Like many contract furniture manufacturers, DCI is feeling the impact of lumber shortages because of global supply chain disruption.
For contract furniture manufacturers like us, plywood is a key issue. Baltic birch plywood from Russia, a mainstay for case goods, is no longer available because of the war in Ukraine.
But even before the war, tariffs on Chinese imports put huge demand on local plywood supplies. When that demand intersected with the housing boom, domestic suppliers were overwhelmed.
At DCI, we had to adapt to the growing plywood paucity.
To replace the plywood, we create a solution using reclaimed hardwood from our own factory. Fortunately, we have total control over that raw material because we harvest it within 100 miles of our sawmill and factory.
But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.
What Is Baltic Birch Plywood?
First, why is plywood important for the furniture industry and what is birch plywood?
Plywood is used throughout the furniture industry in case goods. It’s the default material choice for drawer bottoms, case goods backs, and other essential cabinet parts. We also use hardwood plywood to build the internal frames in our upholstered products.
At DCI, we’ve used baltic birch plywood from Russia for years.
So what is plywood exactly?
In a Digital Journal article entitled Birch Wood Market Is Set to Fly High in Years to Come, the author describes birch wood as:
“…a light and strong wood that is widely used to make plywood, paper pulp, and furniture. Birch wood is utilized for making cabinets, furniture, and hardwood floors due to its fine grain and color. In addition, birch wood is cost-effective compared to maple wood and exhibits excellent machining properties and a smooth finish.”
The Baltic Birch Supply Chain
On top of the cascading supply chain issues related to the coronavirus, the war in Ukraine fundamentally crippled the birch plywood supply chain.
Because most birch plywood comes from Russia.
In fact, according to an article in Furniture Today entitled Labor Union Calls for Complete Ban On All Russian Wood Imports, “Russia supplies around 10% (or 567 million square feet) of the hardwood plywood America uses, with the far majority (97%) being birch plywood products, according to wood resource blog TimberCheck.”
On April 8, the U.S. suspended normal trade relations with Russia. At the same time, it raised tariffs on Russian birch plywood from zero to 50%.
Rapid Prototyping A Plywood Replacement
So how did we respond to this supply emergency? We needed to retool.
DCI President, Henry Kober, engineered a solution using our existing materials supply.
In essence, Kober reclaimed existing plywood and hardwood waste and used that to make plywood chair backs and drawer sides. But how did he do this?
First, it’s important to say that we recycle everything and adhere to the principles of circular product design.
In fact, we have a zero wood waste policy at our main manufacturing plant. Among other things, this policy allows us to eschew fossil fuels, because we burn all our sawdust in a steam boiler to heat our factory, offices, and wood kilns.
Kober’s plywood replacement solution followed in a similar vein.
Using one inch thick plywood cut offs (usually used for fuel) that measure 6 inches wide by 20 inches long, we face glue those panels together to make a block that is 8 inches thick.
We then run that panel through a band saw and take that block and use a form to cut out the chair back. Then we cover those reclaimed plywood chair backs with foam and fabric.
By reclaiming this production “waste”, we no longer have to buy curved plywood chair backs. This also decreases our overall plywood demand.
We replicated this method with hardwoods as well. And that has even more applications.
Using oak, ash, and maple cutoffs, through the same method, we make exposed chair backs for our two-position desk chairs as well as dining and desk chairs.
Perhaps more importantly, we now use this solution for drawer sides. We do this without sacrificing quality or durability.
We face glue two pieces of one-inch thick solid wood made from finger jointed boards, and then we put those on a band resaw. That way we get three drawer sides from each lamination.
A Win Win Solution
It’s hard to overstate the impact of this solution. We were facing a grim constraint that impacted our case goods and soft seating production on multiple levels.
This innovative and thrifty solution offset a huge amount of our plywood demand. So it saves us considerable expense. And at the same time, we’re not using fossil fuels to ship birch from overseas.
Importantly, it was taking a bite out of our bottom line because of the elevated costs and scarcity of plywood.
This solution is good for the climate, good for our clients, and good for our bottom line.
(Lead Image via Flickr CC: EpicTop10.com)