A Passion for Timber

Ironwood Australia

Have you ever strolled through a historical building and wondered why homes today lack the gorgeous, wideboard timber floors and rich, sold wood beams that older generations enjoyed? Chris Swadling, owner of Ironwood Australia, believes that wideboard flooring and quality timber shouldn’t be a thing of the past. His dedication to supplying “spectacular timber floors and feature timbers,” while simultaneously working to conserve and protect our nation’s forests, comes naturally.

“Our family started [in the timber industry] in 1864 and it’s sort of in the blood,” he explains. “So I have a bit of a passion for timber.” Using leading edge, ecofriendly techniques, his company utilises reclaimed, recycled, or regrowth forest timbers to provide residential and commercial buildings with the same resilient, high quality wood that Australians took for granted a century ago.

For almost two decades, the team has recycled rare, Australian hardwood timbers to create exquisite floorboards, timber decks, benchtops, stairs, and structural timbers. Almost any older structure can be a viable timber source, including bridges, factories, warehouses, wharves, wool stores, shearing sheds, mills, and derelict buildings. Because of the care involved, the demolition process takes far longer than what is typical, and restoring the salvaged wood to its full potential is a long, painstaking process. Each beam must be de-nailed manually, then dried, cut into planks, given a “surface skim” to strip away contaminants and expose the fresh layer of wood underneath, and then dried again. The entire process may take up to six months. Only then may the timber be milled into tongue and groove flooring sections as well as other architectural timbers for a range of different design applications.

The end result is worth the effort, however. One advantage, Mr Swadling explains, is that the wood comes from trees that were slower growing and older than the trees available for timber today, often represented as class 1 durability species. The timber has also been seasoned over many decades, and now re-seasoned again. These factors give recycled wood greater character and make it inherently more stable than wood from younger, more recently felled trees. “The stability allows you to get a wider floorboard than what the conventional flooring is now,” Mr Swadling explains.

“The environmental aspects are pretty straightforward,” he adds. “You are not using trees in the forest to get a nice, big beam or a big, wide floor. We are reusing what would have been put in the landfill or burned.” Burning timber releases the carbon stored inside, so recycling wood “is actually [preventing] all the carbon from being released into the atmosphere which is a massive positive. It is giving timber a second and third life, sometimes even a fourth life.

“About half the dry weight of timber is carbon,” Mr Swadling explains. One tonne of carbon is equivalent to 3.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and growing bodies of research are suggesting that the manufacture of timber products typically requires less energy than competing materials (please see figure 1). We can also see that steel products store little to no carbon (please see figure 3).

The recycled timber was originally felled up to two hundred years ago, from trees that might have been 400 years old when they were cut down. This means that each salvaged beam or board is made of timber that has potentially been on this planet for six centuries. To put this in perspective, the recycled ironwood timber covering our floors today may have already been in existence for decades before Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, or for nearly a century before Christopher Columbus sailed for the Americas.

Giving these timbers new life does, of course, come at a price. “The costs are similar [to standard timber] on a smaller board,” Mr Swadling reports, but the larger boards can get “quite expensive.” However, “in the end it is cost effective. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to sell it. As much as people are ecofriendly they are still price conscious.”

Ironwood also utilises new timber responsibly harvested from regrowth forest. “Our green timber is all sourced from forests that are sustainably managed,” Mr Swadling emphasises. In addition, the company recovers devastated timber from woodlands suffering damage due to drought, lightning strikes, or other complications. Ironwood’s partners identify and reclaim these damaged trees throughout New South Wales and Queensland, and remove them without disturbing the surrounding ecosystem.

Much of this valuable, old growth timber would be cut into firewood and burned, if not for the company’s salvage efforts. In addition to preventing a valuable natural resource from literally going up in smoke, the team’s actions also prevent stored carbon from being released unnecessarily into the atmosphere. Reclaimed Australian hardwood also helps prevent deforestation by offering consumers an option other than the standard competing timber, which is sourced from South East Asian forests using non-sustainable methods. And, as with the recycled timber, much of the reclaimed wood is very old, giving boards and posts greater character, definition, and stability than what is typically available from local forests.

