess that those companies who had not forged a relationship with him would be the ones to come up short in supply.

Developing a hardwood supply chain for your project early in the design phase is critical to a successful outcome.  Frank Miller Lumber is unique in allowing me to represent them to the design community.  Allow me to work with you to develop the crucial hardwood supply chain that you will require for your project.  Feel free to send me an email at and I will be very pleased to assist you in whatever way I can.

Case Studies

A friend sent me this picture of Patrick Stewart doing a one armed push-up and while that is an impressive feat, my eye was immediately drawn to the floor, which is rift white oak.  Now I want to find out more – is that Patrick’s house?  Who made the floor?  Who designed the space?  Could the lumber have come from Frank Miller?

I spend a significant amount of time thumbing through Architectural Digest and Architectural Record looking at the amazingly beautiful homes, hotels and other commercial buildings featured.  From time to time I see a gorgeous floor or built-in cabinetry that appears to be made from quartersawn white or red oak.  Rarely, if ever, is the flooring mentioned in the article.  I have, from time to time, tried to chase down the architects to see about writing a case study on the quartersawn lumber used in their design.  With a few exceptions, that effort has proved fruitless.

One perfect example of the futility of this effort is an 8,000 square foot residential space in Portland, Oregon where I worked with the architect on using rift white oak for the floors.  They were thinking of using an exotic wood for which there would be no sustainability paper trail and I convinced them to use rift white oak because it is FSC certified and was the most stable and beautiful floor they could lay in that space.  These conversations spanned many months and in the end the designers went with rift white oak and apparently were thrilled with it.  Naturally the goal was to have the rift white oak come from Frank Miller Lumber so that the quality could be monitored.  We fine-tuned the lumber specifications to align them with the realities of the resource and I followed the job from start to finish.  The missing link was the contractor who took the specs and delivered the flooring on time.  I tried repeatedly to talk to the contractor to find out who made the floors so that I might be able to determine if the flooring manufacturer is a customer of Frank Miller’s.  The contractor refused to reveal the source of the flooring as if revealing that information would somehow compromise his business.  I offered to have professional photographs taken of the project that he could use for his own marketing efforts.  All of my work was in vain.  I can reasonably assume that the lumber came from Frank Miller, but without knowing for sure, I can’t write a case study like we did for the Barnes Museum.  We know in that case that all of that lumber came from our mill.

The tricky thing is that because Frank Miller Lumber is not a flooring manufacturer we can’t say for sure where all of the lumber we produce goes.  When I suggest that designers and architects work directly with the mill, I mean that Frank Miller Lumber should be specified as the source of the lumber.  When that happens, all of the worries about quality, appearance and timely delivery are settled.  Frank Miller Lumber, when specified, becomes a partner in the project, one upon whom you can rely.  We can even recommend the best flooring manufacturers in the area surrounding the project to heighten your sense of security.  After the project is complete we can write a case study to tell the world about your beautiful work.

Form vs. Function

I have been on hiatus for the past few months and during that time I have done considerable thinking on this topic as it relates to design.  The more I looked at beautiful designs, whether commercial, hospitality or residential the more I saw form trumping function unnecessarily.  Naturally, my design orientation centers on flooring because Frank Miller Lumber produces the finest American hardwood for that use.

In some of the hardwood flooring installations I have seen the floors are spectacular, made better by the fact that the hardwood is sustainable.  Even in the most functionally cumbersome spaces, the hardwood makes a great statement.  Many years ago, in a previous business life, I was hired to run a beautiful brand new country club clubhouse in the desert.  Operations were scheduled to open two months after I was hired and I looked at this award winning building in which I would be working.  After the first walkthrough I started to ask questions about how the building actually was to function as a clubhouse for 200 golfing members.  I was shocked by how many questions had never been addressed, like where the trash would be stored until the once a week pickup.  I had to re-work the design of the building in order to make it function.  The building didn’t open for six months.  The building looked great, but it just didn’t function.

