Growing Tasmanian blackwood in Chile

Here’s an interesting article in the latest AMIGO Newsletter from New Zealand by New Zealand blackwood grower Ian Brown based on a trip to Chile in 2012.

In 2012 Chile had 2,000 ha of private blackwood plantation, much of it a work in progress, with the objective to reach 4,000 ha in the near future. 4,000 ha of well managed fully productive blackwood plantation could be producing around 40,000 cubic metres of sawlog per year.

That is a lot of blackwood!

But they aren’t there yet!

The Chileans have their own unique view on growing Tasmanian blackwood, with the current emphasis on maximising volume rather than value. Hence the very high stocking, small tree sizes and the long rotations.

But at least they are doing active research with the objective of encouraging private investment in blackwood planting. How different to the Tasmanian approach where politics, waste, community service and a squandered public blackwood resource are the objectives.

A lot of Ian Brown’s comments on the Chilean approach to blackwood reflect the more successful New Zealand experience, where the focus is on maximising value not volume.

Hopefully the Chileans will eventually get the blackwood management sorted out.

We will then be importing Tasmanian blackwood from Chile when the local industry collapses.

Acacias in Chile – Report from a visit made in 2012

Ian Brown

September 2015 AMIGO Newsletter

In 2012 a small group of us spent a week in Chile at the invitation of INFOR (Institutio Forestal), the Chilean forest research institute. We were hosted by Juan-Carlos Pinilla, whose responsibilities include research into acacia species. Juan-Carlos is a delightful guy, well informed, and great company. He was a good friend of Ian Nicholas, who led our group, and fulfilled a long term wish to look at acacias in Chile. Tragically this was Ian’s last trip, and on the day of his return he experienced the first symptoms of the illness that took his life three months later.

Acacias were introduced into the Lake District in Southern Chile in the 1950s. The Lake District is a very scenic landscape in the central valley, between the coastal ranges and the Andes. It is good forestry country: the soils are deep, fertile, and free-draining, with average temperature 12.5 degrees, annual rainfall over 2000mm, and little wind.

Exotic forestry in Chile has been based on radiata pine and eucalypt species, following NZ and Australian models. Acacias were introduced to provide some diversity in forest products, A. melanoxylon for decorative timber, A.dealbata for pulp, and A. mearnsii for tannin.

Acacia melanoxylon

About 2000 Ha of blackwood have been planted in Chile, and this is expected to increase to 4000 Ha. Sample plots have been established on at least 14 locations. In addition there are sites with natural regeneration, mixed plantings, and shelterbelts.

The current silvicultural regime recommended by INFOR involves close planting at up to 2600 per Ha. The trees are gradually thinned by extraction of 250 trees ( hopefully for pulp) every 7 years, down to a final crop of 350 per Ha. at age 40. Harvest is anticipated at 41 years, with a predicted mean DBH of about 40 cm. Two clearwood prunings will be carried out at age 11 and 16.

Futrono: Blackwood plantation

Our first exposure to plantation blackwood was at Futrono, on a privately owned woodlot of 6 Ha., one of the 3 best performing sites for blackwood measured among the trial plots in Chile. We expected to see some very good trees, and the best of these were spectacular. There were about 6 to 8 exceptional trees, at age 42, 30 metres tall, and pruned to half their height, DBH in the mid-50s, and perfect form. If Chile can produce trees like this, we have a serious competitor.

The trees had been planted at high density, about 2600 per Ha. , lightly thinned, and had no form pruning. If the best trees were so good, what of the rest of them? Well, these were much less impressive. At age 40 they were highly stocked at 900 per Ha., with a mean height of 27.5 m., and DBH of just 31.3 cm., and the form was variable. There is a lot of wood in the stand , but I would expect the output of quality sawlogs would be disappointing.

I have a problem with the regime, and will comment on this:

