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American hardwoods faced a very challenging market conditions that have emerged in the last 18 months.

The American hardwood industry was hit first by the introduction of swingeing duties on imports into China during the US-China trade dispute, which led to a sharp decrease in US hardwood exports in 2019. This has been followed by another sharp downturn in export sales during the pandemic.

In the US domestic market, house starts have remained quite strong this year, propping up demand for hardwood in the cabinets, flooring and mouldings sectors. However, industrial markets for American hardwoods – such as for gas/oil field board roads, railroad ties and pallets – which have become increasingly important for US hardwood mills in recent years, fell sharply in March and April.

The US hardwood industry reacted quickly to falling demand this year by slowing production. However, the impact has varied widely between species. Red oak kiln dried sawn lumber is still available at prices around 20% less than those prevailing in 2018 before the effects of the US-China trade dispute became apparent. In contrast, availability of white oak kiln dried lumber is very limited and prices are nearly 60% greater than in 2018.

This situation has contributed to red oak making more inroads into the European and UK market this year, although it is still only a relatively small share compared to white oak.

Supply of American white oak will likely remain very tight for the remainder of this year. This is particularly true of thicker sizes which require longer in the kilns encouraging producers to focus more on thinner stock where turnover is quicker.

Prices are quite firm for higher grades of sawn walnut and tulipwood, the other key American hardwood commodities sold into Europe. However, prices are softening for lower grades. Supply is a problem, with some specifications of both species becoming harder to fulfil since the start of the pandemic.

Freight rates on transatlantic routes are known for their robustness, a contrast to the volatility often seen on the transpacific and Asia-Europe routes, but they are now coming under intense pressure as trade volume has fallen.

Transatlantic freight rates are falling and are now about 10% down on 12 months ago, but there are also a lot of blank sailings in response to the low demand and it can be difficult to get bookings out of some US ports.

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