Blue-stained Pine is Fine

Beetle-kill wood is dyed a kind of grey-blue and is softened when beetles attack it. From i-Phone cases and lamps to high tech building products, technology is finding new and interesting uses for this blue-stained wood.

It’s been a difficult decade for pine with a pine beetle infestation ravaging North American forests. Beetle-kill wood comes from Lodgepole pine trees that have been infected by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Mountain pine beetles lay eggs under a tree’s bark and the young beetles carry a fungus into the sapwood, which leaves a blue or grey stain. Usually within a year of the attack, the tree is dying or dead – its needles have turned brown and the beetles have moved to another tree. Normally, these insects play an important role in the ecosystem of a forest, attacking old or weakened trees, thereby speeding up the development of a younger forest. However, unusually hot, dry summers and mild winters in the region throughout the during the last few years, along with forests filled with mature Lodgepole pine, have led to an unprecedented epidemic.

Once pine trees have been infested with beetles and show signs of the characteristic blue stain caused by the fungus that beetles leave behind, the remaining wood must be quickly harvested or the tree is otherwise left to die and rot. The wood from these infected pines earns a lower strength rating – and subsequently a lower market price – leaving many forestry reliant communities unsure of what to do with dying pine trees and an over abundance of ‘worthless’, blue-stained wood. The challenge for these communities has been find alternative ways to capture the economic value of trees affected by this epidemic by providing customers with wood products that take advantage of a uniquely blue-stained wood, raise awareness of the pine beetle infestation and ensure that the wood from attacked trees does not go to waste.

For the past few years, artisans and craftsmen have explored the beauty of this beetle-chewed wood, designing everything from high-end furniture to skis to ipad cases out of blue wood. In 2013, Kirei unveiled in 2013 a new millwork panel collection featuring this blue wood, ‘one man’s trash is another’s treasure’ being the collection’s slogan. Beetle-kill wood also found application during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, cladding the interior ceiling of the Olympic skating oval.

But apart from artistic or cosmetic uses for the wood, which was until recently being marketed as ‘denim pine,’ it was thought that beetle infected wood could not be used in any kind of traditional construction application because it was believed to be too weak. In the past few years though, technology has changed this perception, with cross laminated timber (CLT) technology being the key.

CLT is a versatile, multi-layered panel or slab made by layering boards of lumber cross-wise to increase rigidity and strength. Beetle-kill wood has recently been incorporated into CLT slabs for the first time and the resulting product has perfectly uniform strength properties that are similar to steel and concrete.

CLT slabs containing beetle-kill wood were used throughout the interior of the Bio-energy Research and Demonstration Facility at the University of British Columbia. Showcasing one of the first non-cosmetic applications of the beetle-kill wood, the facility opened in 2012 and was named in 2013 as one of the world’s top 100 most innovative and inspiring projects in KPMG’s Infrastructure 100 listing.

Richard Lutz, president of Alpine Timberframe, collaborated on the project and notes that because the CLT panels are able to incorporate beetle-kill wood, which sells for deflated prices on the market, the panels can be made very inexpensively, opening the door for its use in other construction industry sectors, such as residential. He notes that other benefits of the material are its ability to absorb sound and withstand earthquakes.