Investigative Report

By Dirk Vinlove

Retyped by permission from:
Independent Sawmill & Woodlot Management Magazine
Feb/March.1999: 5 - 7, 18 - 19, 30.


            In our very first issue back in 1997, columnist Gregg Mackey sounded a call that caught many a sawyer’s attention as surely as the sound of a freshly sharpened band blade hitting a nail. He wrote:

In some places it is still lawful to build a house
using lumber right off your land, but in most places
 in the Northeast, and in much of the country, the fact is,
 you are a criminal if you do.

Gregg was talking about something many sawyers know all too well. Because of the softwood lumber you saw to frame a home isn’t graded and stamped by an official grader, some building inspectors will not sign off on a building permit, and you can not legally build a house with the lumber off your mill.

            Soon after that column, the calls and letters started coming in. Some told horror stories of building inspectors who didn’t know wood from wax beans; others told of how you could indeed build your own home-legally-out of lumber coming off your own mill.

            It all boiled down to two questions: Can you build a home for yourself out of lumber coming off your own portable sawmill? And can you legally sell construction lumber for someone else to build a home?

            The answers vary from state to state, and in many cases, from town to town. First, some history.

            Many people across the country remember growing up in an old family farmhouse that had been built a generation or two before them, either by a family member, or someone the family knew. It was a fairly simple process back then: you put up some money for lumber at a sawmill not too far away, the lumber was delivered, and the house was built. No building inspectors, no building permits, no fees.

            That began to change in the 1950s as many of the smaller local sawmills began to shut down, and larger commercial mills became the rule. No longer was there a local sawyer to supply lumber. Right around that time, lumber manufacturer’s associations such as the Southern Pine Inspection Bureau, Western Pine Inspection Bureau, Northeastern Lumber Manufacturer’s Association and the North American Hardwood Association became more prominent. These private trade groups created “stamps” for lumber to show it came from member mills, and that it was graded and certified for use in certain applications by a grader licensed by the association.

            Then came the Building Officials Code Administration rules, commonly known as the “BOCA Codes.” The federal government adopted the rules from the private organization, and today, various forms of these building rules are used in each state across the country.

            Not that they were a bad thing.

            “The BOCA codes are minimum standards that were developed to protect the health, safety and welfare of people living in houses,” said Mark Heath, a Bangor, Maine building inspector. “I mean, how would you like it if a building contractor came out and built a house for you out 2x2s?”

How to Get Your Home Built 
f you want to use your own lumber for structural building, you NEED to educate and work with your local officials early, not after you have a house framed. Here are some practical steps to take before you start pounding nails.

  1. Contact your state forestry office. Most states have some sort of utilization forester whose job it is to keep an eye on wood fiber uses and resources in the state. Ask that person if there are any rules in your state allowing for the use of native, unstamped lumber in structural applications.
  2. Talk to the lumber trade group in your area, such as the Northeast Lumber Manufacturer’s Association, Western Pine Inspection Bureau, or Southern Pine Inspection Bureau about how you might get your structural lumber graded BEFORE a building inspector comes out. There are stories of a grader stamping a building permit application after visiting a home that was completely framed, after simply scanning the skeleton and approving the lumber as #2 or better. There may be significant costs involved and you’ll likely be put on a waiting list, but it’s better than being told you can’t build.
  3. Go and meet your building inspector well before you plan to build. Often times, a little education goes a long way. Ask the inspector to look carefully at the BOCA codes for “alternative" building materials, and for the loopholes that allow for a judgment call on the inspector’s part. Bring in a nice 2x4 as an example of what you will be using, and compare that to a 1 ˝ x3 ˝ stud you picked out of the local lumber yard bin, complete with its stamp.
  4. As a last resort, call your local state legislative representative and ask him or her to look into why you can’t use your state’s trees, that you sawed yourself, for your own home construction. Maybe your state will be the next with a “native lumber” rule.
            But well-meaning rules to protect the public often have the opposite effect. Just ask Steve Ruggles, a contractor near Colorado Springs, what happened when he tried to build a large shop out of lumber he pulled off his Wood-Mizer.

