A few weeks ago saw a heavy load of walnut gun and rifle blanks being hauled out from what to me, is hallowed ground - Dargo, Victoria. It was the closing of what is for me, a significant chapter in Australian walnut milling.
Around 2003, Geoff Slee invited me to Dargo. Geoff had cut the blanks himself over a period of some years. After a few earlier ventures, he'd partnered up with a local bloke who could source walnut trees. Geoff explained he liked the texture of Dargo walnut very much. In his opinion, it was hard to go past. He'd gone into the arrangement not so much for profit - but because of problems with many blanks he'd used in his business - inconsistent stability being a big factor. We'd had many discussions about this, and also about the common problem of poorly cut blanks - poor grain flow and layout. Geoff was in a position to have worked thousands of blanks from all over the world, and he seemed to have that rare natural ability to really be able to assess a blank. I've met very, very few stock makers anything like as good at judging a blank - let alone freeing it from a tree in a suitable way. I told him I was a little nervous, as it seemed like I was onto trees which held slightly better colour. I've never forgotten how Geoff countered smoothly with " Ahh, but Dargo walnut has that sparkle about it."
So, off I went.
The first trip to Dargo was to buy blanks direct from Geoff's milling partner. I got around 50 good blanks shipped back home that August. Knowing I was keen for more blanks, a follow-up offer was made: I was invited to cut blanks with them - If I worked hard cutting blanks, I'd get blanks at the same price as Geoff. The deal was that Geoff needed nearly all the low and medium grade blanks for his machined stock business - plus enough of the better blanks for his custom work. However, there was an excess of the better grades. I'd soak those up as best I could. When planning the second trip, I was told I could expect to be gone for several weeks as we'd be cutting a lot of blanks. It was February and the weather was very hot, but together we processed the slabs in just 6 days, cutting hundreds of blanks for the trip. Blank cutting was done under the shade of a walnut tree canopy, with any re-sawing, sealing and dressing of blanks being carried out in a lean-to next to a shed where blanks were stored. As time went by I made more trips to Dargo, and more of this walnut made it's way back home with me.
In time I learned more about the partner we cut those blanks with, and he's the reason I've written this. Brian "Barney" Websdale was born at Tabberabera and raised on the family farm. Barney got just one years schooling at the Tab school before it shut down. He completed the rest of his education by correspondence. He chose to cease schooling at age 14, and went trapping rabbits to earn a wage, as well as working on the family farm. He sold to rabbit export giants J.A. and G McCraith, and made good money. The day he took me to the remote farm where he grew up, I got a bit green-gilled. Not because 3 sambar grazed unconcerned on the hillside opposite us in the late morning sunshine - the history of his early life was the source of my envy. Barney wed his lovely bride Leslie, moving to a family home in Dargo. Ankylosing Spondolytis hit in his early 20's but it didn't stop him raising a family. Hard graft falling high-country Eucalypt paid the bills for around two decades. There was a decade working the Dargo pub, too. It seems to me Barney became one of the main ingredients of the glue that held Dargo together. His wife, too.
Part of the history of the Websdale residence in Dargo, was that a keen hunter by the name of Geoff Freeman had milled a tree from the property some time beforehand. It's wood was spectacular. Brian had seen the wood made into one or two stocks owned by Mr Freeman, and he still reckons he's never seen fiddle-back so stunning. The striking walnut wood stuck in his mind. Walnut timber recovery for Barney started out after he'd been told to help himself to a couple of dead trees upstream from Dargo. He'd remarked it seemed a shame that they'd died and good timber might be left to rot. The first year, the mobile mill owner Barney employed was sent home before he'd finished the first tree - too rough! Graeme Berry from Portland replaced him and did a good job with his bandsaw mill. Barney told me his son Murray moved a large bandsaw there for re-sawing, some time in the mid-late 1980's. He'd been going before then - we cannot place the year exactly.
Early on, the wood was milled for furniture use. Barney recounted to me that it was Tim Lee (rural journalist) who suggested to Barney that Geoff Slee might be keen on some walnut for gun blanks. That's how their blank co-cutting started. Brian enjoyed the finding and recovery of the trees, and Geoff had previously done a lot of blank cutting from walnut trees milled by others - including the famed "Dargo Pub Tree"(s). Both blokes loved the anticipation of hunting down trees, and the thrill of finally seeing a good tree opened up. They milled a fair few trees around Dargo, then got access to fine old walnut trees along the Crooked River. Trees were milled on-site along the Crooked River, and the slabs generally trucked back to Barney's place in Dargo. Barney is such a gentleman, I doubt he got refused too often if he expressed an interest in milling an old walnut tree!
