DIY grading

The legal ins and outs of grading your own milled lumber. January 28, 2002

If a mill wants to use a grading stamp, either for hardwood or softwood, what are the requirements to be certified (or does the mill have to be certified)? I was told I could just make up my own "mill stamp". Do many smaller mills just make up their own grading systems?

Forum Responses
Make sure you send us a postcard from prison if you stamp softwoods!

For hardwoods, no certification is required; anyone can grade. Stamps are seldom used for hardwoods.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

From contributor H:
Prison? Nowhere has the stamping of softwood lumber been restricted by law to multimillion dollar corporate sawmills. Anyone can grade and stamp softwood lumber, but you must stand behind and be liable for your lumber if it does not meet the guidelines that building codes set forth for that grade.

If you make up your own stamp (don't forge someone else's), you are responsible for the quality of grading, nothing more. (Better call Lloyds for insurance, though.)

Softwood grading certification in the south usually requires formally trained grader(s), and paying a large membership fee and monthly or yearly dues (more than any individual can afford).

As far as the "impeccable quality" of "certified" graders (certified by whom? a private organization)… I was in my local mega store last night, looking at lumber prices and quality. I pulled a 1x4x12 from a pile marked "prime". It was grade stamped #2, and for 1/3 its length, it was solid wane on one face, way more than 1/2 wane on both edges, and not more than 7/16" thick at its thickest point. It actually flopped around when I picked it up.

The pursuit of people using bogus stamps for grading softwoods is big business.

In order to grade your softwood lumber and use the strength properties under the National Grading Rule, you must be a member of one of the various grading certification organizations (or the grader must be a member). More precisely, lumber cannot be graded under the American Softwood Lumber Standard unless the grading rules being used have been approved by the American Lumber Standard Committee. This system has been developed under the US Dept of Commerce. The UBC requires such lumber for construction. There is a phrase that says "or equivalent" but most building inspectors will put the burden of proof on the person being inspected to show it is equivalent.

Legally, you can stamp your lumber with a stamp that says "WoodWebWonderful" grade, but if you use one of the standard grade names, you will be in trouble. If the lumber you are selling under a bogus stamp is not on grade, then certainly fraud would be likely consideration.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

From contributor J:
I was told that in my state I can get a "mill" stamp. That is a stamp saying that my mill produces native lumber. This stamp is not a grade stamp. I have to be a member of the state’s wood producer association and they have to either inspect my mill and/or lumber or both first, and I have to fill out forms and pay fees to the state to be issued a mill stamp.

I've researched getting a grade stamp and was told more than once: "as a portable sawmill, we will not issue you a grade stamp". As mentioned, you have to pay for membership into the lumber manufacturers association for your area. And the current members have to 'vote' you in. And if you aren't big enough to pay the hefty monthly fees for your stationary mill, you probably won't get in. Plus you have to pay to be schooled in grading the softwood lumber that you mill. It can take weeks to learn all the rules and each rule or part of rules have exceptions.

I was told that these fees are to help pay the association's inspectors, so they can travel around inspecting member mills to make sure that all the lumber being produced meets the before-mentioned national standards. If the lumber being produced doesn’t meet the standards, whole trailer loads or more can be held up by the inspector. This also includes how dry it is, as well as correct size and quality.

Research your area or state and find out what the rules are for you.

That's pretty much what I found out. The NEMLA certifies the mill, not the operator. The folks that grade the softwoods are sent to training seminars but not certified to take their training as softwood graders elsewhere.

I talked with a state forester that is familiar with the asla standard for structural material. He offered to help me learn to grade.

From contributor T:
Obviously, big mills don't want small mill owners to be able to compete. At the same time, small owners want to be treated fairly. I would support a system of grading softwood construction lumber for the small mill owners. Is there a reasonable set of standards out there?

You can purchase a copy of the grading rules from many different sources or agencies. If you grade softwood, however, how will we make sure that you are doing it correctly? Our concern is for safety (strength of the lumber in a grade) as well as size, uniformity, and MC, etc. We will have to frequently inspect what you are doing. This costs money. We also have to keep the rules up-to-date.

Small mills can hire a grader to come and grade lumber for them. This cost is rather small if you have a reasonable amount of lumber to be graded. In fact, you will spend more money on marketing such lumber than having it graded.

It is incorrect to say that the small mills cannot have their lumber graded properly or that large mills do not want small mills to compete. The main competition for large mills are mills in Canada, not small mills. Large mills are cutting 15 billion BF in the South alone every year; would your 50 thousand BF really matter?

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

Part of this issue for me is being completely independent--able to do it all at my site, myself. Well, I can't do it all.

My first house went to northern California. I had inspectors come from the certifier's home office in Portland and grade all of the lumber. It was only 10 or 12m bdft. The bill was out of this world. They charged me $1.50 a mile (75 from Portland) plus an hourly fee (10 years ago) of $35. He was 4 hours grading. I had it all laid out as if it were coming off of a green-chain set-up. Some of it he went over twice and even changed some of the grades.