When it comes to beautiful hardwood floors, one needs to carefully assess the environment into which the floors will be installed, the moisture content of the wood and subfloor and acclimating the flooring to the space.  I am aware of an office building whose design called for two story windows streaming UV light directly onto the floors, which in this case were made of a type of lumber traditionally used for decking.  Decking lumber is “air dried”, which means that it is anywhere from 15-25% moisture content, as it will be on a deck outside.  Take that same lumber, put it inside, then let it cook with direct sunlight and you will be able to watch it warp and crack before your eyes. This was a matter of the subcontractor never questioning the lumber choice for the flooring, nor did they ever measure the moisture content of the wood prior to installation.  Needless to say the finger of blame inevitably pointed to the flooring manufacturer, who had no idea of its end use.

In New York I saw another building with beautiful quartered white oak floors installed before all of the plumbing in the upper floors was finished.  While I was on site, there was a major leak of the pipes while traveled down at least 4 floors soaking the floors through to the subfloor.  That caused a major delay in construction, of course.  Who knows where the finger of blame wound up being pointed on that one.

The point to this is that a beautiful hardwood floor is both form and function, as long as the correct wood species is chosen for the space the lumber is correctly manufactured into flooring and handled correctly on the job site.  Once all of these areas are carefully monitored, function for decades is assured.  When you are considering various hardwood species for a project, call Frank Miller Lumber to talk to the experts about your thinking.  They will steer you to the best manufacturers as well as the best species for the job.

The same, but different

Recently the sales team at Frank Miller Lumber received an invitation to quote on a large quantity of Quartersawn White Oak for use in the Middle East.  Naturally, any chance to quote a possible order for shipment into an area to which you rarely ship is exciting.  The pricing surprised the joinery company making the inquiry, even though it was normal pricing for quartersawn lumber.  Regular readers of “Criswell’s Corner” know that this is the Bentley of hardwoods and is therefore more expensive.   The order never materialized and I started thinking a bit more about comparisons between plain sawn and quartersawn white oak as an example.

There are many areas of the world dominated by plain sawn American hardwoods for interior joinery and flooring.  The most prominent visual feature of plain sawn white and red oak is its “cathedral grain”, also known as “crown cut”, with the growth rings manifesting themselves with peaks instead of the straight grain of quartersawn.  As I outline in my presentation on quartersawn hardwoods, the straight grain is what gives quartersawn white and red oak its stability and unique beauty.  Straight-grained quartersawn is not just a different look from plain sawn.  It is an entirely different product.  The two cannot be reasonably compared for pricing for several reasons.  The only similarity is that they are the same species of wood.

First, the logs chosen for quartersawing are just below veneer quality.  They need to be solid to the center of the log so they can be cut from the inside out as shown in the video in this website.  The higher the quality of the log, the more it costs, which translates into the selling price of lumber made from those logs.  Additionally the process of quartersawing is slow and highly technical, which also increases the production costs.  For example, a plain sawn mill can buy a lower quality log and still produce beautiful cathedral grain lumber and they can do it in half the time.

When specifying quartersawn white or red oak for a project, don’t just think of it as simply a straight grain “look”.  It is a highly specialized product, painstakingly sawn and dried for maximum beauty and stability.  Choose it for its attributes and don’t comparison shop.  Take the time to check out the section in this website called “About Quartersawn” to learn more about the process of manufacturing the most beautiful and stable American hardwood.

The Bentley of Hardwood Floors

If you followed me on Instagram you would find that during my world travels I love to take pictures of beautiful automobiles.  Of course, the U.A.E. is a virtual cornucopia of high-priced exotic cars ripe for iPhone cameras.  Along with the Bugatti Veyron I have always coveted the Bentley in all of its forms.  I thought recently of parallels between Bentleys and architectural design.

Architects and designers of high-end projects all share a goal, which is to create spaces and buildings that could be described as “iconic”.  I see all too often, during the “value engineering” phase of a project, that some of the most visible elements of the building are changed for financial reasons.  Never is a component, specifically flooring or millwork in this context, value engineered to become more expensive.

