The old saying goes that 'a good start is half the work' and this is certainly true if you want to grow quality broadleaf trees.
If you want to sell quality hardwood timber, you need to grow long, straight lengths of timber. Shaping is key if you don't want to feel the pinch in your pocket.
Top quality planks are sawn from the straight trunk of the tree. The place on the trunk where the first fork appears is the start of the tree crown.
If the fork occurs one metre above the ground when the tree is two years old then the same fork will still be about one metre above the ground forty years later.
If shaping is not carried out in time, this will make for a very short saleable length of trunk.
By removing forks or very large competing side branches while the tree is still very young, you can 'move' the crown higher up the tree thereby extending the length of the trunk (pic 1). This process is called 'formative shaping'.
There are several reasons why young trees may fork. It can be caused by exposure, frost, animal damage, insects or diseases.
It is therefore very important to regularly check your trees so that you know when the forking occurs. It is much easier (and cheaper) to shape when branches are still light which also gives much better results later on.
Shaping is a very straightforward and satisfying operation resulting in an immediate improvement in tree form. First of all, choose a single straight dominant shoot as a leader. Forks can be corrected by removing the weaker (and crooked) side of the fork. Also remove very large side branches. A rule of thumb is to remove heavy branches where their thickness is more than half the width of the main stem or trunk. However, it is not a good idea remove light side branches.
Shaping should start early once trees are growing vigorously. This usually means when the trees are two to four years old. It is essential to use good quality, clean, sharp secateurs. Loppers and a pruning saw may have to be used if shaping is left very late.
It is usually necessary to carry out more than one shaping. Don't remove too much of the foliage, the tree needs its leaves to grow strongly.
A correct cut is made just outside the branch collar without leaving a peg.
The difference between carrying out a simple operation like shaping early on in the life of your broadleaf trees or not will make the difference between top quality hardwood timber and very expensive firewood.
Consider the fact that one cubic metre of kiln dried hardwood firewood may retail for around €150/m3 while kiln dried, premium grade hardwood boards may sell for around €1500/m3. The choice is yours.
Steven Meyen is a forestry adviser with Teagasc