  • the aim in close planting is to give a high selection ratio, and to encourage straight growth through competition for light. However it is an expensive option when the stocking is to be reduced in the course of the rotation to a much lower level. Most would regard as the optimal final stocking to be about 200 trees per Ha. The stocking in this stand is far too high, and as a consequence diameter growth will be very slow.
  • experience with pure and mixed stands has shown that form pruning is required to limit stem malformation to a minor proportion of trees.
  • when thinning is delayed, the live crowns compete for light and retreat, and this has an adverse effect on diameter growth. To prevent this, thinning should be completed early in the rotation ( in my view, within the first 10 years)
  • it is expected that the thinned trees will be extracted for pulp. I think the economics of this are very questionable.
  • a large volume of data has been collected from the trial plots, and I would question the need for much of this. The sites have been intensively monitored, with measurements of diameter, tree height, and total wood volume. These are appropriate data when assessing most of our exotic plantation species, and even A.dealbata when grown for pulp. However they are unnecessary and even misleading when assessing blackwood, where the value of the tree is likely to be confined to the pruned stem. All we need to know is its height( usually 4 to 6 metres), straightness, and diameter. Above this the crown has no commercial value, and is likely to end up as firewood.
  • However the crown has real physiological value, in that it determines the volume of wood in the butt log. In blackwood, a tall tree is not a cause for celebration but a sign of trouble. It is an indication of late thinning in the stand, and is linked to slow diameter growth and a very long rotation. In Chile it has been noted, as we have found here, that there is an inverse relationship between the height and diameter of the trees in a blackwood plantation. To prevent this, INFOR have suggested that clearwood pruning should be delayed in support of diameter growth. It seems to me that all this would achieve would be to increase the defect core, and would have no effect on diameter. I think the correct interpretation of the relationship between height and diameter is that it is a consequence of delayed thinning, This causes the crown to retreat, and when this has occurred, it is irreversible.

Other plots

Data were provided for other sites, and ignoring the height and stand volume, three of the better ones are as follows:

Chiloe – at 20 years , mean DBH24 cm.

Arauco – at 28 years, mean DBH 22.5 cm.

Central valley – at 30 years, mean DBH 31 cm.

These figures are not as good as they could be, and I am sure there is a simple explanation. All of these stands are what we would consider to be grossly overstocked. This seems to be due to a misplaced emphasis on total wood volume, at the cost of what really matters, the size and quality of the butt log. However the trip to Futrono showed the real potential for blackwood in Chile.

Lanco: Provenance trial

A trial incorporating 14 provenances was established in 1999 at Lanco, on a property owned by an expatriate Austrian count. It contained 30 random blocks, at 84 plants per block, at 3 by 2 metre spacing. The provenances were from Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland.

When measured in 2008, the Queensland provenances had very high mortality, and the South Australian trees had poor growth. The best performers were from Tasmania (King Island, Queenstown, the North-East), and the Otways in Victoria. Interestingly, the provenance from NW Tasmania, where most of our blackwoods were sourced, came further down in the order.

The location appears similar to the sites in northern New Zealand in which blackwoods grow well, so the trial probably has some relevance for us, bearing in mind some limitations: the limited number of provenances, and the lack of data on form, and on wood quality. It matches the data from a 65 provenance trial on my property at Pirongia in the Waikato, which suggests that the provenances best suited to our conditions are in Northern Tasmania, although not necessarily in the North-West.

Quepe: Seed collection

This is a 2.5 Ha. site, in which blackwoods had been interplanted with eucalypts 24 years ago. The eucalypts were felled on one Ha. at 16 years, and the blackwoods that remained were graded for form and vigour, and thinned to 110 per Ha. The best of them were then selected for seed collection as part of a breeding program.

What is now apparent is that many of the trees that were performing less well at age 16 have now caught up with the plus trees. This has been attributed to the need to trim branches in the plus trees for seed collection, but I have some reservations about this. To have this effect, the pruning would have to be very severe. A study in Tasmania has shown that up to 30% of the foliage can be removed from blackwood at one hit without any impact on diameter or height. At 50% there is some effect on diameter. It may be that the “plus trees “had been favoured by a microsite advantage in the original mixture, and now they are on a more level playing field after removing the eucalypts, this effect has been cancelled out.

Another reservation is that the form of the trees, which is generally very good, has been strongly influenced by the adjacent eucalypts, and has had little genetic influence. An assumption that underlies breeding programs that have been carried out in the past for blackwood is that the basic attributes of vigour and form are likely to be inherited. That is certainly true for radiata pine, redwoods, and cypress. However in blackwood , environmental influences, on form in particular, are strongly expressed. Wood colour may be a different matter.


Before our visit to Chile we had heard stories suggesting that we would see some exceptional blackwoods. After more than a week visiting plantations and viewing trees from the roadside we were left in no doubt that the Lake District in Southern Chile is highly suited for blackwood forestry. It has ideal climate and soils.

Because of its geographical separation from Australia, Chile is also free from acacia psyllids. These pests have been shown to reduce the height growth in young blackwoods by up to 40%. They also contribute to malformation. (they are not primarily responsible for multi-leadering in blackwood : this is a consequence of growth periodicity, in which the shoots terminate their growth periods by aborting and then replacing the growth tips. The absence of psyllids will make life easier for the grower, but will not eliminate the need for form pruning).

