The budding relationship between New Zealand modified wood specialist Fibre7 and Danish kitchen worktop and bar maker Spekva is mutually beneficial.

Spekva is always on the lookout for new raw materials to extend its product range and whet its creative juices. Rising hardwood prices and, in the case of some species, declining availability and growing concerns about their environmental credentials, add further pressure to broaden its wood selection. Fibre7 presented Lignia, its modified, or ‘fortified’, New Zealand radiata pine, as a solution on both counts.

For its part, Fibre7 is on the lookout for customers for Lignia full stop. Over and above that, it wants to see its timber in applications that display its technical and aesthetic potential to best effect.

“Fortified timber is not a novel concept,” said Fibre7’s UK-based New Zealander managing director Paul Duncan. “But there’s still scope for building awareness of its potential. The best way of doing that, rather than just showing people a lump of wood, is to have prime examples of the material in use that demonstrate it works.”

In Mr Duncan’s view, those examples don’t come much more prime than Spekva.

What first strikes the visitor to its factory in Kolding is the sheer scale of its products, all of which are bespoke. Some of its customers clearly need space to express their culinary talents as its worktops have topped 12m in length. They must have substantial floors too as the slabs of wood don’t stint on depth either, going up to 2.5m. Where the kitchen or bar design requires a large overhang, they get more muscular still, with steel reinforcement rods embedded into precisely routed grooves underneath. Spekva’s heftiest single worktop to date weighed in at nearly a third of tonne.

But it’s not just about size. Equally striking is the attention to detail, finish and the fact that the company is unfazed by customers’ design and technical demands, however out there.

The worktops are shipped with all the holes, recesses and grooves for sinks, taps and other fixtures ready cut, and for some European clients, with the latter factory-fitted too. Everything is measured and measured again, even the bevel of the edge of the hole for the sink.

“This has to be the right angle to give a smooth look and finish, but to ensure water run-off and minimum moisture exposure of end-grain,” said managing director Ole Buelund.

After being sanded to a velvet sheen, tops are hand-finished with natural or white oil, or lacquer and each is despatched complete with an extensive care kit to maintain its factory-fresh looks.

According to Spekva, its attention to seasoning and factory climate control, which minimise timber movement, also enable it to guarantee that the end product will fit the allotted space, wherever it’s shipped worldwide.

“We work to an accuracy of +/- 2mm,” said export manager Benny Jorgensen. “What we don’t want is the fitter having to cut or sand off a slice in the kitchen.”

This precision pledge also stands however elaborate the product – and some are quite elaborate.

“One customer in the US recently wanted a giant fish tank under the work surface and for the top to open so he could feed the fish,” he said. “The timber had to be in two sections mounted on gliders so they could slide apart.”

The style and quality of Spekva worktops, of which it produces around 150 a day, have won it a following among some of the big names in the kitchen manufacturing and retail markets, including Nobia of Sweden and Germany’s Poggenpohl. In the UK, which it services with two sales staff and two agents, it has about 150 customers and its products can be found in Alno, Nicholas Anthony and In-toto showrooms.

All of which, reiterated Mr Duncan, made it quite a feather in Fibre7’s cap that Spekva started to use its timber.

“Having such prestige, quality products made in Lignia really highlights its performance characteristics,” said Mr Duncan. “It also shows that it can stand up to intense technical examination, as Spekva put all their raw materials through exhaustive testing.”

“We have to be certain new materials are right,” said Mr Buelund. “The process takes about nine months. We put them through a lot of tests and make trial products to ensure they’re compatible with other components. We also consult widely to gauge market reaction.”

Lignia did not come through Spekva’s evaluation entirely smoothly. Sanding initially proved a challenge as the wood generated more dust than the company was used to and clogged the belt. But this glitch was overcome by using more open weave belts and running the sander more slowly.

“It also doesn’t need as much sanding as most hardwoods,” said Mr Duncan. “With Lignia, less is more.”

Spekva also scrutinised Lignia’s interaction with metal fixtures. “But the fortifying process used is pH neutral so there are no corrosion issues,” said Mr Duncan.

Before this, what initially attracted Spekva to Lignia were cost and its environmental hook, with all the timber based on plantation-grown, FSC-certified radiata pine.

“Clearly the price was an attraction,” said Mr Jorgenson. “We can quote a Lignia worktop at around 20% less than the equivalent product in walnut.”

Lignia’s green credentials, he added, are also a big plus in an increasingly demanding market. “Our environmental reputation is very important to us and being able to tell customers we’re using this fast-growing, plentiful timber resource is a plus,” he said.

“Currently New Zealand is producing around 2.5 million m³ of radiata a month,” said Mr Duncan.

But Lignia also appeals to Spekva and its customers on other grounds. A challenge the company has increasingly faced is the lack of long lengths in the prime hardwoods it uses.

“You can’t source walnut over 5m, ash is difficult, oak expensive and in exotics you can pretty much forget anything over 3m,” said Mr Buelund.

In response to this Spekva has become an expert in finger-jointing and laminating short sections into large panels, with traditional craft skills now complemented by modern CAD equipment, such as the system that projects a laser outline of where fixtures will fit on the worktop to help timber selectors arrange pieces to best effect.

Now Lignia gives the company the added option of long clear boards.

“We’re supplying boards up to 50mm thick and in lengths up to 6m,” said Mr Duncan, “and the lack of defects means high yields and staves in the finished product up to 5.5m.”

Spekva has also found that customers like the look of the wood. It can be left natural or stained to resemble other hardwoods and it’s through-dyed in the densification process. The company is also using it both quarter and flat sawn, with the stand-out close-set grain pattern of the latter giving it an exotic appearance.

The science behind Lignia seems to have struck another chord, particularly, it seems, with Nordic consumers.

“They like that it’s a softwood pressure impregnated with an inert, water-borne solution to be transformed into a really different material with the properties of hardwood,” said Mr Buelund. “It’s seen as new and modern.”

With such positive consumer reaction, Spekva quite soon found its Lignia worktops – marketed as ‘refined wood’ – accounting for 5% of sales. In fact it recently reined back marketing to enable raw material supply to catch up.

Lignia is at present made exclusively by Fibre7’s subsidiary Fortified Timber Systems in New Zealand and output is limited to about 1,000m³ a month. With rising demand for its use in flooring, joinery and furniture in the ASEAN region, and now trials of its application for veneer, the supply pressure is clearly on. But Mr Duncan maintains that reconfiguring the existing plant could quickly treble output and that a facility “capable of producing tens of thousands of cubic metres” could be built in months. The aqueous amino compound used for densification, he explained, is made in a purpose-built batching plant, but impregnation is carried out in re-engineered conventional pressure treatment cells, while the drying that gives Lignia its final hardening, is done in traditional ram air kilns. Another option could be licensing the process to other producers around the world.

Given the supply, Spekva, for one, sees potential to build on its relationship with Fibre7 and quickly increase its use of Lignia to 12% of output.