There are plenty of opportunities for selling wood from our broadleaf forests, if we focus on quality
Ireland needs to start substituting imported hardwood with home-grown timber, a Teagasc forestry webinar was told.
Seán Garvey, a furniture design lecturer at GMIT Letterfrack, told participants that 95pc of the hardwood used in the Irish furniture industry is imported.
He pointed out that Ireland imported 42,000m³ of sawn hardwood with a value of €41.1 million in 2018, including 13,000m³ of tropical hardwoods.
And during the period 2014-18, wooden furniture imports increased by 54pc to a value of €243m.
To give you an idea of recent prices for imported solid wood: GMIT paid from €765/m³ (exc Vat) for 1” beech to €2,919/m³ for 2” walnut.
Seán stressed that the focus should be on timber quality and that we need to recover hardwood processing and drying skills here in Ireland.
GMIT Letterfrack is involved in a range of research projects. One of these is exploring the working properties and utilisation of small-diameter Irish-grown alder.
Early indications are very positive: Irish alder is showing good stability and is easy to machine. Alder is also very well suited for students to practise their joinery skills, instead of having to use imported timber.
Irish alder is an under-utilised (and under-appreciated) native species. It clearly has big potential.
Sean urged growers, managers, processors, designers and end users to get together to create a new ‘Irish-grown’ hardwoods value chain, with scope for brand development.
The Teagasc webinar on small-diameter broadleaves attracted over 400 people, who also heard about small-diameter log production and its markets from Dermot Doyne, the manager of Whitney Sawmills on the Welsh/English border.
On site, they mainly cut constructional timber such as oak, Douglas fir and larch.
Most of the planking is processed at a separate high-production mill nearby, where they also have large kilns for the final drying.
The minimum diameter they tend to saw to is 300mm. They can saw smaller but in timbers with sapwood like oak, it becomes less viable. For instance, to cut beams, they work on a 33pc yield or even as low as 25pc for some oak products.
Douglas can achieve a 40 to 50pc yield. Planking, on the other hand, will achieve a yield of 60pc.
Oak is often very sappy, making it difficult to dry. Therefore, young oak is more suited to smaller-dimension items such as flooring.
Knots or other defects are not that much of an issue for flooring as that market appreciates character rather than a prime product without knots or defects.
“Buying the right oak logs at the right price is key,” said Dermot, explaining that there is less of a mark-up for oak because of the poor conversion rates or poor-quality trees.
Oak makes up 80pc of Whitney Sawmills’ seasoned timber sales, with the other 20pc comprising ash, elm, sycamore, cherry and Douglas fir.
Ash is always felled during the winter. It needs to be converted in the same year, otherwise the timber will discolour. There is no discernible sapwood, resulting in less wastage compared to oak.
Ash is very strong and lends itself to steam bending. That’s why it has been used extensively in chair-making over the years, as well as wheel rims historically.
Sycamore is very easy to dry. It is stable and like ash has no discernible sapwood. It is widely used in kitchens for chopping boards and worktops.
It is a good local substitute to American tulipwood for painted furniture. This means that lower-timber grades can be used as colour and small knots aren’t an issue.
On rare occasions, Dermot comes across rippled sycamore. This wood is much prized for musical instruments. Rippled sycamore logs can command prices over €900/m³ compared to standard-grade planking logs at €120-360/m³.
Both ash and sycamore lend themselves very well to thermal modifying for external use.
Alder timber is easy to dry and stable like sycamore. Its close grain and ability to take a stain means it can easily be made to resemble mahogany. Alder is used in saunas because of its stability, its beautiful colour, low thermal conductivity and because it doesn’t absorb water easily.
The Hardwood Focus webinar can be viewed in its entirety at www.teagasc.ie/hardwoodfocus
Ireland’s forest cover was well over 80pc before human interference but was reduced to 1pc by the early 1900s, Teagasc forestry adviser Jonathan Spazzi told the webinar.
This has increased to 11 pc, of which 29pc is broadleaf.
The state owns 36pc of all broadleaf woodlands; Coillte manages most of them. Another 43pc are privately owned and not grant-aided.
The remaining 21pc are grant-aided private woodlands. This is young and mostly planted on farms in the last 30 years and is made up of mainly oak, ash, alder, sycamore and birch.
Although the main market for young broadleaf timber is currently firewood, gradually more valuable markets are developing as the trees mature, Jonathan explained.
The aim is to produce very straight, sawlog-quality trees with a diameter of 40-60cm typically.