¦ Oak is the most popular temperate hardwood in the UK.
¦ Eastern Europe and Italy have gained market share.
¦ European oak tends to have more variations than American.
¦ American oak is available in longer lengths and wider boards.
¦ The price of oak has been relatively steady.

The British love oak. “We have an appetite for it,” said Dan Matthews, who heads Taylor Maxwell’s hardwood division. “Where other species tend to come and go out of fashion, oak is the one thing that will always remain popular.”

There’s no doubt that oak has maintained its position as the most popular temperate hardwood species in the UK, with strong demand from the construction, joinery, flooring and furniture sectors. Ash, beech and tulipwood are also popular choices, but the durability, versatility and aesthetic qualities of oak have contributed to its enduring appeal.

“There is no other species of hardwood that affords greater variation and character than oak,” said John Boddy Timber’s managing director Frank Boddy. “With oak, we have a species that we can offer in characteristics from clear right through to character, including pippy oak and burrs.”

Supply criteria

And, while character might be the key selling point, when it comes to supply, price, performance, consistency and certification are all important considerations. American oak might still offer price advantages over European, but where a more versatile feature wood is required then the European product comes into its own.

“Often, specification is determined by a number of factors including colour and texture consistency, ability to cut large sizes, economy of use and whether the customer requires vertical or crown grain timber,” said Tony Miles, managing director of International Timber, part of Saint-Gobain Building Distribution’s Timber Group. Generally speaking, he said, Italy and Croatia are more popular when it comes to sawn oak and France and Germany are the top choices in terms of boules.

However, the situation is always changing. Timbmet purchasing director Jan Palejowski said producers in both eastern Europe and Italy have gained a noticeable increase in market share at the expense of French suppliers. One of the reasons, he said, has been the French reluctance to embrace the increasing demand for square-edged lumber here in the UK.

The price of oak has been relatively steady, although there has been some fluctuation as a result of the exchange rate of the pound against the euro and US dollar, with increased freight costs also impacting on the cost of US imports. There were some availability issues earlier in the year and there are some indications of a potential weakening in the second half of the year, but in general terms the market remains stable.

“American oak is about price and utility, whereas European oak is more about using the natural features of the species to its best advantage,” said Mr Palejowski. “Traditionally American oak has always been noticeably cheaper compared to the European. However, of late, with the price increases that we have all experienced from America the price differential is now somewhat closer, particularly in the thicker sizes.”

Market share

Andy Craig, site director at James Latham, believes the European product will increasingly take market share from the American alternative.

“With European oak, we don’t have the container freight issues we have from the US and we don’t have to have site certificates to get it through customs,” he said. “The American price has topped out – I can’t see it getting any stronger – and the European price won’t go up dramatically because they are fully aware that if it goes up too much, people will turn to the American product.”

Around 75% of Latham’s oak is American and 25% European. Of that 75%, 95% is white oak and a very small percentage red oak. All of Latham’s European oak is generically termed white oak, mainly from eastern Europe – primarily Croatia – which the company brings in through one or two sawmills in Italy.

“Generally, we don’t recommend American oak for external joinery, whereas we wouldn’t have a problem supplying European for that purpose,” said Andy Craig. “European oak is generally regarded as more durable than the American. However, American is cheaper which is obviously a plus point, while European is generally better quality, with fewer knots and sapwood.”

But, added Mr Craig, European oak isn’t as good in terms of specification, with less availability of long lengths and wide boards, which narrows the markets for the timber. “You’d struggle to make a staircase out of European oak, for example, without gluing a lot of material together,” he said.

Oak also forms a large part of Whitmore’s Timber business, accounting for around 60% of its £8m a year turnover. “We have around £3m stockholding, of which approximately £1.7m is oak,” said managing director Richard Stoneman.

European sources

It sells mainly prime joinery, so for planking oak it tends to favour two main sources. For waney-edge, it turns to oak from eastern France, mainly because of the area’s height above sea level, the timber’s relatively tight growth rate and the quality of the boule.

When it comes to square-edge, Whitmore’s focuses mainly on Croatian and Solvenian oak. “It’s a good commodity, consistent in colour and the supplier we use is very consistent in production,” said Mr Stoneman. “Character grade we tend to get from Germany, mainly because it looks more like English. Around 10% of our oak is white oak from the US, and we bring in a small amount of red oak. US oak is an increasing part of our portfolio – even though the price has gone up considerably in recent months, it’s still cheaper than European alternatives.”

Oak lends itself to a wide variety of end uses. Prime and FAS grades are commonly specified for joinery, furniture and flooring, with character grade also a popular choice for furniture and flooring, as well as exterior decking and cladding.

“The last few years have seen a trend away from the use of carpets in domestic and business environments and it is in these types of application that oak as a flooring product has seen significant growth,” said Timbmet’s Jan Palejowski, although Tony Miles believes that it’s the furniture industry that offers the biggest significant growth potential.


And what about certification? John Boddy Timber, for example, has established unprecedented sources of quality oak from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Croatia, including FSC and PEFC certified supply.

Frank Boddy believes that having multiple sources of supply is essential and all of these new eastern European forests have, to an extent, eclipsed American white oak, especially as certified European species cost no extra whereas the North Americans do impose a surcharge for certified timber.

But although approximately 85% of the oak John Boddy Timber imports is certified – along with the home-grown oak – even today, only around 20% of this is requested as certified. “We have and will always pursue a policy of responsible sourcing and this includes fair trade and wider ethical considerations,” he said.

If there’s one thing that suppliers all agree on, it’s that the market is unlikely to change significantly in the next 12 months. “We expect to see consistency of supply in a market that remains relatively stable,” said Tony Miles. “There are no indications of a significant upturn over the coming months, but this is largely due to the current economic climate and its impact on construction projects and consumer spending.”

Indeed, the British love affair with oak shows no signs of abating. “Oak as a species has a traditional and long-standing involvement in the UK market and, following several years of consistent application, has every opportunity of growing further,” said Jan Palejowski.