Red Alder Pros and Cons -- Pricing, Availability, Usefulness

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Pros discuss the cost, availability, and characteristics of Red Alder solid stock and sheet goods. February 25, 2005

How many of you are using alder? Is it hard to find, especially plywood?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
I use Pacific red alder a lot in my shop for furniture. Not so much for cabinetry, since most people haven't a clue what it is. No one believes me when I tell them that it's mostly used for smoking salmon, but that it's a really nice furniture-grade hardwood.

For some really strange reason, lumber and plywood prices seem to be opposites. Alder solid stock is fairly cheap but the ply is horribly expensive. Red or white birch is mid-range in price for solid stock and ply. Maple is a premium priced solid stock, but the ply is bargain basement in price.

Why this is, I haven't a clue, except to believe that it's a conspiracy by the lumber mills to level the cost of materials so that no matter what species you use, you'll spend the same per square foot of surface. The only domestic wood that doesn't follow this formula is cherry, which is in a pricing class of its own.

Alder can have two natural colors, depending on what finish is used. Water white lacquer and blonde shellac will make it a light gold, while any amber-toned finish will make it red in tone, almost like early cherry. It is called "poor man's cherry" because of this coloring. However, it doesn't darken over time like cherry. I like the wood and use it a lot.

I use alder to build caskets, but in my area, good quality alder has become difficult to find. In the past, high quality alder was inexpensive, but not now. I am looking for other woods to replace alder. There seems to be a lot of requests for knotty alder kitchen cabinets.

Alder is the VW Beetle of woods. It was a cheap wood for people trying to get the cherry look and somewhere along the line it became cool and in vogue. We build with alder because our customers ask for it. It is too soft.

I had sheet goods laid up by a local shop. It costs more than cherry. We buy solid stock from out west and have it trucked in common carrier.

If you have a choice, avoid alder, as it is too easily damaged.

In Arizona, alder is very popular. 60% of my cabinets are made of alder. Half of this is knotty alder for the rustic look, and superior for the other half who want the cherry look but can't afford it. I will admit it is softer than cherry or maple, but it machines very well and my shaper bits don't get wasted as often. Alder here goes for 3.04 a BF in the superior select and 1.85 a BF for knotty grade. The plywood comes in either good two sides or a-4 grade (one side has a birch veneer on it). 1/2" MDF core is running about 52.00 a sheet and the 3/4" is 58.00 a sheet. Personally, I like working with it better than hickory or maple, and it takes stains much better also. I've never had a call back on it because it was damaged from being too soft. I also make a lot of my entry doors out of it, because it is very easy to distress and give that southwest look to it.

I am in the Southwest and alder is currently the highest demand wood for high-end cabinets. Consequently, the prices have risen from a low of 75 cents per BF for the frame grade knotty alder to a current high of $2.25 and the FAS alder has gone from $1.85 to $3.05, and this is all in the past two years. Alder veneer plywood has always been expensive at around $75 per 4X8 sheet.

I just paid $3.39 for select and better. The quality was not what you would expect for S&B. The wood looked as though it came from immature scrubby trees. Prices are generally higher here in the southwest.

Here in (very) Northern California, 200 miles north of San Francisco, we've seen our favorite economical cherry substitute go up to match the prices of more desirable hardwoods. Alder was a great wood for setups and even finish work until it was discovered. According to our local hardwood supplier, the Japanese have found alder to be the wood of choice to replace all the other species they've exhausted. Result is that those of us who live where the stuff is grown and harvested can't buy FAS for any reasonable price and the veneer ply, especially A-1, is completely out of sight.

Alder is interesting stuff. When I started in business in Southern California in 1974, it was considered a weed tree. It was never even logged except when a lumber company was cutting down a stand of Douglas fir, and they would cut adjacent alder stands along with it.

You could get it cheap, but it was rarely available in wide or long pieces. I was told that the trees don't get very big.

The first use I ever saw it being put to was by cabinet door companies which would use it for the frames of frame and panel doors (also called "drop panel doors") with birch veneered 1/4" plywood for the panel. In those days, we always stained cabinets dark, so the starting difference in color between alder and birch didn't much matter.

Now it seems to be the rage for even high-end cabinets, especially knotty. I've also seen very expensive walk-through doors in custom houses made with knotty alder, including entry doors. It makes you wonder how long the entry doors will last, being exposed to the sun and rain and all, with all those famowood filled knots under the finish.

To many non-woodworkers or loggers, alder is still considered a weed. I grew up in the Northwest with a million of these on our property. My dad cursed them at least once a week while I was growing up (and I'm talking recent - I'm only 26). They grow like weeds. He used to cut them up for firewood (as did everyone), and I mean large trees. I told him about a year ago what those trees would be worth and he about fell over! Truth is, I know many who still consider them weeds. However, people are starting to catch on. I recently did cabinetry for a man in our church who runs his own small logging business and he has been buying land with alders on it and selling it for veneer - he gets more for it than you would believe. My dad is letting all those young alders, now around 40' tall, grow.