I contend that the most visible part of a building is the floors, often referred to as the “biggest piece of furniture in the building”.  If they are specified as hardwood, they should always be the most beautiful and sustainable hardwoods available.  The most beautiful hardwood floors are relatively expensive, just as a Bentley is more expensive than a Ford.

One would never try to negotiate a price on a Bentley by suggesting substitutions for certain parts of the car.  One would never suggest to the Bentley dealer, for example, that you really only want a car that looks like a Bentley and it should be cheaper if those soft leather seats were changed to cloth or the 12 cylinder engine was switched to a 6 cylinder.  If you want a Bentley you want it because it is one of the most beautiful automobiles on the planet and each one is specially built for its owner.  If you want a Bentley, you will pay whatever it costs.

There are many challenging financial realities that come to bear in the construction of any commercial building or residence.  It is my fervent belief that if the commercial building or residence is to become known as “iconic”, beautiful hardwood floors will be part of that classification.  Each hardwood floor is unique and each imparts a warmth and character to the space that can never be precisely duplicated.  Compromising on the price of a hardwood floor can only result in heartache and disappointment in the long run.

The hardwood flooring specifications should be written in such a way to preclude substandard material substitution.  Just think about how disappointed you would be if you bought a Bentley with cloth seats, assembled by a randomly chosen mechanic, because it is less expensive.  To create an iconic interior space, you need to find the most highly rated flooring or millwork manufacturer, finisher and installer available and pay what they charge.  In doing so you can reasonably hold them accountable for high quality standards in the finished product.

Now that we have established that every beautiful building should feature hardwood floors and millwork, we should want the best.  The best floors and millwork are created with quartersawn hardwoods, the Bentley of hardwood.  Accept no substitutions.

American Universities Overseas Campuses

On a recent trip to the U.A.E. I found out that New York University is opening a new campus in Abu Dhabi this year.  Frank Miller Lumber has quoted some quartersawn walnut and cherry that may be used in some of the flooring there.  When this caught my attention I did a bit of research and found that NYU also has a campus in Shanghai with another planned for Sydney, Australia in the near future.  A trend is starting and I think it opens the door to the use of American hardwoods and specifically quartersawn hardwoods in these facilities.   I was in Sydney in April speaking with architects and designers about using American hardwoods and I had a call from a large joinery firm in Singapore.  They are working on the “tender” (quote) for the interior joinery for the new Yale NUS College in Singapore.  The architects, Pelli Clark Pelli from New Haven, CT have designed the space to include Oak and Cherry, along with Teak and other indigenous species of hardwoods.

I was asked to attend a meeting about the project the next week and flew to Singapore to look at the project.  My first inclination was to tout the benefits of moving the hardwood specification from just “Oak” to “quartersawn white oak” for the joinery.  The reason for that is twofold.  One, most of the buildings at Yale in New Haven contain copious amounts of beautiful, stable quartersawn white oak and in some cases that white oak has been in place for centuries (Yale was established in 1701).  Two, in the Singapore environment, which is quite humid, quartersawn white oak would perform extremely well.  As the campus is due to open in the fall, it may be too late to change the specification to quartersawn white oak, but I consider it heartening to be invited into the conversation as a representative of the industry.

It would be very exciting to see quartersawn hardwoods in the floors for NYU Abu Dhabi, demonstrating the beauty and stability of the finest hardwood produced in the United States.  I have heard rumor of the U.A.E. courting another prestigious American University to build a campus there and I hope to be included in the discussions about the joinery and flooring for that project.  I am precluded from mentioning the University in question, but it would be a very exciting project.

The work of gaining a seat at the table for these discussions has been arduous and lengthy.  I am proud to represent the American hardwood industry as a whole in these discussions and more specifically a company that recognizes the importance of marketing to architects and designers worldwide.

Engineered Floor or Solid?

