“AUSTRALIA’S plywood science pioneers were an amazingly resourceful and inventive group of men; it was an honour and an educational privilege to be part of this fascinating era.”
Kevin Lyngcoln, a former CEO of the Plywood Association of Australasia, was recalling his days at the CSIRO Division of Forest Products in south Melbourne, which he joined in 1961 as “junior technical assistant Grade 1” working alongside two giants of plywood technology Bill Gottstein and Peter Moglia.
The transfer this month of the J.W. Gottstein Memorial Trust secretariat to the Institute of Foresters of Australia in Canberra became a cause célèbre among the admirers of this forest products research scientist who was tragically killed in 1971 while photographing a tree-felling operation in New Guinea.
“As an engineering recruit, I worked directly under Peter Moglia, and then Ken Hirst in gluing research and Andy Stashevski, who became my future father-in-law,” Kevin said.
“But all of us, every one of us, worked under Bill Gottstein’s umbrella. And I’m probably the last survivor of those who worked with Bill.”
Speaking with Kevin Lyngcoln, Lis Moglia and Doug Howick – appointed in 1961 to the wood preservation section of the CSIRO DFP and a former secretary of the Gottstein Trust – I gleaned some fascinating insights into the early days of plywood research and development.
After RAAF service in World War 2, Peter Moglia studied mechanical engineering, graduating in 1954.
In 1955, he was employed as an experimental officer with the CSIRO Division of Forest Products and in 1956 joined Bill Gottstein’s newly-formed plywood investigation section.
For the next 15 years these scientists worked together to elucidate those principles that underlie the manufacture of plywood today. They were a resourceful group; where existing equipment could not meet new standards, and new machinery was too expensive, cheap machines were devised to do the job.
Five-speed gearboxes from World War 2 tanks became stepped-speed systems that were a cheap alternative to a true variable-speed drive. One of the best reeling systems in the world was produced by ‘fiddling’ a car’s differential.
Before the restructuring in 1971, the forest products division was regarded as the only laboratory in the world where you could get answers to every question on utilisation, end use, growth, manufacturing, wood chemistry, wood structure, glues, veneers, plywood, particleboard, drying, and preservation.
One of the recollections about Bill Gottstein’s plywood investigation group was the efforts to decide exactly how to set up a lathe.
A veneer lathe was ‘driven’ – an unfortunate expression, but some of the operators literally drove their lathe with car steering wheels on some of the controls.
A recollection by Peter Moglia: “We got the setting of a lathe to a matter of precision, of measurable quantities. We worked out the exact knife-wedge angle, the position of the nose-bar in relation to the knife edge, and a few parameters like the knife angle, and the height of the knife in relation to the log.
“We were accused of wasting the lathe operator’s time, which turned into an opportunity to demonstrate the new techniques.
“I turned their language back on them. I said (among other things), ‘I’ll bet you I can set this lathe up in 20 minutes and peel better veneer than you’ve peeled all day. So it was on, and they all came and stood round – and I did it in 20 minutes.
“I put a new knife in and set it to the nose-bar, doing all the measurements with my instruments. The first veneer wasn’t too good, and they started laughing, but I said, ‘wait a bit’ and after some adjustments they admitted it was the best veneer they’d ever seen.”
He had done it ‘blind’, by measurements, on a lathe he had seen only the day before.
“So we all went to the pub for further discussion,” Peter said at the time.
Kevin Lyncgoln said no report on those years should go without mentioning the contribution by Barry McCombe to “the real science”.
“Barry, who died last year, developed the science behind the veneer peeling. He gave so much to the industry in terms of visiting every factory and teaching people how to do it.” Kevin said.
Doug Howick remembers that in the early years, DFP provided for young people in the industry who were up-and-coming managers or, more often, were sons or nephews of larger timber company owners and managing directors. They worked in the division on projects alongside divisional staff.
“One such person was Denis Cullity from WESFI who spent several months or maybe a year at the south Melbourne site. As a result, Denis always had a high opinion of the work at DFP.
“When the plywood investigations section was formed under Bill Gottstein, the Plywood Association of Australasia agreed to finance several projects.
“As Denis worked his way to the top of WESFI, the company got closer to DFP, so it was not surprising that Denis put so much into the Gottstein Trust for so many years.”
The Gottstein Trust was set up in 1971 on the suggestion by the timber conversion section of CSIRO Division of Forest Products. The sub-committee included P.J. Moglia (convenor), W.M. McKenzie, M.W. Page, and G.S. Campbell.
The first meeting of the trust on June 7 that year elected the first trustees – D.M. Cullity, R.W. Page, D.A. Wilkinson, W.C. Kauman (convenor) with W.T. Knight appointed later.
Three founders were invited to donate $100 each, a legal requirement. They were E.A. Alstergren, T. Cullity, and R.W.R. Muncey, then chief of the CSIRO Division of Forest Products.
Bill Gottstein would quote a favourite scientific writer: “Some of the explanations may not be scientifically correct, but the author believes that it is more important to be nearly right, and understandable, than to be academically accurate, and incomprehensible”.