I am sure the full potential for blackwood could be realised with some adjustments in silvicultural practice. This has been influenced by practices derived from other plantation species, and by a wish to utilise the whole tree. Blackwoods are different. To grow them well we need to abandon the techniques and assumptions that underlie the silviculture of other commercial species. The commercial value of blackwood is likely to be confined to the butt log, and the silvicultural focus should be to grow this as straight and as wide as possible . This requires form pruning, and early and aggressive thinning in the stand. We know from studies in both New Zealand and Tasmania that fast growth in blackwood has no adverse effect on wood quality.

It will be interesting to follow the tree breeding program in Chile. I think this will be challenging because of the strong impact of the environment on several attributes of blackwood, in particular form, and to a lesser degree vigour. However I am prepared to be proved wrong.

Reproduced with kind permission of the author.

The Futrono plantation. Photo 1 the best tree benefiting from attention and some space, Photo 2 effects of delayed pruning, and Photo 3 general view of Futrono plantation.


IMG_4730 IMG_4720

Centrelink Timbers


Below are extracts relating to special timbers from the recently released Forestry Tasmania (FT) Ministerial Charter 2015. The Charter provides another wonderful opportunity to highlight just how stupid Tasmanian forest policy and practice is in the 21st century.

According to the Ministerial Charter FT identifies, manages, harvests and sells special timbers on both commercial and non-commercial bases!

How’s that for a business model guaranteed to fail?


And don’t forget that FT’s non-commercial activities are funded by the Australian/Tasmanian taxpayer; these are Taxpayer Timbers!

How FT defines and distinguishes between “commercial” and “non-commercial” special timbers when profitability is clearly not the objective in either case, is not explained?

The FT Annual Report provides no clarity on this confusion either. The Annual Report shows how much special timbers are sold each year, but makes no distinction between direct and indirect, commercial and non-commercial sales or other activities.

It is a complete mess!

Which special timbers were sold as non-commercial? On what basis were these non-commercial sales made?

How are costs and revenues accounted for with commercial and non-commercial sales?

On what basis are prices determined for commercial and non-commercial special timbers?

Why are special timbers managed in this confusing manner?

Why is there no transparency in the reporting of FT’s special timbers operations?

Why are special timbers treated as a taxpayer funded (non-commercial) community service?

As a forester I am of the opinion that forestry is a profit-driven commercial business. There is no such thing as forestry charity.

So why is Tasmania running a wood production charity?

Public native forest special timbers management is a mess.

Scarce taxpayers money is being wasted providing a charity that should not exist. Apparently wood craftsmen are more important than teachers and nurses.

Tasmanian farmers are being actively discouraged from investing in commercial blackwood because of the anti-commercial and anti-competitive policies and practices of Forestry Tasmania and the State government.

This will destroy Tasmania’s iconic blackwood industry.

And to this total mess the Government wants to add the costly and divisive logging of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Having written-off all of its own failed public blackwood plantations (over 850 ha), Forestry Tasmania’s 2013 Blackwood Sawlog Resource Review states that:

Blackwood plantations may be more appropriate for intensive farm woodlots rather than for extensive land managers such as Forestry Tasmania.

As the largest blackwood grower (native forest) and seller in Tasmania Forestry Tasmania fails to see any conflict or irony in this statement. How are Tasmanian farmers supposed to be encouraged to grow commercial blackwood when FT regards blackwood as a charity timber?

Can Tasmanian forest policy get any more insane or ridiculous?

PS. For international readers Centrelink is the Australian Federal Government agency tasked with delivering social programs such as assisted employment and unemployment benefits.

When will Tasmania get a fully commercial profitable forest industry?

World Heritage Area logging: Boatbuilders need access to Tasmania’s protected forests due to lack of speciality timber, Government says


Here we go again continuing with the wasteful, divisive, political forestry wars.

“New analysis strengthens the argument that selective logging of speciality timber in Tasmania’s World Heritage Area is necessary to meet the demand from craft industries, including boat builders, the State Government says”.

As usual it’s not about profitable tree growing; it’s about tree growing as a community service.

It’s Centrelink Timbers!

How can Tasmanian blackwood have a profitable commercial future with Government policy like this?

Never mind the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement (TFA). It’s history! Using the TFA as an excuse to vilify your opponents and justify logging the World Heritage Area is complete nonsense.

Of course if you give away trees there will be a demand. But what would happen if the Government decided it was actually running a business and had to make a profit instead, like private tree growers, like Tasmanian farmers?

There is no discussion here about costs, prices or profits; and supply and demand are discussed as political not commercial objectives. Any relationship between cost, price, supply and demand is completely ignored. It’s a sad pathetic joke!

