At this time the market for contract restaurant furniture in the United Kingdom is primarily driven by price. The trend is for new owners of restaurants, bars and pubs to choose a theme, whether modern or traditional and presenting their style to their intended clients. Often however the new owner is unwilling to make a huge investment because there is always the possibility that their chosen style will not be as popular as they had anticipated and it is not unusual for the owner to change the interior look of the premises every two or three years to keep the clients interested and to attract new ones. In this way, the owners are unwilling to make a big initial expenditure on pub chairs and while they will seek attractive design, cost is the factor that is foremost in their minds.
For the restaurant and pub trades, traditional wooden pub chairs and tables are still the most popular. The ‘Mates’ and ‘Captains’ chairs and wooden bar stools still being recognised as giving the instantly recognisable English pub look. For many years these pub chairs have been made from beechwood (Fagus Sylvatica) species in European Countries, for example, Czech republic or Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania. Beechwood is a hardwood with good shock resistant characteristics and is easy to stain to any finish. Recently however these Countries have been invited to join the European Union and while this has given them many benefits – for example much easier trading terms with the other Countries in the E.U – it has also seen a rapid increase in their costs. This has been due to increased wage costs as labour mobility makes it very easy for their skilled workers to move to other European Countries and more costly working practices as they must meet the stricter EU legislation for health and safety law and environmental protection. Many of the factories making wooden restaurant chairs and bar chairs have needed to invest heavily in new machinery that is CNC controlled to reduce the wage costs. One factory in Romania has spent several tens of thousands of pounds on such machinery and a system to filter the wood dust particles and use this waste and other off cut timber to heat the premises. Another cost has been the rising price of beechwood and ashwood timbers as the demand from economically advancing Countries in the Far East for higher quality furniture draw away their home produced supply.
As these factories have seen their costs rise, they have inevitably had to increase their prices. In the last year alone prices have risen more than 20% for pub furniture that for many years have been rising by no more than 2% per annum. The owners of the factories have raised concerns that they are very concerned for the future of their businesses as they realise that the pub furniture that they make is available in many other parts of the world and they are becoming less and less competitive.
The effect on pub furniture suppliers in the UK has been either to accept that these rises are a reality and raise prices or to move to suppliers in other parts of the world, primarily Malaysia and China where cheaper wood species are used. The most popular species of timber used for making restaurant chairs in these Countries is rubberwood (Hevea Brasiliensis) which is a hardwood of the Maple family. Often praised for its ecological credentials because in Malaysia the timber has been harvested from latex making plantations, although now due to it’s popularity as a furniture making wood, it is often grown for this use alone. While rubberwood has many useful characteristics such as cheapness and resistance to warping or cracking in most conditions, I do not consider it a suitable wood for making chairs. The problem is that the joints of rubberwood chairs are just not nearly as strong in the long term as those of beechwood made chairs. Conventional PVA glues are much less effective on rubberwood joints than on beechwood and many Malaysian manufacturers of rubberwood chairs supply their chairs with unglued joints, relying on threaded inserts with flat headed bolts to secure the joints.