I eventually found a man from a local mill that was willing to grade my lumber. His charge was $15 per hour. The first job was a total of 31,000 bd ft of Douglas fir. The process of grading was the same, all laid out. The total cost was $275. I realized very quickly who my lumber grader was going to be. He has since done 4 more houses plus some for other mills in the area. He has now gotten his own state stamp and certification number, etc. He too can be as busy as he wants to be.

From contributor J:
I've had a traveling grader come to my yard, fee paid by customer. His fee was about the same ($275) for one day's work (included travel time). Anyone who truly 'needs' lumber graded to comply with a building inspector's rules should consider hiring a traveling inspector. Most lumber associations have them.

From contributor T:
I have several copies of the grading rules from WWPA. What I do not have is enough money to qualify for membership. I look at the engineered trusses on the house I am building, and I think that the playing field is not level. I see 2x4's that I could break over my knee graded #1, etc. I live 400 miles from Portland, OR, and I can just see paying mileage to a grader. If strength is the issue, I would be glad to build a testing machine. What I want is the freedom to grade my own product for UBC use. Studs, for instance, are the most underloaded framing members in a house, yet I can't make one? This situation needs a better solution than calling in an outside inspector and rehandling all the lumber.

From contributor E:
The Southern Yellow Pine Inspection Buerau SPIB handles softwood certification in the South Eastern US. They have certified graders that will come for a fee. They aren't interested in certifying small portable mills, and they do charge a fixed rate per board foot of all of the sawmill's production. Every month the sawmill sends a report and check to SPIB.

Always talk to your local building inspector first--you may only need lumber that "meets or exceeds" the specified grades. If you get a copy of the grade requirements and study a bit, you can effectively sort for grade (not stamp grade), then use it to build with. Have the standards for grading available if the inspector asks a specific question.

From contributor A:
I am so glad that we do not have the inspectors and codes here. A few people have told me that you can not use lumber until it has been in a kiln. Why, then, are all of the 100 year old homes around here--built with green rough sawn local lumber--still standing?
My only softwood is Southern yellow pine and clear is clear. My saw is a Wood-Mizer so true is true and they are the size that I cut. After three months air drying, I can pick one up and throw it into the bed of the truck and it will not break. I would not try that at the lumberyard. People who try my lumber always come back and I have no stamp.

"City people" and contractors who don't understand quality or care are the problem. They enacted the laws to protect themselves because common sense has gone down the sewer. Build cheaper, faster, and charge more is the motto today and besides, big corporations have nothing else to do with all that extra money but to keep the poor boy in his place. My boards are better because I look at every one personally and may have to use it myself.

I was in Myrtle Beach SC in 89' when Hugo came through and it was the new houses that were torn to pieces. While the house next door built in 1950 or so just needed some shingles and a window or two. I see the same thing here after a bad storm. So the stamp and license does not help quality.

Contributor T, Perhaps you have seen a piece that was stamped illegally. It would be unusual to see No.1 used in a truss--the idea is that with the design you can use No.2 or No.2 Dense.

Contributor E, Did you contact Timber Products Inspection? They also do Southern pine.

Contributor A, There have been many houses built with non-kiln-dried lumber indeed. I wonder where the idea that the wood has to be 15% MC, 19% MC comes from? There is also S-Dry, and S-GRN. The hurricane is a good example of what happens when inferior construction is used--many houses in Florida did not have the proper corner bracing (usually using plywood) even though it is required by code. Also, the neat thing about lumber grading is that it is still done outside the government! It was established and is still overseen outside the government. Of course, if we get too many complaints, then the government will take it over…

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

From contributor H:
ps20-99 is a voluntary program, outside the government.

You said: "More precisely, lumber cannot be graded under the American Softwood Lumber Standard unless the grading rules being used have been approved by the Amer. Lumber Standard Committee."

And also: "This system has been developed under the US Dept of Commerce. The UBC requires such lumber for construction."

The UBC is a government chosen, private rules writing agency for building construction. They require the use of lumber manufactured by one single source, a pool of ALSC (American Lumber Standards Committee) approved vendors. (The ALSC is a panel comprised of one or two members from each of the member grading associations and large user/distributor groups--SPIB, NELMA, wholesalers, homebuilders, etc.)

You seem to be saying that the government has essentially given the rights and privileges of a patent on softwood construction lumber to the ALSC. If we want to build something, we have to buy product or services from a member of the ALSC.

Since you said this has been developed outside the government, I think this would be in violation of a whole stack of anti-trust laws.

Just so I have it straight, the government has allowed a private agency to mandate by law the use of a product manufactured by only one entity, to the exclusion of all others. (Let's face it, that "or equivalent" phrase is a CYA clause. We almost all know someone who has been told "no stamped lumber, no inspection approval".)

So, why can't I make a stamp that says "#2"? How could that be a "bogus stamp" if I had my own grade rules? (They would certainly be more conservative than the ones big mills use.) Even a "#2 equivalent" stamp--that should be fine too, I would think.

Many of us got into this because we want to make BETTER lumber, not so we could make the absolute lowest quality piece of lumber allowed by grade, so we could maximize profit.

The line about stamped illegally, probably closer to stamped lazily. Remember the ps20-99 allows for a 5% undergrade, so a grader can "let it ride" on down the chain.