Paul Ramsay pays a visit to Watford-based forest equipment manufacturer RSL Engineering, which has come a long way from its first base in director Richard Page’s suburban garage in Potters Bar.

WATFORD is a strange place to end up when seeking out forestry equipment. It’s a place better known for Elton John’s lifelong commitment as supporter of its football club than its trees. But just on the outskirts of Aldenham, where the urban sprawl of north Greater London starts to give way to countryside, a small farm is home to RSL Engineering, where British manufacturing is booming.

Forestry Journal visited RSL in late January 2020 just after the company had held a demo day of its forestry products. Director Richard Page and sales manager Tony Abis were effusive about how well it had gone.

“The main issue we’ve had is the lack of decent videos,” explained Tony when describing why the event had been arranged. “Like everything, we want to control the quality of any demos and make sure we showcase the products Richard has invented, and the demo day let us do that.”

Reaching your customers in a way that is acceptable is not always an easy proposition as RSL has found out. Eventually it prompted the company to add a JCB to its inventory.

“JCB were extremely helpful,” explained Richard. “We needed something to run our products on and they were really competitive when we explained what we needed. And it’s great to be able to showcase a British-built item on a British machine.” The repeated referrals to British manufacturing are telling, in a time in which the country has been beset by uncertainty and instability. “It’s been a really weird year,” Richard said. “There has been a lot of uncertainty and disruption over Brexit,” said Tony. “Everyone has been lacking confidence. There has been no momentum and everybody was hit badly.”

Richard chipped in, smiling: “Since the elections confidence seems to have come back into the market and now we can all carry on!”

Forestry Journal: The Mother Kutter.The Mother Kutter.

Tony explained that it was the obvious success of Richard’s enterprise in a time of deepening recession which brought him to the company. “I was working in sales for a corporate clothing company, which was struggling,” he explained. “All I could hear was this racket coming from next door. Whatever was happening in the country at that time, there was definitely plenty happening in those sheds!”

Tony decided to investigate further and subsequently met Richard, who was already starting to feel he might need some help in getting his products out to customers. But it had been a long road to that point, and as Richard explained, hard work is what had done it.

Richard’s story started in 1991 as a 16-year-old in Lincolnshire, leaving school early to work for his dad’s local agricultural contracting and waste-management business. Here he learned the basics of how to fabricate metal, before a meeting with his soon-to-be wife drew him down south and into London.

“I set up a property business and did pretty well,” Richard remembers, “but it didn’t feel natural and I wanted to get back into engineering.”

Richard was living in Potters Bar and started to work out of a white van, using a mini-digger to do the odd job. “I really needed something to pick up concrete,” he said, and, knowing thumb grabs were big in America, Richard decided to design and make his own.

Richard set to work in his garage at home, cutting the parts from a plywood template and welding them together with a MIG. As soon as he’d finished and surveyed his work, Richard made another and stuck it on eBay to see if it would sell. It was gone in a couple of days. He made five more – they sold within a couple of weeks. It seemed clear he was onto something.

“Everything was cut using a handheld plasma, cleaned up, drilled, welded and sprayed. It was all high-tensile steel.”

At this point Richard chuckled before explaining the rather primitive process.

“I’d hang them up on beams, open the door, hold my breath, spray the parts and then dash out to have a breather before going back in to finish them off.”

But after the grabs kept selling, he knew he had to tighten up his operation.

“I got hold of a CNC (computer numerical control) machine and managed to get it in my garage. I sold my motorbike, paid for a cutting table and then found an electrician to get it all wired in.” Richard admits it was a tight fit once the welder, lathe and cabinets were taken care of, but he made it work and gives full credit to the electrician mate that helped him.

Forestry Journal: RSL is Richard’s company, but friend Tony (left) has been instrumental in getting the message out there.RSL is Richard’s company, but friend Tony (left) has been instrumental in getting the message out there.

Production soon outran the garage and moved to a small farm premises in Kitts End. “The farmer’s wife was vociferous in her criticism of the noise,” said Richard. “Finding the right premises is really hard. Engineering means noise and this makes it difficult.” But thankfully he did and this led to the racket noticed by Tony next door.

Kitts End was soon too small and the pair started to look around for somewhere bigger. The site at Aldenham was the result.

“I took a risk but suddenly I had the space to be more efficient and soon our manufacturing output started to cover the costs.”