            “I went to get my permit, and made the mistake of telling them I planned to use native lumber,” Steve said. “The inspector said unless it was graded and stamped I couldn’t use it in the frame of a structure larger than 120 square feet."

            “I threw a fit. It had been graded by me. That didn’t convince them and I had to go buy $900 worth of lumber that I didn’t need.”

            What really burned Steve is that he’s been around wood his whole life, has been sawing for four years, and ran his own log cabin building business from 1981 to 1995. He was sawing lodge pole pine, spruce and ponderosa pine at the time to 2-inch by 4-inch measurements.

            “What I was sawing was of far better quality than the junk I had to buy at the lumber yard.” Steve said. “I have been approached by several individuals to buy my lumber for construction. I only sell what I consider to be #1 and #2 grades. Guess what; one guy paid a grader $750, got on a waiting list, and someone came out to grade the lumber I sold him. It all came out #1 or #2.”

            Steve says builders in his area are understandably worried about buying native lumber, but if the rules were relaxed, he knows many of the 16 other building contractors in his area would be more than happy to buy native lumber.

            “I could quit, buy another saw and hire another sawyer and keep us all busy if I could sell softwood construction lumber,” Steve said.

            Steve isn’t the only one to run afoul of the local building inspector.

            Roger McCall and his wife Lavinia in South Carolina had plans to build a house out of lumber coming off their Wood-Mizer on 180 acres of land they had purchased. Once done with the first project, they hoped to build a home on the same land for each of their two boys, who work with Roger in his excavating business.

            Then the McCalls went to the local building inspector to discuss their plans. “We hadn’t quite got to the point where we were actually going to do the building yet, but we were starting to plan,” Lavinia said. That’s when they ran up against the young inspector, who said they couldn’t build without stamped lumber.

            “It was really disappointing,” Lavinia said. “You like to think there are ways to get around it, so we didn’t lose all hope. I had heard that the younger inspectors tend to go by the book, and I guess that’s what happened to us.”
            The McCalls are still determined to get their houses built, and are working to find a way to do so. They have been around wood for a long time, and got into smaller mills “because we were tired of seeing good trees dumped into a landfill.” They have been sawing with their Wood-Mizer for about seven years, after retiring a hand-set circle mill that “the boys were sure glad to see go,” Lavinia said.

            “I love wood. We want to do the houses in bevel siding, pine floors, slat ceilings, the whole bit.”

            And listening to Lavinia McCall, the common sense of someone who has been around wood comes through.

            “You know we are going to build the house strong. You go to a lumber yard and get a 2x4 that’s 1 ˝ x 3 ˝. Our 2x4s are going to be 2x4s, and the wood that’s going into them is going to be real good wood.”

Native Lumber Laws

            The fact has not escaped everyone, and citizen action in recent years has led to the creation of “Native Lumber” laws in some states.
             In New York state, an Unmarked Structural Lumber rule is now 12 years old, and is working well, said Bruce Williamson, Associate Forester for New York’s Department of Conservation.

            On March 25, 1986 an amendment to the statewide building code was adopted to allow “unmarked structural lumber,” in “dwellings not exceeding three stories in height and other buildings not exceeding 10,000 square feet or 35 feet in height,” subject to the following conditions:

  1. The producing mill must sell or provide the lumber directly to the ultimate consumer or his contract builder, and;
  2. The producing mill must certify in writing to the consumer or builder that the lumber meets or exceeds grade #2 (and that “certificate” must be filed with the building permit application).
    “More and more sawmill owners are familiar with it (native lumber amendment), but I wonder how many builders are still thinking they cannot use native lumber as structural material,” Williamson said.

     The local Resource, Conservation and Development Council has published guidebooks that are sent to New York sawyers who might benefit from the rule. Williamson doesn’t believe more legislative rule making is needed in New York around native lumber, just more education. And part of that education has to be on the part of the sawyers trying to sell construction lumber.

      “The producers have to figure out how to make shopping with them better than with Home Depot,” Williamson said. “It takes some nifty marketing, but that’s what they have to do if they want to sell their lumber.”

      To make the rule work, New York legislators tied the native lumber directly to the person or mill that produced it. When construction lumber is sold, the person selling it has to sign a statement saying they believe the lumber is #2 grade or better, and they must state in plain terms that the lumber is unstamped. That way, should a building collapse in a pile of wormy studs, there is a trail of liability.

