Mixing the old and the new

19 November 2014

Does the apparent rush for standardisation in mouldings mean the end of bespoke production? Camilla Hair of Snows Timber investigates.

Bertolt Brecht is reputed to have said that "old and new wisdom mix admirably". In the world of timber mouldings, is "new wisdom" taking over completely from the old? Is there still a need for bespoke pattern matching, and a sufficient skills base to service it?

Around 55% of England's housing stock is pre-1964 in date, with almost 20% built prior to 1919, according to the English Housing Survey. There should thus be good business in replacement bespoke mouldings for older properties, yet at the mid-point in the supply chain, at the builders merchants, demand is not clear-cut.

Builders seem to opt for a more standardised range of mouldings, as Stephen Davies, managing director of SJS Building Supplies in Stoke-on-Trent explained.

"We have very few requests for bespoke mouldings - perhaps one or two per month," he said. "There are lots of Victorian properties in our area and some customers do want to replace like with like, such as the old 7in skirtings. Most builders, though, stick to only a few patterns: torus, ogee and pencil round mostly, with the occasional request for lamb's tongue.

MDF Mouldings
"The biggest trend we see is towards MDF mouldings, simply because they are straight, no defects, quick to install and ready-primed for painting. Customers want that kind of fast-fix product. It's now getting to the stage where MDF mouldings are almost cheaper than redwood," said Mr Davies.

It's become accepted that most suppliers to the builders merchant sector, including Snows Timber, now offer a range of MDF alongside their machined redwood and whitewood mouldings. Steve Reed, manager at Beachwood Timber in Brighton, feels timber producers could do more to address the situation.

"MDF mouldings are faster for tradesmen to fit," he said. "It's a warning to traditional timber mouldings suppliers to look at what they can offer to make the tradesman's job easier. There's a lot of competition today and at the very least suppliers should take note and increase the quality of their offering."

Mr Reed also recognises, however, that there is a need for the old and the new in timber mouldings.

"Demand for the different moulding patterns is kept alive through the large number of listed properties in the Brighton area," he said. "As part of listing, maintaining the decorative elements of the property in keeping with its period is essential. We no longer undertake bespoke machining ourselves, preferring to outsource that to our timber suppliers. Amongst standard profiles we keep ogee and ovolo, with torus being popular for newbuild developments."

Snows Timber is one of the suppliers producing outsourced bespoke mouldings for merchants at all four of its production sites.

Staff at Simeon Bateman, founded in 1788 and one of the oldest privately-run timber merchants in Britain, have seen their fair share of change in the timber mouldings market, but bespoke work is their main area of trade. Ken Hughes, owner and managing director, said there's still a large market in providing a bespoke service for period properties.

"Fashions in mouldings come and go, but there are few of us offering consistency in knowledge and skill across a wide breadth of timber species and historic patterns, so our services are much sought-after."

"Newbuild property developers often go for the more standard patterns," continued Mr Hughes. "If builders are renovating a Victorian house, for example, it wouldn't be unusual for them to replace all the wood mouldings with a cheaper, more readily available option. It would be far less costly and much faster to fit than supplying a like-for- like original section. In that respect we have - reluctantly - bought in a small range of MDF mouldings. It has to be admitted they are selling well to trade and DIY alike, and are now competing with our softwood range.

"Other builders, architects and homeowners tend to focus on keeping with the original style and period of the house when renovating, and so our specialism in bespoke mouldings brings us a decent proportion of our business," said Mr Hughes.

Future Trends
"With the age of the UK's housing stock, and our historic ancient buildings, contractors and private customers still need bespoke machining. Much of our work comes by word of mouth. This even applies to matching profiled patterns for hotels and English Heritage properties. Our skill and knowledge is what, I believe, they value most."

What of the future? Will the "old wisdom" of bespoke mouldings continue to be offered commercially?

"At some point we will need to replicate our woodworking skill base for the continued success of the business," said Mr Hughes. "But finding the right young people to entice into the wood machining sector is very difficult, and could spell disaster for the future."

Let's hope the award-winning apprenticeships campaign run by the British Woodworking Federation can ensure that "old and new wisdom" can continue "mixing admirably".

Snows Timber’s redwood mouldings production
American oak mouldings from Snows Timber