Roderick Wiles, regional director, American Hardwood Export Council

Q: How popular are American hardwoods in SA, and what is the ideal application?
A: In interiors and interior furniture, American hardwoods have become well-established in SA and very popular for high-end applications. For outdoor use, the market is only just developing, but there is a lot of potential because thermally modified (TM) American hardwoods, such as red oak, ash and tulipwood, have only recently been introduced to the market. There are a number of decking and cladding projects featuring these materials in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, with more to follow.

The SA furniture sector is also discovering this material and we are likely to see a lot of TM American red oak furniture in the near future, especially as we will be showcasing this material, in collaboration with Houtlander, in a new outdoor range at 100% Design SA in August.

Q: What is the current value of importation?
A: On average, SA annually imports about $8 million to $10 million of American hardwood lumber (sawn timber) and some $3 million to $5 million of American hardwood veneers. The market potential largely depends on the SA economy and levels of construction, both in terms of new build and renovation, as these are the key drivers of demand for decorative hardwoods, which are primarily being used in furniture, flooring and joinery. They have, over the years, developed into a key stock item for a large number of importers/distributors and they are well-known and loved by furniture manufacturers, designers and architects.

Q: What makes American hardwoods ideal for SA?
A: American hardwoods are ideal for any market where there is an appreciation for high-quality furniture, flooring and joinery. They are perfect for bespoke high-end furniture designs, such as those offered by the budding SA designer-maker community, and they are also suited to stunning architectural interiors, such as those found in houses in the Western Cape, wine farms and corporate offices.

Q: What are the durability differences between American hardwoods versus SA’s old faithful, pine?
A: It is difficult to compare hardwoods with softwoods, such as pine, as they have very different applications. Generally speaking and without further treatment or modification, American hardwoods are non-durable for exterior use, while they will last a lifetime in well-designed furniture, flooring or joinery.

The real difference is in look and finish, as the American hardwoods offer a wide range of colours and characteristics, from the dark hues of walnut to the honey tones of tulipwood and the oaks.

Q: How are woods thermally modified, and what are the benefits?
A: Thermal modification takes a non-durable hardwood and makes it suitable for exterior use. This also adds dimensional stability through a relatively simple, chemical-free and low environmental impact process that heats timber to a very high temperature in a vacuum kiln. In American hardwoods the process works best in ash, red oak, soft maple and tulipwood, making them ideal for decking and cladding applications, as well as for outdoor furniture and shade structures. The end result, known as thermally modified timber, or TMT, is ideal for the SA market, where outdoor dining and living is very important.

Q: How do American hardwoods comply to forest sustainability standards for harvesting and management?
A: American hardwoods are compliant with worldwide timber regulations on the back of the US’ well-established and proven record of sustainable forest management. Roughly 90% of the harvested hardwoods are sourced from nearly 10 million private landowners, not large corporations or the government, meaning that those who own them have a vested interest in ensuring that they are there for future generations. Between 1953 and 2012, the volume of American hardwood growing stock increased from 5.2 billion m³ to 12 billion m³, a gain of more than 130%.

Between 2007 and 2012, the volume of hardwood standing in the US increased at a rate of 124 million m³ a year, even after harvesting and natural mortality is taken into account – that’s some 4 m³ every second. The total area of hardwood and mixed hardwood-softwood forest types in the US increased from 99 million ha in 1953 to 111 million ha in 2012. This area increased consistently throughout the 60-year period and continued at a rate of 401 000 ha per year between 2007 and 2012, the equivalent of adding an area the size of a soccer pitch every minute.

Q: How do you offset the carbon life cycle of American hardwoods?
A: The data gathered and experience from numerous projects and case studies confirm that US hardwoods have a low impact on the environment from the point of extraction through to final disposal. Extracting and converting US hardwood for use in a wide variety of applications requires considerably less energy than most other materials.

A Thinkstep LCA study revealed that at least 90% of the thermal energy needed to manufacture US kiln-dried lumber came from biomass. The carbon stored in American hardwood at point of delivery to any country in the world almost always exceeds the carbon emissions associated with extraction, processing and transport.

By Kerry Dimmer
Image: Janine Petzer

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