Feature Article - The Tasmanian native forest industry
Contributed by Don Frankcombe, Frankcombe Forestry Services Pty Ltd
From the early days of first European settlement in 1803 a succession of products have been produced from Tasmanian forests. Initially these included shingles, split posts, rails, palings and pit sawn lumber. In the latter half of the past century water and steam powered sawmilling became established and in the current century sawmilling technology has become increasingly sophisticated. The pulp and paper industry which developed in the late 1930s has experienced turbulent times. Finally, the controversial wood chip export industry commenced in 1972.
This article examines the history of each of the main products derived from Tasmanian grown hardwoods.
Before the advent of steam powered sawmills in the 1850s split or hewn timber was the predominant form of forest product. In fact this form of timber exceeded sawn timber production for the first 70 years of the colony.
Production of shingles, posts and barrels required very little capital or organisation. Trees were felled and converted to the final dimension on the spot. As fire consciousness grew the use of shingles for roofs was progressively phased out. Split posts and palings continued to be produced well into the second half of the twentieth century. The production of barrels from blackwood and eucalypt was a significant industry which continued into the present century.
Hewn beams and piles
The local shipbuilding industry developed after 1825 creating a market for long squared beams for keels, masts and hulls. Blue Gum was favoured for these uses. The local wooden shipbuilding industry peaked between 1850 and 1870 and then quickly declined as road and rail replaced the need for coastal shipping.
Late in the century a growing market developed for heavy beams and piles for wharves particularly from South Africa and England. This market rapidly declined after WW1 when it was found that Tasmanian eucalypts were inferior in durability and resistance to marine borers to Western Australian Jarrah and NSW Turpentine.
The construction of railways created an enormous demand overseas and in other States for Tasmanian sleepers between 1900 and 1914. When it was found that Tasmanian untreated hardwood sleepers had an average service life of only seven years, repeat orders did not eventuate.
The first sawn hardwood was produced manually by pit-sawing. This method was still being employed as late as 1870.
The first water powered sawmill was built at the Cascades (South Hobart) in 1825. The number of mills increased from two in 1850 to 22 in 1855. By 1885 the number of mills had risen to 62. The prolonged depression of the 1890s forced the closure of all but 37 mills.
The State Government in 1898 embarked on a policy of granting long term forest leases. In response to this initiative two large sawmills were built in the southern forests at Dover. However, both mills were over-capitalised, lost money and were closed in 1925.
Following the development of a steaming treatment of partially dried timber known as reconditioning and further developments in seasoning and machining, the use of Tasmanian hardwoods in house construction expanded progressively from 1935.
The advent of refrigerated shipping early this century resulted in a large expansion of apple and pear orcharding and a concomitant proliferation of small case mills in southern Tasmania. However, by the late 1950s cardboard cartons replaced wooden boxes for the export of all fruit.
Weather boards were used as exterior cladding for cottages from early settlement. Initially these were rough sawn and unpainted but by the 1890s most weather boards were machined and painted. In the 1970s the use of weather boards was rapidly phased out in favour of brick.
Until the 1930s hardwood flooring was not popular due to the propensity of Tasmanian hardwoods to collapse. CSIRO research led to a reconditioning process involving the steaming of the partly dried timber in a chamber for about eight hours, followed by further kiln drying. This process stabilised the timber. Since the 1960s wooden flooring has largely been replaced by concrete and particle board.
Hardwood scantling has been used as the common house frame since first settlement and survived the change to brick exteriors in the 1970s. However, it is now under pressure from cheaper pine and steel.
There is a continuing market for Tasmanian hardwood for roof construction in areas subject to cyclones in northern Australia.
Mouldings include such internal fittings as architraves and skirtings. Prior to the 1930s these were commonly made from either imported spruce and pine or from Kauri and Red Cedar. Subsequently, Tasmanian hardwoods became more popular, until the recent decline in the use of mouldings.
Packaging provides a very large, albeit low value, market for timber in the form of pallets, crates and bolsters. In recent years the industry has been subject to strong competition from lighter pine products and reusable plastic.
PLYWOOD AND VENEER
Thin rotary plywood was manufactured at Somerset from hardwoods for a number of years in the 1940s but succumbed to competition from Taiwan in the 1950s. Sliced fancy veneer production commenced in Tasmania in the 1950s at Somerset and currently three plants produce veneer from eucalypts, minor species and P. radiata. Veneer leaf is traded internationally and markets tend to be strongly influenced by fashion and local tradition. For example, the market for Tasmanian eucalypt veneer is predominantly Australian.
