• French hardwood sawmilling is concentrating.
• Bigger businesses are investing in new product areas.
• Further processed and laminated products are increasing in importance.
• Some companies are moving into finished products, notably flooring.

France’s hardwood sector likes its traditions. Sawmillers still regale you with the old saying that a country that produces great wines grows great oak and the classic picture of a French hardwood mill – great stacks of massive, air-drying oak boules stretching into the distance – can still be seen.

Oak boules and logs also still account for the lion’s share of French hardwood mills’ exports to the UK. At the same time, however, this is far from all they have to offer. In fact, their product range is the broadest it’s ever been and growing. They’re not only doing more with oak, but are also developing other key species. For instance, while they barely make a ripple in the UK, French sawn beech exports jumped from 137,000m³ to 154,000m³ in the last two years, closing the gap with oak.

According to Ducerf, one of the biggest French hardwood suppliers to the UK, this growth in variety is driven by structural change.

“Smaller mills are disappearing and bigger businesses are increasing market share,” said managing director Jacques Ducerf. “These companies have the resources to devote to R&D, process a wider range of material and supply a greater range of products.”

Ducerf exemplifies this trend, he said. “Our turnover rose 15% last year and in the next two we expect it to double, and a large part of our growth will be due to new technology, new activities and increasing the use we make of our wood.”

Traditional business

The company, he added, is not about to turn its back on traditional business. Oak boules at its plant in Vendenesse-les-Charolles and Lucot sawmill still comprise over half its finished stock of 18,000m³, and its 2,000m³ kiln-dried boules stock is the biggest in France. It also continues to make barrel staves, which remain one of the most lucrative oak products.

But Ducerf has also branched out. It set up a new square edged facility two years ago, in part due to UK demand, and flooring and furniture dimension stock is a prominent feature in the 20,000m² of warehousing at Vendenesse – and set to grow following installation of a Grecon Dimter Opticut 704 optimising saw.

The other key area of development has been in its component operation, Le Bois Profiles (LBP). Its range includes Patchwood finger-jointed panels for worktops and interior joinery and Panoplot continuous lamella laminated panels for furniture and other interior applications.

The third LBP line is Profileo finger-jointed window components. “This is a fast growing business and the new press technology and moulder we’ve installed for it are among our biggest recent investments,” said Mr Ducerf.

Next Ducerf will install a new sawline at Vendenesse, allowing it to handle a wider range of log sizes to give it even greater end product versatility. “We’re also investigating high frequency drying,” said Mr Ducerf. “And by the end of the year, we will also have a heat treatment plant.”

Customer relations

Eurochêne’s key for competing in an increasingly demanding market is to work ever more closely with customers. The company, which exports 50% of output, has two mills and is headquartered in Saint Lothain near Lyons. It has specialised increasingly in matching timber to end use, liaising with manufacturers to select precisely the grain, grade and colour they want.

“Business today is about partnerships and that means ensuring careful selection, right from the forest,” said sales manager Marie-Therese Carrey.

Offering a wider range of further processed products also forms part of this customer-focused approach – and has to some extent kept the business out of the more cost-sensitive end of the market. “We’ve always avoided competing purely on price, and the rising cost of oak in France and strength of the euro make that more important than ever,” said company president Eric Julien. “Combined, these have made American oak 40% more competitive against French in the last year.”

Eurochêne is predominantly an oak specialist, but processes 21 species, including much sought-after winter-cut white beech. Like Ducerf, boules also still account for a big slice of business (turnover last year was €11m), but following heavy investment in processing and kilning technology, over half of sales are now in beams, cladding and a wide range of other dimension stock.

The variety of output is clear to see in the finished stock warehouse, with products including furniture grades cut to very precise end uses, such as 2m boards specifically for fridge-freezer door facades. Square-edged oak for flooring is another increasingly important line and the UK is one of Eurochêne’s key markets for it.

Varied business

“This business is increasingly varied too,” said Mr Julien. “Ten years ago, everything had to be knot-free. Today we’re selling a much wider range, with big demand for character grades.”

The future, he added, would see Eurochêne becoming even more customer oriented – hence its latest €3m project. “We’re planning a new 200m continuous line mill,” he said. “It will be highly automated and flexible so we can supply a range of different products efficiently.”

The SRC site at Givry takes the diversification of the French hardwood sector another logical step, combining a sawmill and modern flooring factory on one 7ha site. The €12m-turnover oak specialist, first dipped its toe into flooring 15 years ago, but really stepped up the operation when it moved to its current premises in 2000.

The mill’s 35,000m³ annual output includes a range of sawn products, from boules, to beams and railway sleepers, but two-thirds goes to the neighbouring flooring factory. According to the company’s Jean-Pierre Ribaud, the integration of the two plants makes for an efficient and market-responsive operation, enabling it to “direct raw material to the particular product in line with demand”.

Flooring facility

The flooring facility itself produces 250,000m² a year, mostly in 22mm structural grades. Around 40% is exported and most is PU-finished, although unfinished remains popular in some markets. “In the UK it still accounts for 90% of our sales,” said Mr Ribaud.

In the highly automated facility, all products are automatically wrapped, with bar codes detailing the number of pieces, dimensions and square metres in the pack, plus client information. The facility exudes efficiency and seems virtually dust-free, with wood waste extracted and sold for energy generation or used in the two boilers which heat its kilns.

Like other hardwood players, SRC acknowledges problems caused by the cost of oak. But it remains bullish about the longer term, underlining this with a €2m investment in a new sawmill line and new equipment in the flooring plant, including a Weinig Powermat 1000 planer moulder.

The company is also trialling a new engineered flooring line, using a hardwood surface on a sheet material base. This will help insulate it against the price of oak but, said Mr Ribaud, also forms part of its strategy to cast its net over a wider spread of markets.