Monthly Archives: December 2011

Play Responsibly: Guitar Makers Seek Sustainable Sound

As an addendum to my recent blog about sustainable tonewoods, here's another recent article about sustainable tonewoods and what the major American guitar manufacturers are doing to address the issue.
 
 
A great opportunity to promote plantation blackwood, both the existing New Zealand resource and the potential here in Tasmania.
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Blackwood gold in them hills

Nz_blackwood_floor_3

Check out the article on page 11 of todays (16/12/2011) Tasmanian Country newspaper.
 
 

It would have been better if the picture was included to show farmers what the floor looked like.

NEW Zealand plantation-grown blackwood floor demonstrates the potential for a new revenue source for farmers in Tasmania.

Dr Gordon Bradbury, a forester with 30 years experience, is endeavouring to establish a commercially-focused Tasmanian Blackwood Growers Co-operative to emulate the success of the New Zealand farmers.

“Many farms have a steep wet gully or slope that only grows blackberries and bracken. These unproductive areas could potentially be used to grow blackwood,'' Dr Bradbury said.

“This commercial opportunity does not exist in Tasmania just yet.'' The 2011 New Zealand Master Builder House of the Year features a blackwood timber floor. Not blackwood imported from Tasmania, however, but 15-20 year old New Zealand plantation grown trees.

 Dr Bradbury said the award is a major boost for New Zealand farmers who are on the verge of their first significant harvests of plantation blackwood.

The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA), who represents private foresters, backs opportunities for farmers to explore sources of revenue.

“This is one of many opportunities floating about, but the fullness of time will sort out its feasibility,'' TFGA boss Jan Davis said.

Ms Davis said the blackwood co-operative would require serious commitment from the industry to see it through.

Dr Bradbury said the proposed co-operative would assist farmers to forest manage their native blackwood for wood production, genetic conservation, and the environment.

He said farmers could grow blackwood in plantations to produce high value, high quality blackwood timber for local and export markets.

“A major objective of the co-operative would be to establish a blackwood breeding program to improve the quality and consistency of plantation timber,'' Dr Bradbury said.

 Australian Forest Growers (AFG), which is a national organisation which includes representing farm plantation growers, said it is a step towards a sustainable privately owned high-value resource.

Dr Bradbury, who  has completed a PhD at UTas on blackwood wood quality and genetics,  is seeking community support and industry support to establish the co-operative under the industry reforms outlined in the Tasmanian Forest Inter-Governmental Agreement (TFIA).

“If New Zealand farmers can do it, why can't we?'' he said.

More details: www.blackwoodgrowers.com.au

Blackwood: the sustainable tonewood

Taylor_426ce-ltds

An American made Taylor 426CE-LTD, a premium guitar using Tasmanian blackwood top, back and sides.

One of the important drivers in the future of plantation blackwood I believe will be the demand for sustainable tonewoods. Tonewoods are woods used in the manufacture of musical instruments. Blackwood is most commonly used in the manufacture of acoustic guitars. While the volumes required may be relatively small, and the log specifications may be restrictive, the high value and prestige associated with this market will help drive the development of blackwood as a premium plantation species.

Like most music instruments the history and development of the guitar has been a struggle between tradition and innovation. In the case of the violin tradition reigns supreme, with the Cremonese era (17th – 18th century) being regarded as the pinnacle of violin manufacture. With the steel-string acoustic guitar, the pre-war (WW2) American guitars are today regarded as the pinnacle, but innovation and adaptation continue to drive the development of the guitar. One factor driving innovation is the supply of quality wood. Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) is regarded as the holy grail of guitar tonewoods, but it is now subject to a CITES restrictions that severely limits availability. Like Brazilian rosewood, many traditional tonewoods come from the logging of rainforest, with very few coming from sustainable sources. This is where blackwood has a distinct advantage.

Blackwood entered the tonewood market due to the success of its American cousin Acacia koa. Hawaiian music was extremely popular in America in the 1920’s, with many guitars being made using Koa which is only found in Hawaii. As a result Koa quickly established itself as a quality tonewood. Koa wood comes from the logging of Hawaii’s very limited native forests, and with supplies dwindling, guitar makers are looking for a substitute. In Australia, Melbourne-based guitar makers Maton have pioneered the use of Australian timbers for many years, including blackwood.  

Blackwood tonewood currently enjoys retail prices ranging from $70,000 for relatively plain sets, to $150,000+ per cubic metre for highly figured and decorative examples. I don’t have any figures that convert these prices back to stumpages (price at stump), but they must be considerably higher than standard sawlog stumpages.

