Timber, which is to say wood in raw or semi-processed form, is a bulky, heavy product that is very costly to transport. Commonly, more than one-half of the price of timber at the destination market was made up by the cost of transport. Surprisingly, then, timber was one of the earliest products to be extensively traded internationally. By the early sixteenth century large amounts were moving in long-distance trade, particularly to areas lacking local forest.
Two branches of the international timber trade were important: trades in decorative woods and trades in structural woods. Decorative wood, commonly hard-wood and increasingly from tropical sources, was used mainly for furniture and wall paneling. These were primarily for the luxury trade and involved woods of high value. The quantities involved were tiny in comparison to the trade in structural woods, which included not only softwoods such as fir, pine, and spruce, but also hard-woods such as oak and elm. Structural woods were used for shipbuilding and housebuilding. Shipbuilding in particular was an important source of demand. Because of its strength and durability, oak was used for the structural members of ships, often in the form of naturally curved pieces. High-quality hulls were also sheathed in oak. Pine was used for decking, and tall, straight pines were needed for masts, spars, and bowsprits. Elm was used for ships' parts that remained under water and for the supports of piers and docks.
In the early modern period the leading market for timber was the Dutch Republic. It was the most rapidly growing economy; not only was it undergoing a great urban building boom but it was also Europe's leading maritime nation. With meager local forest resources of its own, it drew wood from three foreign sources. Large quantities were floated down the Rhine from the forests of southern Germany. A second source, especially for masts and large dimension timber, was the south shore of the Baltic Sea. Thirdly, softwood planking came from Norway.
As Great Britain displaced the Netherlands as the focus of economic growth in Europe, it became the leading market for internationally traded timber. As Britain became a great maritime power, it required large amounts of timber for shipbuilding, and by the end of the eighteenth century it drew upon northern Europe for softwood. A large export sawmilling industry developed in coastal Norway to supply the British market. Britain also drew upon Danzig, Memel, and Riga for large-dimension pine. A standard item in the British import timber trade was the "deal," a plank sawn wide and thick which could be used directly for ship decking or resawn by hand into appropriate dimensions for construction purposes.
Shipbuilding, both naval and commercial, called for particular types of wood, and Britain's emergence as master of the seas was, in part, dependent upon its being able to obtain the requisite materials for wooden warships. Two items were critical—the right kind of oak for hulls, and tall, softwood timbers for masts, spars, and bowsprits. Britain drew from time to time upon the Baltic region for oak, mostly plank for sheathing hulls; for the most part, Britain was able to get by with domestically grown oak timbers. Not so for masts: from an early date the British had to rely upon the tall pines of the Baltic region for masts.
As early as the seventeenth century, though, and especially in the eighteenth, Britain looked to its North American colonies for masts and spars. Other forms of structural timber were not valuable enough to bear the high cost of transport across the Atlantic, so the amount of timber shipped from North America to Britain in the eighteenth century was small. The North American colonies, however, established a lively trade in lumber to the West Indies sugar colonies. That trade also included another specialty form of wood—staves and headings to make the barrels in which sugar and rum were shipped. Barrels were the universal packaging through to the end of the nineteenth century. Countries with an abundance of oak made and exported the components from which barrels were assembled.
The tropical hardwood trade began in a small way shortly after the European encounter with the wider world. Furniture makers in Spain, France, and the Netherlands were using tropical woods by the late 1600s, but it was not until the early years of the eighteenth century that large shipments were being made. In quantitative terms mahogany from the West Indies and Central America was the most important of these woods. Initially Jamaica, and later Cuba, were leading supply areas. In the late eighteenth century rosewood, mostly from Brazil, became popular, and satinwood from the West Indies also gained in popularity. These exotic woods were commonly used as veneers; this held down the quantities required. Teak was not much imported to Europe in those times but had been widely traded in Asia in earlier times and became integrated into the European economy in the eighteenth century mainly through ships built in Asia of teak.
In the nineteenth century the British timber trade underwent dramatic rearrangement. On strategic grounds the British became concerned about their dependence upon Northern European timber. This became acute when Napoleon, under his Continental System, attempted to block European supplies. The British response was to turn to its remaining colonies in North America (Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), which had abundant forests but were too far distant to be normally competitive as suppliers of timber (except for high-value items such as masts and spars). Britain reacted by imposing very high tariffs on imports of non-British timber. Its North American colonies were exempted and, in a few years, they became the dominant suppliers of softwood to Britain. A trickle of high-quality wood continued to come from Norway, but by the 1830s 80 percent of British softwood (and substantial quantities of oak) came from North America. In addition to supplies of timber, Britain bought ships built in its North American colonies. By 1850 fully one-third of British shipping capacity had been constructed in its colonies.
British industrialization, and its accompanying urbanization, brought greatly increased demand for timber. Other European countries also began to industrialize, but France and Germany had substantial forest resources so they did not need to draw as extensively on international sources. In the nineteenth century Britain was the predominant market for internationally traded timber. By 1820, as a consequence of its high duties on non-empire wood, Britain was obtaining more than three-quarters of its timber imports from its North American colonies. Saint John, New Brunswick and Quebec City in Canada became the leading timber ports of the world. A very large fleet of ships, a substantial fraction of the world's shipping capacity, was engaged in moving timber across the Atlantic.
