Monthly Archives: February 2014

More concerns for the public blackwood resource

Here’s an extract from an email I recently received from another forest industry employee.

My guess is that Forestry Tasmania will cease to exist within a few years. I ……… know something of the [public] resource that is left in the North West and it’s not much. Available mature [eucalypt] resource has been largely logged and most of what is left is either not economic or has been locked up. High quality [eucalypt] regrowth sawlog resource has mostly been logged. What FT has available is mostly younger regrowth that is too young for sawlog, most of which is earmarked for Ta Ann. The blackwood resource is limited and I suspect has 5 years left at current harvest rates.

That’s 5 years of public blackwood sawlog resource remaining to be harvested before it’s all over. This certainly correlates with my own expectations of the available public resource.

The end of the blackwood industry as we know it.

AFS and FSC Certification will count for nothing under the current scenario.

As part of the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement Forestry Tasmania is currently undertaking a special timbers resource review which is due for release later this year. It is not known whether this review will include blackwood. Given the increasing uncertainty about the public blackwood resource, the resource review report will have to be very convincing in its detail and analysis. The last blackwood resource review in 1999 was anything but convincing and detailed. The fact that Forestry Tasmania has been harvesting blackwood well above the sustainable yield since the last review is just one of many points of concern.

As I’ve said before the transparent process of regularly planning, executing, managing, reviewing and reporting the sustainable blackwood sawlog production from public native forest is clearly not up to scratch, and is certainly not worthy of FSC certification.

The growing uncertainty about the sustainability of the Tasmania’s blackwood industry is cause for concern. But questions about the sustainability of the resource may be over-shadowed by more immediate issues such as the State election in March, and now the dire state of the State Government budget. Post-election the new incoming Government will have no option but to make major cuts to Government spending. Schools and hospitals will be obvious targets. But there will be no more hand-outs for the forest industry. Non-performing assets like Forestry Tasmania will be told in no uncertain terms to ship-up or shape-out. Forestry Tasmania may be forced to abandon its “non-profit, non-commercial” special timbers activities even before the resource review is finished!

It’s going to be another very hard year for the forest industry.

The only future for the blackwood industry is to focus on private growers. There is a small existing resource that can be utilised, but the focus must turn to rebuilding the resource base on private land with a dedicated growers cooperative. Engage private land owners to learn to manage and grow more blackwood. A key part of this strategy must be greater market and price transparency.

The only other option is that we all disappear into the dusty pages of history, and let the New Zealand farmers take our blackwood heritage and industry.

PS. Meanwhile the forest industry in New Zealand just keeps going from strength to strength – absolutely unstoppable!

When I die I want to go to …… the Perth Heath Ledger Theatre??!!

Here’s a great blackwood story I just stumbled upon. And I was in Perth only a few weeks ago….. If only I had known!

Perth, Western Australia, has a new performing theatre complex (along with an amazing range of other new facilities and infrastructure). The building was designed by Perth-born Kerry Hill architects and opened in 2011. The 575-seat main theatre is named after Perth-born Australian actor Heath Ledger and it is absolutely stunning.


A veritable Tasmanian blackwood tsunami.

Vast surfaces of blackwood veneer overwhelm the senses, including the seating. Check out these images on Zimbio, and more here! It’s almost too much.


A blackwood wonderland!

All of this high-value blackwood veneer could one day be farm grown. In fact in a few years time it will be – New Zealand farm-grown. What about Tasmanian farmers?

So when I die and go to blackwood heaven it may look something like the Heath Ledger Theatre. I wonder if The Joker would approve?

Markets for farm-grown timber?


Here’s an email I recently received from a client that raises a number of important issues.

