The Russia-Ukraine war has had a massive effect on access to a large number of timber products, particularly birch plywood. Whilst it’s true the majority of Birch world stocks 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 to most world markets including the UK.

Thankfully, that’s not the case. In fact, there are a wide variety of alternative birch ply suppliers to be found across Europe, producing for the last 100 years to exactly the same standards as Russian counterparts, and at a competitive price point. Whether from Latvia, Estonia, Poland or Finland, there are other suppliers ready to fill the breach. For example, looking at our own portfolio, I immediately think of UPM’s Finnish WISA-Birch range, which is of excellent quality and in regular supply.
However, whilst like-for-like alternatives are available, the shortages caused by the conflict in Eastern Europe has also, unfortunately, seen a rise in lower quality and even imitation products. So, it’s important for builders to remember not all birch ply is manufactured equally and they should 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 being seen by some as an identical replacement for Russian ply at a lower price. Let’s get this straight now, it’s not, and here’s why.  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, 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.  Even worse, 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, my advice is: if you’re looking for a like-for-like Non-Russian ply, stick with officially certified European replacements to avoid potential disappointment when the cheap substitute doesn’t meet expectations.

That’s not the whole story when it comes to Russian birch ply alternatives. 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.  One of these is Garnica’s maple-faced Reinforced plywood, one of the most exciting new ply products available. Created in response to the recent turmoil in the birch ply market, Garnica Reinforced is an industry first. Essentially, it enhances the properties of poplar ply, a softwood, by alternating each layer with a robust blue gum eucalyptus veneer match, competing toe-to-toe with its birch counterpart for strength.  With a slightly pinker face, opposed to the creamier birch, in a long grain format, a look currently popular in the specification market. It offers a near identical alternative at a very similar price point to Russian Birch and Non-Russian Birch.  In most cases, these offer the same, if not better, quality than those products currently out of reach. Furthermore, as with Garnica Reinforced, the scarcity of one material is creating the space for other high-performance timbers to come onto the market.

Going further, this search for alternatives not only applies for decorative ply, but structural materials too. For example, since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, we’ve also noticed a recent uptick in enquiries for UPM’s WISA-Spruce. This has come predominantly from the off-site community, which is now taking full advantage of the product’s high-strength and relative light weight for structural and load-bearing applications.  As you can see, there’s so much going on, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s coming online in terms of timber.  Ultimately, it’s about working with trusted suppliers. Unfortunately, the international situation has also seen a lot of inferior products come onto the market, from questionable sources. So, I’ll finish by reiterating the importance of working with materials partners who can prove their claims and credentials. A best practice operator will have nothing to hide, and ensure you only receive the highest quality materials when searching for a suitable alternatives, especially for Russian birch ply.

Stu Devoil, Group Head of Marketing, James Latham