The market in European hardwoods is on the move. Changing customer choice prompted by difficult economic times means the industry is moving its products and service closer to the customer and end user.

Oak remains predominant and the classic range of kiln-dried boules and square-edged timber is at the top of the order. However, traders are looking to add value and promote other species, and move into the developing market for finished products and technologies such as thermo-treated timber.

Responding to the latest trends in the market is made more urgent by economic problems in the eurozone, the movement of industrial production to Asia and the export of logs that has followed. Turnover in hardwoods is expected to remain static while sawn hardwood consumption, which rose 4% in 2011, is forecast to dip 3.6% this year. Companies report customers are buying smaller amounts on faster turnaround times, with little forward ordering.

Willem de Bruin, commercial manager of Dutch trader LTL Hardwoods, maintained, however, that product remained paramount. "A fair price and excellent quality; that is the way to do business. Because of the state of the market and economy, clients have more time to do more thorough inspections on what is delivered, so what could have passed 10 years ago would go to reclamation. We just have to work harder for our customers."

LTL, which also has a US operation sourcing American hardwoods, supplies timber for interior uses such as furniture, doors, stairs and flooring up to marinas and decking. Mr de Bruin said the market was moving toward a more general specification and the company now mostly supplied kiln-dried rough sawn timber and square-edged timber of longer length and wider widths to service as many types of customer as possible.

"What we have seen in European hardwoods is the trend to look more and more like American hardwoods in grading and length and width. We used to have a fixed European dimension stock because one guy might make 5,000 chairs a year. Today he doesn’t know what he will produce next week so they need a more general specification and that tends to be like the US – longer lengths and wider widths," Mr de Bruin said.

Oak specialist Raison Bois de Débits (RBD) exports about 70% of its timber to the UK, mainly through timber merchants for timber framers and joiners, and the company said business was doing well after the August shutdown. RBD has invested in both technology and customer service in recent years in a bid, said Helen Capps-Tunwell, sales and market development, to bring the product and company closer to its customers.

"There is an element of just-in-time, but in terms of getting a price and availability, we cannot afford to take two days to reply to a quote request because our customers are having to be very reactive as well," she said. "We have focused heavily in the last 12 months on customer relationship and understanding our customers’ needs and working to give the service to the customer. I know it sounds corny, but our customers appreciate that they can depend on us to deliver the lead times and quality that we promise."

The fifth-generation family business operates from the forests of Orne in Normandy, and recently bought a timber merchant near Evreux with a customer catchment area including Rouen and the outskirts of Paris. The main site in Perrou, which is PEFC certified, produces oak beams, square-edged timber, boules, flooring and other products, and under the Innov Chene brand markets outdoor timber frame structures.

Timber frame construction
Like other businesses it has been moving away from boules, and as well as the recent addition of a pre-dryer, with a capacity of 1,000m3, has nine traditional dry kilns and one vacuum kiln. Several years ago the company invested €700,000 in a Hundegger K2 CNC joinery system for beam and timber frame construction.

"We bought the K2 about two years ago and we are certainly reaping the benefits," said RBD owner Jean-Bernard Bahier. "About 15-20% of our beam orders this month are for finished product that has been planed and machined. The Hundegger was a very large investment in Normandy and it is down to coming closer to the finished product such as the profiling of cladding and decking. Some customers do their own profiling, but it’s all about where we fit in to their needs."

Mr Bahier said boules were still required, but demand had decreased over the past few years as customers needed to get the best from their oak, and boules, in effect, was transporting waste. He said about 30% of the company’s output was beams, square-edged timber accounted for another 30% and the remainder was in boules, both green and kiln-dried, flooring and other products.

Eurochêne, a specialist in Burgundy oak based in Franche Comté, said that boules remained popular with its customers. The company has a double-cutting bandsaw with slabber, a Grecon system with laser detection and digitally-controlled optimisation, and provides steaming for uniform colouration, pre-drying, high capacity vacuum drying, planing, grooving and more recently heat
treatment ovens.

"To our great surprise, traditional products such as dried oak and beech boules have become extremely popular in interior design," said a spokesperson. "Customers are looking for wood made in France, with anti-stain sticks, a guaranteed moisture content of 10-12% and locally sourced."

In the hardwoods market, oak remains the most popular species, followed by beech and ash. The upper end market for oak joinery and manufacturing products is relatively buoyant, with demand holding up from the furniture and interior fittings market in Europe, but demand is poor for lower grade applications, such as railway sleepers and rustic flooring.

Sales of beech are growing. Decorative veneers, furniture, doors, floors, windows and, increasingly, staircases are driving the market forward with French mills producing 500,000m3 of beech a year from 1.3 million m3 of logs. This has triggered a small increase in prices since the start of the year.

Beech markets
Belgian importer/exporter Carpentier Hardwood Solutions said the best beech was sold for veneers and staircases, followed by timber for sawmills and the tops for the pallet industry and firewood. A pokesperson said the large red heart that can be found in the middle of some logs, which previously reduced the value, has lately attracted designers and architects for furniture and upmarket projects, increasing the importance of red beech.

LTL buys its European hardwood from France and Germany, and a few eastern European countries and most is dried in house. It is looking to add value, but for now will continue to outsource machining.

"Our site in Vianen has eight fullyautomated drying kilns with a total drying capacity of 1,000m³ per charge. In this way we can be sure that all the wood we supply to clients has been dried according to our standards," Mr de Bruin said.

"We are considering all the options but because the market is down we have decided not to start our own machining because we would be concerned that the machines wouldn’t get used to full capacity. We have to add value by sizing and profiling because we need to take away all the burdens of our clients to give them the least problems as possible."

Ducerf, which has three sawmills in France, has invested heavily in machining capabilities for finger-jointed panels, edge-glued panels and finger-jointed squares in 12 hardwood species. It has also followed the trend into thermo-treated timber, predominantly for oak and ash cladding and decking.

Carpentier, which also has an outdoor solutions business, offers HOT-Wood as an ecological alternative to expensive tropical hardwoods such as afrormosia, ipê and padauk for decking and cladding. It converts ash and poplar to be comparable to Class I tropical wood by heating the timber under steam pressure at its own sawmills. The company said the final product is stable and has an appealing colour, enhanced durability and increased resistance to moisture.

Eurochêne is also producing thermally-modified wood products for outdoor use but RBD has yet to make the move. It said it was continuing to look at further investment and was considering thermo-treated timber. "We are discussing the equipment and doing some tests, and talking to our existing customers, but for now it is something we are [just] looking at," said Mr Bahier.

LTL is also looking at thermo-treated wood, which it currently outsources. "This is mostly for the German market where it is more accepted. For us it would be mainly decking and in Holland that is sold on price, whereas in Belgium and France they would pay double than for alternative species," said Mr de Bruin.