Norbord sterling board celebrates 25 years at the top

Twenty-five years ago this summer, the first batch of oriented strand board ever to be made in the UK rolled off the production line at a new purpose-built factory in Inverness.

The factory was built following the closure of several paper mills and the near-collapse of the UK forest products industry during the 1970s and early 1980s.

With support from the Highlands and Islands Development Agency (HIDA) and the Forestry Commission, a consortium of local and institutional investors launched a new company, Highland Forest Products in November 1983.

With their £12.5 million capital investment and on land supplied by HIDA, the consortium built the Inverness factory and started production in June 1985.

Norbord (part of Canadian forest products giant Noranda Forest) acquired Highland Forest Products just three years later and renamed it Norbord Highland. Other name-changes followed: the company became known as CSC Forest Products in the mid-1990s; then Nexfor a few years later before reverting to Norbord Europe in 2004.

Called “Sterling” oriented strand board in recognition of its British origins – Norbord’s Inverness-made product has become the UK’s leading brand and is still the only OSB produced in the UK. The term “Sterling board” is now widely used by British merchants and builders.

Over the past 25 years, the product has changed very little. It is still made from 100% British forest thinnings – the immature trees harvested as part of sustainable forest management. However, there are now several different grades available, including tongue-and-grooved flooring boards and even a special high-density product for export to Norway where it is used in the construction of snow-roofs.

Doug Lamont, Wood Fibre Procurement Manager at Inverness, has been with the company from its earliest days. He says that establishing this unfamiliar new product in the relatively conservative UK market was a significant challenge:

“We were pioneers and had to fight to get OSB established in Europe” he says. “We were competing against imported plywood at a time when the UK government offered zero duty on a proportion of imports from the US.”

However, Norbord’s persistence resulted in early approvals from various professional bodies and customers. In 1986, Sterling OSB won its first BBA Certificate for use as wall sheathing; then in 1987, leading housebuilder, Wimpey, gave the product its seal of approval.

In 1988, Norbord achieved British Standard Quality Assurance certification and Sterling board was granted its second BBA Certificate, this time for flooring and flat-roofing applications. In the same year, tongue-and-groove expansion line was completed.

A major breakthrough came in 1992 when the Inverness factory achieved approval from the Dutch building products, standards authority, thus gaining an important foothold in the mainland European market.

Production increased rapidly and, in 1994, a second production line was built at Inverness to keep pace with demand. Ten years later, Norbord boosted production further with the acquisition of Belgian manufacturer Agglo NV and its OSB and particleboard factory in Genk.

Despite Sterling board’s considerable success, winning the acceptance of European users was not easy, says Doug Lamont. “It was tougher than we’d expected and wasn’t helped by the weak dollar during the 1980s and ‘90s which encouraged US imports” he says.

Nevertheless, Sterling OSB has become a staple product of the European building industry. The largest single market sector is housebuilding and, in particular, timber frame where OSB is the standard material for wall sheathing, roofing and even as a component of engineered timber I-joists.

Other important end users include the packaging industry and manufacturers of caravans and mobile homes.

“Sterling OSB is now an indispensable part of the British construction industry and demand remains strong even despite the recent downturn” says Cam Lewis, General Manager of Norbord’s Inverness site. “Inverness is seen as a key site for Norbord and we will continue to invest here” he adds.