Vastern Timber: changing the timber mindset

Vastern Timber is the largest hardwood saw-milling company in the UK, with the vast majority of its wood bought and sold within one hundred miles of its sawmills. We spoke to managing director, Tom Barnes about homegrown wood, thermal modification and supply and demand.

Q: How has the last 12 months been for the business? It’s been a rollercoaster but with more ups than downs. Apart from the initial lockdown in March 2020, demand for our timber has been strong and the last nine months have been our busiest ever. As well as general high demand, shortages of imported timber and an increasing focus on supply chains have pushed specifiers and customers towards homegrown timber and we have definitely benefited from that.

Q: The timber market appears to be very busy right now and prices are rising. What is driving this and is it affecting the homegrown market? The construction sector drives the timber market, and I am surprised by how busy that has been. I think most of us were expecting a recession on the back of the Covid pandemic but it seems the opposite has occurred. High demand in this country has been replicated in the USA, Australia and across Asia, which has created a very competitive environment. At the same time, supply has been constricted by lockdowns and for various reasons large supply countries have reduced felling. The consequence is that prices for some timber products have doubled and availability has halved over the last year. The knock-on effect is that UK softwood log prices have increased by 40% and competition for them is fierce.

Q: The Brimstone range is the only UK grown thermally modified timber – what made you develop this product originally? Brimstone grew out of a collaboration between partners including Grown in Britain, BRE and industry who joined forces to consider solutions to the poor state of our native broadleaf woodlands. Out of this came the idea that by thermally modifying fast growing white hardwoods we could increase demand for the timber, thereby increasing its value and as a result boost rates of woodland management. As we at Vastern Timber already had all of the capabilities to process the raw timber, it seemed like a logical step to explore the potential for producing thermally modified wood from homegrown hardwoods.

Q: As is widely reported, a healthy UK homegrown timber supply needs more trees to be successful – not just for a healthy construction industry but for hitting zero carbon targets – can the UK forests supply enough raw material to sawmills to satisfy the market? The simple answer is no. But the data suggests that global forests cannot supply our future needs either. We face the perfect storm of declining domestic supplies caused by a lack of planting and increasing global competition for timber as countries urbanise and attempt to reduce embodied carbon in buildings. Add to this mix the loss of forest due to deforestation, disease and climate change and it is hard to see how we will be able to source enough timber to achieve our ambitions. In April I spoke to the Parliamentary Group on Forestry and Tree Planting, urging them to develop a National Timber Strategy to reconcile our increasing demand for timber and timber-based products with reducing national and international supply. Ultimately, we cannot control international supply but we can take bold steps to boost domestic forestry for the future.

For the complete feature read the Summer 2021 Issue of Timber Construction


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