Unintentional path dependence: Australian guitar manufacturing, bunya pine and legacies of forestry decisions and resource stewardship


Back in July last year I wrote about two academics from The University of Wollongong, NSW (Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren) who came down to Tasmania as part of a project they are working on concerning the guitar industry and its response to changes in the tonewood market.

At that time they had just published the first paper from their research:


They have now published a second paper which looks specifically at the Australian industry and its use of Bunya pine (Araucaria bidwillii).


Once again like the first paper, this is not an easy paper to read, containing dense academic text.

Being a forester I was already aware of the history of Bunya pine, and the trial plantings made by the Queensland Government in the early to mid 20th century on public land.

New to me was some of the history about the use of native timbers in the local guitar industry, particularly Maton and Cole Clark. Bunya pine is a major sound board tonewood for these two companies.

But the article makes clear that both these companies are now relying on the old Government Bunya trials for their supply, and the future of those trials is clearly subject to the whims of political fortune. The pressure to clear the Bunya trials and replant with the faster growing more profitable Hoop Pine is always there. Future Bunya tonewood supply hangs by a thread unless alternative supplies can be established.


Maton and Cole Clark are clearly struggling to secure and control their future tonewood supply.

It’s a complex and difficult challenge. Not the least of the challenges is that Bunya takes 60+ years to reach a size that allows soundboards to be sawn from the logs.

Unfortunately the article provides few clues as to how the problem can be resolved.

Long term thinking and commitment is needed.

Both of these companies appreciate that relying on Governments for their timber supply doesn’t work.

What we need here is a business model that encourages farmers/landowners to plant tonewoods for both commercial return and non-commercial planting. This will involve the collaboration and support of many players, especially Maton and Cole Clark. These companies are too small to have the resources to grow their own tonewoods.

Perhaps a “Tonewood Alliance” is needed to get the ball rolling?

10 responses to “Unintentional path dependence: Australian guitar manufacturing, bunya pine and legacies of forestry decisions and resource stewardship

  1. We’ve had a crack at planting bunya with 100% failure from the 100 seeds we planted. The seeds were from a commercial vendor but may have been unviable for one reason or another. They can be a bit challenging to get going according to some accounts. We have another 15 or so seeds (that had germinated in the cone) in pots ready for transplanting when there’s enough soil moisture. I put them in the pots just before what I thought would be the start of planting season this year just to keep the seeds moist. But it’s been so dry this year they’ve been in the pots for a few months. We’ve had about half the median rainfall to date. So I hope they haven’t got too advanced with the initial cryptogeal root they put down.

    There’s some interesting stuff on growing them at these links:


    Click to access Bunya-rev4.pdf

    A tonewood growers group would be useful IMO. Niche market with potentially very high returns but expertise required by the suppliers to get the wood characteristics right. Would suit some growers.

  2. Hi David,

    My suggestion of an “Alliance” was because I think it needs the input and support of tonewood merchants, luthiers and guitar companies. So “broader” than just a growers group, but with a very tight focus.

    Might even get Bob Taylor interested….


  3. I’ve spent some time over the last 18 months looking at how growers might get better returns than they can expect from supplying into commodity timber supply chains. There’s potential for improved returns by focusing on premium markets but these markets have distinct requirements for wood quality, characteristics, timber availability, volume and so on. A tonewood alliance would be a useful place to collate and build expertise in that area that growers could use to improve their return. I’d be interested in a group of that nature.

  4. Availability, volume…..the biggest problems regarding Tasmanian Tonewoods…….when is that likely to improve…?

    • Hi Scott,

      You regard availability and volume as the biggest problems regarding Tasmanian tonewoods do you?

      I don’t regard those as the biggest problems at all.

      Here’s my list of issues that I regard as much more important in the Tasmanian tonewood market:

      forest industry policy
      rainforest plunder
      taxpayer subsidies
      a tonewood market that is not commercially driven
      community apathy

      Availability and volume cannot be resolved UNTIL these other issues are resolved. I’m not hopeful.

      In the mean time Tasmanian tonewoods will continue to come primarily from plundered public forests at taxpayers expense.

      That is what most tonewood merchants seem to want.

      It is a very sad situation.


      • Scott Seymour

        Hi Gordon, I was under the impression that quality blackheart sassafras and highly figured blackwood was fairly rare, that the number of trees that produce this sought after tonewood is very limited? If that is the case, even if the political and other situations you have outlined are overcome, does this then mean that there will be more of this rare tonewood available to meet the demand…? If so then that is brilliant, if not, then the main problem is still going to be availability and volume…..is it not..?

      • Hi Scott,

        Blackwood and perhaps Tas Oak are the only two Tasmanian native tonewood species that have any hope of a profitable sustainable future.

        Myrtle, sassafras, huon pine, king billy pine are all plundered resources. They have never been sustainable and never will be.

        Whilst all those “other” issues dominate the special timbers “industry” then blackwood and tas oak can never settle down and allow people to plant/grow them in a proper commercial manner.

        At the moment things are going backwards very quickly thanks to the politics and ideology, so tonewood supply will become even more limited.

        So availability and volume are issues, but they can’t be resolved until the more pressing issues are addressed and that seems highly unlikely.



  5. Hi Gordon,
    I don’t see the tonewood market going backwards very quickly, I do see a new approach though……that’s what I’m working on.


  6. Of course in a real market place “availability and volume” are determined by price and cost. In a taxpayer funded forest products market like Tasmania price and cost are “irrelevant”.

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