Milling blackwood in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

The latest edition of New Zealand Tree Grower produced by the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association, contains a nice article by blackwood grower and sawmiller Paul Millen (NZTG 38(1) p. 7-8).

Paul runs a business called Marlborough Timbers.

Here’s the story in summary:

  • 8 plantation blackwood trees milled
  • Tree age: 30 years
  • Tree dbh: 30 – 60cm
  • Pruned height: 4 – 6m
  • Total log volume: 10 cubic metres
  • Total sawn recovery: 4.0 cubic metres
  • Total sawn recovery: 40%
  • Three to four logs per tree were milled, at lengths between 2.4 metres and 3.6 metres, including unpruned logs from above the pruning lift that were targeted to produce decorative knotty flooring.
  • Knotty boards were rough sawn 157 x 27mm and sold green at $NZ1800 per cubic metre. In future they hope to sell this grade of knotty blackwood for $NZ2,500 green or $NZ3,000 kiln dried.
  • They hope to sell kiln dried clear (select) grade blackwood for $NZ4,000 per cubic metre, which equates with what Malcolm Mackenzie is selling select grade blackwood into the NZ market:

Here’s a link to the article (pdf file):

Milling blackwood in the Marlborough Sounds NZTG 38-1

I got the extra information from Paul to help fill out the story.

Blackwood is a niche timber that I suggest is like the pinot noir variety of New Zealand exotic timbers. The timber has some incredible colour and diversity, and it is a relatively easy hardwood to saw and season. There is a lot of satisfaction in producing a really top notch product. I know there is some excellent mature well-managed farm forestry stands and these growers deserve to receive a high return given the demanding silviculture required to manage these early plantations.

Maybe the New Zealanders should market blackwood as Noirwood!!

As more of the New Zealand farm-grown blackwood resource matures we will be seeing more of these success stories.

Thanks to Paul Millen for the story and further information.

8 responses to “Milling blackwood in the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

  1. There’s some interesting points for farm foresters in this article.

    – Milling shortish logs. Logs at this length are movable by a reasonable sized farm tractor as against more expensive kit.

    – Sending milled timber to a reasonably close market should be cheaper than sending logs to a fixed mill. Certainly less volume.

    – If timber with prominent knots is sellable – and woodworkers tell me they are interested – this increases the yield.

    – $500/m3 premium for seasoning the knotty timber is a bit marginal.

    – Blackwood is a good firewood so the milling residues might have a value.

    – I wonder what the miller was charging. I had a quote a year or so ago for a miller, the portable mill, his offsider and a piece of yellow kit for, from memory, $120?140?/hour.

    So onfarm value adding for a premium timber appears to have potential.

    Of course, what the relevant prices would be here is a bit moot. I’ve had offers for a good sized (~80cm DBH) windfall, paddock tree blackwood log between several hundred dollars/m3 and $1000/m3 millgate. But that was in preliminary discussion as against a firm price. I haven’t tried to sell green milled blackwood.

  2. And something else that struck me a while ago. The standard 6m sawlog (plus a bit for docking) is aimed at supplying a simplified input into a large, commodity driven, milled timber timber supply chain. In contrast, one sawmiller I spoke to said he would like 4m silver wattle logs for a particular market he wanted to explore. Blackwood for cabinet making, furniture etc doesn’t need to be 6m boards. Durable roundwood for posts to replace treated pine needs to be at the length required for the relevant fence. These are all markets that require a bit more communication between grower and customer but offer the potential for a number of benefits for farm growers. I remember at the AFG 2012 conference one grower from northern NSW was selling his thinnings at the roadside to locals for, as he put it, “dodgy hippy buildings”. And getting a lot more for this timber stream that would otherwise at best have been firewood.

    There seems to be a continual stream of studies around how to increase farm forestry in Australia. But they often have an underlying assumption that the aim of farm forestry is to supply 6m sawlogs of mostly commodity species to large scale mills and pulp logs to paper mills with the aim of replacing increasingly locked up native forest timber. A useful study IMO would be how to make farm forestry work from a financial perspective with a focus on what markets exist that farm foresters could supply profitably. I don’t think that’s been done to date in Australia.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your thought provoking comments.

      I agree with you. The 6 metre sawlog is just a notional industry standard. Real markets are an entirely different thing.

      The problem is that in Australia we have never had anything like real forestry markets. NEVER!!

      If anything the 6 m standard comes from the idea that you can cut 2×2.4 metre stud length logs from a 6m log.

      The standard 2.4m house framing stud has defined our industry for 50+ years.

      But 6m is still a very versatile length. Especially if you have to prune anyway to get valuable clear timber.

      Short clears will always happen just because of circumstances. But to advocate that we only prune to 4.8 metres seems a waste to me when the trees are wanting to grow to 25 – 35 metres tall.

      Try telling Rowan Reid to only prune to 4.8m!! Ha!!

      But I do agree with your point that markets need to become more vocal and transparent. Not everyone wants a 6m sawlog.

      The tonewood market is a classic example where a 6m pruned log is completely useless.



  3. When you have gained some experience with sawmill operation and costs then you might understand why a 5.5m log length is preferred to shorter logs.

  4. A great article by Ian Brown on Blackwood at the NZFFA website, well worth reading.

  5. Was this the one you meant, Stu?

    There’s some interesting stuff in this post for local growers.

    • Thanks Stu and thanks to Ian Brown for his very detailed update on blackwood management.

      This is indeed an excellent update of our knowledge on plantation blackwood.

      My one comment is where Ian talks about growth rate and wood quality.

      My PhD study showed that growth rate indeed had little impact on blackwood wood quality in terms of heartwood colour and basic density.

      The critical point is that blackwood wood quality varies enormously from tree to tree and numerous studies indicate that this is largely genetic.

      So in order to get good wood from fast grown blackwood you need to plant the right genetic stock. Unfortunately we don’t yet have a breeding program.

      Certainly in the native forest blackwood in Tasmania you can get some pretty ordinary (light colour and/or low density) blackwood that happily never finds its way to market. Not often! But occasionally. Note that color and density are not correlated!!

      So what Ian Brown says is all good food for thought for current and prospective blackwood growers.



  6. So a few items from Ian Brown’s blog post:

    – Form pruning at 6 to 7 years old too late to limit malformation? Why would this be the case?

    – ‘Twould be interesting to have some indication of site quality with respect to soil fertility at the NZ sites mentioned. Sounds like a lot of them are crappy soil. I wonder how these would compare to sites in the Otways or Strzeleckis on volcanic/ferrosol or good quality dermosol. These Victorian sites would also have satisfactory temperature and rainfall profiles. Ian mentions his NZ site on volcanic soil that has reached 57cm MTD at 31 years.

    – 3m – 4m as a reasonable target log length at some sites.

    – Wider logs are better. But will they attract a premium in Vic/Tasmania?

    – So if blackwood crowns have touched and retreated as Ian puts it, they won’t spread again after thinning?

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