A renewed impetus to the UK timber windows market has helped ensure significantly brighter conditions for many domestic joinery firms. While a high proportion of companies had voiced concern about order levels earlier this year, healthy levels of demand over recent months have allayed fears, with most firms now seemingly envisaging a positive market outlook for the remainder of this year and into 2007. The upturn has been sufficiently strong for some joinery firms to push through much-needed but limited price increases.

According to the British Woodworking Federation (BWF), feedback from its membership suggests that some companies are “very busy” or even “flat out” – a stark contrast to the situation in the first three or four months of 2006 when many firms were “unsure where the work was going to come from”. A federation spokesperson commented: “We are not up to where we were a couple of years ago but people are generally less worried now about the flow of work.” He said that the improvement in market conditions was reflected in the fact that only four BWF members had entered liquidation this year compared with nine in 2005.

There are some sources of concern, however. While the prospects for 2007 are being viewed with a degree of optimism, there is a worry that another interest rate rise could have the same effect as its predecessor in slowing business momentum. At the same time, many joiners are reportedly struggling to cope with the impact of escalating energy prices. TTJ was told this week of a company which, having striven to halve its electricity consumption over the course of a year, was still facing a significantly higher bill. Year-on-year energy cost increases of up to 80% are not unusual.

Most of the timber window producers contacted this week reported strong recent sales. One source said: “We have been up to capacity all summer – and we still are now. October is full and November is starting to fill up very quickly.”

Timber window sales

As reported in TT, Jeld-Wen is among those manufacturers to have experienced a recent surge in timber window sales, notably in the public sector and in housebuilding. Elaborating on some of the reasons underlying this growth, the company’s product manager Tony Pell pointed to the perception of timber products as being of a higher value; the enhanced guarantees offered by factory finishing; the high-profile development of accreditation and chain of custody schemes for the timber used in windows; and increased public awareness of the positive thermal properties of timber windows.

On the final point, however, a spokesperson for BM TRADA said that many timber window manufacturers were continuing to hand a marketing advantage to their PVCu rivals by not signing up to the British Fenestration Rating Council scheme which issues energy performance ratings based on independent testing. As an independent agent for the scheme, BM TRADA was receiving a constant stream of enquiries from PVCu manufacturers but not from timber window producers, he said. The latter were therefore missing out on an opportunity to demonstrate and promote the strong thermal properties of their products.

Despite what some manufacturers described as a more pronounced swing away from PVCu in favour of timber over recent months, most timber window manufacturers reported little scope for raising their prices in what remains a “very competitive” market place. This was unfortunate, said one, given that timber costs had risen by, in its own case, around 12% since April this year. Log shortages and other factors have combined to create continual upward price pressure on redwoods, whitewoods and panel products. Noting shortages particularly among the machining sizes, one contact pointed to evidence of manufacturers quoting extended lead times to cover themselves in the event of difficulties sourcing supplies of timber.

Also worthy of note is the emergence in the UK market of greater volumes of imported timber windows, particularly from Poland.

Co-ordinating doorsets

In terms of buying trends, several contacts reported a demand for co-ordination of windows with doorsets. As for the door and doorset markets themselves, some difficulties have been reported over recent months in obtaining hardwoods and plywood, notably from traditional Far East suppliers. As a result, a trend towards MDF moulded skins is expected to gather pace as joiners seek to eliminate not only supply worries but also concerns over sustainable sourcing.

The timber stairs market is continuing to move in the direction of pre-assembled components such as handrails and balustrades, partly in response to a reduction in the availability of skilled site staff but also to minimise the potential for damage. The stairs market has been adversely affected by the long-term trend towards flat-building at the expense of traditional houses, but one major manufacturer suggested that products accompanied with the offer of fire protection were proving increasingly popular for common-flight properties.

In line with conditions in the timber windows and doors markets, recent months have yielded few opportunities for stairs manufacturers to introduce price increases.

In the architectural joinery sector, meanwhile, several of the companies reporting strong business growth attributed a significant proportion of this upturn to the demise of competitors. A senior spokesperson for a firm which specialises in commercial fit-out work has been very busy since February. “I don’t believe this has much to do with a general upturn in demand – it’s more that a lot of companies have been closing down in the specialist joinery sector,” he said. “We were doing a lot of tendering in the past (but with limited success). Now the work has become easier to win.” The company had been over-committed throughout the summer and was currently gauging the feasibility of taking on further work before the end of the year, he added.

Conditions for the company had improved to such an extent, he said, that it had managed to raise its prices by around 5%, partly in a bid to recoup the costs associated with having to employ additional contract managers to handle the larger volume of work. At the same time, the higher quotes were an attempt to offset the strong upturn in timber and energy-related costs, as well as the impact of a substantial pay award for its workforce during the summer.

On the issue of labour, he reported ongoing difficulties in finding apprentices who were able to stay the distance, noting that many found difficulty in keeping up with the course paperwork. As for experienced staff, he pointed to particular problems in recruiting site foremen and contracts managers – a complaint echoed seemingly throughout the sector.

Several other architectural joiners bemoaned the lack of bench joiners becoming available because of the attraction of higher wages for site working. However, according to one manager, machinists had become easier to find because of the number entering the job market due to the collapse of many UK furniture-making businesses.

Consumer taste

As for customer tastes in timber, darker species appear to be continuing to hold sway – with American black walnut attracting particularly strong interest. Many customers are reportedly looking for more unusual species for their projects, but then find themselves on the horns of a dilemma when informed that their demands for FSC accreditation/chain of custody cannot be met.

On the news front, all members of the BWF’s Timber Window Accreditation (TWA) scheme are now officially “kitemarked” following on from the link-up two years ago between The Federation and the British Standards Institution. A BWF spokesperson said that use of the world-renowned kitemark symbol would give TWA scheme members “instant recognition” for the quality of their products and for their willingness to meet “the toughest of requirements”. The kitemark enhanced the credibility of the TWA scheme and would serve as a useful tool when looking to persuade other timber window manufacturers to join its ranks, he added.