The past few months have brought a slowdown in business activity for many of the UK’s mass production joiners. Feedback from the architectural joinery sector is somewhat more mixed, with several firms reporting a strong flow of work while others are decidedly less busy.

Overall, however, few companies are particularly confident about forward prospects.

For the larger producers, sales have been keeping broadly in step with expectations but, for many firms, call-off levels and customer confidence have been leaving a lot to be desired, with many projects apparently subject to delays and postponement. Most firms are not anticipating any major improvement in market conditions throughout the remainder of this year. “House prices have a huge impact from the market confidence point of view,” said a spokesperson for one of the major mass producers, “and these have stabilised or even dropped in some instances.” A recent forecast suggested that UK house prices may drop by an average of 5% by 2007.

Timber window demand

Timber window orders remain quite strong, with housebuilders now said to regard fully-finished, factory-glazed products “almost as the accepted norm”. However, high levels of competition among timber window producers have left virtually no scope to improve prices. Several companies reported a decline in sliding sash sales, as well as an improvement in flush sash sales “partly at the expense of standard casement windows”.

Good demand for doorsets, fire and security doors is continuing to be driven by a combination of industry bodies, regulation and public awareness. Price progress has been hampered by strong competition across all areas of the timber door market but, according to several mass producers, there is now an underlying sense that prices must rise to help compensate for higher freight, raw material and energy costs.

Price improvement has also been absent from a stairs market characterised by the ongoing rise in demand for part- or fully-finished products, as well as for fire-treated timber stairs. One manufacturer commented: “We are also seeing people looking more for genuine hardwood finishes – which means a higher average sales value but higher material costs to match.”

According to the results of latest trend surveys from the British Woodworking Federation (BWF), there is continuing strength and confidence in the timber window and fire door sectors, with late 2005 and 2006 expected to produce further growth in both markets. By comparison, figures from the Office of National Statistics point to a long-term falling trend in the total value of the timber doors market – an indication perhaps of fierce levels of competition in many areas, particularly the volume doors sector.

On the specific issue of fire doors, the BWF reported this week that an ever-increasing number of builders merchants are responding to its campaign to promote compatibility of components. “Our message that fire doors are more than just the door leaf is hitting home,” TTJ was told.

Architectural joinery

As ever, demand levels in the architectural joinery sector can vary according to, among other factors, region and company specialities. Several firms contacted this week have been busy over the late spring and summer period, although most acknowledged that they could be in a minority. One experienced campaigner said: “We have been over-busy in the last three or four months and have had to put some of the work out to other companies, especially as a lot of our people are on holiday. This has been easy to do because many of the other companies seem to be quite quiet for the moment.” One of the quieter companies said: “We have a factory full of trades and it’s a job keeping them all busy.”

&#8220There are limited markets for the more exotic species because customers don’t want to get caught up in environmental hassles. A surprisingly large number of customers are asking where the timber is from”

Several companies reported an improvement in enquiry levels over recent months compared with the early part of the year, with some suggesting that the run-up to the general election in May had induced a sense of caution among customers. As a rule of thumb, architectural joiners who specialise in higher-end residential projects appear to be witnessing reasonably good demand while commercial fit-out and education sector projects also appear to be reasonably abundant. However, nearly all joiners report a dearth of retail work – a situation attributed to the well-publicised difficulties experienced by a broad range of high street stores. It is widely hoped that the recent reduction in Bank of England interest rates may help spark a revival in consumer confidence and spending, although the 0.25 percentage point cut is viewed by many as insufficient.

Looking to order files for the remainder of this year, joinery companies have concerns about: the possible impact on their businesses of perceived tightness in the housebuilding and domestic repair/maintenance markets; rising costs of raw materials such as glass, and also of energy and transport; and attempts by customers to shore up their own margins by obtaining price reductions from the supply chain. At the same time, some joiners reported feedback from building contractors that tendering levels had shown some improvement over the last month. “So we’re hoping that some work will come our way from that,” said one.

No price rises possible

While the architectural joinery sector may have been experiencing widely varying levels of demand, all companies contacted this week were agreed on the virtual impossibility of raising prices. One of the busier joinery companies had looked to obtain a mark-up on new work but, in the event, “those jobs haven’t come our way”. At the same time, there have been substantial increases in some key costs, such as transport. A couple of companies active in the central London market noted that, as a result of the recent terrorist activities, fewer people have been prepared to use the London Underground and are travelling by car instead, leading to extended journey times for company vehicles. And according to feedback, some contractors have lost staff because they were no longer willing to use public transport to get to sites in

central London.

These circumstances have added to an already difficult labour market for architectural joinery companies. Many are still reporting difficulties in recruiting experienced staff, particularly bench joiners, wood machinists and draughtsmen. And according to one joinery manager, many would-be apprentices are not being taken on because they are deemed unlikely to be able to cope with the written element of the programme.

As for wages, many joinery firms reported that they had not paid the 9% increase agreed this year but have asked their staff to accept a lower award “until times get better”.

In terms of customer trends, the domination of lighter-coloured species appears to have been broken, with many recent contracts demanding darker species such as black walnut and chestnut. Temperate hardwoods from North America remain extremely popular, not least because of the environmental concerns attached to some of the more exotic alternatives. “There are limited markets for the more exotic species because customers don’t want to get caught up in environmental hassles,” said one joiner. “A surprisingly large number of customers are asking where the timber is from.”

Finnish impact

Recent factors affecting the timber market have included the forest workers’ strike in Finland. This ended in early July, but not before having created a period of uncertainty, shipment delays, and shortages in some specifications – notably the 38mm and 50mm machining sizes. According to one Finnish timber specialist, many customers had been forced to “shop around” or opt for a second-choice grade. Availability had improved since the end of the strike and the situation could be expected to return to normal with mill holiday shutdowns coming to an end, he added.

On the news front, TRADA reported that the first three companies have been accepted into its Q-Mark high-performance timber window scheme having met a range of durability and performance criteria. A TRADA spokesperson predicted growth in demand for such high spec windows from housing associations and local authorities keen to cut maintenance bills.