It’s the same with Forestry Tasmania as with the special timbers industry; the whole lot is run as a community service. Wasteful political nonsense.

As Vica Bailey of the Wilderness Society says “the specialty timber sector has traditionally been a by-product of clear-felling and woodchipping of vast areas of old-growth and rainforest, a model that glutted the market with heavily subsidised wood, there was never any expectation that historical levels of supply could, would or should continue“.

The public native forest special timbers industry has never been sustainable nor profitable.

The last 30 years have clearly demonstrated there is no such this as sensible when it comes to logging public native forests. Logging the World Heritage Area would be yet another forest industry disaster.

Resources Minister Paul Harriss said he would present the new analysis to the World Heritage committee delegation during its visit in November in a bid to reverse opposition to logging inside forests added to Tasmania’s World Heritage Wilderness Area in 2013.

Will Minister Harriss present the same analysis to the Tasmanian community for broader scrutiny?

The interesting thing in this news report is that blackwood is included in the discussion. World Heritage Area is now also about saving the blackwood industry. For the first time the Government admits the public native forest blackwood resource is not sustainable, only 12 months after the last blackwood resource review declared the resource sound and sustainable.

Forestry Tasmania’s own data clearly shows they have been overcutting the public blackwood resource for at least the past 25 years. And now as a consequence they want to try and justify logging the World Heritage Area. It’s just sickening!!

UNESCO must get the clear message from the Tasmanian community that logging the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is not acceptable.

When will Tasmania get a fully commercial, profitable forest industry?

Record price for blackwood sawlog at tender!!!

The results of the August 2015 tender at Island Specialty Timbers have just been posted.

Two small blackwood logs were included amongst the 27 lots tendered.

One of the logs (Lot 23) was a plain-grain Utility Grade (NOT Cat 4) blackwood log. The description read:

A good straight log, several bumps, attractive dark stripes in growth rings at butt end. Length 2.7 metres, large end diameter 64 cm, small end diameter 50 cm, volume 0.68 cubic metres.

IST 0815 log23double

This small log sold for the incredible price of $850 per cubic metre!

This is by far the greatest price ever paid for a plain grain blackwood log.

Remember that a commercial blackwood plantation aims to grow sawlogs that are 6.0 metres in length and an average volume of 1.5 cubic metres. The above tendered log would represent the lower half of such a plantation-grown blackwood log.

In other words at this price a single plantation blackwood log could be worth $1,275!

At 300 cubic metres sawlog per hectare that equates to $250,000 per hectare at harvest for a blackwood plantation.

Remember these prices are equivalent to mill-door delivered prices, so harvesting and transport costs need to be deducted to approximate stumpage paid to the grower.

And this is only one small, low quality log sold at tender in Smithton, north west Tasmania.

The other Cat 4 blackwood log sold for $550 per cubic metre.

This is an extraordinary price for a small plain-grain blackwood sawlog and again demonstrates the commercial potential of farm-grown commercial blackwood.

Is anyone interested?

Ooops! Not such a success


For the past few years Taylor Guitars have been heavily promoting Tasmanian blackwood as the great new sustainable tonewood.

But it seems the promotion plan has come off the rails.

This commentary is speculative but from what I know it fits the available evidence.

After the big release by Taylor of the 2014 Fall Limited Edition (FLE) models things appear to have come unstuck.

The Taylor 2014 FLE models put Tasmanian blackwood up against some serious competition in the way of Hawaiian koa and Tasmanian black heart sassafras, and without too much surprise, the competition appears to have won this race at least.

Sales of the koa and sassafras models were apparently so good that the all koa GS mini is now part of the standard GS mini range. Taylor then came back to Tasmania for a second order of sassafras timber which has now been included in the 2015 Summer Limited Edition (SLE) models.

No such joy for Tasmanian blackwood however. Clearly the 2014 FLE blackwood models failed to ignite the market.

Without too much hindsight this result isn’t a surprise.

The fact that the Winter 2015 Wood & Steel magazine from Taylor had a major focus on future tonewood supply but made no mention of Tasmanian blackwood, reinforces the likelihood that Taylor have shifted the focus away from blackwood.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Taylor Guitars are a great company and they make fantastic guitars. But everyone makes mistakes. I’m no marketing expert but here’s why I think the Tasmanian blackwood models failed to fire the market:

Too much serious competition

Of the four styles on offer for the 2014 FLE models, the blackwood models were by far the plainest and least visually appealing. Two of the models featured koa which is a well established quality tonewood in the American market. The Tasmanian blackheart sassafras, whilst new to the international commercial guitar market, was just so visually stunning and unique. Without any tonal heritage sassafras stole the show like a supermodel on the catwalk. Do I guess the premium acoustic guitar market is dominated by men? But who can blame them for being visual slaves. Of course not everyone wants a visually stunning guitar. Some people prefer the plain and unadorned. But that’s definitely not the dominant market.

