Go Deloraine Stringfest! – a reply


I thought this recent comment to one of my earlier blogs was worthy of a more full response.

While I believe Gordon’s point of view might be an important point of view, it is certainly not the only point of view. In fact, I have some deep reservations about what Gordon is on about, not just about the future for instrument makers, but for craft and furniture makers in general.

Plantation timber is not ideal for every one, in fact, for some it is just plain wrong.

I believe it is of almost no interest to artistic wood turners, for example. They usually like the most gnarly, twisted, knotted, stressed and complex timber they can find, and it is almost totally without exception found to be old-growth timber.

Many users like their timber to be old, slow-growing, stable, rich, dark, and close in grain structure. I have never seen plantation-grown timber of any sort that looks like that. While some luthiers would definitely like straight-grained timber, there are plenty of others, such as the solid-body electric guys who want the most spectacular timber they can find, and I can give examples.

I would have less of a problem with Gordon if he were to not be saying that all the old-growth Blackwood forests should be locked up so that it could give a free kick to the fledgling Blackwood plantation growers – even John Gay did not ask for that!

Hi George,

Thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear from you.

Here’s my response to your concerns:

  1. No one has ever claimed that my views are supreme. I openly welcome other opinions and ideas.
  2. The wood qualities you describe “most gnarly, twisted, knotted, stressed and complex timber they can find” might appeal to a small number of artisans and craftspeople. But by far the major markets for blackwood – veneer, furniture, cabinetry, flooring, and commercial (as distinct from custom) instrument makers all prefer straight-grained wood for its uniformity, stability and ease of machining and workability. Feature grain such as fiddleback blackwood is also highly prized by these markets, but has only ever been available in very limited ad hoc supply anyway. Supply has never been guaranteed. New Zealand instrument makers are already using plantation blackwood.
  3. Plantation blackwood is my main focus because it is the best way to meet the dominant market demand and is the only way to expand and develop the blackwood industry. But I also have a focus on the remnant blackwood forest that exists on private land and how this can be better managed to improve productivity and value. With time (and perhaps even right now) this resource could easily supply the type of wood you describe including featured grain material. In fact it is already supplying the specialised craft and custom market.
  4. The genetic potential of blackwood is huge. A blackwood selection and breeding program could well provide improved, specialised wood properties of consistent quality to meet a number of different markets. These could be based around wood hardness, density and colour and perhaps even figured grain. Such genetic potential will only ever be realised once blackwood cultivation is well established and profitable. We are currently a long way from reaching that point!
  5. if he were to not be saying that all the old-growth Blackwood forests should be locked up”. George can you please identify where I have said this? I am more than happy for public native forest to be commercially managed PROVIDED it is done properly and profitably. I have certainly said that Tasmania has clearly demonstrated over the past 30 years that we do not have the commitment nor the skills to commercially manage our public native forests to meet social, ecological, political and commercial objectives. Every week our newspaper headlines scream this fact to the world. Many Tasmanians are thoroughly sick and tired of it.

I am not against your interests at all George. I want good professional, fully commercial and profitable forest management. I want a fair go and a “level playing field” for both public AND private tree growers. That’s all I want. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently it is.

Right now the policies and practices of the Government and Forestry Tasmania are deliberately undermining my attempts to build a private commercial blackwood venture. In fact your precious public native forest blackwood resource is being wiped out by overcutting! Does this concern you at all George?


When I look at the forest industry I look at as many aspects as I can, not just the quality of the wood resource. Right now there is very little about the forest industry and Tasmanian State forest policy that I find positive or useful. Unlike others I do not ignore the numerous political, social and commercial challenges facing the industry. I certainly do not support the use of taxpayer funds to log Tasmania’s conservation reserves for special timbers. Such stupidity will foment community conflict the likes of which we haven’t seen since the dark days of the Franklin River blockade.

The Deloraine Stringfest is a fantastic festival that in time will become a unique international event, highlighting the complete supply chain for stringed instruments from grower to artist. It has significant appeal to a wide audience. But while Stringfest sits within the current political, social and commercial malaise that is the forest industry in its current form, it will struggle to gain momentum and support.

It is well and truly time for fresh thinking and a new start.

That’s where I want to head George. A new beginning and a new vision.

Forestry is business. It is not about community service, or taxpayer subsidies whilst we are sacking teachers and nurses and closing schools. Forestry is about building wealth, not destroying it.

