At a time of unprecedented demand for European oak, why are prices at rock bottom? Why is it now unusual for businesses who invest in stock and processing capabilities to make a profit on their activities? Consumers, be they specifiers, architects or retail, place ever greater demands on the qualities of oak in order to perform functions that this natural raw material can not easily achieve. So why are consumers not prepared to pay a sensible price let alone a premium for these amazing solutions?
The problems are not exclusive to the extraordinary grades. With a drop in the level of skill in the trades, as all those who served full apprenticeships have retired, the demands on grades is out of control. Skilled craftsmen, in the past, worked with knots, stopped splits, kept the off cuts in stock to produce beads and spindles and they understood that sometimes the oak would spring overnight or that on planning “defects” would show. This was a trade that was thrifty, efficient and respected the material they used.
In parts of Europe big wide oak boards can still be produced, but they are nowhere as big as they were 20 years or even 10 years ago. The insatiable demand for (particularly in the UK) the resulting timber these exceptional trees produce, means the ancient forests have been decimated, felling too fast not allowing trees of 80 years to grow for another 20 years to provide raw materials for our children and their children and so on.
What Challenges are facing the Oak industry today?
- Merchant prices are lower today than 20 years ago
- The price of standing oak is at a record high, as the Chinese outbid the European sawmills at the annual auctions
- Nearly 60% of the Oak French harvest is being exported to China.
- 10 years ago there were 3,500 sawmills in France, today there are under 300, with 30% going out of business in the last 12 months!
- The Croatian forest has been ravaged by overharvesting and is now being attacked by invasive beetle defoliating the forest.
- In a bid to contain the beetle the Croatians are no longer exporting Roundwood. The beetle has already spread to neighbouring countries.
- Much of the oak in the UK is being supplied below cost, despite demand rising to pre-recession levels.
Oak is a natural resource – we need to protect it
We need to demand more skill from our craftsmen to use the available honest grades of Oak any tree yields. It is not reasonable or responsible to want to supply, buy or use only the top grades produced; the trees that make our countryside beautiful are covered in leaves which grow on branches which develop knots in saw logs, which means the resulting timber has character, “blemishes” of beauty and above all something that resembles what was part of a tree.
We need to accept that Oak is a high-value material and that it has taken a lot of people many years to process the tree to the point of being a material fit for a purpose such as a staircase, door, window or floor.
At Timberpride we celebrate the reality of Oak, accept its idiosyncrasy, and love it for what it is. Oak is the culmination of millions of years of evolution, it is not going to change how it behaves because someone has the money to demand the impossible. We must not waste this precious resource trying to make oak fit unrealistic demands, or selling it at below cost.