Ironwood has also developed its own engineered wood product to compete with imported English Oak and American Oak. “We are trying to create an engineered board out of Australian hardwood at a competitive rate, for Australians to have an Australian species in their house,” Mr Swadling explains. An added benefit, he says, is that the wood from native species is “a lot harder” than wood from competing foreign species. Engineered wood is milled and dried, milled again, and then laminated onto a plywood base and oiled. Once the process is completed, the board is completely ready for installation, no sanding necessary. This ease of installation makes engineered wood ideal for commercial applications “where they need to lay something quick… and they don’t want the mess of the dust.”

In comparison, Australian Hardwood floors have durability advantages over their US counterparts, as exemplified in Janka Hardness Ratings (Pounds Force lbf US Standard) that directly relate to the hardness of timbers suitable for wood flooring:

US Species Hardness Australian Species Hardness
Red Oak 1290 Grey Ironbark 3664
White Oak 1360 Spotted Gum 2473
Maple 1450 Blackbutt 2045
Brazilian Cherry 2350 (Imported) Tallowwood 1933

Clearly, we can see that Australian Hardwood floors have an advantage in durability rating. Further, this results in marketing advantages for the reduced need to perform re-sanding of floors, and longevity of the product.

Unlike most suppliers, Ironwood mills its own wood to ensure that customers have access to a comprehensive range of sizes, species, wood character, and colours in recycled, reclaimed, or new regrowth timbers. In fact, using advanced milling tools and equipment, the team can actually customise each client’s order. Customers may request a range of unique architectural details and finishes to suit their taste – from minimalistic to ornate, and including dressed, rough sawn or wire brushed.

The company operates two mills at Taree, one for cutting green timber and another for restoring recycled and reclaimed timbers. Ironwood’s recycled and reclaimed timber mill is careful to salvage as much usable product as possible from each log, board, or post. “We try to regain about a 65 per cent recovery rate, as opposed to a board plant which will work on about a 28 per cent recovery,” Mr Swadling explains. “So we are a slow operating mill that tries to recover as much timber as possible.” And the advantages don’t stop there. “Our timber goes into infrastructure which will be recycled again in the future… It is going into an application that will probably be coming back to our mill again in 50 years.” The environmental benefits of this, he adds, are “pretty much self-explanatory.”

Ironwood is committed to quality, and the team has a simple, no nonsense way to ensure that each board, post, and beam meets the highest standards. “The grading system at the end of the day is pretty simple,” Mr Swadling explains. “When you are working with 30 guys and you can’t explain to them all the grading rules, the thing that works is to ask, ‘is that acceptable in your mother’s house?’ And if the answer is no, then it’s not going into someone else’s house. That’s the way I feel. If you wouldn’t have it in your house, than it isn’t good enough for someone else’s.”

Through its innovative, ecofriendly approach to timber and commitment to quality, Ironwood has earned a reputation as Sydney’s premier timber source. Mr Swadling does report a mild “slowdown at the moment,” but he is making good use of any downtime this provides. “I’m innovating in the meantime, so it is sort of giving me a bit of time to think for when things happen again.”

In fact, he says that the GFC has never been the team’s primary concern. Instead, a “lack of government support is the major issue for us… The government is quick to give out [grant] money to bigger firms and not smaller firms like us. That is the only thing that I battle against.” When asked if he has any strategies to overcome that lack of funding and compete with the large corporations, his answer is simple. “Yeah, just to increase my sales. Just do it the old school way… by my innovations [and] new products.” The “old school way” has worked, and Ironwood continues to bring the living history, and unmatched quality, of Australia’s old hardwoods into Sydney’s most discerning homes.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

May 26, 2020, 6:50 AM AEST