Dargo walnut can be pretty plain in colour. A lot of blonde and honey-coloured walnut grows there, though the texture, density and pore size is superb. Geoff and I considered it better in it's working qualities than most walnut cut from mainland Australia - and that is saying something because Aussie walnut has long been highly regarded. Rich and contrasting colours in walnut wood can be had in the area, but the odds are against you getting it and the termites get the lions share. It really is hard won stuff. Geoff and I developed techniques cutting, seasoning and drying blanks that to the best of our knowledge were not commonly practiced in Oz or NZ before - and we did it because it gave us more stable blanks.
Barney and Geoff reckoned the best tree they ever got, was milled on a Melbourne Cup day out at Crooked River in earlier times. What a majestic setting, but the day was stinking hot with a howling wind. Difficult conditions to keep wet slabs free from checking, which will happen in the blink of an eye in such conditions without the right hands around. Geoff made the stock for perhaps his favourite personal deer rifle from one of the best three blanks - but saw to it that the wood was offered to other makers. The best two blanks - a spectacular matched pair of genuine Exhibition Grade rifle blanks - were sold out to another maker when, really, Geoff would have been far better off working the rarest blanks himself.
Fast forward to December, 2020. Cutting the last two old trees into blanks had been postponed by various hurdles, CV19 not the least. I cut two decent sized flitched trees into blanks in two days, with a bit of help. Both trees were atypical in colour for the area, which was a change - but they still had that intrinsic Dargo magic sparkle in them. After a decade of seasoning and correct storage, they'll be just as stable as any that I've used from there.
There is still a little bit of walnut left in Dargo, but most of the best of it has been milled and cut into blanks. These last few years, the Australian market has been flooded with cheap, young but cute imported blanks sold as equivalent to properly seasoned locally cut blanks of generally superior texture, layout drying and seasoning. When it came to the Dargo walnut, I'd tried hard but ultimately we'd not found a reliable third party to soak up what Geoff couldn't take after his death, or even the excess that existed before it. As with blanks I've cut outside Dargo, there have been too many non payers, late payers, and work of indifferent quality done that made me cringe at the fate some of the blanks have suffered. I no longer supply raw blanks because of this, except to a few good folk. That's not such a bad fate. The best of Dargo blanks are a joy to work with, not just for their texture and stability.
So what about the magic sparkle? That's easy to answer. I've never seen so much, and such fine fiddle-back. Other than being wonderful walnut to work with, Dargo walnut has a singular sparkle that I've never seen in such proliferation from other areas, except rarely. I've had better colour - but no better figure. All but the plainest Dargo blanks have a kind of personality about them, and it's the sort that belongs on a gun or rifle. Geoff had a few fairly derogatory terms for the "over the top" super-fancy walnut that folk wanted to put on otherwise plain, vacant factory guns. I'd best not print them. Grin. Real stock makers can make an exhibition grade stock from a plainer blank, after all. In General terms Dargo blanks have a quality about them that is hard to define - but easy to smile about. It's that sparkle Geoff spoke of. Fine, bold tiger-stripe or fiddle-back. No matter the real reason, it's as if those trees somehow trapped in their timber only the brightest rays on the brightest days, the sparkling light reflected from the riffles and ripples on the Crooked River and others like it. The areas walnut timber has it's own spectacular showy sunbursts, and fiddle-back cascading often the full length of it's own flow.
I opened this post by commenting that our blank cutting in Dargo had been a significant chapter. It's significant to me because a lot of good quality, well laid out blanks were recovered by a small group of dedicated blokes. The blanks helped end a reliability-of-supply problem for Geoff Slee and myself, and we developed a system which gave the maximum quality blanks with minimum investment in grandiose tools, machinery and facilities. For us, our best option was to cut blanks ourselves. As far as the Dargo area went, it was Brian who made it possible and many magnificent and iconic old trees were saved from rotting into the ground once they were near the end of their natural lives.
I hold massive respect for Barney. A few minutes before I left Dargo, he offered a statement: "Gordy, I'm sorry - there can't be any more walnut". This was no let-down to me. We shook hands, hopefully not for the last time. Barney holds the same spark that one finds in the Dargo walnut we mined together. Now in his eighties, he has earned his rest from the hard work of milling walnut. I don't think folk can get much better than Leslie and Brian Websdale.