There’s no point growing trees for timber production if there’s no market for the timber. It appears that in NZ and Tasmania there are a number of places that farm forestry growers could sell blackwood as log or possibly sawn. What’s available in Victoria? I asked this question recently of one Victorian agroforestry consultancy. They didn’t have an answer. There are some furniture manufacturers in Victoria who use blackwood so they might be interested in taking timber but I’m guessing only if it has been sawn and seasoned. Perhaps some of the timber sellers will buy from growers but again I suspect if it has been sawn and seasoned. There are markets such as the craft/hobby/specialists such as luthiers which will take small volumes. I guess they could be supplied directly, through WWW fora or by selling to distributors.

This lack of clearly defined sales opportunities for species beyond E. globulus and Pinus radiata (and some niche opportunities such as several species that the Yarram sawmill actively pursues) is IMO a serious impediment for farm forestry in Victoria generally. I raised this issue in a submission to the Vic farm forestry strategy initiative a year or so ago. Perhaps that initiative will lead to some clarity of what can be sold where in Vic. There was an excellent guide published in Qld some years ago, for example, that details what timber is required for what markets and what prices may be expected.

There’s a great deal I could say in reply to this.

There are various reasons why farm forestry has never taken off in Australia despite the AFG having being around since the late 1960’s when the industry was much bigger than it is today. To me the main reason has been poor forest policy and management, and above all a lack of commercial process and management. The forest industry until recently has been run as a sheltered workshop for a select few, centred around a public native forest and plantation resource. So no transparent, competitive markets have ever developed for wood products in Australia. Farmers have never been encouraged to become commercial tree growers through proper market processes and competitive, transparent prices.

With the steady decline in the industry over the last 40 years, and especially since the GFC, the few remaining markets are rapidly disappearing. Sawmillers have traditionally played “rent seeker” with State Governments, rather than behave in a rational commercial manner and engage all landowners (public and private) to grow and supply them with sawlogs. Remarkably they are still behaving as rent seekers even as they now face almost certain extinction. The political games will keep them alive but it will be a long slow painful death; much like a cat playing with a mouse.

We are fast approaching the point where the hardwood sawmilling industry in Australia will collapse and disappear, and will have to be rebuilt from scratch, as they are attempting to do in New Zealand. In this new environment, portable sawmills will play a major role. Here are two examples of what the future may look like: based in north-coast NSW, and based in SE Queensland.

I can’t imagine why similar businesses are not operating in Victoria, such as one in Gippsland, another in the north east, perhaps another working the Otway/Ballarat area. Farmers who have small volumes of logs to saw for their own use or to sell would readily make use of such a service. And the portable sawmill owners could develop a network of contacts in the market to on-sell sawn timber. Being small, portable and efficient seems to be the key to success.

I suspect that most of our eucalypt hardwoods will never be valuable enough to support investment beyond this basic level, supplying small local niche markets. Even where high-value species are concerned, such as blackwood, the future will be difficult, unless those species already have significant local and international market profile (such as blackwood). The timber volumes required by the local market will be small even if the prices might potentially be high. Unless enough of a species is grown to allow access to export markets, then it will just be local niche craft markets. It’s a “chicken and egg” situation. Scale of planting and log value against local and/or export markets. One can’t happen without the other.

It will be interesting to watch how NZ blackwood farmers develop towards a collective marketing model for their trees that are now reaching commercial maturity. They have enough potential volume to begin accessing export markets so the rewards could be very good if they succeed.

Selling small parcels of logs and single logs will always be difficult, even if they are excellent quality logs of premium timber.

The fact that our sawmillers aren’t in the marketplace aggressively looking to buy sawlogs from wherever they can source them is a great curiosity to me. I can only interpret this behaviour as meaning that the logs are just not worth buying. The value of the timber is just not worth the effort. There are plenty of sawmiller websites around but I have yet to find one that has a “Wanted to buy” sign out the front. They are all about what they have to sell. Despite the collapsing industry the remaining sawmillers think their future supply is 100% secure. Very curious!

People like Jon Lambert at Heartwood Plantations have a much more commercial focus and a different business model, but I think even they don’t push the market hard enough. I’d love to know what they think of the current situation.

