Hardwood is a term used for broad-leaved trees (in temperate climatic zones most hardwood trees drop their leaves in Autumn, whereas in tropical zones it is mainly during the dry season that leaves are dropped). These trees evolved to adapt to a very wide range of climatic conditions and range from quite cold regions to tropics. (Birch and poplar grow into the coniferous forests of the north and are commercially important for plywood and chipboard, as well as for fuel.) Hardwoods range from small to some of the tallest trees in the world, from the very light weight to the super heavy weight, from slow growing to the extremely rapid gowing, from perishable to the extremely durable, from weak to super-strong, from insipid to the very beautiful. There is a hardwood for almost every application.
The bulk of the UK consumption of hardwoods comes from the temperate zones of Europe and the USA. Having growing seasons, these timbers often have pronounced growth rings that impart distinctive figures. The tropical regions of Africa, South America and Asia contain a huge variety of timbers. Whilst many are important as timber trees, they also supply many minor forest products such as nuts, cocoa and medicines. We are all aware of the destruction of tropical forests, but logging for timber is not the main culprit. The pressures are complex, such as land ownership and agriculture. EC regulation requires all buyers to ensure that supplies are legal and from certified sustainable sources.
Many commercial hardwoods are used for joinery, furniture production, flooring and cladding, but some are used for heavy construction.
The UK is not very significant as a hardwood supplier. Pressure on suitable land, unfriendly climatic conditions and the ready availability of supplies from other countries do not give any commercial incentive for growing hardwoods. However, there are regional niche markets that can be exploited. For example, coppice chestnut, cricket bat willow and hazel rods (for thatching), in addition to oak for joinery and structural items.
Common commercial temperate hardwoods:
- Oak (strong, durable and attractive figure)
- Ash (a current fashion for light coloured timbers)
Common commercial tropical hardwoods:
- Utile & Sapele (red coloured timbers)
- Meranti (red and white)
European oaks, at least 650 years old.