Talking Timber, article by Lara Knight, The Junk Map

This article appeared in Junkies Magazine, Issue 5, 2015

Talking Timber

Words by Lara Knight. Photos by Mandy Lamont.

Recycled timber tells an important historical story. Brendan Donchi from Nullarbor Sustainable Timber has been listening to it all his life. Now, more than ever, what he hears determines how stock is distributed and how it’s used.

Brendan’s father registered Australia’s first recycled timber business in the 1980s. With a family history of timber processing Barry Donchi saw tremendous waste in demolition timbers piled in dumps or burnt as rubbish. He began to salvage heritage hardwoods and work out ways to make them saleable. The family spent the next couple of decades milling old wood into new-look products; educating builders and consumers; and building a profitable recycled marketplace.

Demand for recycled timber in Australia is now booming. What’s less well known is how fast supply is dwindling.

The growing eco movement, green star certification, lifestyle television and upcycling have all increased demand for recycled materials. Buyers now want as many recycled features as possible and over 20 timber companies compete for Australia’s remaining heritage demolitions. Once the last bridges, piers and wharves have been replaced, most of the large section, settler-felled timbers will be gone. How long we can preserve what’s left is back in the hands of those who convinced us it was valuable.

Brendan grew up immersed in timber. As a small child he accompanied his dad on long collecting trips and rummaged around demolition sites and old buildings looking for treasure. After high school he completed a cabinet maker joiner apprenticeship at Nullarbor Timber to learn more about timber use. He helped coordinate massive salvage projects, like 80 semi-loads of hardwood from Port Adelaide wool stores, and worked with hundreds of builders and architects to achieve award-winning results.

Unfortunately, the maverick days of recycled timber are over. Stiff competition has forced prices up and Brendan and his colleagues are very aware of their roles as curators and managers of increasingly rare stock. Emphasis is now on preserving large beams and historical character rather than breaking sections down unnecessarily.

Many of us assume recycled timber is more environmentally friendly than cutting down trees. That can be true but dressing recycled timber to spec creates a lot of waste. Think of all the rough edges and damaged sections that need to be removed to create high-end flooring from wharf timbers, for example. As supplies of old-growth hardwoods fall, the industry challenge is to keep large pieces intact for structural features; find a market for offcuts so every piece of timber is utilised; or find a less wasteful alternative to offer buyers.

Just like the early days it’s a process of trial and error, and education.

How to buy recycled timber in 2015

Here are Brendan’s suggestions for buying in the current market.

– Be open minded and less set on aesthetic requirements like species or section size
– Talk to industry experts and be guided by their suggestions
– Consider unconventional options if they meet your structural requirements
– Be involved in the selection process and take time to view samples
– Accept that well-managed new or saved timbers may be a more practical option for some projects
– And, for important features, visit Nullarbor’s headquarters in Moama, drink wine, play golf, paddle in the river and personally select your hunk of history.

Timber accents are an excellent way to warm up contemporary materials like concrete and glass. Feature walls, recycled furniture, rustic cladding or sleek flooring all contribute texture and ambience to modern spaces. But, the choice between recycled or new timber may require more research and consultation than you imagined. Chat with Brendan at Nullarbor Sustainable Timber, or his counterparts around Australia, to receive professional advice and recommendations before you start. Heritage timber is a diminishing resource. We need to think of clever ways to embrace its character, admire its beauty and preserve its story for the future.


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