Tasmania's Rich Woods

By Hughes, Peter | The World and I, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Tasmania's Rich Woods


Hughes, Peter, The World and I


The products of Tasmania's lush, ancient forests are being shaped into world-class objects by artists who hold a deep respect for the island paradise.

To those who know something of Tasmania, which lies south of the eastern coast of the Australian mainland, the island's name brings to mind images of the beautiful mountain scenery and lush rain forests for which it is justly famous. It is especially in the rugged western and southern parts that one finds many extensive, temperate rain forests, despite two hundred years of European occupation,

Alternately, since the late nineteenth century, those from Australia's bustling mainland cities have often thought of Tasmania as a sequestered retreat, reminiscent at the same time of a mythical English countryside and a quaint colonial past. When considering the island's geography, its history, and the forests themselves, woodcraft and furniture making occupy a significant place.

Tasmania has, since these earliest times, had a reputation for woodcraft and fine handmade furniture. Initially, this reputation was gained by the colony's early wealth, which created a demand for quality furniture that coincided with the late Georgian and Regency periods of English design. This era, characterized by stylistic sophistication and restrained elegance, is widely regarded as a high point in the history of furniture. In Tasmania, it had an added dimension: the further simplification found in the sometimes quirky provincial, or folk- quality, work produced by colonial isolation and improvisation. Today, early Tasmanian colonial furniture--produced up to the 1840s--is highly prized and actively collected by both private individuals and the public museums.

Much of this early furniture was made out of Australian cedar imported from the mainland. From the beginning, however, and increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, timbers unique to Tasmania were also used. Most highly regarded by craftworkers are the eucalyptus, which dominates Australian forests, and the "minor species" that grow in the temperate rain forests. These include the sassafras, myrtle, blackwood, celery-top pine, King Billy pine, musk, and huon pine.

Of these woods the most highly prized were the King Billy, huon, and, to a lesser extent, celery-top pines. Musk, which does not grow very large, was valued for its rich, swirling grain. It was used as a veneer for picture frames and small boxes. The best blackwood is a dark color flecked through with a marked open grain. Myrtle ranges in color from light orange pink through to a rich, almost crimson, red. The myrtle is one of the few deciduous trees native to Australia; its tiny leaves turn a deep red in the autumn. The blackwood, myrtle, and eucalyptus are hardwoods and were difficult to work with using nineteenth-century tools. They really came into their own with the machine tools and better steels of the twentieth century. That said, there is a tradition of hardwood furniture making in Tasmania, and early examples made from these timbers are highly prized, indeed.

Sassafras is a strong and easily worked wood, but because it has an irregular pattern of large areas of two strongly contrasting colors, it is difficult to use for traditional designs. King Billy pine is extremely light and soft. Freshly cut, it is a soft, pink color. It is seldom used for furniture but because of its resistance to rot is often employed for architectural design and boatbuilding.

The huon pine grows only in Tasmania and has achieved something of a cult status. The freshly cut wood is a light buttery yellow. With age, it deepens to a luminous gold, which is especially rich in areas of high figure. The straight-grained wood is easily worked and was initially most valued as a boatbuilding timber because its oils make it almost impervious to rot. In ports such as Hobart and Launceston, many a fortune was made in boatbuilding and marine trade.

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