By Ina Opperman
Timber is fast becoming more popular as people turn their backs on artificial materials that impact the environment negatively. However, higher demand puts more pressure on the availability of local and imported timber. We spoke to some industry players to find out more about the availability of timber for construction, products, projects and shop fitting.

Local timber

Local timbers, such as pine and saligna, offer quality wood at affordable prices for a variety of uses, says Pawel Modla from Ian Fuller Agencies Timber and Hardwood suppliers. These timbers are also easy to source and readily available.

South Africa offers relatively few locally-grown timbers that are easy to source, with pine, saligna and blackwood topping the list, explains Seamus Harcourt-Wood, director of Rare Woods SA. Although the list is short, these timbers are all sustainable wood from either plantations or are considered invaders.

According to Reinhardt Nolte, procurement director of Foresta Timber Group, the biggest area of commercial saw-log plantations in South Africa is planted with pine species, which explains why it is widely used in construction, DIY and shop fitting. “Different board and plywood products manufactured from pine are also in high demand,” he says.

Popular timbers

South Africans are spoiled for choice when it comes to timber, says Harcourt-Wood, especially when it comes to imported wood, which are regarded as more luxury or exotic woods.

Popular imported timbers in South Africa include:

  • From the US: white oak, ash, poplar and walnut and a bit of maple and cherry wood;
  • From Europe: French / European oak, Siberian larch, beech and spruce;
  • From Malaysia: meranti and balau;
  • From South America: garapa and massaranduba; and
  • From West Africa: iroko and African mahogany.

Nolte adds pine species, hardwoods, plywood, medium density fibre board and various board products to the list, saying that the popular ranges are mainly region-based, as foreign timber popularity also depends on availability.

Modla says timber popularity is also influenced by the option of imported timbers, such as American hardwoods, meranti and tropical hardwood decking from South America and South East Asia.

Availability of imported timber

“The reality is that until 30 years ago we had very little choice, but now South Africa is very fortunate to have access to a wide range of species. We have a pretty well-developed market and our range even impresses international visitors,” Harcourt-Wood says.

However, it is difficult to forecast demand for specific species, because this depends on ever-changing trends and the needs of developers. According to Harcourt-Wood they try to keep 12 months’ stock for every species.

Nolte says he finds that American hardwoods such as white oak, ash and walnut, okoume and iroko from West Africa, meranti and balau decking from south east Asia and eucalyptus, garapa and massaranduba decking from South America are all readily available.

Modla adds that that the current stronger rand also makes it easier to import timber at competitive rates.

The challenges of importing timber

Every industry has its own challenges and the timber importing industry is no different. Importers of timber have to do their homework before they order and be aware of the role other factors such as the weather can play in filling orders.

These challenges are:

  • A very erratic and long supply chain

This is especially a challenge when wood is imported and any snag in the supply chain can cause a delay in delivery.

  • Orders cancelled without notice

Orders for imported wood can be cancelled somewhere along the supply chain without prior notice if you do not buy from a reputable supplier.

  • Rainy seasons

Tree harvesting can be delayed by heavy rainy seasons or unseasonal rain.

  • Port congestion

Consignments can be delayed when too many containers are waiting at a port to be shipped or downloaded.

  • Trans-shipping

Containers are often not transported along the shortest route to the buyer and can change direction a few times before it lands in your port, causing delays in delivery.

  • Complicated import regulations and customs inspections

Containers can wait for days if not weeks in port to be inspected and cannot be moved until this is done. Incorrect import permits can also cause delays.

  • Untested suppliers

New suppliers could be a challenge if they cannot deliver what they promised.

  • Funding requirements, including paying for timber in advance

Local stockists are required to pay for timber before it is delivered and sometimes up to a year or more before they are able to sell it.

  • A volatile exchange rate

Due to the long delivery times in some cases, the exchange rate could mean that suppliers have to pay much more for timber than they budgeted for.

  • Communication difficulties

Not all suppliers speak English and some suppliers do not have reliable internet connections.

“We have to plan way in advance to overcome these challenges,” Harcourt-Wood says, “but our aim is always to ensure that we have sufficient stock on hand, so these challenges do not impact our customers, who are usually operating on much tighter timescales.”

Nolte says finding reliable suppliers who offer quality products is important for the successful importing of timber products. “Competent knowledge of the products is crucial for marketing and pricing them correctly. The stability of the rand obviously has a great effect on the viability of importing timber, while good management of the complete supply chain is of utmost importance.”

Sustainable choices

Although timber is a renewable resource and a better choice because production is less hard on the environment, it is still important to make sustainable choices. Sustainable timber is harvested from well-managed natural forests or grown in managed plantations to prevent damage to eco systems, water and wildlife on the long term.

Wood from unsustainable sources is cut without any long-term view of the impact on the environment and often involves human rights abuses, eradicating endangered species by destroying their habitats and threats to indigenous tribes. Only about 8% of the world’s forests are protected, and the world is fast losing its green lungs where forests soak up carbon, which in turn slows down climate change.

Forests in the European Union are protected by legal measures to ensure more trees are planted than cut, by placing a minimum requirement on replacing harvested trees and limiting annual harvests.

Harcourt-Wood says that there are many sustainable timber choices available in South Africa, including:

  • Timber from South African plantations, like pine and saligna, as well as invaders such as blackwood.
  • Timber from Europe and the US because the forest resource tends to be well-managed, with trees often only harvested once in a generation.

“With American and European species there should be practically no concern for the average consumer. Tropical forests can be more challenging, but if you buy wood from West Africa or South America though a European or US-based supplier, as we do, you can be assured of certain standards in terms of responsible forest management. These companies have to comply with either the EU Timber Regulations or the US Lacey Act, both of which set high standards for timber legality, traceability and sustainable harvesting.

“With all imported timbers, it is essential that we help local communities to recognise and benefit from the value in their local timber resources. If that value is not shared and managed in a sustainable manner, those forests will ultimately be lost to their biggest threats of agriculture and harvesting for firewood,” Harcourt-Wood adds.

Nolte foresees that pine will remain the species of choice for construction projects but warns that the pending timber shortages in the country will become a big factor if market conditions improve.

Harcourt-Wood sums it up by saying industry players are extremely excited about the switch back to timber as a building material for its eco-credentials, aesthetic beauty and incredible choice it offers.


Photos by Chelsea Bock, Adobe Stock and Nabila Fauzia