• The best known US hardwood is white oak.
• Species such as soft maple, red oak and sycamore are also available.
• Tulipwood has excellent machining and finishing properties.
• Less well known species don’t suffer from price-point perception.

When the term North American hardwoods is used in the UK timber trade, particularly the merchant sector, white oak is the predominant species mentioned, followed by ash – with perhaps walnut, hard maple, cherry and tulipwood as an afterthought.

While these species are popular in the UK, there are numerous others which are abundant and which provide an array of commercial opportunity.

In the States, hardwood species are used for a vast number of everyday end-uses outside of building and construction, some not particularly surprising such as turning, carving, tool handles and also for less obvious, but collectively large volume applications such as kitchen utensils, billiard cues, toys, skis, musical instruments, butchers blocks – even chopsticks and matches.

Here in the UK, however, the mass market requirements for valuable and aesthetically pleasing timber species tends to be for flooring, panelling, mouldings, kitchen cabinetry, doors and frames and windows.

Alternative species

While white oak, ash, cherry and maple represent around a quarter of commercially available hardwood in the US (the growing stock inventory is over 11 million m³), there are some serious opportunities with the other species.

Alder, aspen, basswood, cottonwood, elm, gum, hackberry, soft maple, hickory and pecan, red oak, sassafras, sycamore and willow, to name a few, are all commercially available species with varying features and benefits for numerous everyday applications in the UK.

Tulipwood, for example, offers exceptional value for money and has excellent machining and finishing properties, making it a high-quality and cost-effective solution for a myriad of end-uses.

One conundrum is the fact that, in most of the world other than the UK, American red oak is immensely popular but here, bar a period in the mid-80s when it was popular for veneered interior doors, it’s hardly used.

It’s a beautiful species which machines well, accepts surface coatings well and is suitable for a wide range of uses including flooring, mouldings, flooring, internal casings and linings. As red oak represents around 36% of commercially available US hardwoods, it also tends to be competitive in price.

Fashion product

In many instances timber is a fashion product. The vogue for kitchens, doors, veneers, skirtings and architraves come and go – white-painted products were once all the rage for example. Now, however, timber with attractive colouring, figure and texture is popular – and not just in the commercial building sector. Hopefully, this will mean that contractors, joiners, shopfitters and builders will be asking for such items.

But instead of just waiting for consumers to ask for these products, why not inspire them with ideas? The first rule of merchandising is to put the product in “the greatest danger of being sold”! Given the fact that the broad timber trade customer base is seeking to differentiate itself in order to gain business, why not help it?

Sample displays, illustrating features and benefits, plus good POS and well-briefed staff can create new business for merchants. While the most popular species may have become “commoditised” over the years, other, more unusual species do not have a price-point perception in the UK market and margins can become very attractive as a result.