Written By: Eugene E. Wheeler, Retired USDA Forest Service Program Manager for Cooperative Forestry Programs, (Alaska) Region 10. Currently a consultant for Idaho Panhandle Forestry.
For more detailed information, click here to review the publication, Alaska's Spruce revised September 1979
Introduction. This site contains a brief discussion of botanical and wood structural characteristics, forest associations, major pests, fire problems, and some of the commercial uses of white spruce. The booklet is nontechnical and provides an introduction to white spruce and the Alaska forest environment in which it grows. White spruce (Picea glauca) is the most valuable component of Alaska's interior boreal (taiga) forests that stretch from the Kenai Peninsula across the Alaska Range to the southern slopes of the Brooks Range including the drainages of the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Copper River systems. Boreal (taiga) forests cover most of the land in that area up to 5,000 feet (1,524.5 meters) elevation, and white spruce is the dominant species up to 3,500 feet (1,067.2 meters). White spruce is one of the more versatile species grown in Alaska. Its nearly white wood is moderately light weight and easily milled to a fine lustrous finish. In the past, its primary use was for houselogs in Alaska. It now has international acclaim for such uses as sounding boards for musical instruments, lumber, and quality pulp.
The Climate. Interior Alaska is a moderately dry area with extreme temperatures. Precipitation ranges from 6 to 26 inches (15.2 to 63.5 centimeters) annually. Summer temperatures are from 35°-100° (2°38°), while winter temperatures can drop below -70° (-57°). The growing season is short (90 to 125 frost free days). However, long periods of daylight (20-24 hours) provide the solar energy required for optimum tree growth.
Tree growth is rapid in well-drained soils which are free of permafrost. Eighteen inch leaders are not uncommon on white spruce. At the other extreme, dbh (diameter at breast height - 4.5 feet or 1.4 meters) can be as small as 3 inches (7.6 centimeters). As a comparison, larch, which is important in the eastern boreal forests, rarely reaches 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) dbh. Permafrost, forming under moss and timber mats that inhibit solar energy from reaching the soils, acts as a physical barrier to root penetration, limiting access to soil nutrients and impeding tree growth.
The Forest. The boreal forest (taiga) of Alaska occurs from the Kenai Peninsula to the southern slopes of the Brooks Range and from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea. White spruce (Picea glauca), paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and aspen (Populus tremuloides) are the main species on the warmer, well-drained sites. Mixtures of balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), white spruce, black spruce (Picea mariana) and eastern larch (Larix laricina) develop on the bottomlands and flood plains of the many rivers. Various willows and small alders also grow throughout the forest.
Approximately 105.8 million acres (42.8 million hectares), or nearly one third of Alaska, are classified as boreal forest. Of this, 22.5 million acres (9.1 million hectares) are presently considered commercial forest (capable of producing 20 cubic feet or more of wood per acre, per year). The total net sawtimber volume of all species in interior Alaska is estimated at 31 billion board feet (5.4 billion cubic feet), with white spruce accounting for 81% of this volume.
Bottomland Spruce-Hardwood Association. The bottomland spruce-hardwood forest types, consisting of variable width strips along the major rivers, account for approximately 17% (18 million acres or 7.3 million hectares) of the boreal forest. These are the most productive sites of that vast forest area. The high productivity of these sites is due in part to the frequent flooding of the rivers, which adds nutrients to the soil and removes the accumulated litter layer. Very little permafrost exists in the river bottom soils which are well drained and support vigorous vegetation. However, productivity of the bottom land spruce-hardwood forest sites does vary considerably throughout the boreal forest area. The most productive commercial forest sites are located near Fairbanks on the Tanana River.
Upland Spruce-Hardwood Forest Types. The upland spruce-hardwood forest types account for approximately 61% of the boreal forest (64.4 million acres or 26 million hectares). These types occupy sites to 1,000 feet (304.9 meters) in elevation along the lower Yukon River and up to 3,500 feet (1,067.2 meters) near the Alaska-Yukon Territory border. The average productivity of upland forests is less than that of the bottomland forest sites. Factors which contribute to this lower productivity include lower soil nutrient levels, cooler soil temperatures, and lower precipitation.
