Splitting the difference
Splitting the difference
Did the person facing you across the timber counter start their working life as a carpenter or a joiner? There are distinct differences in their requirements. Making good business relationships with both means understanding their needs.
Supply side perspective
“Many of those we used to know as site carpenters are now ‘timber framers’ working in the expanding timber frame housing market,” says Jason Ostler, Managing Director at Arbor Forest Products. “The lack of skilled carpenters is beginning to push the mass construction market more towards offsite produced housing, which is starting to divert at least a proportion of business away from merchants.
“To service professional carpenters effectively, merchant staff need to know
the features and benefits of each applicable product and thus be able to sell the right product for the right job,” Arbor’s Jason Ostler continues. “The skill set of small joineries is diminishing all the time, so part of the challenge for merchants is to make their timber knowledge available, thus encouraging
local joinery firms to have confidence that the merchant understands and can service their needs.”
One of the products often held by merchants for servicing local joineries is wide whitewood, often used for staircase production. Is it still a good choice as a stock item? Mark Bowers, Commercial Director at James Donaldson
Timber, thinks its use is declining as skill sets change:
“The use of wide whitewood in general joinery has decreased significantly,” he affirms. “It has been replaced to some extent with MDF in products such as windowboard, and elsewhere by laminated softwood and, increasingly, by laminated hardwood products. Regional housebuilders, often served by
builders merchants, also prefer MDF for stairs and windowboard.
“Merchants with the right approach to laminated products can do well,” adds Donaldsons’ Mark Bowers. “Smaller bespoke joiners could be a good source of business, providing you engage with them and research
their needs. Although not a volume product for merchants, laminated wood is high value proposition, so you need to sell less to make it worthwhile.”
David Whitehill, Director at Compass Forest Products, concurs: “Fewer shippers are cutting wide whitewood these days. The joinery market has also upgraded its expectations in terms of product performance
and laminated timbers are mostly the preferred choice. For the merchant it’s about finding the right product niche for your local customer base.”
Jason Dodd, Sales Manager at Setra Wood Products UK, comments: “Over time it’s become more challenging for everyone to source the large dimension log sizes which are capable of producing the big, stable sections
needed for stair manufacture. The joinery industry has now accepted that finger-jointed and laminated timber actually provide a better, stronger product, offering them less waste in the process.”
Adding his voice in agreement, Chris Bowen-Davies, Key Accounts Manager at Brooks Bros Timber, confirms that laminated products are the way forward in the joinery market: “Laminated sections are gaining in popularity year on year, and joiners are moving from softwoods into laminated hardwoods. Smaller joiners are also now warming to the
potential of laminated timbers, with stability being seen as the main advantage.”
Where should merchants start with laminated products for the joinery sector? “Merchants are understandably reluctant to make their choice from the large number of ‘standard’ laminated joinery sections still used by the window industry,” says Stephen King, Sales Director, Industrial Solutions, at SCA Wood.
“Most joinery manufacturers are still keen to have precisely their own specification, which makes life difficult in a larger-scale supply business like a builders’ merchant.
“In an area where there is a widespread joinery sector, though, it could be worthwhile for merchants to stock at least the standard sections: 100x100mm, 75x75mm and so on, as these have a multiplicity of uses,” SCA
Wood’s Stephen King adds. “The quality of the dialogue between merchants and suppliers, and merchants’ knowledge of the joinery sector’s need, is definitely improving. Engaging with local joiners and finding out what they
use regularly is the best way forward.”
David Whitehill at Compass Forest Products adds: “Today’s smaller joinery firms are much more sophisticated. Whereas previously they might have taken a piece of 63x175mm Unsorted and ripped the centre from it, they
now expect products like greensplit heart-free to be available in component lengths. This could favour a merchant with cutting facilities.”
The type of material joiners require depends on the type of work they produce. “Joiners undertaking bespoke work tend to have more input into their clients’ projects,” says Brooks Brothers’ Chris Bowen-Davies. “They favour quality hardwoods and certain clear softwoods like Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine. Light-colour temperate timbers are often used in bespoke projects, sometimes contrasted with the dark colour of Walnut.
“These days timbers like Utile and Sapele are rarely chosen by joiners for their Mahogany-like colours, as it’s been found that they machine and take paint very well. Sapele is popular for use in producing painted door framings and linings and its density also makes it a good choice for use in fire-door frames.”
“On the carpentry side, glulam beams are a product which merchants could viably take on board a small stock of more standard items,” says SCA’s Stephen King. “Structural timbers have always been a staple for merchants and there’s no reason why the same shouldn’t apply for new technologies such as glulam.”
Michael Cooper is a designer and fine furniture-maker for furniture company Benso, and is a member of the Institute of Carpenters. “Builders’ merchants face a number of challenges. The first is what to stock in the way of hardwoods,” he comments.
“ I appreciate that yard space is limited and that they’re still expected to remain price competitive whilst competing with specialist suppliers. As a
furniture maker, many of whom like me have had training in timber technology, and who know how to spot defects and identify issues, when rummaging through a rough sawn stack, we know immediately when we walk into a builders merchant’s whether they’re likely to be able to service our needs.
“First impressions count. If I were to walk in and see the builders merchant’s general softwood selection badly handled, looking shabby, disordered or damaged, it makes you think that any hardwood stock will be even worse. The tolerance of defects or damage is far less acceptable as the cost is far higher per cubic foot. We can’t afford the cost of hardwood timber that doesn’t yield a maximum return.”
The Institute of Carpenters (IoC) is rolling out a network of City Hubs, recruiting student members at many of the colleges teaching carpentry and joinery and helping them to grow their timber knowledge and experience.
Engaging with these IoC City Hubs could be fertile ground for builders’ merchants with an eye on developing a future customer base.
Carpentry and joinery students at The Building Crafts College (BCC) in Stratford on the outskirts of London are taken through hardwood and softwood species and wood science knowledge as part of their courses by
tutor Andy Mayes, who is also a member of the Institute of Carpenters. “We have roughly 200 students going through BCC each year,” he says. “Our students have visited a nearby specialist timber merchant, Blumson’s, and
visited Crispin’s Veneers, to see for themselves the range of materials potentially available to work with, in addition to covering wood species and science on the curriculum.”
Another location of an IoC City Hub is Newcastle College in the north east. Head of the Construction Academy at the College, Jason Howe, also regional chairman for the Institute of Carpenters North East/Northern region, reveals the problems in attracting youngsters into carpentry & joinery:
“Parents more often encourage their children into engineering than construction. I believe careers guidance in schools misses the opportunity to direct young people into the diverse world of construction. Technical subjects on the curriculum are being reduced rather than prioritised, which gives little opportunity to young people who would like to work with their hands in a thriving industry.”
IoC President, Geoff Rhodes crystalised the opportunity at the recent launch of the BCC’s City Hub: “The IoC now has 22 colleges in its national network, each with a college liaison officer like Andy Mayes. We’re developing this network further to address what is a national skills shortage crisis and a challenge for carpentry & joinery. Collaboration with industry partners who are keen to share knowledge and experience is really helping this process.”