In the pink

26 February 2020 (Last Updated July 30th, 2020 15:12)

Plantation hardwood is a relatively recent option for timber buyers, but its reputation is growing. Stephen Powney looks at Urufor’s Red Grandis branded timber produced in Uruguay

In the pink

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The availability of plantation-grown hardwood has given a new choice for timber buyers in recent years.

Manufacturers of the product say it represents a new source of high performance timber with a good sustainability story and providing an increasingly important alternative to traditional tropical hardwood products in the coming years.

Eucalyptus is one of the main species being utilised for commercial plantations and sawmilling operations.

Buyers may be familiar with the trademarked brand name Red Grandis, a eucalyptus grandis product manufactured by Uruguay-based Urufor and exported to about 30 countries worldwide.

It has found applications in the UK and internationally for doors, windows, cladding, furniture and interior design elements, with its distinct red-pink colour finding many fans.

UK timber importer and distributor Timbmet has been a long-term supplier of Red Grandis and in 2019 did its latest audit of the Urufor operations.

TTJ caught up with Urufor’s Nicolas Otegui, whose family set up the Urufor operation, and Timbmet recently in London.

Mr Otegui explained that eucalyptus grandis plantations were first established in north eastern Uruguay 35 years ago on land that was deemed less suitable for agriculture.

Government tax benefits encouraged the establishment of commercial plantations on the ideal sandy soil and today more than one million ha is growing in the country.

The Otegui family, whose background was in the wool industry, first became involved with trees when they won a tender to ship eucalyptus grandis logs to the Nordic countries for pulp production.

The family then started planting the trees for pulp production, before changing direction in 1992 when it bought sawmill machinery and started its own sawmill.

Initial production focused on producing small square sections, which were destined for fruit box production in Italy.

As time moved on they produced and shipped lumber, generally in 1in thickness and in random widths and lengths for many different uses.

Over time a vertically-integrated and wholly-owned operation was established that incorporated both forest ownership and management (Cofusa) and the sawmilling (Urufor) operation, with bases in Montevideo and Rivera.

A new sawmill replaced the original line in 2009 and annual capacity today extends to 170,000m3 of sawn timber – all focused on eucalyptus grandis. It is believed to be the largest sawmill operation in Uruguay.

“We are convinced that this is a product for the future,” said Mr Otegui.

“We believe the material is great for many different applications. It is a very homogenous product and performs well in all conditions.

“In Europe we are more in the window and door industry, whereas Asia it is the furniture industry and in the US it is millwork.”

Internal flooring and interior design elements are also popular, with architects and designers attracted by its colour and general aesthetics.

“We are seeing growth but we would like to see it grow even further,” added Mr Otegui. “It is a step-by-step process and we want to educate the market about the benefits and uses of the product.”

Product benefits

The integrated tree nursery operation has a capacity to produce 3.5 million plants annually from clones and seeds from specially selected trees. A genetic improvement programme has been operating since 2001.

Cofusa owns 35,000ha of plantation and has held FSC-certification since 2001.

Commercial thinning boosts the potential of the best remaining trees, with a rotation of 22-24 years before harvesting. Some 100% of harvested areas are reforested.

Average sawmill log diameters are 47cm and free of knots. The timber’s density is approximately 600kg/m3, with durability class 2-3, good stability and with a performance similar in some respects to sapele and oak.

The 1in thick material is actually less expensive than meranti, but cost of production increases the thicker the dimensions become due to the kilning process.

For instance, 2in thick material takes three times longer to dry than 1in.

Mr Otegui explained that a slow drying operation was an important prerequisite for the species. Urufor’s kiln drying capacity extends to about 16,000m3. Red Grandis KD lumber is ultimately designed for high-end applications, available in multiple thicknesses, in random width/ length and graded under international rules (NHLA).

Moisture content is 10-12% with quoted benefits including consistent colour, workability and continuity of supply compared to some traditional tropical hardwoods.

In Montevideo, Red Grandis can be seen in hotel interiors and exteriors and 6,000m2 of T&G cladding has been used on the ceiling of one of the city’s oldest markets – Agricola Montevideo.

Timbmet’s own UK offices have used the material as cladding both internally and externally.

Sustainability

Timbmet said the environmental profile of the product and the sustainability emphasis throughout Urufor was very impressive.

It regards Red Grandis as “the most environmentally friendly hardwood on the planet”.

“At Timbmet, we believe the potential of this hardwood has yet to be fully discovered,” said Paul Holstead, Timbmet’s commercial director.

“There is a message of sustainability beyond just the forest which is integrated into the whole operation.

“It’s a timber that will be available long into the future and one that only has the potential to grow.”

Additional sustainability elements at Urufor/Cofusa include 100% renewable energy sources (wind turbine and onsite biomass energy from waste), water derived from rain filled lakes and of course the organically grown seedlings.

Urufor said its strategy was to establish long-term relationships with clients offering high quality products based on sustainable forestry