Business was generally rather muted for the joinery trade in the early months of 2006 but gathered to a crescendo in the late third quarter and for most of the fourth quarter. And, according to companies spread across a wide range of disciplines and specialisms, order books are looking reasonably healthy for the early months of 2007 at least. Nevertheless, the environment remains competitive, with some joiners still noting evidence of “undercutting in order to get the work”.

While the domestic repair and maintenance sector remained fairly quiet in the run-up to the Christmas break, the volume of commercial work – notably within the London office fit-out market – was providing plenty of encouragement. Enquiries from the shopfitting sector, by comparison, had been somewhat patchy.

For factory-glazed, fully-finished timber windows, manufacturers were reporting well-filled order books both for the fourth quarter of 2006 and for the early part of 2007. At the same time, however, they pointed to increased pressure from imports – notably from the Nordic countries, the Baltic states and Poland.

Doors and doorsets

Doors and doorsets have also attracted substantial buying interest, although the market is said to be less buoyant than that for timber windows. Having noted strong orders for fire doors, a spokesman for the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) added: “More and more people are coming to us asking for certification under our Certifire fire door scheme because they sense they are losing work because they are not certified.”

Timber stairs have enjoyed consistent demand on the back of new build projects, with purchasing trends continuing to veer in the direction of pre-assembly to reduce on-site skills requirements and damage.

Opinions differ as to the reasons for this positive change in business tone but one contact with an overview of the joinery sector suggested that many prospective clients had been anticipating a relatively rapid increase in interest rates during 2006 and so had deliberately cut back on spending plans. The more measured rise in rates had therefore come as a pleasant surprise to many and had led to a gradual upturn in projects being placed.

Overall, business conditions in 2006 were noticeably more joiner-friendly than in 2005. For example, the BWF lost around 2% of its membership to company failures in 2005 but, last year, saw fewer companies disappear from the trade for purely business reasons. This improvement occurred despite the prolonged “hangover” from the energy price peaks witnessed early in 2006.

Tightening supply

The fact that many joinery enterprises were reportedly working “absolutely flat out” in the latter third of the year served to underscore other concerns facing the sector. Some raw materials are proving difficult to source and prices have been rising at a rapid rate; for example, major timber window and door manufacturers were reporting increases of up to 25% over the past three months in redwood prices, as well as very little price flexibility on the part of the shippers. Several contacts also pointed to increasing tightness of whitewood supply and to the likelihood of significant further price hikes.

Faced with these conditions, some companies have been “looking at alternative timbers”, TTJ was told, while many have been forced to reflect these elevated costs in higher finished product prices. According to one joinery firm, it has taken the step of showing suppliers’ letters to sceptical customers in order to convince them of the scale of raw material price hikes.

As several contacts pointed out, the steep rise in wood costs is doing nothing to improve the competitive position of timber windows in relation to their PVCu counterparts.

At the same time, however, it should be noted that timber is not alone among raw materials in having sustained massive price increases: as one joiner pointed out, stainless steel prices have soared this year, not least because the cost of one of its major ingredients – nickel – virtually trebled during the course of 2006.

In terms of timber trends, orders for the lighter species such as maple have now been overshadowed by demand for darker woods – notably black walnut – and for more unusual finishes such as zebrano. “Curved furniture such as reception desks are still in vogue and so it’s been good for flexible veneers,” said one source.

The healthy order files experienced of late have also heightened joinery firms’ requirement for skilled labour – which remains in short supply, with bench joinery and supervisory vacancies seemingly proving particularly difficult to fill.

Describing skills shortages as perhaps “the biggest strategic issue in the woodworking industry as a whole”, a BWF spokesman pointed to the recent formal launch of his organisation’s Training Forum in a bid to influence training provision at the strategic level and to help devise an offer which dovetails with industry needs. Feedback from members has indicated that some courses either fail to develop much-needed skills or offer “too many modules that are irrelevant”.

BWF signatories

More than 80 BWF members have already signed up to the forum, which is also open to non-members. Its first step will be to identify those colleges already offering joinery-related courses so that these can be mapped on the federation’s website.

The aim will be to encourage feedback on the quality of the individual courses and to use this information to help colleges gain a better understanding of clients’ requirements. Another option, said the BWF spokesman, would be to develop a formal, national structure for on-site training assessment.

Not for the first time, a number of contacts in the architectural joinery sector pointed to difficulties in securing high-standard trainees. One contact said that many are defeated not so much by the practical skills required for the job but by poor literacy levels and a lack of “softer” skills such as communication. This was a major concern and, over time, would undoubtedly prompt more companies to go down the route of further automation, said one expert.

As for other major issues affecting the joinery trade, a substantial proportion of tender documents are now asking for sustainability credentials. In this context, joiners with chain of custody certification should take encouragement from the successful completion of Hollybrooks Homes’ Westside Apartments pilot development in Ilford.

The 73-home timber-framed housing complex has become the first project in the world to have been fully certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). According to backers of the project, which include Greenpeace, it has proved the commercial viability of building homes using certified timber, without increasing the cost or build time.

Increasing demand

According to a spokesperson for BM TRADA Certification Ltd, which was the independent certification body for Westside Apartments, such projects have the potential to increase demand for FSC products. In addition, main contractors would increasingly call on certified companies – including joiners – to complete specialised tasks within a project of this nature.

Meanwhile, a boost could be in the offing for timber window manufacturers whose products are energy rated under the British Fenestration Rating Council (BFRC) scheme. A PVCu window maker has launched a campaign to have VAT reduced to 5% on all products which carry a BFRC rating. The company in question has asked all producers of energy-rated windows to call on their local MPs to support the tax cut. TTJ was told: “Window manufacturers have gone to the expense of going through the [rating] process and this would help them achieve a differential.”

According to the BWF, the PVCu window industry has been investing heavily in promoting its sustainability credentials. There was a need for the timber window manufacturing sector to respond by developing its own life cycle assessment data “and this is something the industry will have to work on in 2007”, TTJ was told.

Also this year, the new European standard EN 14351 Part 1 is due to emerge and is expected to pave the way for CE marking of timber windows.