And so it is that the company continues to turn out products for the market and is doing very well indeed, using the latest high-definition plasma unit and MIG welders, with plans to upgrade to the latest CNC machines for turning.

Richard and Tony were keen to talk about their range of timber grabs and tree shears, which they showcased at their demo day. “We had two principal demos,” said Richard. “One was the tree shears and the other was the timber grab,” the latter design having been invented by Richard himself. It’s a new two-tonne-capacity model where the mechanical link has been replaced by a hydraulic valve, removing the primary area of failure.

“I try and keep everything in-house as much as possible,” explained Richard, “including design.”

Also on show was the RSL Mother Kutter. A 300 mm cut capacity head which can handle softwoods up to capacity, and oak to nine and a half inches. It incorporates a fixed-blade shear where the arm pulls the timber over the blade before cutting. It has an interchangeable blade and has a high power-to-weight ratio at 190 kg and 25-tonne push at 200 bar. “It’s a good machine,” explained Richard, before saying how their standard shear has an added safety feature over the Mother Kutter.

The RSL standard tree shear has been tweaked over the years and is one of those areas in which Tony describes Richard’s knowledge of their machines.

“This is a testament to British manufacturing. It’s in Richard’s blood. He knows every nut and bolt.” The shear comes in a range of sizes up to 20” and is more powerful than the Mother Kutter. With the standard you can cut 12-inch hardwood and softwood. “What you can get in the jaw, it will cut,” said Richard. The added safety is from the grab timing. The timber is grabbed first, then cut, preventing it from falling back onto a whole host of hazards which might be around. It’s a significant safety feature.

Forestry Journal:  The new addition of a JCB made demos easier for quality control. The new addition of a JCB made demos easier for quality control.

Forestry Journal quizzed the pair on what are the greatest challenges that lie ahead. The answer is unanimous – labour.

“Skilled labour is the biggest problem. I’ve paid peanuts and had bad work. I’ve paid a fortune and had bad work. It’s about finding the right person with a desire to do a good job, and they are hard to come by.”

Forestry Journal: Valve packages can be added as an optional extra if customers need it.Valve packages can be added as an optional extra if customers need it.

RSL has decided to deal with the shortages by running an extensive in-house training programme. Training each employee from scratch, Richard acknowledges, is quite tough, but he’s been rewarded with a motivated and happy workforce, with very small staff turnover. “They come from really diverse backgrounds. I’ve got an ex-courier, ex-printer, and ex-lorry driver; all sorts. All of the training is done on site and we teach them everything. We pay them good money and make sure they’ve all got the flexibility they need to want to stay. It’s a good team.”

RSL regularly advertises online to attract trainees and, while supportive, are critical of the government’s apprenticeship scheme. “It’s a good idea,” said Richard, “but the apprentices struggle to be able to afford to get to the colleges, so it doesn’t work for all. Here, we give them everything they need.”

Forestry Journal: Items are assembled before they go to the bay for spraying. Everything is done on site from raw materials.Items are assembled before they go to the bay for spraying. Everything is done on site from raw materials.

Imported products are another threat, but no one seems to be overly concerned at RSL. “Some of our greatest challenges come from bespoke items, but we’re not put off by anything. If you ask us ‘Can you make this?’ the answer is usually yes.”

This flexible attitude to manufacturing bolsters the company against high-production items which are easily copied by overseas makers.

“I stand by my products and won’t put my name to anything that has come from elsewhere,” said Richard, critical of other companies that will. “Stuff that is made here will go out with our name on it. Stand by your product and know your market. Set your own high standards and stick to them.” Simple rules for staying competitive in difficult times.

Tony finished off Forestry Journal’s visit to RSL with some simple comments about customer service. A background in sales has set him up neatly to ensure that aftersales is a critical element in the business.

“We score really highly in our personal customer service. We have a world-class tree shear. We’ve got a really good product to take to market and we want to make sure our customers are happy and stay that way.”

If Google reviews, Twitter and the RSL website are anything to go by, they’re hitting the numbers with some terrific testimonies. Perhaps the last word goes to Richard, who has brought the company so far, from a garage in Potters Bar to the facility they have today. When asked what really makes the products an overwhelming success – “There really is no substitute for good metal, and plenty of it!”

0203 3056509

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year - or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.