As woodworkers, we have a particular responsibility for the environment. Not only is timber one of the planet’s most incredible natural resources but, if forests are properly managed, it is also wholly renewable. A beautiful material, we should consider how we actually use timber as well as ensuring that it always comes from a reliable, sustainable source. We have a responsibility to minimize waste and to recycle materials where we can. Everyone needs to play a part in protecting our fragile environment.


Many timbers used traditionally in furniture- and cabinet­making are now classified as endangered and are in short supply. As a result, many woodworkers avoid using tropical timbers altogether and buy only temperate hardwoods. It is not always that simple, however. Tropical forests, in particular, provide a vital income for the survival of indigenous peoples. In some of the poorest parts of Africa, for example, rapid deforestation is leading to increased poverty and threatening an environmental crisis. Fortunately, charities such as Tree Aid are involved in establishing and managing tree nurseries, sustainable woodlands and agroforestry.

The intensive logging of temperate and tropical rainforests is not the only cause of deforestation. Global warming means many huge tropical trees are dying due to drought conditions caused by warmer seas, and there is a general rise in forest fires around the world. The Amazonian rainforest has long been referred to as the `Lungs of the World’. These immense forests absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, vital in reducing the greenhouse effect — the thickening blanket above the earth responsible for increasing our temperatures. If we allow our rainforests to become unsustainable, climate change will increase even more rapidly.


Sustainability and timber certification

We can help by ensuring that the timber we use, whether from tropical or temperate forests, is from sustainable sources — that is, where trees are replaced with saplings as they are harvested. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international organization responsible for the certification of timber and wood products from well-managed tropical and temperate forests around the world. The FSC logo denotes such certified timber and wood products and allows us to make a choice, while at the same time influencing the management of forests. If in doubt, question your timber merchant closely as to the sources of the raw material on sale and his policy on the whole environmental issue. At least this helps to raise awareness of environmental concerns.

The use of veneered boards, such as medium-density fibreboard (MDF) and plywood, not only make certain hardwoods economically viable, but these materials are also likely to be more suitable and stable for many woodworking tasks.


Alternative species

Great Britain and the United States are two of the world’s biggest importers of timber, but with some 30,000 species in the world, we only actually use a tiny minority of what is available. We still tend to favour traditional tropical hardwoods, such as mahogany, for furniture-making and joinery. In an attempt to save what remains of these dwindling forests, however, less familiar timbers are becoming available to woodworkers. Some can be stained to resemble woods like ebony and mahogany, although many species are just as attractive in their own right. If we change our woodworking habits, there will no longer be a need to rely on traditional hardwoods for building, say, a table or set of dining chairs. And there is every reason for substituting endangered tropical timbers for temperate hardwoods, assuming they are certified.



Architectural salvage yards are a good source of reclaimed timber, although you should watch out for nails and screws embedded in the wood, which will snag on saw blades and planer knives. All foreign bodies must be removed before working on reclaimed timber: if in doubt, sweep the surface with an electronic detector.

Old, unwanted furniture can also be a good source of solid timber. Assuming it has no insect attack or rot, it will be fully seasoned and therefore more stable than new wood. Much of it is likely to be veneered, but even plywood panels of cabinets or wardrobes can be used for making perfectly good backs, or even workshop jigs for use with power tools and machines.



CITES Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species monitors woods sold commercially that are at risk.

FSC Forest Stewardship Council



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