Hammered: COVID-19 nails Pennsylvania’s lumber industry
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Matt Summerell, the owner of Summerell Builders, has a client waiting for a new deck to be built.
Summerrell, who signed the contract in May, would like to have the deck finished in time for the homeowner to enjoy it this summer.
But like thousands of contractors and even more do-it-yourselfers across the country, he’s struggling to buy the pressure-treated deck lumber he needs.
The same goes for contractor Robert Jones, owner of RJ Landscaping and Design in Wattsburg, Erie County. He has several deck projects waiting to be built.
In more than 20 years, Jones said he’s never seen anything like this summer’s shortage. But what’s driving it?
Most folks in the lumber and construction business give a variation of the same answer: COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
“The (Canadian) border is shut down and we can’t get lumber from there,” Summerell said.
At the same time, he said, “There is high demand. People have extra (federal stimulus) cash. They want to build decks and redo decks because they can’t go anywhere. I have had more calls for decks than I ever had before.”
Like the shortage of toilet paper a couple months ago, the lack of pressure-treated lumber isn’t isolated to one company or one region.
“It’s an everybody problem. It’s nationwide,” said Doug Brown, an employee at Hobbes Lumber & Hardware in Edinboro.
Most lumberyards and home improvement stores have some treated lumber, just not enough to satisfy many orders.
That’s because the spread of COVID-19 forced a stop to production and froze supply while creating the environment that is driving demand.
The problem started at the same time so many businesses in all sectors were affected: March, when shutdown and essential business orders were issued across the country.
“When the pandemic hit, it shut down some of the mills that mill the lumber,” said John Girard, of Kraft Lumber in Erie.
Mike Volosh, lumber products manager of Ambridge Do-It Best, said lumber mills are behind anywhere from four to six weeks on getting treated lumber shipped.
Many shipments from Canadian mills have been held up because of the closing of the U.S.-Canada border, Volosh said, also a coronavirus-driven issue.
It’s a measurable difference. Every week last summer, for example, two trucks loaded with lumber pulled into Ambridge Lumber & Builders Supply Co. in Harmony Township. Each carried enough wood to build a house or many decks.
“This year, we’re lucky to get one truck full every three months. It’s crazy,” said Alex Werner, president and manager of the 75-year-old business.
At Dambach Lumber & Supply Co., in Harmony, decking boards might be delivered one day, while over the next days, no posts are available. Untreated 2-by-4-inch and 6-by-8-inch pieces are sometimes hard to find, Dambach’s Alex Magill said.
Meanwhile, people working from home are committing to home remodeling projects, said Dave Strano, general manager and owner of Ambridge Do-It Best Home Center.
“Everybody’s doing things at home they weren’t normally doing and it’s creating madness, I guess you could say, is the best way to put it.”
Those issues have conspired to leave Kraft Lumber in Erie with about 25% of its normal supply of pressure-treated lumber, Girard said.
In the summer of 2019, Skerlec Contracting could have built a deck for your home in a week, said Robert Skerlec, manager of the family-owned business in Monaca.
This year, it might be late August before a customer could down a beer on a deck that Skerlec Contracting built. Furthermore, Skerlec said, you would pay between $6,000 to $7,000 for the same deck that cost $5,000 a year ago.
If a contract is signed in July and the materials arrive in August at a higher wholesale cost, the customer pays the agreed-to cost and the contractor takes the price hit, Skerlec said.
Demand is driving price increases — and customers seem willing to pay, whatever lengths they have to go to.
Karl Glessner, of Stonycreek Builders in Somerset County, said suppliers there have traveled as far as Uniontown, in Fayette County, for a few pieces of treated wood.
“People have been combing the phone book going everywhere to find a few pieces of treated wood so they can carry on with their projects,” Glessner said. “They are calling around ... and it gets snapped up immediately.”
Strano has encountered the same. “We’ve been getting calls from all over — people looking for lumber, people that might normally go to Lowe’s or Home Depot.”
Because big-box supply stores also face shortages, Strano said customers have been calling his independent retail store, which sells products including cleaning supplies, lawn and garden items, paint and building materials.
“We’re not a specialty lumber yard,” Strano said. “We carry all your basics. Pretty much the basics have been very tough to get your hands on at this point.”
Recently, someone who lives in Findlay Township, near Greater Pittsburgh International Airport — who isn’t a regular customer — “called us for a big lumber order because no one else had it,” Strano said.
“We probably sold more lumber here than we’ve sold in 15 years — at least a 50% increase from last year,” he said.
Effect on businesses
Glessner said dimension lumber supplies also are getting tight and pricey. The only strategy is to sit tight, not buy anything and hopefully reduce the demand so supply can catch up and prices start to go down.
“It’s costing our wholesalers, and us, a lot of sales opportunity because we don’t have the material to sell,” he said.
Stonycreek Builders has been turning away three-quarters of people looking for treated lumber, Glessner said, because they just don’t have it.
Some guess that by the time supply returns to normal, demand might have slowed, at least for this year.
“Most of our suppliers are telling us after Labor Day,” said Brown, from Hobbes Lumber & Hardware in Edinboro.
Werner, of Ambridge Lumber and Builders Supply Co., isn’t so sure.
“They can’t tell you anything,” he said of suppliers. “They don’t have any idea what is going to happen.”
Matt Toth from the Daily American in Somerset contributed to this article.
Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/