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Innovation needed to boost woodcraft sector

A review of Tasmania’s woodcraft sector has found that more than 2000 people are employed in the State’s special species timber and woodcraft sector, while a further 8500 participate in woodcraft activity as a hobby or on a limited commercial scale. In addition to its contribution to Tasmania’s brand, woodcraft has local cultural significance, reflected in a participation rate of 26 people per 1000 – higher than the national average of 19 per 1000.

Quality woodcrafts, ranging from small ‘tourist knick-knacks’ through to functional production items and bespoke furniture, are among the State’s most sought-after tourism purchases and continue to be conversation pieces for years after acquisition, making them valuable contributors to Tasmania’s global reputation.

The review, ‘Creating Preferred Futures’, was compiled by Martin Farley, Holly Farley and Mark Bishop for the Woodcraft Guild and Forestry Tasmania. The authors found the sector to be made up of:

  • • a milling and processing sub-sector where 31 identified enterprises employ approximately 160 people, many of whom are full-time employees or owners. Employment is concentrated in three large-scale mills in the north-west, which process 80% of the State’s special species harvest (by volume) and over 90% of all Blackwood. Smaller mills also process Blackwood, along with the majority of the high-value special species. Over 60% of milled product is sold to markets outside the State, with total estimated revenue from all sales of $17.25m;
  • • about 250 enterprises in the designing and production sub-sector employ approximately 1750 people, mostly on a full-time basis. The furniture and joinery sub-sectors are the largest employers, with the majority of the boat-building, designer/maker and small-production object makers employing only one or two people each. The estimated sales of this sector are in the order of $39m, with about 30% of product sold outside Tasmania.
  • • the retail sub-sector is made up of galleries/retail outlets, tourist attractions, accommodation facilities and market stalls, with 140 full-time equivalent positions, most of them in gallery or retail outlets. The estimated woodcraft turnover of the gallery/retail outlets and markets is about $14m. Visitors to Tasmania are the primary market.
  • Reduction in the area of suitable forests available for harvest as a consequence of the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement has resulted in special species sawlog production declining from around 22,000 m3 to 13,300 m3 in 2006-07. Apart from the sawlogs, a further 515t of craftwood were harvested. Craftwood is categorised in the forestry sector as special species timber of less than sawlog quality. It is highly suitable for designers and makers and includes short log lengths, buttresses, burls, flitches, limb hooks and other materials that can be highly figured.

    The species most affected by the agreement have been Blackwood and myrtle, the dominant timbers used for sawlogs and in furniture making. The volume drop-off has been accompanied by reports of declining log quality. Paradoxically, the retail sector indicates there is an opportunity to increase woodcraft sales, subject to improved product quality and supply and the development of promotional material that engages consumers.

    Huon Pine is the main species preferred by retail purchasers, followed by Sassafras, Blackwood, Myrtle, Celery Top Pine and Eucalypt.

    The potential economic value of wasted special timber can be considerable. The notion that there is significantly more valuable craftwood available in Tasmanian forests than reaches the market is uncontestable, according to the report. While it is economically arguable that the extra effort required would be worth the investment, the authors argue that the branding value of the woodcraft industry should be considered. Ideally, harvesters, millers and makers should all receive a benefit from increased recovery.

    “We need to start selectively logging. First go into a site and get out the special species timber over time and then let the big boys in,” was one suggestion to the research team. Another respondent said: “If you find a huge stand of specialty timber, mark it and leave it for later. Infrastructure (the roads etc) is already there. If they log huge volumes we [the makers] can’t process it. It needs to be left and selectively logged, or we need to have the capacity to store the timber properly.”

    Through its Special Timber Management Units and other initiatives, Forestry Tasmania was judged to have the fundamental capacity to increase and optimise woodcraft material supply. The report said this would require a combination of innovation in forest management and planning, coupe-harvesting planning, harvesting approaches, practices and techniques, and an increased effort in education and training.

    The disjointed nature of the sector was found to be limiting its potential. Fragmentation and lack of a collective voice manifests itself in observable levels of mistrust, self-imposed isolation, polarisation and real challenges for new entrants to become connected, learn and become productive. It limits the potential of experienced participants to expand their businesses and achieve the level of professionalism required to optimise value for their efforts.

    The report says there needs to be greater design development and innovation to create a cohesive Tasmanian look [or brand] in combination with a narrative about objects and their genesis.

    “Australia and Tasmania are still steeped in the cloying craft mould, beautifully crafted but … Europeans have very little interest, they demand much more developed sophisticated furniture with better representation rather than materials,” the authors were told, illustrating the importance of designers/makers reacting to variations in market demand.

    Retailing respondents were concerned that products, although beautifully crafted, lacked innovation. They said the use of composite materials, finished off with veneer, remained largely unexploited. “Solid timber is a lot more difficult to use in making furniture, it tends to move if exposed to different climatic conditions …”

    Retailers believe there is a real need for more utility items in the marketplace, items that are practical and relevant to modern lifestyles.
    Within small-scale production and making businesses, owner-operators typically work long hours, have relatively high investment in equipment and stock and achieve relatively low turn-over from the efforts of their employees. As a consequence, new forms of collaborative business models involving makers and retailers and between makers are viewed as an important part of an improved production framework.

    Opportunities identified by the retail sector are significant; half of the retailers and makers interviewed indicated that supply cannot meet present demand. In addition there are new areas of market/product mix available.

    The potential for sector growth if these structural constraints were reduced is demonstrated in varying examples of value-added:

  •  production furniture – timber valued at $800 is transformed into a $2,400 shelving unit;
  •  designer maker – timber valued at $2,500 is transformed into a $20,000 dinner setting for eight people; $800 flitch transformed into a $28,000 table.
  •  small products – timber valued at $13.50 is transformed into a $225 pepper grinder;
  •  boat-building – Celery Top Pine and Huon Pine valued at $30,000 to $40,000 is transformed into a $350,000 vessel;
  •  musical instruments – timber valued at $200 is transformed into a $3,000 guitar; and
  •  scrap timber is transformed into 100 timber pens with a retail value of $2,495.
  • When the ratio of timber to value is considered, the pepper grinder represents the highest overall value-add ratio. This high proportion of final value added, in concert with the ability to utilise small sections of recovered material, demonstrates the need for balance in the sector’s product portfolio if optimum return is to be achieved. All parts of the maker sector are important if the return on the resource is to be optimised.

    The report’s authors urge the formulation of a systematic development plan for the sector and warn that without such a document, the sector will continue to be risk-strewn, with individual success based on hard graft rather than the kind of innovation that characterises a ‘clever State’.