The oak is synonymous with nobility, strength and endurance.
At ALKI, oak wood is much more than a simple raw material. It symbolizes the company's firm commitment to an approach of rational and sustained development.
Meet our main supplier, Mr. Brothier from the company Provost, situated in the Poitou-Charentes region at Sauzé-Vaussais, in the Deux Sèvres department of western France. The company specializes in the purchase, drying, sawing and sale of timber. Provost operates both as a forester, importer, processor and supplier of different varieties of wood while at the same time as ensuring transformation from the log to standard dimensioned lumber.
How are French forests managed?
Broadly speaking, they are managed either by the State or by private foresters.
The State, or more exactly the ONF (Office National des Forêts), manages 35% of forest land based on traditional public forestry management methods used since the 12th century and the 17th century Colbert reforms, which still exist today. The traceability of wood from State forests is excellent. Timber from these forests is of a very high quality as mass planting techniques produce tall trees with knot-free, fine-grained and light-coloured wood. Trees are planted in tight rows, encouraging them to grow tall as they reach for the light.
As for private foresters, they manage 65% of forest land in France.
Oak silviculture is based on natural regeneration and forestry management is, therefore, very close to nature insomuch as it looks to the long-term by preparing the resources that future generations will need. Using oak wood is, therefore, a way of contributing to the sustainable management of forests.
France has, undoubtedly, the most resplendent stock of white oak and yet we are faced with a veritable problem today, namely having access to the raw material. Indeed, one-third is exported through, amongst others, Belgium and Germany. The logs are then sold in Asia, and particularly in China. The State needs to fill the coffers and the ONF has also been carrying out the trade that forester-sawmillers were doing until about ten years ago, namely buying wood to transform and sell it.
In general, forest resources, whether under private or State management, are separate from the transformation process, i.e.: sawmills. The latter have become much more few and far between over recent years (two-thirds of France's sawmills have disappeared within a 15-year period!). Those that remain are obliged to source their supplies further and further afield.
Oak has almost become a luxury material: demand is growing and so is the price!
Is Provost a family-run company?
Yes, it was created in 1959 by two brothers, Francis and Gérard Provost. Originally the brothers made clogs, but they soon founded their own sawmill and began working with walnut, oak, birch and beech. They were pioneers in the field of exotic wood imports, thanks to the proximity of their company to the Port of La Rochelle. This wood was destined for industrial joinery factories, a high-demand clientele. The founders are still alive and, despite their advanced years, are very much involved in managing their 40-hectare forest: their life-long passion!
How do you work and for how long have you been working with Alki?
We have been working together for about fifteen years and I would like to say that our collaboration is based on absolute trust. We are fully aware of the cooperative's high-level requirements and Peio and his associates know exactly what is involved in our work. A quota of about 20% of our finest hardwood is set aside for ALKI. I would say that for us, ALKI is to furniture what Mercedes is to the car! Moreover, we store their wood separately. Here at Provost, we are very proud to see what our product becomes once in the capable hands of the master craftsmen at ALKI.
Sometimes, for the sake of quality and in complete transparency, I may have to obtain stock from a supplier in the Burgundy region. This supplier, whom I know very well, mostly works with coopers who have very high quality requirements with regards to the oak they use to make their wine barrels. Indeed, in my opinion there are parallels to be drawn between the coopers' and ALKI's requirements for high quality wood. Trunks for the cooperage market must measure at least 4.20m in length, so anything that is shorter is available for sale in other markets. There again, it is a working relation based on trust and I can count on this supplier to fill any shortages that may arise in stocks from my main suppliers. The market is very sensitive to offer and demand and this means that it is difficult to forecast the purchase of timber in advance.
What happens to the wood between receiving the order and making delivery?
The oak trees are felled about two years prior to sawing. Let's be clear on this point: trees are not cut as we might want. It is the owner who decides, whether it's the private forester or the State-run ONF. Even though we may have already bought this raw material, we cannot dispose of it as we want because, out of respect for the environment, the felling is closely linked to the time of year and the climate. Our company is PEFC certified (Pan European Forest Certification) and is committed to sustainable forest management. So everything goes by the book and we strictly abide by the specifications. The natural felling period is from September to April. Unfortunately, not everyone respects this good working practice and, today, this is a major issue.
Once the trees have been felled, the logs are stored in the open air for a period referred to as "seasoning" or drying, which can last from one to one and a half years. Then the wood is artificially dried for one or two months in a closed warehouse with precise air and hygrometry management. At the end of this period, humidity levels will have gone down to 10 12%, compared to 70% or so at the beginning. Then comes the stabilization and storage phase.
The last stage is to obtain the standard dimensioned lumber according to ALKI's requests; the sawn wood is wrapped in plastic film in order to prevent humidity levels rising too high again. Nevertheless, humidity is more or less bound to increase to about 14%. After this long process, the wood is sent to the Basque Country where it will enter a new phase of its journey.
In order to anticipate as much as possible, we have drawn up 2-year forecasts with Peio Uhalde prior to the orders being actually placed.
About 20% of the oak wood produced is used in the furniture business. What other uses are made of this wood?
I would say that we don't even reach the 20%! Today, the furniture sector is rather the poor relation in this business mind you, I'm referring here to the French market. Another market, still in France, that is suffering greatly and is now almost inexistent, is the kitchen furniture market.
On the other hand, Portugal, a country where a great deal of furniture is made, is a major importer of French oak!
In my opinion, the businesses in France that use the most oak are, in order of size, cooperage and cask making, the manufacture of parquet flooring, the manufacture of panels, industrial joinery, furniture-making and veneering.
Where does your raw material come from?
We mainly obtain our supplies in Touraine and Anjou. We also buy a lot in the Châteaubriand region where there are some very beautiful State-run forests. With regards to high quality oak, the type of oak we need for ALKI, competition with the cooperage sector is very stiff not least because the financial means are not the same! Just to give you an idea: where we can pay 10, they can pay 30!
We also get supplies from around Nantes, Rennes and in the Burgundy region. Sometimes from La Meuse and Ardennes regions as well: the woods there are magnificent, but the prices are high due to the demand from export markets such as Belgium and Germany!
The raw material is the reflection not only of the ground on which it grows but also the surrounding climatic environment. That's why, in my opinion, it's not worth looking at oak that comes from south of a line stretching from Angoulême Montluçon Lyon!
As for the wood delivered to ALKI, it comes from very high quality trees, chosen when standing, that are between 120 and 150 years old! Trunks are 60 to 70cm in diameter and about 6.5m in length. It's quite a sight to see these stout old ladies all lined up! And I can assure you that at Provost we take the sawing and dimensioning of these trunks very seriously indeed.