Developing high tech timber at Heyfield

ASH chief executive Vince Hurley inspects one of the horizontal finger jointed timbers.
ASH chief executive Vince Hurley inspects one of the horizontal finger jointed timbers.

AUSTRALIAN Sustainable Hardwoods at Heyfield is putting the finishing touches on its latest expansion, which experts tip will provide a much bigger range of building products for architects and designers.

ASH chief executive Vince Hurley, one of the shareholders in the private company, said ASH was installing new equipment that uses US Kop-coat preservation treatment techniques that make Victorian Ash durable for outdoor uses.

"We are doing a $2 million shed extension and a new optimising line that also produces a horizontal finger-joint - a very sophisticated piece of gear that basically enhances recoveries enormously and produces fit-for-purpose components,'' he said.

The specialised line, using equipment from Denmark and Italy, will then produce one fifth of ASH's output.

"Horizontal finger-jointing enables us to do window components. It's more acceptable to appearance grade customers, whether a panel or floor, or whole range of products,'' he said.

Mr Hurley said the new treatment called Kop-coat Azole H3, used in the US for 10 years, gives full penetration treatment to the centre of the board. Previously all treatment allowed only shallow penetration.

"Now, people can buy H3-treated timber with azole. It's water-based, so has no bad chemicals.

"They can buy that in window sills, or outdoor screenings - all sorts of things where they previously had to rely on naturally durable timbers, such as those from South-East Asian tropical rainforests," Mr Hurley said.

"It (the azole treatment) protects against the weather. It makes Vic Ash as durable as ironbark. You've got a blond timber that can be stained but still used in the outdoors."

Similarly, ASH will treat Vic Ash with another treatment product, Kop-coat Copper quat H3, that is being marketed for sub-deck timber.

"The only timbers available now for sub-deck are treated pine or naturally durable species like spotted gum or ironbark," he said.

"We are making a product that is available in set lengths, ready to use, guaranteed H3, and has great spans. It's also a full penetration product. If you cut it, you don't need to seal the ends."

ASH is also in the last stage of negotiations with Kaboodle, the biggest kitchen manufacturer in Australia, to supply them with timber bench tops. Many timber bench tops are now imported from China.

Dr Alastair Woodard, a structural engineer from Wood Products Victoria, said the new durability treatments were exciting as Ash timber now had a fairly poor external durability rating - Class 3 above ground, with a life expectancy of seven to 15 years.

"It opens up a number of external product opportunities - privacy screens, external cladding, windows and perhaps decking - which will be good for designers and specifiers and consumers," he said.

The executive officer for the Timber Merchants Association, Eric Siegers, said making Victorian Ash more durable was "highly positive''.

"Full penetration means there will be less concern as to whether the timber has been treated appropriately before installation," he said.

"It provides the designer with an assurance they haven't had before, and simplifies the installation process. It's a major advance in hardwood availability and usability and provides a real alternative to other products available on the market place."

As part of its expansion, ASH has hired an experienced team, Jan and Peter Fahl, to push its message with architects and builders. Jan will visit architects and specifiers on the road, while Peter will concentrate on builders, particularly those who do renovations.

ASH is also beginning to market its products through Bunnings.

"We are adding the 'Do it yourself' side to our products. This stream is relatively immune from the normal fluctuations in the building industry,'' Mr Hurley said.

The latest expansion deepens the transformation the Heyfield company has under gone in the past decade.

In 2000, 80 per cent of its domestic sales were in sawn timber, but now, 90 per cent are in the form of a finished component. "This is a massive turnaround," Mr Hurley said.

It exports 18 per cent of its products, but "our aim is to maintain about 10 per cent of exports'', Mr Hurley said.

"We want to pull some export back, using the new equipment to turn them into components for the domestic market." Imports are the company's biggest competitor.

With a turnover of $62 million, ASH currently processes 148,000 cubic metres of PEFC-certified Vic Ash from VicForests, the state government's commercial forestry arm. It has a capacity to process 155,000 cubic metres.

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