“Cash rich, time poor” is a phrase marketeers often bandy about to describe today’s modern consumer. Although statistics reveal that over 60% of Brits have undertaken some DIY in the past 12 months, recent research shows that many increasingly prefer to buy the materials and hire professionals to do the work. As the population ages, and with younger professionals wanting the latest looks, the next generation of people wanting home improvements are no longer DIYers but DIFMers (do it for me).

It’s also a trend that helps explain the growth of MDF in the mouldings market. What was once the domain of major housebuilders has filtered down to smaller developers and subsequently the RMI market, where time, efficiency and cost are all principal concerns.

“Time is a precious commodity now and budgets and build programmes are tight,” said Alan Fillingham, manufacturing director at Palgrave Brown, which supplies the Silktrim range. “Not only that, but the time allowed for the final fixings gets squeezed and that’s where MDF mouldings come in as the fast fix, hassle-free solution. Each piece is like every other piece – it doesn’t need careful selection or remedial work.”

In fact, said Tony Miles, commercial director at International Timber, MDF is now the product of choice for the housebuilder in traditional skirtings and architraves. “There will always be a strong demand for ‘traditional’ timber, perhaps now more than ever because of the heightened awareness of the product,” he said. “But taking account of market demand, we are looking at introducing a wrapped product so we can give our customers a more rounded offer of products.”

In traditional mouldings such as architraves, skirtings and doorsets, Mr Miles said timber was always the material of choice but the industry has now ceded its position to MDF. “The timber industry must work hard to protect and develop its position in this market again and not let hardwood and softwood mouldings become sidelined as a specialist product,” he warned.

There’s no denying that MDF has shrugged off its new kid on the block tag and made serious inroads into the timber mouldings market. With MDF mouldings manufacturers bullish about the prospects for the material, are suppliers of softwood and hardwood products worried?

Taking stock

Leading timber mouldings manufacturer Richard Burbidge believes that, as the market bottoms out and starts to grow again, there will be a period of consolidation. “It’s important not to make rash changes to products or prices. Instead, I think we’ll see suppliers and customers taking stock, looking ahead to the future of the market and how best to service the needs of customers,” said product manager Ruth Sperring.

She agrees that customers are increasingly looking for DIFM home improvement solutions. “I think this will be borne out in product development in the mouldings sector over the next 12 months, with more and more products being brought to market that are focused on time-saving and ease of use,” added Ms Sperring.

Foil- or veneer-wrapped MDF mouldings are becoming increasingly popular, often combining the look of a hardwood with the performance of MDF. “For the architectural mouldings market, we are receiving enquiries for white foil-wrapped to replace using primed MDF, as no painting is required. Also, exotic real wood veneers such as zebrano and wenge are proving popular in wrapped mouldings,” said BLP UK marketing manager Tania Cheesmond.

Finnforest, whose mouldings range spans all material types, has invested in MDF mouldings – most notably an MDF primer line at Grangemouth to complement its main site in Boston. But the company stressed that, when it comes to market growth, all materials have a level playing field. “We have had to invest in being able to supply all the products and, when you do supply the full range, you get less precious about market trends,” said marketing director Tom Tong. “We are not trying to push timber because that is our core shareholder value, but we do want to make sure that we can innovate and develop that so the market doesn’t all move to MDF.”

Competitive market

Finnforest’s investment is typical of the mouldings sector. In a competitive market, suppliers are spending heavily to ensure they have the most modern equipment.

“Customers expect delivery, even bespoke materials, within days of placing their order, at a very competitive price and an ever-improving quality,” said David McDonnell, sales director at W Howard, which manufactures Primer Mould. “We realise the need, not only to replace existing plant, but to also modernise and add additional capacity. Like any prudent business, these things form part of our ongoing business plan.”

Richard Burbidge, meanwhile, has invested £250,000 in new machinery over the past year. “Even when the market slows, it is vital to continue investing in new technology to ensure that the company has the capacity to meet demand when it picks up,” said Ruth Sperring.

Other investment has seen Palgrave Brown spend more than £250,000 to dispose of MDF waste. Previously all waste went to landfill, which Alan Fillingham said did not fit the company’s environmental policy. “So we invested in a combusting machine that also generates heat for the factory floor. We hope, in time, to take this to the next step by generating our own electricity through the use of these machines.”

SAM Mouldings is also on the list of big spenders, investing more than £750,000 to keep pace with growing demand for its MDF profiles. The new kit includes a fourth beam saw, two further high-speed profile moulders and three dual-coat priming lines. The factory, which has three acres dedicated to the manufacture of MDF profiles, now has seven high-speed moulders.

“We are extremely busy but we are seeing growth coming from our existing customer base, rather than new business,” said Gerard Wilson, key accounts manager. “It is a good busy market, but we know that some of our competitors are not in the same boat. From our merchant customers, there is really mixed feedback about what the market is doing, something that could be attributed to regional variations in housebuilding.”

Mixed views

There’s no doubt that the mouldings market and housebuilding levels are intrinsically linked. But there is a mixed view about how well the mouldings market is performing in volume terms. W Howard’s David McDonnell, for example, believes the market is very buoyant, with most manufacturers reporting sales up year on year by double-digit figures.

Others are less bullish. Richard Burbidge’s Ruth Sperring says the retail sector has been hit hard over the past couple of years by the downturn in consumer spending, brought on by changes in the housing market. “This has made people more reluctant to withdraw equity from their property to invest in home improvements.”

However, prospects look better. “The market has shown real signs of stabilising over the last two quarters, with our sales across retail and trade beginning to improve,” she added.

Manufacturers agree that innovation in design and product development is critical to continue to drive the market. Pre-finished mouldings, whether in MDF or solid timber, are becoming increasingly popular, thanks to their speed of installation. “Price-conscious consumers want the cheapest materials possible, but we are also seeing a growth in specialist hardwoods,” said Ray Scott, managing director of Atkinson & Kirby, sister company to Art Mouldings, which specialises in product development to customers’ specifications. “New designs and developments are always sought after and encouraged.”

These designs seem to be polarised between the minimalist look in upmarket flat developments and the more ornate Georgian and Victorian profiles popular in the RMI market. Finnforest, for example, is trailing a Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian range in B&Q.

With the market growing on the back of increased housebuilding, the prospects for mouldings in the next 12 months look good. However, any growth could be curbed by rising costs. Suppliers are cautiously optimistic about the future, particularly about the growth of MDF at the expense of softwood. With limited numbers of new products on the market, innovation and product development could be the key to sustained growth.