Taylor sassafras 2014LTD

Product development and design.

Even ignoring the competition the blackwood design in the 2014 FLE lineup was just ordinary especially by Taylor’s very high standards. Taylors have a very strong sense of the aesthetic. So what happened?

If Taylor uses the limited editions to test new products in the marketplace then the 2014 FLE models merely reinforced existing market preferences for the rare, the visually stunning, and the familiar. In terms of pushing Tasmanian blackwood into the international tonewood market it failed.

So how do you introduce Tasmanian blackwood to the international tonewood market?

How do you introduce a plain grain premium tonewood to a market addicted to feature grain and visual appeal?

Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t introduce the product in competition with other products that already have an obvious market advantage;
  • a clear price differential is needed between plain and feature grain to reflect the fact that feature grain tonewood is a rare commodity;
  • if market resistance to new product is expected/encountered then perhaps introduce the product at a lower price bracket. If the product is good it will quickly move up into the premium market;
  • if introducing a new “plain” product into a premium market then extra effort is needed in product design, development and marketing.

Tasmanian blackwood has the potential to become an internationally recognised profitable, sustainable, premium tonewood but the road ahead remains uncertain.

I hope one day Taylor Guitars come back to Tasmanian blackwood.

Hooray for Peter Adams

The Talking Point in today’s Mercury newspaper by furniture designer/maker and artist Peter Adams is a rare and much welcome alternative opinion in the ongoing nonsense around special timbers and the prospect of logging the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.


It is just so rare for someone within the forest industry to come out and publically challenge the current industry and policy orthodoxy.

From today forward, all timber workers, myself included, have to re-examine their use of speciality timbers.

That said, what I will never do is use any timber cut within the boundaries of a World Heritage Area. Nor should anyone.

My suggestion to Peter Adams and others (including consumers) is to:

  1. Use only farm-grown Tasmanian timbers;
  2. encourage Tasmanian farmers to grow more quality wood;
  3. pay Tasmanian farmers a price for their wood that reflects its real value and encourages more tree planting;
  4. support organisations such as mine that seek to encourage and teach farmers how to grow commercial blackwood in both plantations and remnant native forest.

Wood is not a taxpayer-subsidised community service. It is a commercial product.

Planting trees and managing plantations and forests costs real time and money.

The only way for Tasmania to have a successful forest industry, and realise the vision of Peter Adams, is for tree growing to be blatantly and transparently profitable.

Only Tasmanian farmers can make this happen; farmers who are passionate about growing a quality product.

I was up in the north west of the State this week for the first time in a while, and driving around imagining a rural landscape dotted with well managed forest remnants and plantations of blackwood. Instead I saw opportunities being wasted. Most farms have wet gullies, steep slopes and small areas too difficult to manage. Good land going to waste. These areas are just ideal for growing commercial blackwood.

One of the key things missing is the right commercial and political context to get these areas planted.

Peter Adams points the way to the future.

Award winning Tasmanian blackwood double bass


Sydney-based double bass luthier Matthew Tucker has recently won the Silver Medal for Tone at the 2015 International Society of Bassists (you didn’t know such a group existed did you??) Convention in Fort Collins, Colorado.

As the website says double bass judging consists of two quite different but very important factors: workmanship and tone. Certificates and Silver Medals are awarded in each class.

For an instrument to receive the coveted Gold Medal, it must have been recommended by all judges for a Silver Medal in both the workmanship and tone categories. In the history of the ISB Makers Competition there have been only four Gold Medals awarded.

So a silver medal in Tone is a huge vote of support for Matthew Tucker and for Tasmanian blackwood as a quality bass tonewood.

I took the bass over in June and entered it into the international makers competition, in a field of 25 makers. The Silver Medal is the highest award given in that category.


Here’s what the Judges said:


“Very easy to play. Lovely upper register G string, with a refined sound, excellent projection and good balance overall across the strings … the solo quality is striking. Although delicate, the sound has wonderful bottom to reinforce it.” – John Clayton


“Beautiful, clear and compelling tone, good consistent dynamic range and seamless response. Truly exceptional ergonomics … too easy to play! A fantastic, versatile bass” – Or Baraket


“This is a wonderful, easy to play travel bass especially for solo, jazz and chamber group.” – Nick Scales

 The bass is now on sale and can be played at AES Fine Instruments in New York.

Congratulations Matthew! Fantastic result.

Some more pics of this beautiful instrument: