In the latest in an ongoing series touring the sawmills of the north of England and the Borders, Phil Sparrow pays a visit to the team at Abbey Timber in Berwickshire, troubling them for 10 minutes of their time.

AS a primary school pupil growing up in the 1960s, I (like many others, no doubt) was fascinated with fossils. The possibility that this small, patterned stone I held in my hand could have been a real living and breathing creature many millions of years ago really fired my imagination. I tried to imagine what the Earth was like at the time; the air, the sounds, the creatures and the embryonic plants just beginning to head upwards. A fossil, of course, represented the skeleton of the creature, and trying to guess what the ‘soft bits’ were like was all part of the fun.

Helping us in our quest was a very enthusiastic teacher. Mr Wilkinson was his name and he ran a ‘Fossil Club’ on a Tuesday after school, where fellow enthusiasts would gather and then head, as a group, along the beach. As we wandered along, he would point out what to look for and, in doing so, introduced us to creatures called crinoids, brachiopods and lamellibranches. Looking back, I expect that lurking deep inside all of us was the hope that sooner or later we’d come across some tyrannosaurus skull poking out of the sand. Disappointingly, we never did. However, what Mr Wilkinson did do was generate a lifelong interest in earth sciences; palaeontology, geology, geography and the concept of evolution. The concept that I could have evolved over millions of years from pond slime to what I am now was quite a tricky thing to imagine as a nine-year-old!

Forestry Journal: The sign on entering the hamlet.The sign on entering the hamlet.

You may or may not agree with Darwin’s general theories, but the concept of evolution can be applied to anything – not least a sawmill. What begins as a hobby or an interest can morph into something much greater. The direction of this journey can be determined by many factors, and so it is with Abbey Timber. As I travel around and talk to people a familiar story often emerges...

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For hundreds of years families have lived and worked in close-knit communities. You often hear of generations of one family working at the same trade for the same people. Likewise, historically, it was important for landowners or estate owners to have heirs to whom the estate could be passed on. Apart from retaining the wealth, it maintained continuity and prevented the estate from being broken up and sold off. On a trip to Colombia some years ago, I observed that it was common for the head of the family, on their death, to divide the estate or land up equally among all the children irrespective of sex. This has some interesting implications in that, if you have a large family, the land quickly becomes a series of much smaller plots, causing a good deal of feuding. If you’re living a subsistence life, then this becomes all the more difficult.

Clearly this has been an issue in the UK over the years and, in order to prevent an estate being broken up, succession tended to favour the eldest. This could leave other siblings at a disadvantage depending on how families organised things. My closest colleague is the youngest of three brothers. The eldest got the farm. The second has established a haulage business and the youngest has developed a career in forestry. Apart from the usual sibling rivalry, there’s no animosity but rather an acceptance of the way it is.

Forestry Journal: William Dobie and his daughter Ellinor.William Dobie and his daughter Ellinor.

Abbey Timber was borne from similar origins. Luckily, the estate is large enough to support a wide selection of woodland and this provided the perfect conduit for the current owner, William Dobie, who has been milling here on the family estate for 40 years. William’s daughter Ellinor also works at the mill and is the fifth generation to be involved in forestry. There has been a sawmill on the site for as long as anyone can remember, and it sits nicely in the bottom of a heavily wooded valley. It is a stunning location. Although it was bitterly cold when I arrived, the valley was just beginning to reveal the first signs of spring. Carpets of snowdrops crowded beneath a rich canopy of deciduous woodland surrounding the mill. As I parked the car, the familiar high-pitched sound of a cross-cut saw seeped from one of the sheds.

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This is not a mill which churns out a fixed amount per day and employs a set number of people with production targets. Rather, it is a mill which ebbs and flows with the seasons, responding to the gentle but regular flow of bespoke requests. Most of the sawmills I have visited have an urgency about them. There’s noise and bustle and drama and haste. I understand that. I realise time is money and bills have to paid. However, Abbey Timber is different. The setting is medieval and, in some respects, it’s a little like stepping back in time. Then again, the plant and machinery are fairly modern, and the philosophy is very current. It’s as though Sir Terence Conran and Anita Roddick combined to design a sawmill on the set of Game of Thrones.

