Lengths of sawn, knot-free radiata pine, processed in Tauranga into a hardwood product, has finally made its presence felt in the European kitchen and flooring trade.
Fortified Timber Systems, based at Greerton, has just completed its first year of supplying Danish worktop manufacturer Spekva, which distributes throughout Europe and into Britain.
The specialist Tauranga processor and exporter has sent eight 40-foot containers, totalling 8500 lineal metres of its modified or hardened wood product called Lignia, to Spekva - and it will be filling another container in January for delivery two months later.
"It's taken three years to get the programme up and running," said Fortified Timber Systems general manager Rick Williams. "Our Brasilica [coloured] product has become the biggest selling timber benchtop in Denmark.
"They like the whole sustainable and environmental story of the New Zealand product, and they can receive it in long, defect-free lengths; that's the real clincher," he said.
Fortified Timber Systems last weekend sent its third container to another Danish worktop manufacturer Daqua, and it has also supplied a trial shipment to a flooring company, WoodFloor, in Denmark.
Both Spekva and Daqua are in the top six of worktop manufacturers in Europe, and Fortified Timber Systems attracted their attention after obtaining a Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which verifies products from the forest of origin through the supply chain.
"There is a lot of anti-rainforest feeling in Europe, and if we didn't have the certification, then we wouldn't be selling wood up there," said Mr Williams.
"This year has been good but next year will be better. We will steadily grow our sales and consolidate our position in Europe, then go to the US and develop a bit of business in Australasia. By the time we've knocked that off, Asia maybe willing to pay for our product," he said.
This year Fortified Timber Systems sent 15 containers overseas and it is looking to treble the number of shipments next year, employing up to four additional staff. It has the capacity to fill 120 containers a year.
Using patented technology developed by Forest Research Institute (now Scion) in Rotorua, Fortified Timber Systems is a world leader in timber densification and colouring. But it has been a long and winding road to build the product's brand in the international marketplace.
Dr Robert Franich, principal scientist bioproduct development at Scion, developed the starch-based wood hardening process in the late 1980s and it was patented in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, United States, Chile, Europe and Japan in 1991.
"The brief came from the New Zealand Furniture Manufacturers Association who wanted to make pine perform like formica on medium-density fibreboard," said Dr Franich, now retired from Scion. "The members were fed up with complaints that their pine furniture components were being damaged or dented during delivery.
"We first tested the technology on 100 breadboards which mimicked Spanish oak, and had a great response. You can make radiata pine look like anything you want," said Dr Franich.
"At the time it was regarded as a new benchmark for wood modification. It was the cheapest by far because we used a biomaterial - starch - and combined it with petroleum derived chemicals [melamine compound].
"There was a lot of chemistry research to get it working nicely, but the big surprise was that it was fire retardent," Dr Franich said.
The modified timber product was first commercialised by a joint venture between Scion, Fernz Corporation and Tasman Forestry, but Fernz ran into financial trouble and the partnership broke up.
Scion took back the intellectual property and then sold the technology rights to Carter Holt Harvey which built the present processing plant at Greerton in 1995.
Carter Holt decided to move out of the wood hardening business in 2001 and a private company Pacific Hardwood took over. Two years later it was bought out by the general manager Wallace Roome, production manager Phil Cox and London-based businessman Paul Duncan, a New Zealand expatriate.
In 2007 the company couldn't keep trading, and Mr Duncan - who believed in the technology - found new backers in Britain to re-finance the business under Fibre7 UK. Fortified Timber Systems became the manufacturing arm in Tauranga, and Mr Duncan is the full-time sales and marketing executive, developing markets in Europe and elsewhere.
Back in Tauranga, Fortified Timber Systems prepares its own amino compound and colour pigments (dyes) in the purpose-built batching plant, and it receives kiln-dried radiata pine boards, up 6m in length, from sawmills in Putaruru and near Rotorua.
The boards, clear of knots and other defects, are placed in pressure cylinders and the compound, colour pigments and water are pumped in, saturating and impregnating the wood.
This process takes two hours, the boards are dried over 15 days, and the colour and hardness goes right through them, giving the appearance and properties of tropical wood.
The boards, as wide as 150mm and as deep as 40mm, come in four colours - Brasilica producing the purple hue of American silver walnut, Morocco with the golden tone of European oak, Tuscany showing the red Brazilian cherry glow, and Bavarian that has the rich traditional colour of Asian teak. Mr Williams even experimented with an orange board last week.
The modified pine can be used for decking, doors and windows, and furniture, as well as kitchen benchtops and flooring.
"Pine has been given a bad rap and is targeted for framing and pallets," said Mr Williams, who ran Parkwood Industries timber processing plant in Putaruru for three years before becoming Fortified Timber Systems general manager 12 months ago.
"What we are doing is good for New Zealand and good for pine. The timber industry has talked about value adding but has struggled with that. We have genuinely added value to the pine - some three and half times," he said.
"Hardwood is becoming less available, the price is going up and the dimensions are getting smaller. That gives us an advantage by supplying full-length, solid timber," Mr Williams said.
Fortified Timber Systems is now moving into a veneer product and will be sending two trial shipments to Germany in January. "We had contact with IKEA and they told us to come back when we had veneer."
IKEA, the world's largest furniture retailer, has nearly 300 outlets in 47 countries.
If the distinctive veneer product works out, Tauranga may soon have a link with IKEA.