A red oak renaissance by Mike Jeffree | THE PLAN
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A red oak renaissance

A red oak renaissance by Mike Jeffree | THE PLAN
By Mike Jeffree -

There has never been a better time to buy American red oak in Europe. That is partly because it is in plentiful supply, partly because it is eminently affordable, with the price differential versus European oak as wide as it has ever been. American Hardwood Export Council technical consultant Neil Summers acknowledges that both these positives for the European buyer are to some extent the consequences of a negative; the fact that China, as part of ongoing trade arm-wrestling with the US, last year imposed a 10% tariff on American hardwood imports. 
The Chinese are by far the biggest buyers of US red oak, and indeed US hardwoods generally, recently accounting for up to 60% of all American exports. So the tariff, which may be cranked as high as 25% when reviewed in early March, has left a lot of red oak seeking customers.
However, going into 2019 AHEC clearly aims for price and availability to be far from the only attractions of the species on the European market. Backed by the efforts of its sawmill members themselves, it is focusing promotional and communications resources squarely on it.
It is working with designers, makers and furniture students to highlight red oak’s versatility, aesthetics and technical performance. The timber is being taken in new directions in terms of processing, finishing and end use and it will take center stage at exhibitions. The marketing campaign will also feature showcase projects across Europe, including last year’s massive use of red oak for flooring, acoustic cladding and glulam at the new European HQ of financial data and media colossus Bloomberg in London.
There will be a major stress on the species’ sustainability credentials too; the fact that it is America’s most prolific hardwood, with 2 m3 growing in the forest every second, and total growth exceeding harvest by 21 million m3 each year.
Mr. Summers does not deny that Chinese tariffs pose a challenge for US hardwood mills, leading to price cuts to red oak in particular, which have left four quarter now 40% cheaper than the equivalent European. As red oak has been particularly impacted, the price gap with American white has also widened.
“Initially wet weather restricted harvesting, so the effect of the tariff was muted to some extent, but with colder temperatures, supply has picked up and those mills with all their eggs in the Chinese basket have found it a struggle,” he said. “If the tariff is raised, and particularly as the Chinese currency has also devalued against the dollar, it will be that much more difficult, leading to possible cuts in production, even layoffs”.
But, he added, mills and end users are exploring new opportunities for red oak.
“It is being thermo treated which, of course, makes it more durable, but also very attractive and a natural substitute for US ash if supply continues to decline due to the Emerald ash borer”, he said. “There is also a trend to painting oak kitchen furniture, which also logically opens the way to more use of red oak”.
Resistance of European markets to the species, Mr. Summers feels, has been to an extent down to inertia and conservatism.
“It is more porous than white oak, so not suitable for barrels! But it machines just as well and finishes perhaps better, it bends more easily and takes treatment well for external use. It can also perfectly well substitute a species like meranti, with its similar density, permeability and grain”.
Among the red oak showcase projects this year, leading designer maker Sebastian Cox will be making a circular bar area for the Wallpaper magazine Handmade feature at the Milan furniture show.
“One of his innovations will be to force dye into the vessels of the wood under pressure”, said Mr. Summers.
Additionally, AHEC will be working with Polish furniture designer Tomek Rygalik on a red oak showpiece, which it hopes to bring to the London Design Festival, and it will also be challenging students at the Building Crafts College to fashion a table out of 2 ft3 of the timber each.
The latter project follows the success of AHEC’s design initiative with students at Ryecotewood Furniture Centre in Oxford last year. Their challenge was to make a storage unit, also out of 2 ft3 of red oak. Consequently they steamed, bent, planed, turned, oiled and stained the timber, transforming it into everything from a coffee table with a miniature oriental garden under glass, to a shoe cabinet comprising painted woven red oak veneer strips.
Interestingly the students said they would be happy to use the timber again, as did Michael Jones, project architect on the Bloomberg building at Foster+Partners – and it used 37, 160 m2 of red oak for the flooring, 1,858 m2 for the paneling and 1,350 m3 for the glulam.
The next major European airing for US hardwoods generally and red oak in particular will be the Interzum show in Cologne in May. Here AHEC will feature red oak exclusively on its stand.
“And reflecting their interest in the European market, it has organized a US hardwood pavilion for members”. said Mr Summers. “It was booked up immediately and had to be extended to a total capacity of 32 exhibitors”.
The aim at the show will be for more Europeans to discover the untapped potential of red oak, with the emphasis that there has never been a better time to do it.

Piece by Mike Jeffree, courtesy of TTJ

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