Forestry Journal: A Mebor HTZ 1100 pro bandsaw from Slovenia handles most logs to enter the sawmill.A Mebor HTZ 1100 pro bandsaw from Slovenia handles most logs to enter the sawmill.

The woodland on the estate and in the surrounding area is roughly 90 per cent coniferous and 10 per cent hardwood. The coniferous woodland is made up of the usual suspects – spruce, Scots pine, larch, Douglas and a little Corsican pine – while the hardwood is mainly beech, ash and oak. William explained that while some of the softwood goes towards fencing (posts and rails), quite a bit gets kiln dried, planked, tongue and grooved. He explained that much of his work comes from bespoke requests – for instance, someone who wants to replace a wooden floor in an old Victorian house, or someone wanting to create a unique ash floor in the kitchen of a new build. Some of the beech even goes to be made into lobster pots. Apparently, they have a five-year lifespan before being consumed to a lesser or greater degree by gribble worms.

Forestry Journal: Offcuts are turned into chips which are either sold on or dried and burned in the biomass district heating system.Offcuts are turned into chips which are either sold on or dried and burned in the biomass district heating system.

I hadn’t realised just how little processed timber we produce in the UK and how difficult it is to source. While I was heading across to look at the saws, I couldn’t help but notice a large shed with an open front, behind which was a very large pile of wood chippings. Basically, all the waste, small offcuts etc, gets chipped and placed on this pile and then fed into a hopper to feed a biomass boiler. Brilliant, I thought; and it partly explained why one or two places in the mill were quite warm. Warmth and sawmills aren’t necessarily two things I’d combine. However, when William very proudly explained the boiler provided hot water for seven houses in the hamlet, Ellinor quickly pointed out there were, in fact, an additional six properties on the system, making 13 in total.

Forestry Journal: A Logosol planer-moulder adds to the tools in the workshop, turning sawn timber into a profitable finished product.A Logosol planer-moulder adds to the tools in the workshop, turning sawn timber into a profitable finished product.

At this point, William kindly offered to make me a cup of tea and so I took the opportunity to quiz the next generation of sawmillers about the current situation and the future. Ellinor is a forestry graduate and clearly very aware of the industry in general.

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Like many other rural communities, not much changes in Abbey St Bathans. The mill continues to function well and demand is good. Ellinor outlined the two software systems which the business had implemented recently. The first, Airtable, enables the miller/client to plot the route of the order literally from the tree, through the whole process to delivery or collection. This in turn links into Xero, an online accounts system.

Forestry Journal: Abbey’s resaw is a Laimet 120 from Finland. Installed in 1993, it has been at the heart of the sawmill’s production process since then.Abbey’s resaw is a Laimet 120 from Finland. Installed in 1993, it has been at the heart of the sawmill’s production process since then.

Her main concern, looking ahead, is finding employees in a rural community. Recruiting people in this day and age who are willing to get up in all weathers and work in a physical capacity all day is becoming very difficult. She also made the point that people don’t want to be confined to one place forever. In the past, people were prepared to work in the same place all their lives, whereas today they want more variety, which you can understand. Added to which, sawmills tend to go where the trees are and this can often be in quite remote, rural locations.

Forestry Journal: The biomass heating system.The biomass heating system.

Another factor is training. She also talked about the need to collaborate with employees. It’s not just about boring repetitive tasks – as most modern systems are software guided – but things still go wrong, and you need employees to be reactive. Failure to do so can be very expensive.

Once I had finished my tea, William and Ellinor very kindly allowed me to wander around. William was keen to show me a shed in which several planer thicknessers were located. The concept of ‘commodity in’ and ‘product out’ is at the heart of all manufacturing processes, and here it was clear to see. I spent at least a couple of minutes gently fondling some beautiful ash which had been milled into tongue-and-groove planks (and imagining them as a floor).

I can’t thank William and Ellinor enough for their kindness and cooperation. Abbey Timber is different. It’s both traditional and progressive. It takes some finding, but believe me, if you visit, you’ll not be disappointed and you’ll be made very welcome.

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