The Tree. White spruce (Picea glauca) is the most significant tree of Alaska's taiga or boreal forest. It grows in pure stands or in association with black spruce, larch, birch, aspen and balsam poplar on the deeper well-drained soils. It generally does not compete with other species on soils which have a high water table or are poorly drained and are subjected to prolonged periods of standing surface water, or those soils with permafrost. White spruce reaches heights of 40-70 feet (12.2-21.3 meters) tall, and dbhs of 6-13 inches (15.2-45.7 cm.). Under optimum conditions, it can reach heights of 80-115 feet (24.4-35.1 meters) and dbhs of 30 inches (76.2 cm.).
Wood Properties. The heartwood and the sapwood of white spruce are both practically white and, consequently, are not readily distinguishable when dry. The wood is classified as nonporous, having a fine, moderately uneven texture, and is easily machined and worked. The tree is relatively slow growing in Alaska, resulting in growth rings which are closer together and a slightly denser wood than that found in the white spruce of other areas.
In comparison with other commonly known construction species such as Douglas fir, the wood of white spruce is moderately light in weight, weak in bending and compression strength, moderately limber, moderately soft, moderately low in shock resistance, and has moderately large shrinkage. It is ranked as easy to kiln dry, stable and easy to glue.
White spruce lumber gives good service in ordinary construction, although it has a low resistance to decay. The wood is easy to work in all hand and machine operations and has little dulling effect on cutting edges. White spruce is almost tasteless and odorless when seasoned, making it especially well suited for food containers. It takes paint and varnish well and can be easily stained. The wood is readily sliced to a smooth silky finish, which is advantageous for the manufacture of veneers and plywood. It has a long slender, colorless fiber that is especially desirable in making pulp and paper.
Seasoning. White spruce is generally easy to dry and can be air dried to some extent in the interior region where it grows. Kiln schedules are slightly milder than those for Sitka spruce. Kiln drying times vary from 60 hours to six days.
Other Properties. The following wood properties are averages derived from previous reports concerning white spruce. Many figures have been derived from tests on Alaskan white spruce, while others are more general with data coming from white spruce and other spruces from other areas. They are published herein as guidelines. Variables are caused by growing and handling conditions.
A. Solid Wood - Average weight in pounds per cubic foot (kilograms per cubic meter).
(768.9 kg./cu. m.)
(497.9 kg./cu. m.)
(480.3 kg./cu. m.)
B. Logs (Approximated)
1. Average weight per log in pounds. (Kilograms)
2. Average log weight per MBF using Scribner Decimal "C"
Log Rule Scale.
C. Lumber - Average weight in pounds (kilograms) per MBF.
1. Rough Lumber
2. Surfaced Lumber**
II. Specific Gravity
III. Shrinkage - Percent from green to seasoned, based on
original green dimensions.
* Moisture Content - MC
** Based on lumber standards for dimension lumber. Data from
local Alaska producers.
*** Flat-grain board. Reverse for quarter-sawn or edge grain
IV. Basic Strength Values and Mechanical Properties of Alaska
Spruce. (Strength properties of white spruce increase as the
wood is dried out.)
* Pounds per square inch - psi
** Kilograms per square centimeter - ksc
Uses of the Tree. The Pacific Rim countries place high-value on white spruce for use in the light construction industries, especially house construction, and for specialty products such as chopsticks and sounding boards for pianos. White spruce pulp was very important in the dissolving pulp industry until the decline in the world rayon market. However, the international market shows some increasing demand for the world supply of spruce sawlogs, cants and bolts. White spruce also has a growing domestic market. Traditional domestic uses are houselogs, fuelwood, and rough lumber and timbers. More recent uses include kitchen cabinets, dried and finished lumber, and dimension material for buildings of light and medium construction. Because of its many favorable wood characteristics, its uses are nearly as limitless as are the potential uses of wood itself.
Toll Free Hotline 1-800-478-5626 within Alaska