Growing timber for the pole market

December 19, 2011

Harding Treated Timbers has branded its product to take advantage of a vibrant local and international pole market.

The team attaching hardpole tags HTT plant manager and JMC Contractors
The team attaching 'Hardpole' tags to the product in the Harding Treated Timbers yard. HTT plant manager Cliff Gilson (left) and John McKenzie of JMC Contractors, who runs production at the HTT plant with his own labour.
Hardpole brand hits the market Harding Treated Timber's yard
The distinctive 'Hardpole' tag. It's clever branding as it is an abbreviation for Harding, the small southern KwaZulu-Natal town where the company operates. It also refers to the fact that they are made from hardwoods (which differentiates them from softwood poles) and also suggests that the poles are durable and long-lasting. The yard at Harding Treated Timbers.
Harding Treated Timber trees Loading timber onto the HTT truck
Trees grown for the pole market. An Ixopo farmer loads harvested poles onto the Harding Treated Timbers truck.


"A pole is a pole," is pretty much the attitude of most people who head for the hardware store to purchase a few poles for the lean-to verandah or garden shed at home. But the team at Harding Treated Timbers has other ideas. They have taken the marketing of poles to a whole new level by creating a brand known simply as 'Hardpole', labelled on a distinctive little tag that is nailed to every pole they produce, and they produce a lot of poles.

Harding Treated Timbers and their sister company, Natal Forest Products, which are part of the R & B Timber Group, produce around 8 800 cubic metres of poles a month for the domestic market, as well as for markets in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The poles range from small fencing poles used in suburban households and in agriculture, to building poles and giant 14-metre transmission poles.

Most of the poles are cut from specially grown Eucalyptus grandis trees grown in and around southern KwaZulu-Natal. The poles are sourced from the group's own plantations as well as independent commercial timber growers.

"The pole market is highly competitive, and so we have branded our product to improve our visibility. We have all the necessary systems in place to ensure quality and service, and the branding is an assurance to customers that the pole meets the required standards," commented Harding Treated Timbers' plant manager, Cliff Gilson.

The R & B Timber Group was established by Bob Armour in 1952. It was then taken over by brothers Roy and Brian, who restructured the business in 2006. Roy Armour continued with the pole treating business with his three sons Mark, David and Simon.

The building and fencing poles are known simply as small 7s (up to seven-metre poles with a tip end diameter of less than 100 mm) and big 7s, which have a tip end diameter of between 100-140 mm.

At the other end of the spectrum are the transmission poles, which range from nine metres to 14 metres and more, with a maximum taper of seven mm per metre of pole (SABS standard).

The poles are supplied from the company's own 3 500 ha of plantations, as well as from private commercial farmers. The preferred species for use as poles is Eucalyptus grandis, or G x U hybrids. E. Dunnii is also used to a lesser extent.

HTT procures some 5 000 to 7 000 tons of timber per month from their own farms as well as local farmers. The HTT procurement team works closely with their suppliers, providing advice and assistance where necessary to assist them to maximise the value from their plantations. Some of the large corporate growers like Sappi, Mondi and Masonite also supply HTT with poles.

According to Mark Armour who is in charge of procurement for HTT, growing timber for poles requires a different approach from growing for the pulp market. He said that more and more timber growers around the world are gearing themselves to grow trees primarily for higher value markets, and sell the timber that doesn't make the grade for pulp. This makes business sense as the net price per ton for pole timber is higher than it is for pulp timber, and the price gap gets wider as the poles get bigger.

Market requirements
"We have to grow our big timber bigger, and our small timber smaller to accommodate for our market," he said during a presentation to farmers at a recent field day.

He said that farmers should grow blocks for the building and fencing market on their poorer soils with typically a MAI of 13 or less. The pole specs for this market are 7,3 m, 50/100 width and a maximum DBH of 14. The ideal stocking at planting is 2 667 (2.1 m x 2.1 m).

Transmission poles should be planted on better soils (MAI 13+) with a wider spacing at planting 1 667 SPH (3 m x 2 m espacement). The specs are from 9.5 m x 140 mm to 14.7 m x 200 mm width, and a minimum DBH of 21.

Mark also provided some tips on thinning for maximising a block for the higher value transmission market:

  • Slash at two years once the canopy has closed. Then come back at five years to touch up. This is a cost.
  • Thin at four years and recover some material. No cost. This could be either a selective thinning, or a seventh row thinning.

He said deliberate control of the stand density by thinning improves the vigour, growth rate and quality of the remaining trees. As a result, growth is concentrated in fewer, faster-growing trees, and the time taken for the trees to reach harvestable age is reduced.

The benefit lies in the fact that larger trees bring premium returns at harvesting, he said.

HTT operate their own transport and have their own thinnings and harvesting teams. All harvesting of pole timber is done manually to avoid damaging the stems. Typically, the harvested timber is left lying in-field for four weeks, and then lies in the HTT yard for another four weeks to allow the timber to reach the desired moisture content.

After it has been graded and cross-cut, the poles are kiln dried and then treated either with creosote or CCA to meet SABS standards.

The poles sold to overseas markets are shipped out of Durban in containers, while long-haul trucks deliver to customers in South Africa and in neighbouring countries.

Published in October 2011

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victor moodley
victor moodley
2 years ago

hi there
we are looking for untreated eucalyptus grandis poles

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