Price increases of between 3-5% were introduced on a range of hardboard products during the first quarter of 2002, although there is widespread disagreement on the extent to which these new levels have held firm. Prices for hardboard’s main competitor material – thin MDF – also moved slightly higher during the first quarter.

According to several senior industry figures, hardboard price increases had stuck in most instances and some mills were even seeking further rises for the second quarter ‘because they can get higher prices on the Continent’. Overall, however, they anticipated little price movement in the coming months.

By contrast, other sources talked of downward price pressure in the commodity raw board sector and the availability of ‘ridiculous’ prices for wood grain and painted board, partly as a result of the weakness of the Germany economy.

The lead times of some manufacturers had been as long as six weeks at one point last year, but are now nearer two weeks. ‘That just shows how quiet the market is,’ TTJ was told this week. Several UK-based hardboard concerns reported excellent trading levels into the fourth quarter of 2001, attributing this phenomenon largely to the closure of capacity within the UK.

The gradual erosion of production capacity continued during the first quarter with the closure of Hornitex Werke’s lone hardboard production operation in Germany. The company entered the German equivalent of receivership last summer and the decision was taken for financial reasons to stop production of raw board at the plant at the end of February.

The company is continuing to buy in board as required to service customers mainly in the decorative board sector, and also has a stock of raw board it is in the process of offloading. According to a spokesperson, Hornitex officials had been considering replacing the ageing hardboard plant with a thin MDF line, but the idea was dropped when the company’s financial troubles became more acute.

UK hardboard sales during the first quarter of 2002 appear to have been broadly similar to those in the corresponding period of 2001. After a relatively poor start to March, the sales impetus that had built up from the middle of the month was lost by the arrival of early Easter holidays, according to one senior figure. However, with this break now out of the way, hardboard specialists are hoping for a clear run of business through to the summer holiday period.

Overall, UK demand appears slack and patchy. One leading player observed: ‘It’s a case of good week, bad week. For example, some furniture manufacturers seem to be roaring busy and some are very quiet.’ Other reasons provided for the lack of spark in the UK hardboard market were the relatively slow start to the year in the construction sector, and the after-effects of a build-up of stocks towards the end of 2001.

A contact for a leading European manufacturer said: ‘Our volumes into the UK are growing.’ Some customers opt for one or the other material on the basis of machining and handling properties although, in general, buying decisions continue to be influenced above all by price, it is widely agreed.

Not for the first time, the softboard market appears to have been blissfully untroubled by the ups and downs experienced in other timber sectors during the past few months. Demand has been relatively stable in the established partition, notice board and expansion joint filler markets, and no major changes in price have been reported.