Manufacturers and suppliers to the wood finishing market continue to struggle against a range of adverse factors, including a stagnant domestic furniture market, the strong pound and buyers who remain very cautious about investment.

The market has been ‘absolutely dead’ throughout the summer, according to one supplier, partly because of the exceptionally hot weather.

‘When the sun is shining people aren’t that keen to look at lacquer drying equipment,’ he said. ‘It’s generally something that is looked at when the cooler weather comes and the drying times get longer.’ However, on a more positive note, he said his firm had received significantly more telephone enquiries since mid-August.

Another contact confirmed that the wood finishing equipment market has contracted over the past few months and said that the value of lacquer sales into the sector has fallen from around £54m a year ago, to £44m now. ‘It is not all doom and gloom but the wood industry is certainly not very buoyant,’ he said.

There has been strong activity in the shop and bank-fitting sectors, which offers significant opportunities for finishing equipment suppliers, one contributor believes. He said that while these sectors are specialist and therefore not particularly large markets, they are nevertheless ‘big business’ for his and other companies.

‘People haven’t stopped going shopping and if one of the big chains decides its going to uplift the image of 20 stores, it’s a lot of work. That’s a very nice contract to get, because it might go on for a year or two.’

Sales slump

But while those operating retail and other outlets seem keen to spend money, consumers do not. Sales of bedroom and kitchen furniture have slumped, depressing demand by manufacturers for finishes, drying machinery and panel products. ‘As far as domestic furniture goes, relatively few people seem to be buying,’ confirmed a contact.

The booming flooring market, a key source of business for a number of wood industry sectors, is failing to have the same effect on the finishing equipment market. This is due to a combination of factors; that the bulk of floor-buying consumers are opting for laminate products and that most solid and engineered timber flooring is imported.

‘The sort of flooring that is being sold in the mass-market is sheet-laminated, T&G MDF and most is at the lower end of the price spectrum,’ he said.

‘Hardwood, that is sanded down, lacquered, sanded and lacquered again is a relatively small market. There isn’t one single plant in the UK that is producing finished hardwood flooring in great quantities. The solid wood market remains dominated by imported products,’ he added.

Source of business

Conversion by finishing firms to more compliant spray coatings continues to provide a steady source of business for some equipment suppliers, though this is likely to diminish over the short to medium term as compliance thresholds are finally phased in over the next couple of years.

One optimistic manufacturer, said remarked that demand for his firm’s range of drying equipment is strong and expected to strengthen further, as more solvent users are ‘forced bit-by-bit’ to adopt materials that are either completely water-borne or ‘compliant’ – materials which take a lot more time to dry than the products they are replacing.

‘Both of those materials have performance criteria which are perfectly acceptable but they also both have much longer drying times in ambient temperatures, so what took two hours to dry before, is now taking six or eight hours to dry,’ said the manufacturer.

He added that there is an important ‘educational’ role to be played by equipment manufacturers in this respect which, if conducted properly, can be beneficial for business. ‘We feel confident that we have a niche in the market place where the law is actually helping us,’ he said.

Route to compliance

‘I would suggest that most of our sales have been influenced in some way by companies embarking on the route to compliance,’ said another spokesperson for a spray-plant manufacturer, which sells into a number of other industry sectors in addition to timber.

He described the company’s wood division as otherwise ‘pretty dead’, however, particularly in terms of external joinery finishing. ‘On the spray equipment side, it is not buoyant but it is ticking over,’ he said.

Wood finishing represents about 50% of his firm’s business and it is therefore not totally reliant upon the sector – something for which the spokesperson appears to be grateful. ‘The wood finishing market is full of people being very dismal and moaning and groaning about heaps of cheap stuff coming in from Poland and Asia, all fully-finished, it would seem,’ he observed.

The prices of water-based coatings have been steadily falling as the market has developed and most people accept that this inevitably means spray equipment prices must follow them down. ‘The value of equipment won’t go up, and it will come down,’ the spokesperson said. ‘We are already dropping our prices and it’s not to do with market share, it’s just that it’s a more competitive market now and the world is a much smaller place.’

However, despite the current lack of activity in wood finishing, he said his manufacturing firm has no plans to reduce its presence in the market, unlike other companies, which have ‘lost faith’.

‘I do know that some of our competitors, where wood finishing is a small part of their business, are paying less attention to the market and would seem to be leaving it more up to local distributors, rather than the manufacturers, to try and penetrate the market,’ he said. ‘Obviously, as different areas of industry go through peaks and troughs, we will penetrate other areas to grow our business. But for us wood will always be a strong market.’

Sales of finishing equipment are flourishing overseas, notably in Poland and Asia, report a number of contacts. But while such exports are beneficial for the manufacturers concerned, the proliferation of spray facilities in foreign countries can only add to the tide of pre-finished imports to the UK, piling more pressure onto the domestic wood manufacturing market and eventually causing further shrinkage in the market for equipment supply.

‘I’m not trying to be negative about it but I cannot see how we can compete,’ said one equipment supplier who sells into the UK. ‘I just spoke to a very large pine furniture manufacturer in the south of the country and his actual words were “anybody manufacturing in the UK at the moment is a bloody idiot” – and he is among the top five pine manufacturers in the UK.’

Positive contribution

In perhaps the most positive contribution, one contact stated that nothing would stand between his company and success in the wood finishing equipment market, despite the deep-seated problems facing it and other UK manufacturing sectors.

‘Whatever happens, equipment wears out,’ he said. ‘In manufacturing – even in a recession – people buy new equipment and lacquers. There will always be a market place for it and we would aim to be the strongest brand name in that market.’