The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), the leading international trade association for the American hardwood industry, has thrown the spotlight on thermally-modified American hardwoods during a trade servicing mission to Istanbul earlier this month. With an industry goal to increase sales of U.S. hardwoods, AHEC is focused on developing existing markets as well as finding new markets and applications for American hardwoods. According to Roderick Wiles, AHEC Director for Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Oceania, thermal modification is a relatively simple, but carefully controlled heating process, which when applied to a select few American hardwood species effectively turns non-durable interior timber in to a material that can be used outside and even in high moisture environments.
Growing environmental awareness and stricter environmental regulations are forcing end users to look for timber from sources which have a proven record of sustainable management and low environmental impact. The process of thermal modification is now able to provide temperate hardwood species with the requisite durability and resistance to decay that was, traditionally, only offered by tropical hardwoods. Whilst the concept is not a new one, thermal modification today is an industrial process, using painstakingly developed technology and it truly represents a new opportunity for American hardwoods. The thermal modification process, a clean and energy efficient technology, uses high heat in a controlled atmosphere to improve both the dimensional stability and the decay resistance of wood by permanently altering its chemical and physical properties.
“By using hardwood sourced from America’s well-managed forests, thermally-modified U.S. hardwoods provide an affordable and sustainable alternative to certain alternative species which might have a questionable source,” said Roderick Wiles. “The thermal modification process limits the ability of the wood to absorb moisture, so the product is more dimensionally stable and less prone to cup, warp and twist with changes in relative humidity. This increase in dimensional stability significantly extends the service life of applied finishes, reducing maintenance costs. The thermal modification process also removes those nutrients in wood that would otherwise provide a food source for insects and wood-destroying fungi. As a result, the end products do not contain any toxic chemicals to improve longevity and performance.”
Thermal modification opens up tremendous opportunities for manufacturers of wood products. The improved moisture resistance and dimensional stability of thermally-modified hardwoods make them an excellent option for wood flooring in spaces where solid wood flooring has traditionally been ruled out for reasons such as contact with water. Whilst, engineered wood floors have been substituted in many of these areas, strip or plank flooring made from thermally-modified or TM hardwood lumber may be a solution to growing the available market for solid wood flooring. There is also an opportunity for furniture manufacturers to produce wooden outdoor furniture made from TM hardwoods and offer it as an alternative to traditional species, such as teak. In principle, hardwood furniture could be made from lower-cost species, such as ash, red oak, tulipwood and soft maple.
“Thermally-modified hardwoods also offer the possibility to produce more specialized wood products for those consumers looking for something unique in their homes. For instance, thermally-modified wood has been used to replace tiles on a shower floor. In Europe, TM wood has also been commonly used in spas for sauna benches because of its durability and low heat transfer. Homes with decks, balconies and patios are also potential spaces for TM hardwoods. Composite decking products tend to be commonly specified, however treated softwoods or cedar are also used. Thermally-modified hardwoods have the potential to replace both, particularly for those building on the waterfront. With a rich brown color, the appearance and uniform coloration rival that of many tropical hardwood species and its color alone may be enough to win over end users,” added Wiles.
The trade servicing mission saw Roderick Wiles and Neil Summers, AHEC Technical Consultant conduct site visits with leading wood processing factories in Istanbul, Duzce and Bolu. The visits, which were aimed at reinforcing trade ties with key players from the timber industry in Turkey, revealed a high level of awareness and understanding of American hardwoods, with two of the companies actually producing thermally-modified American hardwoods from imported lumber. Turkey is seen as offering major long term growth potential for American hardwoods, both as an end consumer and in its capacity as a high end producer of wood products for export, such as doors, windows, furniture and, more recently, thermally-modified hardwood cladding and decking.
“The potential for thermally-modified American hardwoods is certainly promising, both in established markets as well as in developing ones. Somewhat limited availability may be a constraining factor for the immediate future, but this is changing very quickly, as producers adopt the technology across the United States, Canada and also in Europe and Asia. As the product becomes better known, it is anticipated that its potential as an alternative option in exterior applications or in wet environments will be exploited widely. Its consistent rich brown color, its dimensional stability, resistance to decay and its environmental credentials all point to it being one of the most exciting new products the wood industry has been able to offer in recent years. With the current vogue for timber cladding and decking, as well as exterior timber structures and street furniture, we hope to see American hardwoods featured in an even wider range of applications in Turkey in the near future,” concluded Wiles.