With most blackwood timber currently coming from the logging of public forest in Tasmania, and with the ongoing uncertainty about the future management of these forests, the opportunity to establish a sustainable plantation resource to supply this market is great.

Major guitar manufacturers are becoming increasing involved in the supply side of their tonewoods, to ensure they come from quality, sustainable sources. Examples of this include the Musicwood Coalition (www.musicwood.org). One of my objectives with the blackwood growers cooperative would be to establish relationships with some of these major manufacturers such as Taylor, Martin and Gibson, so that their requirements for tonewood would help drive the development of the coop.

There is plenty of evidence to show that international demand for blackwood tonewood has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. We just need to get the supply side of the business working.

Cheers!

 

References

Ellis A, Saufley C, Gerken T (2008) The future of tonewood. Acoustic Guitar 18(8):80-86.

Evans P (2007) The use of blackwood in the Australian guitar-making industry. In: Beadle C. L. and Brown A. G. (eds) Acacia Utilisation and Management: Adding Value – 3rd Blackwood Industry Group (BIG) workshop. 26-29 April 2006, Marysville, Victoria, RIRDC Publication No. 07/095, Canberra, Australia. pp. 45-46.

Morrow A (2007) Evaluation of Australian timbers for use in musical instruments. J. W. Gottstein Memorial Trust Fund, Clayton South, Vic., Aust.

(http://www.gottsteintrust.org/html/reports/catalog.htm#AMorrow).

The textbook plantation blackwood

Pb260126s

Four years old, four metres tall, and a single straight stem thanks to an annual touch with the secateurs. This is the best tree in a small plantation on my friend’s property near Hobart. I planted this while I was doing my PhD to help keep me sane, and learn the art of growing commercial blackwood.

The site is south facing, with deep sandy loam soils and good soil moisture during summer. Annual rainfall is over 1000mm. There is tall eucalypt forest on the north side of the plantation which provides shading for much of the year. The site is exposed to the west and south, with two major wind storms in the past 4 years causing damage.

There are no native blackwoods anywhere nearby to help demonstrate whether this is naturally a good blackwood site, while silver wattle is locally very common and grows very well. The tall eucalypts nearby include E. globulus and E. regnans, so the site at least has good general tree growth.

Unfortunately the above blackwood is not (yet?) representative of the rest of the plantation, which has proven to be an excellent learning opportunity.  In addition to the damage caused by the two wind storms mentioned (yes shelter is important), there was no weed control at the time of planting, which was in the middle of winter (possibly the wrong time to plant). The other blackwoods are gradually becoming established but the process has been slower than expected.

When planted the trees were protected from browsing by a two-strand electric fence (for stock protection), and KBC 1.2 metre tall tree shelters (http://www.southernwoods.co.nz/cart/accessories.asp) for protection from wallabies. Trees were given a dose of super phosphate and trace elements (legumes such as blackwood require a range of trace elements such as molybdenum and boron to function and grow properly). Last autumn each tree had weed control, and so far this spring (with excellent growing conditions) the trees have grown well.

One of my objectives with this plantation was to test a simplified version of the New Zealand blackwood regime. The NZ regime involves planting 800 blackwoods per hectare and then thinning to waste down to a final stocking of 200 trees by age ten years (Nicholas and Brown, 2002). Unless you are addicted to chainsaw work, and need a lot of firewood, that seems to me to be a lot of work and waste for little benefit, given that the trees are intensively managed in that first 10 years anyway. So this little plantation is planted at final spacing of 6m x 7m. No thinning to waste is needed, but any mortality means that the site is not fully productive.

My logic here is that if farmers are to be encouraged to grow commercial blackwood, the task needs to be as simple and cheap as possible. Complexity and extra work just increases the risk that critical management such as weed control, protection, and pruning won’t get done.

So is the above tree the exception that proves that this is not a good blackwood site? Or is it indicative that the site can grow good blackwood, and that poor site selection (lack of sufficient shelter) and establishment (no weed control and wrong time to plant) has resulted in patchy growth? So far I’m optimistic and assuming the latter is the case. More trees are beginning to look like the one above, and its performance just keeps getting better every year.

Sharing of experiences like these (both the successes and the failures) will help create a successful and dynamic Tasmanian blackwood growers cooperative.

Reference:

Nicholas ID, Brown I (2002) Blackwood: A Handbook for Growers and Users, Forest Research, Rotorua, New Zealand.

Cheers,

Gordon Bradbury.