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Lack of timber expertise is a modern problem

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I agree with Ruth Slavid's comments lamenting the lack of knowledge of the behaviour of timber so frequently exhibited in contemporary architectural detailing ('Timber in Architecture' AJ 16.5.02).

True, architectural training was always rather superficial in this respect, but in former times, when it came to the detailing of complex joinery or the selection of timbers appropriate to the task, the architect in practice could rely on the expertise of high-class joinery firms.

The 1960s became something of a watershed for the specialist firms, brought about by social as well as economic factors. The completion of war-damage restoration work brought fine joinery back into the shops after the Second World War; ocean liners were decommissioned under competition from air travel; churches were becoming redundant; banks and breweries were no longer commissioning high-quality refurbishments;

and the cost of maintaining the Cold War determined the cessation of expensive capital projects by the government.

Although the specialist firms were usually rich in assets such as land, buildings and timber stocks, they were increasingly vulnerable when trade slumped, due to the high costs of keeping an irreplaceable workforce they were reluctant to disperse.

By the end of the 1960s, most of the firms were facing underpricing of work, and failure to modernise brought about inevitable liquidity crises. Those able to survive underwent the the usual stripping of assets and reduction in specialist skills. The stewardship of four centuries of woodworking knowledge began to slip into the past.

Another problem we have today is the faulty conversion of timber at source, particularly tropical hardwoods, often from immature trees and using branches. Previously, this timber would have been rejected because of its instability or used for handles in the cutlery trade.

Now it is all too often used for substandard joinery in 'signature' buildings. Nobody seems to care or, more alarmingly, to know the difference.

Timber used to be selected at the merchants' premises by an experienced buyer who would imprint the company's stamp on the ends of boards to prevent the possibility of substitution.

Today's practice of buying timber over the telephone would not have been considered.

The timber industries are in urgent need of re-skilling.

Alan Beardmore, Reading

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