Building on Norfolk Island is a creative process, as hardware is pricey and materials are scarce
Norfolk Island has a thriving and very creative DIY community
Two of Australians’ favourite pastimes have to be DIY and home renovation.
It’s fairly simple to get into DIY. Read a good magazine or surf the web for ideas, get the materials you need, and you’re on your way.
But what if the range of materials available was cut by 50%? And what if the price, even for a pack of nails, was double what you normally pay?
Or, what if specially ordered items took six months or even longer to arrive and cost $500 or more a cubic metre to freight?
Well, this is the reality for DIYers and tradies on Australia’s far-flung external territory Norfolk Island in the South Pacific.
Getting that dishwasher, box of tiles or bundle of timber is expensive and can take months.
Bulky goods all come from the mainland by freighter, which moors about a kilometre offshore, safely outside the reefs. The unloading is done by craning into and out of lighters or whaleboats.
A big load, like a car, comes ashore on top of two lighters tied together.
Discover the territory
Rich in natural beauty, the island has a year-round comfortable climate, and it’s also a history lover’s haven with its Polynesian settlers, Firstm Fleet farmers, the convicts and the last wave of settlers, the descendants of the famous Bounty mutineers.
SIZE 8km long by 5km wide.
LOCATION About 1400km east of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.
POPULATION About 1800 permanent residents.
Using the Norfolk pine
If you’ve visited any seaside area in much of mainland Australia, you’re most likely familiar with Araucaria heterophyllaor Norfolk Island pine.
This species of pine tree was one of the main reasons the island was settled by the First Fleet in 1788.
When Captain James Cook discovered and named the island in 1774, he saw the pines as significant enough to record them in his journal.
‘The chief produce of the isle is the spruce pine … Here then is another isle where masts for the largest ships may be had,’ he wrote.
But the first settlers found they were too knotty to be suitable for structural uses such as masts. Despite this, the timber is useful in many other ways.
This modern home, built by Paul Crookwell, has Norfolk Island pine decking, doors and cladding
When rough-sawn, the pine is ideal for an exterior deck
Fully dressed and milled, it makes a superb timber for floors
With its beautiful grain and colour, it is great for use in fine cabinetry
When conversing with local tradies, artisans and DIYers, one thing that really comes across is sustainability.
To them, it’s about being sensible in the usage and disposal of materials and resources. Cost and scarcity creates a greater respect for materials.
Then there’s waste disposal. On an island, you don’t put waste in a bin and send it off to be buried. Waste is a communal and environmental issue, so again this creates a greater level of what we’d call sustainable behaviour, but to an islander is just commonsense.
The level of recycling and upcycling on the island is huge because it makes sense to reduce wastage and increase the range of available materials.
A great catch-all phrase you keep running across is ‘make do’, which covers this re-use of materials. One of the best examples of ‘make do’ is the World War II era Marsden mats.
During the war, these steel mats were used by the military to build the island’s first airport. Many are still in good condition today, and you’ll see them used for fencing, livestock pens and even reinforcing concrete.
A relative newcomer as he’s only been on the island for about 15 years, Paul is a builder who still takes on odd building jobs, even in semi-retirement.
Moving to Norfolk Island from Sydney was a shock for Paul, as he suddenly went from a position of having easy and cheap access to an abundance of materials to finding them expensive and also difficult to get hold of.
Paul loves working with the local timbers, and much of his family home is built from locally sourced timber. Here he shares a few handy tips.
BUILD MODULAR Shape the dimensions of a project around the size of the available materials. Base
the lengths of walls on plasterboard sheet sizes. This reduces wastage and costs, but also speeds up the job as there’s no fiddling around with cuts.
PREPARE WELL When it comes to preparation, take the time to ensure surfaces are appropriately sanded and cleaned of dirt, dust and oil, and you’ll extend the life of paintwork by years, even in harsh coastal situations.
SALVAGE materials Use demolition materials when you can. Long, sound lengths of timber from walls or roofs can often be re-used for framing once the nails have been removed.
SAVE leftovers Keep any offcuts, as you never know when they may come in handy for future projects or for making patch repairs.
DO YOUR RESEARCH Use the internet to find how-to videos to watch before you start a project. Paul says to check the videos are locally relevant and from a reputable source.
Remnants from World War II, rust-resistant Marsden steel mats are still used for fencing
Norfolk Island born and bred, Roy Nobbs is a builder by trade and runs Rocky Point Joinery.
This is also where you’ll find the island’s Tahitian ukulele workshop, a spin-off that developed from a visit to a craft show in Noumea.
Roy has a wealth of wisdom, the sort that comes from a lifetime of working with timber and having a passion and respect for the material.
And what is the difference between a Tahitian ukulele and a regular one, you may wonder. Tahitian ukuleles have the port on the back so the player can regulate the sound by moving the ukulele closer or further away.
Mixing a variety of timbers makes every piece unique
Milled in Roy’s joinery, Norfolk Island pine is left to season naturally
Roy’s great wall of clamps is an impressive sight
Although he has a trade background, Brendon King’s passion today is in creating furniture and other objects from salvaged and recycled timber.
Fishing is his other passion, which oddly enough aligns with his furniture work, as he finds lots of great pieces of driftwood while dropping a line.
His work is so well recognised on the island that people now come to him with pieces of timber and ask what he can make with it for them, or to let him know when good timber may become available.
He’ll often design furniture around a particular piece of salvaged timber and sometimes waits months to finish a project until he finds the right bit.
A tile inlay adds character to this bedside table
Sections of an old oar handle are used as shelf supports