Think you know plywood?

Added 04.20.23

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has resulted in government sanctions that prohibit the import and acquisition of all wood products coming from Russia.  As many of our customers know, this has affected the supply of Birch plywood, which is consumed in high quantities in the UK.  So what alternatives are available? 

Whilst it’s true the majority of birch world stocks did come from Siberia, there’s a misconception that, because the UK no longer has access to this particular supply chain, this material is now out-of-reach in the UK.

In fact, for over 100 years James Latham has been working with an array of birch ply manufacturers from across Europe, producing to exactly the same standards as Russian counterparts, and at a competitive price point. Whether from Latvia, Estonia, Poland or Finland, there are many suppliers of excellent quality.

We also feel we should make our customers aware that the shortages have seen a rise in lower quality and even imitation products. So, it’s important to remember that not all birch ply is manufactured equally and it’s wise to tread with caution when approaching non-Russian ply.   Whilst you can be sure that EU-sourced products have undergone the strictest testing and quality control, the same cannot be said for cheap, less credible, imports promoted by some as an identical replacement for Russian ply at a lower price.

Trustworthy supply chains matter

As readers will know, plywood is a multi-layer product in which the grain of each layer of veneer is alternated crosswise to create a strong surface. In Russia and Europe this is 11-13 plies for 18mm panels, whereas cheaper Asian imports only incorporate seven.  Superficially, you might think you’re buying a better value alternative, but you’re actually purchasing an inferior one, on every level.

Our dedicated ply team has heard that some producers in Turkey, Kazakhstan and China are using individual laminates of Russian Birch, which are then manufactured into plywood sheets ‘in country’ to make a finished product. This is neither good quality or, for that matter, legal, and should be avoided at all costs.

So, our advice is: if you’re looking for a like-for-like non-Russian ply, stick with officially certified European replacements to avoid disappointment and potential prosecution.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that there’s more to plywood than birch.  Recent improvements in plywood performance and composition have also resulted in other, similar, sustainable products within the category. These new materials, which use a variety of different timber veneers, offer the same quality as birch ply, creating a broader selection to reduce the impact of supply shortages.

An example of this is Garnica’s maple-faced Globulus, one of the most exciting new ply products available. Created in response to the recent turmoil in the birch ply market, Globulus is an industry first. Essentially, it enhances the properties of poplar ply by alternating each layer with a robust blue gum eucalyptus veneer, the resulting product competing toe-to-toe with its birch counterpart for strength.

It comes with a slightly pinker face, as opposed to the creamier birch, in a long grain format. It offers a near identical alternative at a very similar price point to Russian Birch and non-Russian birch.

Other hardwood possibilities include Okoume and Lumin Eucalyptus TRP.  Or what about Koala Finesse?  A beech-faced hardwood ply with a Eucalyptus core.  The choices are extensive. If you’re looking for marine ply, Thebault Tebomarine is a good option.

Whatever your requirements, ultimately you need to rely on trusted suppliers. Sadly, the current international situation has seen a lot of inferior products come onto the market, from questionable sources. The importance of working with materials partners who can prove their claims and credentials cannot be understated.   

Throughout our long history, we have become well known for being a trustworthy source of ethical and sustainable timber products.  Our long-standing supply chain relationships ensure we have access to the highest quality, certified stock throughout the UK and Ireland. 

James Latham’s dedicated plywood team can help you find alternatives for Russian birch ply that ensure you stay on the right side of UK law and get the materials you need for the job.

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