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Sept 2003 - Value Added

A taste towards Aspen

A change in wood tastes—towards lighter colours—may open the door to greater use of aspen for solid wood products, rather than its usual role as fibre for pulp and OSB.

Important markets such as Japan and Europe are developing a taste for the aesthetic appearance of high-grade solid wood products made from trembling aspen. Canadian producers could be the beneficiaries of this growing interest in aspen.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Important world markets such as Japan and northern Europe are developing a taste for the aesthetic appearance of high-grade trembling aspen solid wood products, and Canadian producers could soon be the beneficiaries. The evidence of these growing markets was presented in a comprehensive market analysis study recently completed by Forintek and appropriately titled An Assessment of Market Opportunities for Western Canadian Aspen in the United States, Japan and Europe. The study creates considerable reason for optimism. Edited by Forintek’s director of markets and economics Chris Gaston, the study shows that if Canadian aspen producers develop and coordinate their efforts, a strong market demand may already exist.

In an interview, Gaston said that the market demand information obtained in the study applies to aspen wood manufacturers across the entire boreal forest region. The boreal forest spans all Canadian provinces and territories except for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

The Japanese market for high-grade aspen products has been identified as a priority because of the enthusiasm shown by a wide range of Japanese manufacturers for the product when they were presented with samples. “In the majority of the meetings with industry principals (in Japan), I felt I was on more of a trade mission than a fact-finding mission,” writes Gaston, who authored the Japanese section of the study. “It is clear that the market demand is there in this country that prizes the attributes which aspen holds. The question is only one of continuity of supply, and of course, price.” He says Japanese manufacturers liked the look of the aspen so much that they felt it could compete with high-end softwoods, including Japan’s prized yellow cedar (hinoki), both in clear solid lumber—if in long enough lengths—and as veneer.

However, he describes the Forintek study as only “a very important” first step in the process of developing a potential new end-use for aspen. The enthusiasm shown among Japanese manufacturers has mostly to do with changes in consumer tastes. “We have seen a demographic shift in the Japanese market,” says Forintek market economist Rhonda Lindenbach-Gibson. “They are interested in aspen for just about every interior finishing application. Japanese consumers have traditionally favoured the dark coloured woods. Now, their preference is for more light, bright, almost characterless-grain wood.

Aspen is well suited for that.” This important demographic shift is not exclusive to Japan, a trend that bodes well for Canadian suppliers interested in spreading the risk over several markets. Gaston writes that in northern Europe particularly there is a fashion trend away from darker species and “knotty pines,” and towards lighter colours and more natural finishes.

The study shows that the American market provides an outlet for lower grade commodity aspen for pallet stock and finger-joint studs, as well as some niche opportunities in furniture and components, veneers, and finishing items. Western Europe may have an interest in replacing an African wood species called Ramin, and other medium and light-density white timbers such as poplar. Why is growth in the aspen solid wood market so important? There are a number of reasons. It’s a vast resource, regenerates quickly, achieves merchantable size in considerably less time than many other traditional hardwoods, and doesn’t need seeding or planting.

Also, given growing interest in agroforestry, landowners stand to gain considerably more income from selection and marketing of premium logs from an aspen woodlot than simply growing pulp and OSB material. Establishing a complete aspen solid wood manufacturing industry is the final piece of the puzzle for this species, which has seen its status elevated from ugly duckling to prom queen over the past 25 years. However, there are a number of knowledge gaps related to the production of high-grade aspen. While the Canadian forest industry has become well-acquainted with its value as pulp and OSB raw material, no one has a realistic idea of how many potential high-value aspen logs exist. Nor do they know how much high-grade lumber can be captured from a high-grade aspen log, and how log quality variables in different parts of Canada can impact on the economics of manufacturing high-grade aspen lumber.

However, experts are fairly sure of the relative proportion of sawlogs to pulp/OSB logs.“If you’re looking at 1,000 aspen trees in a stand, 100 or so—basically 10 per cent—are suitable for lumber,” says Innovation Network representative Bruce Rutley. The Innovation Network offers technical and marketing support for innovative ideas including value-added wood manufacturing projects. It is financially supported by the federal government through Western Economic Diversification, the Alberta government through Alberta Economic Development, the Peace Region Economic Alliance and the Agriculture and Food Council. “Of those 100, only 10 are suitable for furniture,” he adds. “We’re looking at about one per cent of aspen trees that are available for value-added. That’s the challenge: to be able to identify them.” On the issue of log quality, feasibility studies have shown that sawn aspen from northern Alberta compares closely with eastern aspen in appearance, strength, machineability and finishing properties.

While the same market opportunity exists for both western and eastern aspen wood product manufacturers, the level of development and interest in capturing market share is considerably different. Although a large national aspen resource exists, it is less likely that eastern hardwood producers will greet new markets for high-grade aspen with the same enthusiasm as western manufacturers because of the eastern region’s traditional focus on other hardwood species. In the past, “thanks to strong US markets, hardwood mills have not wanted to tie up their facilities with aspen as compared to higher valued oak, and maple,” says Gaston. This explains why the volume exported to Japan in the past has been, “both sporadic and expensive.”

So, despite very little existing infrastructure for producing high volumes of solid aspen wood products, making a significant capital investment in Western Canada would not necessarily put the industry at a competitive disadvantage to other existing North American-based hardwood producers. In fact, western manufacturers could derive significant benefit from the expertise developed within eastern hardwood mills by way of direct technology transfer. Finally, western manufacturers have a natural competitive advantage in transportation costs to Pacific Rim markets. Both industry and governments, looking for ways to further diversify the Canadian lumber industry in the aftermath of the American softwood lumber dispute, would like nothing more than to encourage growth in aspen lumber manufacturing.

The question is where to go from here. Boreal Research Centre manager Hugh Seaton says strong market demand must be balanced with Canada’s current ability to meet that demand. The Centre is a partnership between forestry companies and Fairview College, where considerable discussion about developing more aspen value-added wood products has been ongoing for about the past five years. “I think it will happen on an incremental basis,” Seaton says. “It’s a sizable challenge to go from low-grade products such as planks and pallets into higher value products.” Gaston agrees with this view. Forintek has proposed another study phase to build on the initial market assessment. “We have no accurate quantification yet of Japanese willingness to adopt and pay for Western Canadian solid aspen in high-end applications,” he says.

Phase II would more seriously gauge Japanese interest and commitment to manufacturing products such as furniture and interior finishes using high-grade Canadian aspen, and would also test Canada’s ability to meet their market needs. Researchers have proposed interviewing selected Japanese wood product manufacturers to determine what they would ideally like to work with. Issues such as grade mix, lengths and moisture content will be addressed. They would be offered a complimentary shipment of Western Canadian aspen lumber for further testing and evaluation. “Trial shipments will be sent to them with subsequent follow-up once they have manufactured the aspen furniture and other products,” says Gaston. “To the degree possible in securing the aspen for shipment to Japan, the economics of solid aspen lumber production will be documented.”

The study will quantify activities on the Canadian front, such as log sorts at feed decks, grade turn-out trials, and processing and drying. Further development of strategic partnerships, particularly between pulp and OSB producers and solid wood manufacturers, is also viewed as critical.

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