Go Stringfest!

13 responses to “Go Deloraine Stringfest! – a reply

  1. George raises some interesting points about supplying speciality timbers into speciality markets. Should conventional plantation silviculture aiming at a 6m butt log with a wide band of occlusion free wood be used with species targeted at artisans, woodworkers etc? It’s a small market but potentially lucrative. Particularly if export markets to overseas wood workers develop. A few months ago I had a chat with a guy who grows and sells osage orange timber. He says that for some uses the distance between growth rings isn’t all that important but for others this is critical. So how much water the tree receives, site soil quality and so on is relevant to the timber’s use and the price it can attract on this basis.

    • Hi David,
      As I wrote, the remnant native blackwood on farms around the place can easily supply the custom/craft market, whilst plantation blackwood is for the commercial markets (flooring, furniture, veneer, instruments, etc). Research has shown that growth rate has little to no impact on blackwood wood quality (colour and density). I’m pretty comfortable that the commercial markets will quickly accept the plantation wood.
      My objective is to both provide better management for the remnant blackwood and support plantation blackwood. So we can easily cover both markets.

  2. Very interesting about growth rate not affecting colour and density. I wonder if this also applies to trees that have been irrigated, fertilised or fertigated?

    I’m planning to put some more water storage at the top of my paddocks as this makes filling cattle troughs easier. That water could also be potentially used for sheet/trickle irrigation at low rates down a slope.

    I can direct where the cows prop to some extent with appropriate shelter and trough placement. If this was up the top of a slope the leachate from their manure would make its way down the slope. Which if planted with trees would get a nice nutrient kick along. And there’s water quality benefits from keeping cow manure distant from creeks.

    I also have access to several sources of free manure. I’m top dressing paddocks with this at the moment but some of it could be placed in coupes.

    There does seem to be a substantial premium for larger logs across a number of species. My feeling is that this is something farm foresters can target as they can use more focused silviculture than the large growers.

    • David,
      The other key point with blackwood is that there is incredible random (?) genetic diversity between trees. So in terms of growth rate not affecting colour and density, it comes down to knowing what you are starting with (planting). Since we don’t have a breeding program and no commercially available clones it is still something of a gamble.

      As for the irrigation ideas, approach it as a trial. Start off with one area and see how it goes. Anything that improves soil moisture availability over summer I reckon can only be a good thing in keeping the growth rate up.

      What happens if you have a wet summer? Too much run-off?



  3. As long as you had controlled discharge of the irrigation capacity, too much runoff in a wet summer could be avoided. If the storage is a big header tank, say 50-100kl, filled with a hydraulic ram or pump this is easy enough.

    I’ve seen blackwoods on our place sprouting from exposed roots. I understand they can be propagated vegetatively from root cuttings. So if a tree with desirable qualities is identified it could be propagated clonally in this fashion. Do blackwoods coppice? If the roots and stump can survive for some period after the tree has been cut down then a tree with feature could be identified once harvested and propagated in this fashion. This would preserve any genetic component of feature.

    Can feature be identified from branches at pruning? This would facilitate taking root cuttings from trees before harvest.

    Perhaps you should do some posts on feature, Gordon. Different types, where they occur in a tree, when they become visible and so on

    Bye for now


    • David,
      Yes blackwoods can both sucker and coppice. I saw some excellent examples of coppice last week when I called in to visit the Carrabin plantation. All the stumps from the thinning are now coppicing, but will not survive due to browsing.

      And yes both of these methods can be used to clone desirable wood properties. I would certainly encourage you to have a go with blackwood cloning. Maybe some New Zealand readers have some experience with this.

      The only paper I’ve found that looks at the correlation between branch wood and stem wood quality is this one from Hawaii and Acacia koa.

      Click to access FOR3.pdf

      It’s an interesting read. Often branches are up high and branches large enough to have heartwood will be difficult to remove (need a chainsaw). But yes in theory this would be possible.

      I haven’t found any research that looks at the development of feature in time and space. Perhaps in 50 years time when we have hundreds of blackwood growers we will be able to do this kind of research.



  4. Speaking of Acacia koa here is an interesting Powerpoint presentation from 2010 that has some interesting snippets of information about what they are trying to do in Hawaii developing the commercial potential of Koa.

    Like a lot of PPT presentations it’s a bit cryptic without some supporting documentation/speech.

