Requests from woodworkers, boat makers and DIY enthusiasts from all over the world regularly flow into the email inbox of a 90-year-old sawmill business on Tasmania’s west coast.
They hope to join an extremely select group of people who are allowed to access small slivers of an incredibly rare and precious Tasmanian timber.
But good luck getting past its custodian, third-generation sawmiller Ian Bradshaw, who takes his responsibility as the last-known supplier of King Billy pine sawlogs very seriously.
“There are so many people out there that want a piece of Tasmania but there’s not every one that has the ability to improve the value of it,” Mr Bradshaw said.
“Most Tasmanian timbers in effect are very low volumes and in quite high demand … supplying those specific products to markets that actually warrant the use of them is quite a challenge.
“They’re not mainstream timbers that are produced in large volumes.
“They’re small, highly prized woods that are used for furniture and instrument making and all sorts of crafts … they’re essentially our most valuable timber commodity.”
Although not quite as old or tall as the Huon pine, the King Billy pine is considered far rarer, a remnant of Gondwana growing only on the high mountain slopes of Tasmania.
Plagued by the impacts of loggers, fires and mining in the 1900s, the species has declined by about 40 per cent in the past 200 years, and has since been listed as endangered under Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999.
It’s a far cry from the 1930s, when Mr Bradshaw’s grandfather, Cliff Bradshaw, started his sawmill near the now ghost town of Linda.
According to Bradshaw family legend, Cliff earned a reputation as a resourceful bushman, harvesting Huon and King Billy from the King Valley and its surrounding mountains, where the products were prized as building and pipeline infrastructure materials thanks to their anti-rot qualities.
By the 1960s, a major fire had swept through the Raglan Ranges and Frenchman’s Cap, killing — but not burning down — hundreds of King Billy trees.
Seeing an opportunity, the Bradshaw family began the enormous task of collecting the dead giants from the remote slopes above the Franklin River, cutting treacherous tracks, driving up, winching the logs out, and driving them back down.
It is now illegal to chop down a living King Billy Pine, and even those stands of dead trees in the Raglan Ranges cannot be touched as part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area established in the 1980s.
Aside from logs intermittently fished out of hydro lakes and forestry roads, as well as private stocks of legally harvested wood (prior to the 1980s) made available for sale from time to time, the Bradshaw family’s stockpile is now the main supply of the wood for buyers all over the world.
Timber for tunes
For Ian Bradshaw, anything short of a work of art does not do the rare and precious timber justice.
“You tend to ask people what they intend to use things for,” he admitted.
“If they seem like they don’t have the skills or the ability or the desire to create something and improve the value of things that are quite special … you’re obviously a bit hesitant in providing them with your very best product.
“We really have to decide on which customer deserves the best pieces.”
Huon and King Billy timber from the Bradshaw mill have been used in musical instruments, sculptures, art pieces and boats.
Each project is carefully vetted to ensure the maker is committed to “using the timber in a careful way to ensure it lasts for generations,” Mr Bradshaw said.
And while he certainly won’t be “blowing” any of the material on run-of-the-mill building projects, it’s not always about money.
Cue Tony Newport, a musician, born and bred on the West Coast. He’s the proud owner of an autoharp, a type of musical instrument popular in American folk music, made entirely of Tasmanian timber donated by the Bradshaw sawmill.
“It’s made out of fiddleback blackwood, quarter sawn King Billy and it has Huon pine bars and buttons,” Newport said, holding the glowing wooden instrument.
“It was made by a luthier in Hobart, but he was also born in Queenstown. So it says ‘West Coast’ all over it.”
Accompanied by his autoharp, Newport travels to pubs and venues across Tasmania, singing songs about life on the “wild West Coast” of his youth.
Mr Bradshaw said he often found it tough to decide which customers got the best pieces, but that Newport had “improved the value of a very small and unique volume of wood”.
“I have heard him play, it’s something special … he’s not bad,” Mr Bradshaw added, with a laugh.