By James Xu, Chairman and CEO, Shanghai AM
In 2017, Walnut and Cherry experienced the biggest price increase compared to other North American hardwoods. Walnut increased by 40 per cent; Cherry by 30 per cent. The price hike for Walnut and Cherry is partly due to the large volume of log exports to China (including these two species), resulting in green lumber prices rising, thus driving up the export price of KD lumber. The strong demand for these two species in the Chinese market is the root cause.
With the development of China’s economy and increased standards of living, the demand for solid wood furniture and home decoration has become a key consideration, especially that for materials with aesthetic and environmental credentials, and durability. Customised interior decoration in solid wood has also become quite popular. Walnut is now mostly used to produce traditional or so-called modern Chinese style furniture; Cherry is mainly used in solid wood customised home decoration and furniture manufacturing.
Looking forward to 2018, the demand for Walnut and Cherry in the Chinese market will continue on 2017’s upward trajectory. This may be a big problem for lumber producers and distributors because if prices continue to go up, it will drive up the cost for end-users, who may in turn look for substitutes or give up Walnut and Cherry. Once this happens, lumber producers and distributors will have a dilemma. They may have to dump their Walnut and Cherry inventories if too much of their working capital is tied up for too long—a move that would cause market turbulence. Considering the risks, what North American hardwood species is able to substitute Walnut and Cherry, and increase sales at the same time?
Soft Maple, a suitable substitute
I believe that Soft Maple is that species. Currently, Soft Maple is not popular in China. It was about 10 to 15 years ago when China’s hardwood furniture manufacturing was mainly export-oriented. At that time, many children’s furniture and cabinets that went to America were made of Soft Maple. Still, the furniture export business is experiencing a downturn; Chinese consumers are not in favour of light-coloured solid wood furniture, Soft Maple consumption is still much lower compared to other North American hardwood species in China. Furthermore, people misunderstand that Soft Maple is soft and therefore categorised as a kind of cheap wood. Such misunderstanding will certainly affect the perception and trade of Soft Maple.
Soft Maple grows across the USA, although it is more common in the north than in the south. It accounts for about 11 per cent of all North American hardwood forest resources, compared to one per cent of Walnut and three per cent of Cherry. So the Soft Maple resource is quite abundant, according to the latest 2017 report issued by the US Department of Agriculture. Moreover, the volume of Soft Maple will continue to grow under selective harvesting practices. Soft Maple loves shade and the shaded area left in the forest after selective cutting creates favourable conditions for its growth.
There are two kinds of Soft Maple: Red Leaf Maple and Silver Leaf Maple. The physical properties of Red Leaf Maple are similar to that of Walnut and Cherry (see Fig. 1). If we can optimise the use of Soft Maple, a market for this species can be developed and its true value can be appreciated. Serving as a substitute for Walnut and Cherry, Soft Maple can help to prevent Walnut and Cherry prices from going up too high.
Red Maple (Red Leaf Maple)
Density(with 12% moisture content )
Average weight (with 12% moisture content)
Average volumetric shrinkage (from green lumber to KD lumber with 6% moisture content)
Compressive strength (rift grain)
Fig. 1: A comparison of Soft Maple, Walnut and Cherry. Source: AHEC American Hardwood Guide.
The density of Soft Maple is similar to that of Walnut and Cherry. The data also shows that Soft Maple is not “soft” at all, only softer than Hard Maple. In addition to easy processing, Soft Maple is easy to stain. Its wood grain is similar to that of Walnut and Cherry. We can stain Soft Maple with a Walnut or Cherry finish and it would be very difficult to tell the difference. As shown in Fig. 2, there are two wood planks labelled W1 and W2. Can you tell which is Walnut, which is Soft Maple? Similarly, in C1 and C2 (see Fig. 3), can you tell which is Cherry, which is Soft Maple?
Fig 2: Can you tell which is walnut, which is is soft maple?
Fig 3: Can you tell which is cherry, which is is soft maple?
Soft Maple is not popular in China, in part due to its name. The market does not recognise its real value and may categorise it as some kind of soft wood. So why can’t we use another name for Soft Maple? For example, Poplar is also called Tulipwood. Alder is known as “Red Birch” in Chinese. According to the AHEC American Hardwood Guide, Soft Maple has another name – Red Maple (Red Leaf Maple) or Silver Maple (Silver Leaf Maple).
Of course, in good faith, the product label must identify the true species if Walnut and Cherry are substituted by Soft Maple. In this way, there is no misrepresentation. By leaving out the word “soft”, Red Leaf Maple would give consumers the impression that it is truly a high-end wood.
If we can promote Soft Maple successfully, it could become one of the leading species in the future. It may also eventually help the overall sales growth of North American hardwoods in the Chinese market. With Soft Maple, prices of Walnut and Cherry can be stabilised to avoid fluctuation risks. We sincerely hope that Soft Maple will play an important role in the North American hardwood business.
This article was first published in Panels & Furniture Asia (May/Jun Issue 2018).