The Woods of Papua New Guinea

The Woods of Papua New Guinea

PNGFA PNG woods display, Albury, 2004 (Dick McCarthy)

RB McCarthy

The woods of Papua New Guinea (PNG) are still virtually unknown to most people throughout the world. Those with some knowledge of this vast untamed land would describe it as one of the last remaining frontiers. It is indeed a unique country. It has a landmass of 45 million hectares—40 million hectares of which are still covered with forest harbouring a wealth of timber species.

These timber species produce wood with hues ranging from white, through yellow to golden brown and black and are used for furniture manufacture, flooring, boat building, chopsticks, turnery and for other structural engineering tasks.

The timbers’ subtle colours, textures and feel are qualities that make one species attractive to some consumers, while the uniqueness of some may make another species virtually as valuable as gold.

Construction of lakatoi at Papa Lea Lea, north of Port Moresby—a double-hulled sailing vessel used in Hiri Motu Trade, 2009

The forest flora is somewhat similar in composition to that of the tropical rainforests of North Queensland in Australia.

This similarity, however, does not extend westward into Malaysia where the species composition differs remarkably in that the flora there is dominated by the family Dipterocarpaceae. Therefore, the forests of PNG should not be thought of as an extension of the forest types of South East Asia. PNG lies to the southeast of the Wallace Line, which roughly separates the Dipterocarpaceae forest type of South East Asia from the mixed tropical hardwood forests of the Pacific, including PNG.

Within the PNG complex associations of forest type many valuable timbers exist with premium characteristics that are unique to PNG. These include Wau beech (like magnolia), labula (like ramin), pencil cedar, pink birch, rosewood, etc.

Bird of Paradise wooden emblem, National Forest Service Headquarters ,Port Moresby

There is a multitude of timber species, many of which are not well known on world markets. There is a wide variety of hardwood species. The main hardwood species range in colour from cream coloured amberoi to reddish brown. Amongst the commercial hardwood species (over 60), species as ash, maple, red cedar, exist.

Forests in the Central Province of PNG even contain camphor wood, a pink to light brown wood that emits an aromatic odour.

PNG boasts several native conifers. Amongst these is the famed klinki pine found in the Bulolo-Wau region, which is processed into both plywood and sawn timber. Kauri and hoop pine and other podocarps are also present, especially in the Highlands.

Different wood species have a huge range of natural characteristics that make them especially suitable for a wide range of specific uses. This range includes the use of wood as fuel and for making traditional tools and decorative items, for use in construction of buildings and bridges and in the making of fine furniture and other household items.

Worldwide, wood is one of the most widely used and understood materials—everyone can name at least a few types. The various species of wood around the world and their physical properties are dictated by diverse climatic conditions. Those in PNG are no different.

Wood has an ability to bring out the designer in everyone. It is accessible, easy to manipulate, can be shaped, carved, scratched, sanded, and nailed. It can be worked with basic tools.

Bulolo Hotel Wine Bar and Lounge, 1963. A feature of the hotel was the extensive use of decorative plywood and timber flooring of several local tree species. The wall behind the bar was New Guinea Walnut (Dracontomelun mangiferum). (John Davidson)

Wood is strong and dense, has dimensional stability, straight grain, even texture, extra-ordinary lengths It can be stacked flat, has pre-cut flexibility, toughness, excellent sealing, thermal and acoustic insulation properties.

Wood changes its colouring on exposure to light.

Some woods have a natural weatherability; teak has natural oils that clog the wood pores, eliminate the need for preservatives and making it maintenance free when used for boat building and garden furniture making, for example.

Veneers of wood of high quality can be used to enable use of lower quality material in cabinet making and house interiors, this conveying status and a suggestion of luxury.

Wood can be a low maintenance and hygienic material when used in household items like chopping boards and toothpicks because it has been shown that woods have both physical and chemical anti-bacterial properties.

Wood can be converted to the cooked wood state of charcoal.

Wood responds well to finishes to seal its surface against moisture, to make cleaning easier and to provide surface colour and texture.

Editor’s Note: This story has been abstracted from PNGAF Magazine of 24 October 2022 and republished with permission from the editor, RB McCarthy.

Coffee tables (Cloudy Bay 9-mile Wood Processing Centre Port Moresby)

Grandfather Clock made from PNG rosewood


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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