Timber, like any other product, is at the mercy of international markets and changing circumstances. In the UK, we import too much of our timber from foreign markets, generating unnecessary carbon, depleting tree stores, and under-utilising our own domestic woodland. Larch, especially in recent decades, has been a key example of this preference.
The History of Larch in Scotland – and Siberia #
Scottish Larch #
Historically larch was used in Scotland for outdoor construction projects, especially those that had a high likelihood of encountering water. This meant that larch-framed fishing boats were a frequent sight throughout fishing communities, and timber-framed houses, fences, gate posts, and other exterior structures in water-logged communities were more likely to use local larch than other native timber varieties.
The Industry and Larch #
However, over the years, bulk-buying trends in the timber industry have meant that there’s been a general decline in using native larch. Siberian larch, which is not only generally stronger but has far larger forest reserves to draw from, came to dominate the construction market, and became the assumed choice for people seeking timber construction options in wet environments. The ability for the export market to stack up pre-set boards, cut to specific sizes, and sell them as part of prefab homes or ready-made kits fit in nicely with the buy-in-bulk approach of most modern timber suppliers.
Alternatives to Larch #
Recently, though, the market has been changing. The ongoing Russo-Ukraine War has closed off the vast markets of Siberian timber. Although it’s technically available from other sources in Eastern Europe, these are far less plentiful and often lack the tolerances and resistances of Russian-grown Siberian timber that allowed the species to dominate the construction market.
This has coincided with a steady but consistent push among consumers for greater sustainability, reduced carbon emissions, cost-effectiveness, and greater flexibility in use when it comes to the wood they buy. As a result, Scottish-grown European larch is making a comeback, especially when it comes to projects made within the UK.
Larch Properties #
The main visual difference between Scottish (European) and Siberian larch is in the heartwood’s colour. European larch is a consistent dark pink colour, with frequent dark-coloured knots. In Siberian larch, the knots are spaced further apart, tend to be grey in colour, and the heartwood itself is more like a pale straw colour (much like pine).
Scottish and Siberian larch tend to be classified in much the same way. Both are catalogued as moderately durable, meaning you can expect an average service life of 15 years or so. Both types are strength-graded in the A to B range, making them very applicable for most construction projects. If you were judging both woods on a purely aesthetic or a practical level, therefore, you could easily use either.
Lumber Logistics #
Even without the context of the war, there are other factors that clients, especially those looking to use larch for modern construction projects, might have in mind when comparing Scottish and Siberian larch.
The main deciding factor between the two similar woods is flexibility in board profiles. When Siberian larch is shipped to Britain, it comes having already been cut to one of several set profiles or designs. This is a result of logistical demands and quantities of scale.
It’s often economically best for UK companies to receive large numbers of boards cut to a certain specification, and so the larch boards available from most construction wholesalers tend to be milled and pre-cut in Russia or Eastern Europe before being shipped to the UK. While this has been economical in the past, as bulk sales can provide bulk discounts, it does offer the specific issue of being inflexible when it comes to projects you have in mind.
If you want to put cladding on a house with unusually angled or sloping walls, or even to construct a shed or jetty with non-standard proportions, the standard Siberian larch planks will struggle to fit such a profile. You’ll either have to modify them yourself or pay the wholesaler or another mill to modify them for you, adding time, complexity, and cost.
On the other hand, if you go for Scottish larch to begin with, you’ll be heading through a local mill like Logie Timber or a supplier, who can easily modify the planks to your liking.
Environmental Impact #
There are other factors to bear in mind, like the emissions and carbon footprint of shipping and the suitability of the wood to the background. When you use Siberian larch in a project, you’re using the product of an enormous manufacturing process that begins in Russia and ends in Britain, with a large quantity of C02 and waste chemicals emerging as a result.
The bulk demands of Siberian larch used in construction often cause timber wholesalers to give very little thought to the long-term survivability and current health of the forest. If you buy native Scottish timber, you can very easily track where your wood comes from and all the other environmental factors for concern, like the chemicals used to treat it and the present health of the woodland it came from.
Not only that, but, as many enthusiasts report, Scottish larch often blends in better with Scottish forest landscapes. If your project is in Scotland, there’s often something to be said in relation to buying local. It ends up having a nice visual harmony with the landscape and grants you the peace of mind that comes from supporting local enterprises, as well as grounding your house with the spirit and natural resiliency of the surrounding land.
Consider Scottish Timber #
For a long time in the industry, Scottish and British larch has found itself immediately dismissed as being ‘inferior’ to Siberian larch. As a wide number of specialists could have told you, this was never the case – it was just that Siberian larch was much more economical in large quantities than Scottish larch, which, for wholesalers, was much the same thing.
As the stocks of Siberian larch have closed off, many companies have recommended switching to Douglas fir or cedar. While these are both perfectly good options that can be ethically sourced from a wide variety of Scottish and British lumber yards, if you’re looking for something naturally durable without the need for treatment (especially when it comes to weather resistance), there’s still a case to be made for larch – and home-grown larch can come with all the resilient, flexible qualities you’ve come to expect from its Siberian counterpart.
If this article has you interested in inquiring about Scottish larch, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Logie Timber. Many of our staff have a long history of working with larch specifically, and we provide high-quality larch to a lot of clients who do fantastic work with a sorely underrated strain of an incredibly versatile wood. If you’d like to join them, call us on 01309 611769; message us on Facebook or Instagram; or drop us an e-mail at email@example.com.