Queensland has a diverse timber and wood product processing and manufacturing sector that predominantly processes locally grown plantation softwoods, but also hardwoods and cypress softwood from native forests. The sector, particularly the secondary processing sector, is also increasingly using imported sawn timber from overseas and interstate producers.
The sector includes primary processing activities that transform log timber into a range of products using sawing, veneering and chipping processes, as well as secondary processing or manufacturing activities that transform the output of the primary processing sector into a range of more complex timber-based and paper-based products.
The types of primary processing plants range from large-scale fixed location sawmills or other plants producing veneered products, woodchips or reconstituted timber and panel products, to small portable or 'mobile' sawmills that operate within the forest.
The number of primary processing plants in Queensland (and Australia) has fallen significantly over the last decade. The former Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries reported that there were 222 licensed 'fixed location' sawmills (under the now repealed Sawmills Licensing Act 1936) in Queensland in 2001-02. This is in comparison to the 100 primary processing plants in Queensland reported by ABARES in 2012, which represents about 26 per cent of all primary processing plants in Australia. Although this data should be interpreted cautiously given the differences in the data collection processes, they do provide a strong indication of a very significant decline in the number of sawmills in Queensland over the last decade.
Plantation softwood processing
The plantation softwood sawmill segment is highly concentrated and integrated around a small number of large sawmills and a number of other processors predominately located in south-east Queensland. ABARES reports there were 18 sawmills processing plantation softwood in Queensland in 2010-11 (ABARES 2012). Combined, these sawmills utilised 1.8 m3 of log timber, the majority was utilised by the three sawmills with a log timber intake in excess of 100,000 m3 per year.
Plantation softwood sawmills are usually large, capital-intensive operations. They are located near the larger plantation estates to secure sufficient resources and typically produce high levels of output for a range of markets.
The intensively managed plantations contain genetically improved tree species that are designed to produce uniform, defect-free timber. Centrally located, highly automated large-scale or large-throughput fixed-location sawmills have been set up to process this log timber in the most efficient way in order to maximise competitiveness.
The sector produces a diverse range of products including sawn timber, reconstituted timber and panel products, and round wood products for construction and appearance uses, as well as fibre, veneers and woodchips for composite products including plywood, particleboard and medium-density fibreboard.
The hardwood sawmill segment utilises log timber from an estimated 2 million hectare 'productive' State-owned native forest estate, and the extensive privately owned native forest estate. The commercial hardwood plantation estate in Queensland is still relatively immature and yet to produce a final sawlog crop.
The sector mainly produces products for the domestic construction and appearance timber markets, with some exports. The geographic spread of the hardwood sawmilling sector reflects the nature of the resource, with most processors located in coastal Queensland or the south-east of the state. The high transport costs limit the economic distances that log inputs can be hauled and the maximum volume that can be processed in any one mill.
The much lower productivity of native hardwood forests compared with plantations means that hardwood sawmills process on average lower log input volumes than their softwood counterparts. ABARES reports that there were 54 sawmills processing hardwood log timber in Queensland in 2010-11. However, only eight sawmills had an annual log timber intake of more than 15,000 m3 per year. Combined, the hardwood sawmilling sector utilised 275,000 m3 of log timber in 2010-11.
Hardwood timber products include house framing and trusses, cladding, internal and external joinery and flooring, domestic and commercial decking, fencing, landscaping, retaining walls, boat building and external construction. Round wood products include poles, piles, bridging and mining timbers. The timber also has application for engineered wood products such as finger-joints and laminated beams, plywood and furniture, although these products are generally not well developed in Queensland.
Cypress softwood processing
The smaller but important cypress pine sawmill sector is located in the more inland areas of southern Queensland. ABARES reports that there are 18 cypress sawmills in Queensland. The segment utilises around 150,000 m3 of log timber intake each year, mostly from State-owned native forests.
The cypress sector produces a range of structural, appearance and utility products. While most cypress is sold on the Australian market, relatively large export markets were established in the United States and Japan prior to the global financial crisis.