    But despite low funding, the Hawaiians are making steady progress towards developing a commercial future for Acacia koa. Pity we don’t have a similar commercial approach to blackwood.

  5. Thanks for all that, Gordon. You can see why koa is so often compared to blackwood. Wood is very similar appearance as well as the genetic closeness. Good to know that stem and branch both show feature if present in koa. ‘Twill be interesting to see when heartwood develops in blackwood branches to allow similar checks.

    What is the scarification they refer to in the powerpoint? Is this scarifying the soil to help seeds get started? Or cutting up the roots a bit to encourage suckering?

    On the topic of blackwood biology, has anyone looked at how their roots are distributed? Do they have a lot of surface roots? We have paddock blackwoods that have survived cattle grazing and consequent soil compaction so they can at least tolerate stock in with them once they are established. Although maybe they would do better if stock were excluded throughout their growth cycle? Similarly for silver wattle in that we have some paddock trees that have survived and achieved a good size but perhaps they would do better if stock was excluded even when they were well established.

    I spent the weekend slashing areas where we’ve excluded stock from young trees. Using stock to control grass is appealing once farm forestry trees are established. I’ve noticed that mature stands of reasonably dense blackwood in Sth Gippsland tend to outcompete the grass to leave a nice forest floor of decaying litter with very little grass or weeds. This is easy to manage although it does mean that the coupe area cannot run stock while under trees.

  6. David,
    I think in that instance in the Powerpoint presentation scarification means soil disturbance to encourage koa seed germination.
    I’m not aware of any studies of blackwood root system development. Yes they tend to be generally pretty hardy paddock trees, but as you say they probably prefer life without soil compaction.
    Weed control under the trees while they are still young is certainly an issue. Once the trees are 5-6 m tall I suspect a bit of light grazing wont harm. Certainly once crown closure happens then grass growth slows dramatically.

  7. David, refrain from allowing cattle to graze under blackwood, they only have to damage a tree once and its permanently damaged. One site I visited in NZ had allowed cattle grazing and they had torn the bark in strips and compacted the soil in wet conditions. Result was poor health and some tree death. Another site here in NW Tassie had terrible bark damage from cattle, very poor tree health and considerable tree death. Graze cattle on pasture areas and keep them out. Probably get away with it in most instances but its not worth the risk.

  8. I think it’s useful to tease out the relevant issues with something like stock in with blackwoods. We don’t stock several of the paddocks at all during winter as the ground gets so badly pugged. Heavy soils and lots of rain. Compaction? Well, we have some small areas in one or two gullies where the soil would be close to forest soil as there hasn’t been any cattle down in them. Soft, moist soil with good litter cover and soil depth. And with some healthy blackwoods! But we also have some healthy blackwoods on several slopes where the cows don’t go now as there’s no grass due to competition with the trees. Presumably these trees when they were young and there was some grass had cattle grazing around them.

    Cattle will eat young trees because that’s just what they do. Bos taurus is a European woodland species which likes to have good shade and shelter and a variety of foliage to eat. Not well suited to Australian paddocks with no shade on a 40C+ day but that’s another story. They will eat bark if they’re lacking roughage or there’s a diet deficiency. And I’ve heard that they will also rub against stringybarks and eventually ringbark them. But our observation with cattle on our place is that they won’t trouble mature blackwoods or silver wattles if they’re eating well. However, this may vary with other cattle at other sites. Some of the farmers in Ian Nicholas’ blackwood video were grazing in mature blackwood stands. Would be interesting to compare how they go against stands where stock are excluded for the whole rotation.

  9. Stock grazing and blackwoods – another great area for some original research. A lot of variables to have to manage thou. And tricky to replicate to get a statistically valid sample.
    On the subject of crown closure and grass control, this is one factor in favour of a higher initial stocking such as the New Zealand blackwood plantation model. Crown closure, and hence grass control, will happen a lot sooner with the NZ model vs planting at 7m spacing and spend your efforts controlling grass and weeds rather than thinning blackwoods. Some sheep or goats might be a better stocking option. Gilles Carrabin uses goats under his blackwoods very successfully.

  10. Research has been done in this area in NZ and plenty of evidence here from agroforestry plantings of radiata. Pasture composition changes when shading becomes significant and feed quality drops markedly. Good grazing conditions under trees for the first 5-10 years, once canopy closure approaches there is little grazing value. Young blackwood trees are more susceptible to damage from cattle, don’t take the risk and keep them out.

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