Time was, not so long ago, when you could walk down any high street and find not just one but two, or even three, shops selling pine furniture. Not so now. One by one they’ve been disappearing.

But they haven’t all gone, says Robin Clark, managing director of pine furniture manufacturer Corndell Furniture Co Ltd. ‘There are still a lot of shops and a lot of pine furniture manufacturers. Some don’t seem to be having a good time at the moment but we grew last year and are holding our own this year – the furniture trade generally is fairly flat at the moment.’

There are, however, few large pine furniture manufacturers left, he adds. And Corndell is one of them. Based on the edge of the attractive Cotswold market town of Witney, it places itself as second largest company in the UK – the main competitor being Ducal. ‘We don’t really clash with them as we’ve gone in different directions,’ says Mr Clark. Corndell’s main factory is over 100,000ft² and it also has a 50,000ft² warehouse for raw material storage and quality control. The workforce numbers 140, 110 of whom produce furniture.

Mr Clark and his colleague, Harold Probets, now chairman, started Corndell in a small way 27 years ago. They had a DIY store in Witney selling paint, ironmongery and whitewood furniture and began to make furniture themselves from veneered board in the workshop behind the store.

‘A furniture rep saw it and said "I could sell that", and it snowballed from there,’ Mr Clark recalls. By 1976 the furniture business could stand on its own feet. We made it and delivered it. Our wives helped us pack it and we had a part-timer to do the accounts.’

They moved into melamine-faced chipboard furniture, for bedrooms initially, and by the early 80s had started making pine furniture. ‘It really rolled along on the back of the boom in pine,’ says Mr Clark.

The Harvest range, introduced about 17 years ago, was the first major range and it has developed over the years from bedroom into living, dining, occasional and home office areas. The Country Cottage collection came on stream in 1994. The production split is about 60/40.

About 15 years ago the company moved to its present site on Windrush Industrial Park. The melamine side was discontinued, apart from a little residual business, about five years ago, around the same time that the company outgrew its then warehouse and a new one was found at a second site. This is where the timber is now delivered.

In the early days the pine came via agents from Denmark. ‘They were probably sourcing it from Sweden and laminating the board,’ Mr Clark recalls. Nowadays raw materials buyer Lucy Woodley buys the various laminated panel sizes mainly from Finland and Sweden. Main suppliers are Parlatoute in Finland and Skruf in Sweden.

Not surprisingly, the company’s ‘green’ credentials are promoted to its customers. ‘We only buy from places where proper techniques are carried out,’ explains Mr Clark.

The Finland/Sweden split is about 60/40 but this may be changing. ‘Because we buy cut-to-size they have to be very precise in their machining,’ explains Ms Woodley, and up until now this has been better in Finland. ‘But we’re buying more from Sweden than we used to because they’ve improved both their quality and price.’ Points she also looks for are no fillers, no shakes, knots must be ‘live and fresh’, no blue stain or resin, and panels should be well sanded.

‘At the moment we’re looking at a Swedish panel maker which looks very promising,’ she says. ‘Sweden is much more competitively priced, and in the market today price is a big factor.’

About 80-100m³ of timber panels arrive at the warehouse each week. ‘The computer picks out which panels are needed for that day and a shuttle lorry brings it up here to be fed into the machine shop,’ explains Mr Clark. ‘They’re all working a week in front of deliveries and we build to order what is required on a daily basis.’

Corndell’s shop floor is busy as there are five production lines producing the different ranges. The six CNC machines have been bought gradually over the past 10 years. ‘We weigh up each time if it will do the job better than what we’ve got,’ Mr Clark says. ‘And there are 100 different opinions from 100 people as to the best way to machine wood!’

Different machines cut down the panels, if necessary. Others do the drilling or routing for different mouldings, or dovetailing for drawer and door joints.

In other areas, pieces are mitred, sanded, glued and pressed, and finished, a water-based wax finish for the Country Cottage collection and spirit-based stains for the Harvest range.

Although much of the work is done with precision tools, a lot is by hand too. ‘The element of looking at it and doing hand work is important,’ Mr Clark stresses. A hand-made look and feel to the furniture is a selling point for customers too.

The company is targeting the upper end of the middle market with its two very traditional collections. A 10-strong sales team in the UK covers about 650 customers including major groups like Allders and House of Fraser and national furniture retailers Courts and DFS, as well as independent retailers. It also supplies two major UK buying groups, AIS and Minerva.

‘Both our ranges sell well,’ says Mr Clark. ‘Most furniture companies have one winner and look for a second – we have two ranges which sell very well.’

The Harvest range is still going strong, he says, because it is constantly being developed. ‘Change hasn’t been revolutionary. We’ve gradually changed pieces of style. If you put a piece which came off the line today with an earlier one you can see they’re part of the same family.’

The more recent Country Cottage collection is plainer, with a more rustic, antique feel and is aimed at a different customer. ‘We saw another market covered by antique and second-hand shops with stripped pine. So we developed a small range, trialled it in London and it did so well that we ran a complete range,’ explains Mr Clark.

Finishes have also evolved over the years. ‘When we first started, most people wanted a clear lacquer so you could see the pine as it was, but for a number of years people have preferred colours.’

So in which direction does he see the company going? It’s well established in the UK market and exports to the Republic of Ireland, France and Germany. ‘But all these countries are linked to the euro which has made our products more expensive,’ he points out. So the company is now turning its attention to the US, exhibiting at High Point for the first time. ‘We’ve had an agent there for about seven months and he’s convinced our products will sell,’ says Mr Clark.

Meanwhile things are on the move at home too. At the Furniture Show at the NEC in January a completely new range is to be unveiled, about 15-20% up on price on the other two. It’s much heavier, distressed and in a deeper, richer colour – and in a surprising mix of styles, though still traditional.

It was developed gradually and trialled with retailers who all liked it, says Mr Clark.

‘We’re thinking up something different all the time. If you stand still you go back.

‘One of the problems with the Harvest range is there is so much of it,’ he adds. ‘Looking for something to go into it that’s different yet commercial is difficult. We try not to make too many changes, so we refresh it every year. We drop older, tired pieces and hopefully bring in new ones with a commercial design instead.’

Evolution rather than radical change is clearly the company’s philosophy. It’s an ongoing process, says Mr Clark. ‘Harvest may not always do well so we have to be prepared. We reissue the catalogue most years with variety and change and this year we have a completely new range.’

So does he see the demand for pine continuing? ‘Our experience is that at the moment there is a market for pine. But no-one is guaranteed a meal ticket for ever. It’s just a matter of being as near to being one step ahead with everything as you can be.’