The United States, for all its extensive forests, contributed little to the nineteenth-century transatlantic trade in timber, partly because it too faced the high duties imposed by the leading import market, but also because it was growing rapidly and needed its own forest resources. There was no profit to be made in exporting lumber. In 1841 Britain somewhat reduced its duties on foreign timber, but the move was not enough to bring a resurgence of imports from Northern Europe, although it did divert Canadian attention to the United States. Canada thereafter exported to that country as well as to Britain. Another reduction in the British tariff came in 1848. That move made the U.S. market even more attractive to Canadians, and was enough to draw the Northern European producers back into the British market. By the early 1850s Canada was dividing its exports about equally between Britain and the United States, and British imports from Scandinavia were soaring. Still, Canada continued to be the dominant supplier of wood to Britain. That changed as Canadian producers turned increasing to the U. S. market, especially in the period of reconstruction after the Civil War. That left space for Scandinavian producers to increase greatly their exports to Britain, stimulating the sawmill industry, especially in Sweden and Finland. That, in turn, is widely thought to have spurred the beginning of industrialization in those countries.
The international timber market of the last quarter of the nineteenth century came to focus largely on sawn boards. The growing industrial regions of continental Europe drew mainly on the forests of Scandinavia and Russia. The other large market was in the United States and it was supplied by Canada. Late in the century, however, the United States became less dependent upon Canadian pine as it found new sources in the coastal region of the South and in the forests of the Pacific slope of the far west. This involved new species of wood—yellow pine from the South, and California redwood, Douglas fir, and western red cedar from the Pacific forests. New domestic sources reduced for a while the U.S. dependency upon imports, although Canada was also contributing Pacific species lumber.
A new use for conifer softwood was discovered in the latter half of the nineteenth century as paper came to be made from wood pulp. Some competition arose in the use of timber for lumber and timber for pulping to make paper. The latter, however, tended to use species that were worth less as lumber, but a higher value of pulp-wood meant that (especially in Northern Europe) forests were cut at a younger age and reforestation was directed toward wood for pulp.
By the end of the nineteenth century a general scarcity of structural wood began to show. Prices, which had fluctuated around a stable level over much of the century, began to rise noticeably, causing concern. Movements to conserve forest resources took root. At the same time, however, the demand for wood was growing more slowly. New substitutes—concrete and structural steel—were introduced and became competitive. Intensive settlement of western North America, where wood-frame structures prevailed, was ending. Growth was shifting more and more to the cities, where masonry construction was more common. Bonded plywood was developed as an important structural product. It made more efficient use of wood supplies, substituting for standard boards.
The heyday of the timber trade was in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century it grew much less rapidly than trade in many other commodities; it no longer stood out as a major element of world commerce. As other bulk commodities rose in importance, as did steel bars and ingots, petroleum, meat and live animals, and manufactured goods such as automobiles, the timber trade utilized a much smaller fraction of world shipping capacity.
In the years after World War I growth in Europe was handled largely by relatively nearby suppliers, usually in Scandinavia, augmented somewhat by Canadian and tropical supplies. The United States continued to be a large and growing market on the world scene but it had become close to self-sufficient in lumber. Such imports as the United States needed came mainly from Canada. After World War II the world timber market again widened. Japan became an important buyer. Tropical forests became increasingly significant sources of supply. Many new species of wood were introduced into international trade, and wood that had previously been used only for decorative purposes in Europe and the United States came to have structural uses in other areas of the world. The carefully managed forests of Scandinavia and the still-abundant forests of western Canada continued to play a significant role. Canada came to supply a larger fraction of the U.S. market than ever before. The most outstanding development, however, was that so many more nations were involved both as buyers and as sellers. The volume of wood traded was greater than ever. Nevertheless, the growth of trade generally, and the huge increase over time in the number of products traded internationally, mean that the timber trade no longer holds the relative importance it once had.
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tim·ber / ˈtimbər/ • n. wood prepared for use in building and carpentry: the exploitation of forests for timber | [as adj.] a small timber building. ∎ trees grown for such wood: contracts to cut timber. ∎ (usu. timbers) a wooden beam or board used in building a house, ship, or other structure. ∎ [as interj.] used to warn that a tree is about to fall after being cut: we cried “Timber!” as our tree fell. ∎ personal qualities or character, esp. as seen as suitable for a particular role: she is frequently hailed as presidential timber. ORIGIN: Old English in the sense ‘a building,’ also ‘building material,’ of Germanic origin; related to German Zimmer ‘room,’ from an Indo-European root meaning ‘build.’
Alcock,, Barley,, Dixon,, & and Meeson (1996);
Sunley & Bedding (eds.) (1985)
furs or animal skins, especially 40 skins of martens, ermines, or sable, and 120 skins of other animals.
Examples : timber of ermine skins, 1714; of marten skins, 1707; of mink skins, 1707; of sable skins, 1566.
1. Wood in the form of unsquared logs.
2. Tree trunks that are suitable for beams or for sawing into planks.
1. Wood in the form of unsquared logs.
2. Tree trunks that are suitable for beams or for sawing into planks.