While the forest industry in Australia avoids becoming hard-nosed commercial and remains bogged down in politics and ideology, then farm forestry will continue to be a hard road. You mention the new Victorian farm forestry strategy. I’ve seen so many strategies come and go over the years with no impact at all, I’m afraid I’ve little faith in political support anymore.

So coming back to a farmer/growers viewpoint, you need to think carefully about what you are trying to achieve, and that means understanding the factors that will help or hinder you selling your wood in the future. Planting a lot of different species might be fun and interesting, but when it comes time to sell, you will find very few buyers unless you have done your homework.

What are the main local markets for premium timber? Cabinetry, flooring, furniture, panelling??? I don’t think structural solid hardwood has any future. What little structural hardwood that the market wants will all come from reconstructed wood such as LVL. So what species can you grow to supply the flooring and panelling market? Etc., etc…

I’m comfortable promoting blackwood because it has a well established local market profile and a growing international profile. But I realise my time is limited. If the remaining forest industry crashes and burns, as seems likely, then getting a growers cooperative going will be that much harder. Blackwood has a great future, but for the foreseeable future the Kiwis will be the drivers and dominant players in the blackwood market.



21, 22, 23 March 2014

This will be a great event!

I’ll be there to talk about how we can turn blackwood into an internationally recognised and appreciated tonewood with a Blackwood Growers Cooperative.

Put this weekend in your diary now.

See you there!

Luthiers, musicians, collectors and lovers of fine instruments and great music will gather at the inaugural Deloraine StringFest Tasmania in March 2014.

Deloraine is the home of the annual Rotary Tasmanian Craft Fair in November and is recognised as a centre for the arts with many fine crafts-people and artisans living in and around the Meander Valley.

Deloraine StringFest Tasmania (StringFest) is a celebration of stringed instruments, especially those made in Tasmania or made with Tasmanian woods such as blackwood, huon pine, sassafras and macrocarpa.  Tasmania has many fine artisans who create guitars, ukuleles, violins, harps, banjos, lutes and other fine instruments. Tasmanian woods are used Australia-wide and are keenly sought by instrument makers internationally.  Australian instruments by both large manufacturers and artisans have achieved international fame, and this is an opportunity for musicians, luthiers and enthusiasts alike to gather, display, sell and discuss their craft and love of instruments.

StringFest will bring together Instrument makers, tone-wood suppliers [AND GROWERS], musicians, groups and lovers of these fine instruments for displays, jam sessions, busking, concerts and workshops.

Musicians and makers attending StringFest will hold and attend workshops on playing and making instruments. All types of string music and instrumentation will be represented played by professional and amateur musicians from all over Australia.

StringFest Aims:

  • To present a festival of stringed instruments, showcasing Tasmanian and Australian luthiers, Tasmanian tone-woods and instruments;
  • To recognise Tasmanian instrumentalists and provide a social gathering for musicians, both professional and amateur;
  • To highlight the craft of luthiers and the pre-eminence of Tasmanian timbers used world-wide to create quality crafted stringed instruments; and
  • To provide ongoing recognition of Deloraine as a centre for craft and arts excellence.

Event Management

StringFest is a non-profit community event auspiced by Arts Deloraine, a non-profit community arts organisation, with any profits being directed back into the community for future events.

StringFest Events

Over the three days of StringFest there will be a multiplicity of events, some organised by the Management Committee and others hosted by community groups and business houses.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday – Instrument EXPO   Sports Complex, Little Theatre

Displays by luthiers of Stringed Instruments, displays of collectors instruments, Displays of Tone-woods used in instrument making.  Refreshments will available at the venue. ($5 admission). (Once only charge)

Blackwood – the start of a learning curve

by Ian Brown

For over 30 years I have been on a learning curve for blackwood. I planted my first blackwoods in 1980 on a small abandoned farm property I had bought in the far north of New Zealand. It was a long way from home, but it was cheap, and the nearby coast was appealing for family holidays. It was located in an elevated valley, sheltered from prevailing winds, an adjacent range provided good rainfall, and had clay loam soils based on ancient volcanics. In response to a recent study carried out by Ian Nicholas at Forest Research, who had been working on a project to select a limited number of species to supplement our monoculture of radiata pine, my brother and I decided to trial some alternative species, including blackwood.

