Trees – a critical material used for production

Kurt Wolter
Posted 1/31/24

Among the four different types of technology, production technology is the knowledge, tools, machines, and processes that we humans use to produce the artifacts we need and want to improve our lives.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Trees – a critical material used for production


Among the four different types of technology, production technology is the knowledge, tools, machines, and processes that we humans use to produce the artifacts we need and want to improve our lives. We manufacture artifacts, called “products”, which are those artifacts which get transported from the location at which they are created, or we construct artifacts, called “structures”, which are those artifacts that remain at the location they are created. For all the time humans have existed, we surround ourselves in a safe cocoon of structures and products – such as the house or apartment or office where we live and work, and the countless products we need and want to be comfortable and entertained.

There are several Rochelle-area businesses who specialize in tree-related products and services including Fisher’s Hardwood, Wausau Supply, Hixson Lumber, Premier Forest Products, and Timberman Tree Service.

Because of the importance and impact of production technology for all of us, understanding and managing it calls for education and the involvement of caring humans who will design and produce artifacts that not only benefit humans but also preserve our natural resources for the future. This column is about this education and this article will focus on the production of one important category of related products used in manufacturing and construction of all sorts of artifacts: lumber, plywood, and wood composites.

Trees are one of the first resources used by humans to make rudimentary tools and build shelter. Incredibly, trees can also be used to build fires which in turn can be used for heating and cooking. And, as if that was not enough, many trees provide delicious, edible fruit. Trees are truly amazing things! To add to the list of wonderful properties of trees, they typically float in water so they can be used to build boats for transportation, and since they can be bent into a variety of shapes, wood was also used to build sleds and wagon wheels. It is no wonder that lumber from trees is still a critical material used to build artifacts.

Tree harvesting is part of broader science and craft known as “forestry” as well as part of the agricultural process of tree farming. A fantastic thing about trees is that they grow well in forests and on farms, so if managed properly they can essentially last forever. Illinois has a vibrant forestry industry, especially in the southern part of our state.

To turn trees into lumber, which is a flat, rectangular-shaped strip or slab of wood, trees are harvested by loggers who remove the limbs and cut them down. After harvesting, logs must be transported to sawmills using trucks, boats, or trains. At a sawmill, logs are sorted by their size and quality before the outer bark is removed with mechanical tools or liquid chemicals. Once they have been “cleaned” the logs are sawn into lumber by a process called “milling”, though the overall process is far from over. Green (freshly-cut) lumber must be carefully dried to remove moisture without the lumber twisting or moving (warping) too much. Once dry the boards are graded according to quality and then a finishing cut, and sanding are done to create the final size and smoothness. The lumber is now ready to be packaged and transported to a manufacturing plant or construction site.

Plywood is also a product, like lumber, which is manufactured from trees. But plywood is a composite material as opposed to pure wood. Whereas lumber is made from all wood, plywood is made from thin layers of wood and glue. After trees are cut down and their bark removed, they are superheated in steam rooms until they are so soft and pliable that very thin layers of wood can be cut, or peeled, from them using very long and razor-sharp blades. This cutting, or peeling, or the wood creates a thin “veneer” of wood that is sort of like the way toilet paper is peeled off a roll. The veneers are also dried slowly and carefully before they are glued together in a crisscross wood grain pattern into large 4’ x 8’ or longer sheets of various thicknesses. Because of the composited wood and glue and the crisscross pattern, plywood is extremely strong compared to its thickness and weight. Plywood goes through a similar cutting and grading process before packaging and shipping.

A third category of wood products is wood composites. These are products made from small particles (sawdust) or scraps of wood and glue. The two are combined and heated to form all sorts and shapes of strong, durable, and lightweight products used in both manufacturing and construction. These products go by names like “Masonite”, “particle board”, and “medium density fiberboard” (or MDF). When plastic or wood veneers are glued to the exposed surface of these composites, other laminated products commonly used in construction are produced, like kitchen countertops and engineer or laminated flooring.

Everything from the roofs, walls, and floors of houses are made mostly from these products made from trees, and countless types of home furnishings like sofas, desks, and chairs are also. We are lucky to have such versatile living things as trees so available to us, and with careful management and use we can count on them forever to continue to provide.

Kurt Wolter has studied and taught technology - including production, transportation, energy, and communication - for over 30 years. He enjoys trying to better understand technology’s past, present, and future while also attempting journalism. He can be reached at