      “That’s the way it should be,” Williamson said. “If you are going to sell a product you have to be ready to stand behind it. If you aren’t, you shouldn’t be in business to begin with.”

      The other wrinkle to New York’s rule is that while the state allows inspectors to approve homes built with local lumber, it does not require them to. Williamson said he has heard of building inspectors rejecting native lumber, but the situation appears to be getting better.

      “I’m not hearing it as much as I have in the past. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the market has figured it out.”

      Another reason is that the New York rule has made it easy for building inspectors.

      “More often than not, a building inspector is unwilling to stick their neck out,” Williamson said. “I mean, they may only get a handful of houses a year that have any local lumber in them, so they are not used to seeing that. They also may not be aware of what it takes to make lumber, and once they see it on a local level, they have no problem with it.”

      But there are still problems.

      “Local officials may say they won’t approve homes with local lumber, and we can’t do much about that until a specific case comes up,” Williamson said. “Then all it usually takes is education by us or the local mill, and the problem is solved.”
            New Hampshire is another state which has passed a native lumber law. Dale Riley of Riley Brothers Lumber in New Hampshire wrote in soon after Gregg Mackey’s column decrying lumber rules appeared.

      “Regarding Gregg Mackey’s WoodSense article about building codes ruling out the use of local lumber for construction – a new law has just passed in New Hampshire that in essence says that unstamped native lumber cannot be denied by a building inspector if it comes from a New Hampshire mill that certifies that the lumber meets #2 grade. This legislation was passed through our state government by the joint efforts of lumbermen, individuals and various agencies working together. The certification process is being handled by the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture with NO FEES attached.

      “So BOCA codes be dammed! Remember New Hampshire’s motto- ‘Live Free or Die!'”


Using Common Sense

      Both New York's and New Hampshire’s native lumber rules are efforts to end the stories of local building inspectors who refuse to sign permits for homes built with unstamped lumber. But there may be other ways to work on a stubborn inspector.

      Bangor, Maine building inspector Mark Heath has heard more than a few complaints of inflexible inspectors, many from the smaller, rural communities surrounding Bangor, the largest city in northern Maine.

      “I have to tell them (someone wanting to use native construction lumber) that it’s up to their building inspector, he is the official for their area,” Heath said. “If a guy is a jerk who thinks everything has to be black and white, then guess what, you got problems.”

      But, even if your state doesn’t have a native lumber rule, you may be able to work with your inspector. The BOCA codes state that stamped lumber be used in home construction, but Heath said there are also provisions that allow for “alternative materials,” and nowhere does it specifically say that unstamped lumber cannot be used. It comes down to a judgment call by an individual building inspector. In his four years as an inspector for the City of Bangor, Heath has come across a home or two built with unstamped lumber.

      “I don’t have a problem with it, because I have building experience,” he said. “I know good wood when I see it, whether or not it has a stamp on it. All you have to do is apply some common sense.”

      So the questions remain. Can you use your own lumber for structural building for yourself? Can you sell your lumber as structural lumber to others? The answer to both questions is a good solid maybe. What it takes is some education on your part. Learn your local building codes, and look for things like alternative materials clauses in them. Learn what New Hampshire and New York have done, and share that information with your local building officials. Have your building inspector come out and take a look at your operation to see the quality of lumber you produce BEFORE problems crop up. Call the softwood lumber association covering your area and see what it takes to become a certified grader.

      Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s not exactly easy getting through an old, ugly maple log either. Good luck, and keep on sawin’!




New York Department of Environmental Conservation
50 Wolf Road
Albany NY 12233-3520
(518) 457-7370

New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food
PO Box 2042
Concord, NH 03302
(603) 271-2753


Western Pine Inspection Bureau
PO Box 23145
Portland, OR 97281
(503) 639-0651

Southern Pine Inspection Bureau
4709 Scenic Hwy
 Pensacola, FL 32504
(850) 434-2611

Northeastern Lumber Manufacturer's Association
272 Tuttle Road
PO Box 87A
Cumberland Center, ME 04021
(207) 829-6901