Blackwoods have been planted in New Zealand from the 19th century. It had been generally assumed that to produce good form they should be interplanted with another species, and many had been planted in native bush, or in mixtures with eucalypts or pines. There had been little interest in pruning blackwood for form correction.

1980 trial planting.

We planted 500 blackwoods in groups of 4 trees, 8 metres between groups, and interplanted with pines. When we visited the site in the first summer the blackwoods were growing strongly, and were about chest height, but some of them were developing double leaders and competing branches. It seemed logical to trim these back, leaving a single leading shoot. Without a clear agenda, we set to with secateurs. However competing demands for time (fishing) meant we did not finish the job. In the following summer, two things were apparent: the trees we had pruned were much better in form than the unpruned trees, and the pruning had not affected their growth rate. And the blackwoods were growing faster than the pines, which were clearly having no influence on them. Over each of the following summers we continued with form pruning, directing attention to competing shoots near the top of the trees, and from about year 4 followed through with clearwood pruning from the base. When the trees were above 6 metres we thinned them to one per group.

The pines lagged behind, and made no contribution until about year 4, and by year 6 were suppressing the blackwoods. We then felled the pines. This left a thick layer of slash, which made access difficult for further silvicultural work. The pines had clearly been more trouble than they were worth.

I have a trial plot on the site, and in 2010 at age 30 the mean diameter was 55 cm. It should be close to 60 cm by 35 years, when I hope to mill them.

The message we got from this block was that on a good site, blackwoods respond well to annual form pruning, without the need for a nurse. So we decided to try something novel.

1982. Open grown planting.

In 1982 we planted blackwoods, again in groups at 7 to 8 metre spacing between groups, in the open, and undertook annual form pruning, but without a nurse species. These are probably the first blackwoods to have had this form of intensive annual treatment. Of the systems we have tried, it proved to be the simplest and most effective, and with some modifications it has been the method I have used since then.

At the same time we planted blackwoods in holes cut in an area of regenerating native scrub. This worked well, but the trees still needed an annual visit for light form pruning and remove overhanging branches. I tended to get lost when locating the trees, and spent some time wandering about in circles. This might have been avoided by cutting lines in the scrub.

1983. Blackwoods and eucalypts.

   In 1983 we returned to orthodox management, and interplanted blackwoods in a mixture with with E. saligna. This worked well for the first few years, and we started to clearfell the eucalypts at about year 5. Half way through the program we encountered a problem familiar to growers who have tried this regime: we were seduced by the eucs, which were growing strongly, and looked too good to fell. So we kept them, in the hope of eventually milling both species. It didn’t work out. The blackwoods became badly suppressed, and the eucalypts thrived. Where we had thinned the eucs, the blackwoods grew well.

The message here was that nurse species provide some benefit for a limited period, but although improving form, they do not eliminate the need for form pruning. They add costs and complicate the management, and to avoid suppression have to be sacrificed on time.

In subsequent planting in the Waikato I have relied on form pruning on open-grown trees, planted in groups of 3 or 4 at final spacing. This has worked well, and has done so on other plantations in NZ that I have looked at, provided one essential condition is met: to grow blackwoods in the open and without a nurse you must have a good site, one that will encourage rapid growth. This means warmth, shelter, adequate moisture, and decent soils. On sites that are cold, dry or exposed, it is very difficult to control form in open grown trees. In those conditions you might get away with it by using a nurse crop. Or it might be better to simply plant another species.

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Photos are from the Northland planting, taken in April 2010. The top photo is from the 1980 planting. The scrub is natural regeneration. The tree marked 7 (below) is from the 1982 planting, open planted and annually form pruned DBH 70 cm at age 28. Naturally it is one of the bigger trees.

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Thanks Ian for a great contribution. I hope it generates some discussion amongst readers.