RECONSTITUTED FIBRE BOARDS
Fibre boards include hardboard, softboard, particleboard, oriented strand board (OSB) and medium density fibre board (MDF). Of these, hardboard was produced at Burnie from 1951 to 1968 but succumbed to competition. A small particleboard plant at Wesley Vale initially used a mixture of hardwood and pine. The mill now uses pine chips and supplies the needs of a furniture manufacturer. The modern MDF factory at Bell Bay commenced production in 1998 using a mixture of softwood and hardwood.
PULP AND PAPER
Scientific research coupled with entrepreneurial determination gave rise to the development of the Tasmanian eucalypt based pulp and paper industry.
Associated Pulp and Paper Mills (APPM) (now Australian Paper) commenced production of fine writing papers at Burnie in 1938.
The mill progressively increased its productive capacity from an initial 22,800 tonnes to 110,000 tonnes per year and employed the soda-anthroquinone chemical pulping process using eucalypt. By 1998 the pulp mill had become uneconomic and was closed in favour of imported pulp.
In 1970 APPM built a small semi-chemical and paper mill at Wesley Vale. The pulp is produced from hardwood chips which are impregnated with a solution of caustic soda. The mill produces magazine and directory type papers from a mixture of eucalypt and imported kraft pulp.
Australian Newsprint Mills (ANM) (now owned by Fletcher Challenge Paper)
ANM commenced production at Boyer in 1941 and was the first mill in the world to make newsprint predominantly from hardwood.
With the addition of later and progressively larger paper machines in 1955 and 1966 and finally the upgrading of the two later machines and the closure of No.1 machine, the output of the mill has been increased to an annual production of 270,000 tonnes of newsprint and related mechanical grades.
However, the use of hardwood pulp has declined from being 70% of the paper furnish to as little as 15%. Locally grown pine and recycled paper now constitute the bulk of the furnish.
Tasmanian Board MiIIs (TBM)
In 1949 Tasmanian Board Mills built a small neutral sulphite pulp and paper mill at its Killafaddy site near Launceston. However, competition from Australian Paper Mills soon caused the demise of the mill.
Australian Paper Manufacturers (APM)
In 1962 APM commenced production of unbleached neutral sulphite pulp at Kermandie near Geeveston. The mill finally closed in 1991 when the customer for the pulp switched to the use of recycled paper and no other market could be found.
THE WOODCHIP EXPORT INDUSTRY
Exports of hardwood chips to Japan commenced in 1972. The average level of hardwood chip exports from Tasmania over the past five years has been approximately 3 million tonnes.
Japanese customers are demanding a progressive improvement in chip quality. This is being met by giving closer attention to the quality of oldgrowth logs going to the mills and a progressive increase in the proportion of regrowth and plantation grown eucalypt.
HARDWOOD FORESTRY'S FUTURE
Tasmania’s main eucalypt species together with the introduced plantation species, Eucalyptus nitens, have attributes which are acclaimed for many uses.
The timber (particularly oldgrowth) is eminently suitable for the manufacture of laminated beams and columns. These are safer than steel in a fire situation, because they do not suddenly collapse.
Furniture and fit outs
There is a growing market for Tasmanian select hardwood, in the manufacture of furniture and the fit outs of office and commercial buildings. This often involves the local manufacture of components or cut-to-length blanks, laminated bench tops and parquetry floor squares.
The market for Tasmanian hardwood veneers has been relatively stable in recent years. There is a gradual acceptance of back cut veneer from regrowth as opposed to the traditional quarter cut veneer from oldgrowth eucalypt.
An increasing regrowth and plantation resource creates an opportunity for the manufacture of rotary veneer which is used in the manufacture of plywood and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL). Rotary veneer, which is cut from 0.9 mm to 3.0 mm, is used in the construction industry and for long beams, stair ways etc.
Pulp and Paper
Eucalyptus globulus is valued for high pulp recovery, low chemical use and consistent quality which makes the pulp ideal for the manufacture of a wide range of paper products including writing and copy papers, high quality magazine and soft sanitary uses.
In common with most commodities, the markets for forest products continually change. Tasmanian native hardwoods are highly regarded for their inherent strength and beauty and in particular for the unique quality of their fibre in the manufacture of fine papers.