I am often asked in my architectural presentations about my preference between engineered and solid wood floors.  In this blog I try to steer away from polarizing topics, but I decided to express my personal opinion on this question.  While there are different levels of quality in engineered floors as there are in any composite product, I always return to solid flooring as the best choice.  Naturally, I feel that quartersawn solid wood floors are the best choice for virtually any application, whether high traffic commercial or residential.

There are solid quartersawn white oak floors in chateaux in the Loire Valley that have seen many millions of visitors over 400 years and they are still there and quite serviceable.  I am working with an architectural firm on their design for a high profile museum.  They want to use quartersawn white oak next to terrazzo floors and expect 1.6 million visitors a year to walk those floors.  Their initial thought was to use engineered flooring, but I suggested solid flooring.  In my consultations with designers and architects my goal is to help minimize variables.  Engineered flooring represents a set of variables that are often not offset by significant cost savings.

One variable is the adhesives used in laminating the multi-ply substrate. Should any of those laminations fail, the floor begins to fail and every time someone walks over that spot it will click.  Additionally if you gouge an engineered floor, repair can be difficult.  With solid flooring the spot can be sanded out without revealing a substrate material. 

I simply look at history when thinking about this.  In my presentations I show slides of some McKim Meade & White mansions, notably in Newport, Rhode Island.  These are generally quartersawn white oak floors that were installed in the late 1800’s in an era before air conditioning.  The windows were raised in warm and humid conditions and they survived just fine and are as flat today as they were then.  There are solid wood floors that may not have survived in that humid environment as well as quartersawn white oak, and if there was engineered flooring in the 1800’s, perhaps that would have been a better choice for Plain Sawn Cherry and Walnut. 

There will always be debate over this question, with some saying that by using engineered flooring you extend the lumber by cutting multiple wear layers out of each inch of solid wood.  That is true, but the variables of substrate construction remain.  There is no need to worry about the lumber resource – we are growing twice as much hardwood in the U.S. as we are harvesting and ours is a sustainable forestry model for the world. 

In conclusion, high quality engineered floor can be the right choice for a variety of environments.  In my humble opinion, solid quartersawn white oak flooring is the highest quality, most durable American hardwood flooring available. 

Is the Glass Half Full?

Last week I came across the 2010 RPA (Resources Planning Act) Assessment.  This the report generated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reflecting the state of the America’s forests now and into the future.  This report comes out every 10 years and it is interesting to note that in 2000 the report painted a rosy picture of America’s forest resource.  I would characterize the 2010 report as the “glass half empty” report.

The basic facts remain the same about our forest resource – we are growing about twice as much as we are cutting, all of those trees are busily absorbing carbon and providing healthy ecosystems for flora and fauna.  The more than 4 million private landowners who control the majority of the hardwood producing land spearhead America’s sustainable forest management.  We have been sustainably managing our forests for more than 100 years and those practices will continue well into the future.  The “glass half empty” tone comes from applying computer-modeled scenarios of forest resource stressors gone awry in various ways.  Those stressors could be in the form of climate change, water usage, pest infestations, urbanization and myriad land use issues.  The report takes these various doomsday scenarios out to 50 years in the future, leaving the reader to wonder how healthy our forests are.  The answer is that empirically verifiable data suggests that our forests are extremely healthy.  For example, the report suggests that “forests face threats to their long-term health and sustainability”.  It goes further to say that 8% of our forests are at risk to increased activity by forest insect pests and pathogens.  It doesn’t say that with all of the possible threats that our forests face in the future, 92% of our forests will remain healthy and vibrant in the worst-case scenarios.

Perhaps representatives of competing construction materials, suggesting that wood is not as sustainable as promoted, could manipulate this “glass half empty” tone.  When thinking about sustainable American hardwoods in design, you can feel good knowing that trees keep growing and absorbing carbon.  Concrete and steel are manufactured in carbon-costly processes that can hardly be described as sustainable.

I refer designers and architects to The Life Cycle Assessment put together on behalf of AHEC (American Hardwood Export Council) and peer reviewed to assure data integrity.  It was published in July of 2012 and addresses all concerns about using hardwoods in sustainable design.  Please look it up:

The glass is definitely half full.