The Latvijas Berzs company was founded in Latvia in 1873 making blackboards and carpenters’ pencils and moved into plywood production in 1909.
In 1923, the Furniers plywood mill was established and in 1929 the Lignum mill was added to Latvia’s plywood industry.
Soon the country had 12 plywood manufacturing companies making 54,000m3/year with the vast majority being exported to countries within Europe.
However, the onset of World War II and the subsequent take-over of Latvia by the Soviet Union saw a major decline in the industry. During the Soviet occupation (1945-1991), plywood was only made from Russian logs and most of the panels produced went to the Soviet market.
With the independence of Latvia in 1991, the plywood business fell sharply as there was no longer a supply of Russian logs, but then the industry underwent something of a revival and once again used the country’s own wood resources to make birch veneer.
In October 1992, the state-owned Plywood Production Union of Latvia, which had been established in 1975, became the joint-stock company Latvijas Finieris and that company has since continually modernised and expanded its product range.
It has modernised all its plants and now offers a wide range of birch plywoods in exterior and interior grades, overlaid with films, decorative-veneered, painted and special plywoods for laser cutting.
Applications include concrete shuttering, transport, interior walls, furniture, shopfitting, lockers, chairs, exterior walls, toys, sports halls and skateboard ramps.
Latvijas Finieris produced its millionth m3 of plywood in 2002 – 10 years after its creation.
In 1995, the company established a subsidiary called Troja Ltd to make wooden toys. Troja is also a plywood processor.
Latvijas Berzs ceased plywood production in 2002 and now concentrates on the production of furniture and furniture parts.
Like all countries emerging from under the Soviet thumb, Latvia had to re-establish itself in an open international marketplace and find its own customers. It has now developed a network of trading enterprises, with subsidiary companies of Latvijas Finieris in Sweden, Germany, the UK, Spain, North America, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland and Japan.
The company has also invested heavily in new equipment and new capacity for plywood production at its mills.
In 2000 a new production line was established at the Furniers mill, specialising in the production of 5ft x 10ft panels, and the whole factory was refurbished.
In 2004, a new generation peeling line, supplied by Raute, was set up at the Lignums plant to complement the existing line from Japanese supplier Uroko.
But it is not just modernisation which is receiving attention. The company’s latest investment plan is due to come on stream in 2007.
This is a completely new plant for the production of plywood, in the Latgale region of Latvia, with a planned capacity of 65,000m3/year. Investment will total LVL56m (US$99m) in this project alone.
For 2005, Latvijas Finieris plans to produce 222,000m3 of glued products and to exceed LVL100m turnover, logging 510,000m3 of wood, some being imported.
The company does have its own birch plantations – over 1,000ha of them – and these are currently used for scientific research and public education. There is also a nursery in Zabaki producing half a million birch saplings annually.
Not that Latvia is short of wood generally. The country was 45% forested as at January 2004, compared with 24% in 1930.
The forest is approximately 50% stateowned and 50% in the private sector.
However, a disastrous storm in January this year brought down about 7.3 million m3 of wood – equivalent to about half the annual cut – but the country can apparently absorb this loss without too much problem.
The mix of tree species nationally is about 37% pine, 30% birch, 19% spruce and 14% others such as aspen.
The capacity of the Furniers mill is around 60,000m3/year, mainly as 5ft x 10ft panels and nearly all exterior grade. There is a total of five peeling lines housed in their own  building and logs are soaked for 24-36 hours at about 45oC before peeling.
Roller coaters are used to apply the phenolic resin to the dried veneers which are then laid up into embryonic plywood and put into Raute cold presses.
The newest hot press, installed in 2000, is a Raute 30-daylight computer-controlled unit.
There is an inspection/filling line where  workers make a visual inspection and repair minor imperfections in the faces of the panels. This is followed by a Steinemann sander.
Close to the Furniers mill is the Troja mill, where Latvijas Finieris makes loudspeaker boxes and wooden toys, notably rocking-horse chairs for small children.
Troja is equipped with a Schelling panel saw and an SCM Record 240 router for cutting out shapes; at the time of my visit it was being used to cut out circular table tops.
This factory also has forming presses for pressing curved shapes such as chair backs, column claddings or a variety of other uses.
The company’s other plywood production facility, the Lignums mill on the outskirts of Riga, has six peeling lines: one by Italian company Cremona, four by Raute and one by Uroko, and an annual capacity of around 150,000m3.
The factory produces mainly 4ft x 8ft and 4ft x 10ft panels, although it can also produce some 5ft x 10ft.
The mill is equipped with a variety of manufacturers’ equipment including Hashimoto veneer clippers and Omeco, Babcock and Raute driers.
It employs Plytec automatic defect detection guillotines and Plytec patching machines, while stitching is by Kuper.
There are five 17-daylight hot presses, one Steinemann and one Timesavers sanding line and a Schelling cut-to-size system.
The Lignums factory also has a paper impregnation line for the production of phenol impregnated paper for overlays and one Raute short-cycle press and two multidaylight presses to apply that film to panels for shuttering and transport uses.
Some pre-impregnated film is also bought in from Stora Enso and 40% of production at Lignums is film-faced.
Latvia is a small country, with a population of just 2.3 million of which around one million live in Riga or its suburbs.
The forest products industry is vital to the economy, accounting for 40% of total exports, while 85% of wood product production is exported as sawn wood, plywood or particleboard.
Latvijas Finieris is continuing to invest in its plywood production capacity and downstream products and as such must be a valuable contributor to the economy of one of the European Union’s newest member countries.