Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making an entrance

A query about a garden gate for one of my neighbours prompted yesterday's complaint about what is available as ethically sourced timbers in Australia. It also prompted me to pick through the design books last night, and to drive home from the now daily trip to the Husqvarna dealership on a very roundabout route. Looking for gates.

Gates rarely stand alone, but usually act as an opening in a fence. Bleeding obvious perhaps but gates can function as a sublimely beautiful object that is not only aesthetically pleasing but sweetness itself in its functionality. A well made and balanced hardwood gate swinging easily on its' hinges is one of life's moments of 'ohhhhhh'. A rickety concoction of wire and sticks can keep the chooks out of the vegie patch with its jaunty air of make-do. Opening and stepping through a gate into a garden marks entry, invite, expectation. They keep in, as much as keep out.

What my first field trip of gate hunting revealed is how homogeneous the selection is; how dull they often are; how badly made they usually are; and how radiata pine has come to rule. I'll leave aside the just plain hideous of colourbond or faux metal period fencing. Nothing says ugly quite like a brick veneer with a Sahara-like expanse of clipped lawn behind a 'no maintenance' modern metal fence. I'm afraid I can't quite come at the ease of care trumps aesthetics routine of so many of my fellow countrypersons. Being easy to look after does not excuse the ugly.

But there is a certain logic in rejecting wooden gates and fences if all you can find is made of bits of radiata pine roughly screwed together or worse yet, nail gunned. Whether it is CCA treated or not, its' longevity can be measured as likely to be less than two decades, unless you meticulously paint it thoroughly and lovingly. Or live in a dry desiccating climate. Hardwood structures can last for over a century if rotted posts are attended to (interestingly abandoned houses start to rapidly decay once the roof has begun to leak and water is entering the structure - as long as the roof remains tight, the house will stand - centuries old wooden barns in Europe are testimony to this)

The photos included here are mostly hardwood, although the rather lovely gate from the Old Bakery at Berrima is I suspect, western red cedar with a beautifully weathered oil based paint. What also applies to some of these gates is that as dilapidated as they may be, they all still function. Probably with a certain amount of cursing and grumbling, but beauty always has a price.

This double gate which graces the side entrance of the Old Bakery has had a rather unlovely treated pine log placed in the middle of the driveway at its juncture. Presumably to stop all those ramraiders desperate for another carload of country style clutter from within the gallery, but nevertheless, it is beautifully scaled and built gate and fences.

Some of the construction details are clearer in the photo above. And this is one of the appealing traits of objects such as gates, wooden boats, musical instruments and in my universe, furniture - the process of making and the engineered response to use are plainly in view - form follows function perhaps but never at the expense of the nature of the material or the aesthetic needs of the user. To the left of the image you can see the lap dovetail joint that's been used at the end of the top rail. As the weight of the gate is levered out along the horizontal cross pieces, this joint is more than able to bear the load without distorting or easing, whilst at the same time, quite quick to cut and fit.

The fence above is still intact - a day's work of replacing the posts would give this section of the fence another decade at least. Note also the benefit of using oil based paints on weather exposed timber - as well as having faded to something lime washed in character, the paint has acted as an effective wood preservative.

What also is extremely important when building gates and fences is to keep as much of the structure away from the ground as possible. Keep your palings or infill up off the dirt and it will greatly slow rot. Cut a drip line in the underneath of your rails or angle the bottom of each rail so that moisture runs away from the palings and posts. Despite the ponderosa attempt with the hardwood arch, the Cecile Brunner rose and the lichen wreathed gate mark the age of the gate.

As you can see in the photo above, the whole of the right end rail is missing - sitting in the dirt, it probably had rotted out. This gate would see out another 25 years at the least if that end rail is replaced with a hardwood piece, and the soil dug away to give it clearance. Cutting the rose back a touch would also help; plants increase the humidity of the immediate environment, and a dense thicket of climbing rose is not ideal.

What this gate and the one above show is how much span you can ask hardwood in small dimension to cover. Though the gate has dropped, its more a matter of straightening the plates or rods on the hinges; the hardwood structure is still stiff. As much as I love the ubiquitous rusty farm gate of Australian agricultural habit, a hardwood gate can last as long if a bit of basic maintenance is occasionally done.

And finally this style of gate is very common on drives and paddocks around the district. Mortises, lap joints, lap dovetails are very rare, but this construction technique can be found in hardwood, radiata and occasionally Western Red Cedar. Bolted together, it gets around the problems of glue failure, using a framing process for making a stiff gate capable of spanning a 2 metre reach if necessary. Gates are a wee statement of intent; the sudden appearance of a brick and metal gate ensemble with a large Euro-referencing name plate, solar panel charger and remote opening says 'Country Estate' in no uncertain terms. Must be simply frightful when you've left the remote back on the granite kitchen bench top in Mosman.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where does your timber come from?

