Despite falling slightly short of its own sales expectations for most of the year, some of the major players in the UK mass production joinery sector have managed to introduce limited price increases of late and are generally positive about the next few months.

One of the leading producers reported a significant business upturn in September affecting timber doors, windows and stairs. In general, customers had been ready to accept the small price increases that have recently been pushed through by the company because they understood that manufacturers were having to contend with higher raw material and shipping costs.

For door manufacturers, price increases appear to have been easier to obtain on premium products such as doorsets and veneered doors, whereas the commodity moulded market remains extremely competitive and, in some instances, upward price movements have fallen short of covering the increased costs of production.

In the same context, a window specialist reported that it had recently introduced a 5% price increase on all new enquiries but that around half of this additional income would go towards covering increased raw material and fuel costs. A senior spokesperson said the earlier part of the year had been characterised by project delays and by “competitors grabbing business at any cost, even for fully-finished timber windows”. However, the order and call-off situation had improved to the extent that sales were now running ahead of last year and lead times had gone out to January.

Demand was particularly strong for flush sash windows because these offered greater flexibility than casement alternatives in the social housing sector, he added. The trend towards fully-finished product was continuing, with sliding sash windows experiencing particularly strong growth.

Premium product

Timber windows are increasingly being viewed by the public sector, and luxury housebuilders in particular, as a premium product deserving of a premium price. Recent research conducted on behalf of the British Woodworking Federation‘s Timber Window Accreditation scheme (TWA) indicates that timber is now more popular than for a number of decades. Among the beneficiaries of this positive trend is Dale Joinery (Lichfield) which, having been bought from receivers earlier this year, is on course to achieve a £5m turnover target in its first year under the ownership of former Palgrave Brown managing director Richard Fawcett and associate Paul Phillips. Speaking to TTJ this week, Mr Fawcett attributed this excellent start to the quality of product and service offered by the company. The performance of many timber window suppliers had been “pretty poor” and customers often had to accept lead time extensions, whereas Dale was guaranteeing “very accurate” delivery times, he said.

Meanwhile, a BWF spokesperson confirmed that the relaunched TWA scheme, now run in partnership with the BSI Kitemark scheme, would enshrine tougher audit and testing requirements. He added that, as from the start of next year, all TWA scheme members would be required to manufacture their windows using timber from certified sources such as FSC or PEFC, thus helping to allay any customer concerns with regard to product sustainability.

Most of the joinery firms contacted this week, both in the architectural and mass production sectors, reported a significant upturn in the number of clients specifying FSC accreditation but a continuing reluctance to accept the price premium that this entailed. One large producer said this premium was required to help cover the costs of, for example, establishing internal systems to keep FSC and non-FSC timber separate.

On the same subject, the launch at the start of this month of the FSC’s new chain of custody standards for manufacturers and specifiers has been described as good news for the joinery sector. The standards are the result of a comprehensive three-year review and introduce several innovative concepts, including systems for tracking and labelling the quantity of FSC-certified material in products, improved control of wood from uncertified forests, and the first global scheme for identifying and verifying recycled material. Manufacturers currently holding chain of custody certificates will be required to comply with the new standards by January 1, 2007 while companies applying for chain of custody certification will be required to use the new standards from January 1, 2006. New FSC labels will be phased in over the next few months and will become mandatory from July 1 next year.

The new standards are intended to allow more flexibility in the management of chain of custody systems and should lead to a greater number of products carrying the FSC label. According to TRADA, this has to be a welcome development for specifiers endeavouring to source timber with sound green credentials as well as for joinery manufacturers who may have found it difficult to source adequate supplies of certified timber – particularly hardwoods – in the species most commonly used.

&#8220Just to pre-qualify for some projects is an art form because they want company statistics, details of environmental credentials, and health and safety records. They will be asking us for blood samples soon”

Fully-finished stairs

As with timber windows, the trend in stairs continues to be towards full- or part-finishing, particularly among high-volume housebuilders. However, one producer commented: “We have tried to push fully-finished stairs but it hasn’t really taken off in the same way as for windows, to some extent because the large sections can be difficult to protect.” At the same time, he noted increased demand in the specification and social housing sectors for added-value fire-treated stairs.

A leading manufacturer pointed to difficulties in finding technical stairs managers and other skilled staff. The UK’s architectural joinery sector has also continued to experience problems in identifying and attracting key personnel, such as supervisors and site foremen. One joiner also pointed to a dearth of experienced machinists and commented: “It’s a real bugbear. Colleges’ general joinery courses don’t seem to give apprentices enough in-depth machinery training.” Another said he had been looking for a contracting manager for 12 months “but we still haven’t had a suitable candidate”.

In general, activity levels in the architectural joinery sector appear to have improved in recent months following a poor start to the year, although most companies continue to describe business as patchy. While the luxury end of the private housing market has held up well, other areas – such as office fit-outs, leisure industry work and government-related business – have been somewhat flatter.

In terms of timber trends, a number of joiners reported a noticeable shift away from lighter species such as hard maple towards darker timbers. “In one of our recent jobs, we were asked to stain maple to make it look a lot darker,” recalled one contact.

Optimism for 2005

Most of the industry sources contacted this week expressed cautious optimism for 2005, with several maintaining that they have already secured enough business to keep them occupied for the first few months of the year. Others reported an upturn in enquiry levels but complained of indecision among customers, resulting in long delays and some projects never reaching the firm order stage.

Architectural joiners have had to cope with a significant increase in labour costs, higher prices for key raw materials such as MDF and ironmongery, and the financial impact of complying with ever-stricter legislation, for example, in the area of health and safety. One disenchanted joiner observed: “Just to pre-qualify for some projects is an art form because they want company statistics, details of environmental credentials, and health and safety records. They will be asking us for blood samples soon.”

Unfortunately, the competitive nature of the market has left them with little scope to push up their own prices. “We are still having to keep our pencils sharp or we don’t get the business,” said one. Others alluded to “cut-throat” competition and to widespread under-cutting.

And other factors have conspired to make life more difficult for joinery firms. In the London area, for example, the heightened state of security has had a profound impact in such basic areas as vehicle parking and site access.