Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sawdust and Chips
Nature Bulletin No. 477   January 19, 1957
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

One of our greatest national assets, one of our most precious natural resources is wood. It plays an important part in the daily life of every American. Each year we are finding new uses for wood and wood products, such as paper, derived from it. Trees grow slowly and there is danger that the demand for wood may exceed the supply. Fortunately, scientists and ingenious manufacturers have discovered ways to utilize even the sawdust, chips, shavings, tree tops and other wood residues formerly wasted.

At the beginning of this century our forests and woodlands were disappearing rapidly because of destruction by fires, wasteful logging and the increasing demand for lumber and wood products. We became alarmed and, since 1904, have been diligently preaching and teaching the vital need for protecting our timberlands and using them wisely. But, until recently, more than half of every tree cut was wasted.

Logging operations left the tops, branches and culls in a jackstraw jumble of "slash" which became a fire hazard. Sawmills produced large piles of sawdust, slabs, edgings and shavings -- 15 percent of every log went into sawdust. Some of those residues were used for fuel to produce power to operate the mills. In large well-operated plants the rest was consumed in huge black incinerators that burned day and night. At small temporary mills the sawdust and "left-overs" were left to rot.

There used to be a few minor uses for sawdust. Meat markets -- which were called "butcher shops" -- and many taverns -- known as "saloons" -- covered their floors with a fresh layer of sawdust every morning. In Chicago, big sloping-sided wagons used to rumble around town, even in the Loop, delivering sawdust from the mills along the South Branch of the river, near Ashland Avenue Sawdust was packed between the double walls of icehouses, as insulation, and between the cakes of ice stored in them. On farms we strewed sawdust in muddy barnyards; and used small amounts, sprinkled with "coal oil", to start a fire in a stove. Otherwise, except for stuffing rag dolls, it was considered useless.

Times have changed. Farmers and gardeners are being taught to use sawdust and chips -- chips are odds and ends of wood ground up in a machine -- as a source of humus for improving soils; as mulch in orchards, berry patches and gardens; as bedding for livestock; and as aggregated in concrete for floors and low walls. They are being molded by tremendous pressure into "logs" for fireplaces -- sometimes with chemicals to produce variously colored flames.

Wood residues have become so valuable that most mills dispose of them for cash and buy coal or oil for fuel! Tacoma, Washington, uses sawdust from mills around Puget Sound as fuel for its central heating plant. Sawdust and chips are being combined with phenolic resins to form cheap plastics such as those used to make fountain pens and telephone receivers; they make the "wood flour" which is the filler in linoleum; they are used to make wallboard and hardwood panels -- such as Masonite -- of many types for many purposes.

Wood residues are now used extensively in the manufacture of industrial (ethyl) alcohol, adhesives, wood molasses used in cattle feed, synthetic yeast and -- believe it or not -- vanilla flavoring for ice cream. Portable machines are being used after logging operations -- and even in tracts cut years ago -- to convert the "slash" into chips for paper pulp.

Until some wizard like Luther Burbank produces a square tree, there will always be wood wastes but we are learning how to use them.

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