Using wood as the primary material for making demands a number of considered processes when selecting and buying one's timber. Firstly, where is it from? Secondly, how is it harvested? Thirdly, who profits from the harvesting? And lastly, who or what may be harmed in any part of the process?

Organisations such as Rainforest Alliance, FSC and numerous others have developed grading and certification systems - not all are as thorough or quite what they appear, but given the appalling practices in rainforest timber provision, no-one should buy and use any rainforest timbers without being very very sure that it is certified appropriately. Habitat loss, the murder of local Indigenous peoples, and support of regimes and elites such as Indonesia's military by Thai timber interests demand something more than a shrug and another 'oh well'.

Many FSC certified programs involve local landowners and workers processing the trees at least into roughly milled section for export, and often some tertiary utilisation as well. Peter Mussett's ongoing involvement with PNG and Solomon Island community based forestry leads to carefully stacked piles of kwila, New Guinea rosewood and walnut sitting in a yard and very very large shed in Welby, NSW - timber that has been sustainably harvested with minimal habitat disturbance, as well as ensuring that maximum economic benefit goes back to the community. The Woodage also stocks nothofagus from New Zealand produced by a FSC certified operation - a far more commercial enterprise than most of the PNG providers but evidence that sustainable timber harvesting + beneficial local economic outcomes = profitable timber businesses. A lesson Gunns seem to be realising if only to take advantage of the marketing opportunities.

Most FSC certified plantations or forests in the developed first nations are still usually harvested with high levels of mechanisation. But occasionally you come across someone such as the Streamline Timberworks in Floyd County, Virginia. As we begin to slowly come to terms with peak oil (even if the governmental response is still nothing more than hopeless) there are even more reasons for considering how we harvest timber than minimising habitat damage.

Where I live has what is probably the greenest timber mill on the eastern half of Australia. Situated on the edge of a large State forest, it processes radiata pine for the building industry, using timber from Wingello, Penrose, Belangelo and Meryla plantations. What can't be broken down into lumber either goes to the Visy Paper & Pulp Mill at Tumut or ends on garden beds as pine chips. The mill produces no waste, no water waste, has lowered its carbon footprint by modifying its drying processes and utilises only radiata from plantations.

The mill is owned a private family company - the plantations that is relies upon are State Forestry controlled. As NSW heads towards a change of governments in March 2011, the future of publicly owned forests is of concern as the more than likely O'Farrell government does have a conservative agenda of privatisation. Calls to the current shadow minister of Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, National Party member for Burrinjuck has seen assurances that an O'Farrell government has no plans to sell off the State Forests, at this stage. What Labor may be planning is anyone's guess - effectively there's no one answering the phones and it's proved a little difficult to get anyone at the Minister's office to answer questions concerning State Forests policies. As the State government of whatever persuasion is closer to broke than they're happy to admit, watch this space for sudden changes due to inclement financial conditions.

Moving on from the political shenanigans, the process of harvesting in State Forests whilst regulated by legislation is not policed as it ought to be (see for example investigations earlier this year concerning North Coast forests - the South Coast has also seen similar issues) and there are significant scientific questions about the harvesting processes currently employed. In single species plantations of exotics such as radiata pine, the protection of habitat is not critical, but harvesting methods can and do have significant impact in terms of soil erosion, spoilage of water courses, spreading of weed species. Whilst I think you'd have Buckleys getting anyone in Forestry to seriously consider using work horses in plantations, it should be investigated as a way of moving to true sustainable selective logging practices in native forests.

Plantation management poses some particular problems - as the State Forests are pretty much all operated as monocultural clear fell operations, the medium and long term problems are buried in the blizzard of so-called efficiencies of high rotation/ high output. In the Southern Highlands, the State Forests represent significant barriers to endemic species in terms of migration as they offer little in the way of migration belts or corridors. But its also what we're not growing that frustrates me. Joseph Maiden as director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney did extensive work concerning mixed species plantations of native species at the end of the nineteenth century; including techniques for successfully cultivating red cedar which is usually attacked by the cedar tip moth. Maiden identified co-dependent species which not only protected the cedars, but could in turn be harvested and processed as well. Unhappily I say, State Forests NSW does not and has not put anything like the effort and funds into native species utilisation as it has done supporting radiata utilisation. Hence I can go to The Woodage and buy absolutely beautiful FSC certified Shining Gum which comes from.... Chile. What is coming onto the market from Australia is woodchip quality.

It is not heart warming that a country lucky enough to have endemic in its forests some of the finest cabinet timbers in the world, some of the structurally toughest building timbers has chosen to pursue a policy of radiata pine as the end all and be all of non-pulp timber production in planations. It is well and truly time for us to be debating what our State Forests should be growing, and how.