James Hendrie talks to timber constructor Adam Murray about his career through which he has amassed a range of talents and launched his own business, Thick and Thin Lumber Co.

WHILE for many businesses, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic caused a serious impact, for Adam Murray and his business Thick and Thin Lumber Co. it was an opportunity to expand that he seized with both hands. He had been working for the previous 15 years with RGL Engineering at Moffat, though latterly he had reduced the number of days to three a week, allowing more time to spend building his own forestry, logging and construction company.

“I was getting requests every week from local people to make sheds, decks and fences,” he said. “I was getting busier and working every day of the week, so I decided last January to leave RGL to go full time in my own business. When the COVID-19 lockdown came in March it was a real bonus for me, as orders for timber and building projects were coming in daily. The big timber suppliers and mills closed down, leaving room for a small operator like me to capitalise on the local demand.”

Forestry Journal: Adam using his Husqvarna 575 for blocking out work at Carve Carrbridge 2016.Adam using his Husqvarna 575 for blocking out work at Carve Carrbridge 2016.

Adam, with his own yard, sawmill, a regular supply of timber and his own transport, was ideally placed to supply the locals of Moffat, Beattock and the surrounding area with all their timber needs. People forced to stay at home started to tackle all of those house and garden DIY projects they had been contemplating for years, and Adam was able to seize the moment.

Though he now stays in Beattock, Adam was born and raised in Moffat, working in and around there for his entire career. With his great uncle and uncle operating a fencing and construction business, he grew up with an interest in construction and the outdoors. Leaving school, he decided to enrol in a construction management course at Dumfries and Galloway College.

He said: “I had always enjoyed building things. My favourite subjects at school were craft and design and graphic communications. I was not sure which part of construction I wanted to go into, so went to the local technical college. It turned out to be more theory than practical for my liking, but I got all my units and passed the course. Having done a year full time, I continued doing night classes while working at my uncle’s business, W J Murray Fencing Contractors and Suppliers.”

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At around 18 years of age, Adam was learning a lot about construction, as well as the practical side of fencing both in the agricultural and industrial sectors. “I mainly worked on livestock fencing, which was out on the hills in all weathers, so I certainly got my wish of working outdoors. I was also able to pick up some tips and skills from my grandfather with regard to dry stane dyke work and stone masonry.”

Forestry Journal: The outdoor classroom at Gallow Hill, which took around three weeks to fabricate and test-build in the yard before moving to the site to assemble.The outdoor classroom at Gallow Hill, which took around three weeks to fabricate and test-build in the yard before moving to the site to assemble.

Adam worked at W J Murray for three years before an opportunity arose to accompany his brother Chris to Wales to work for the Forestry Commission. “Chris had been at Barony College at Dumfries and he and another student gained an apprenticeship with the FC. The other person dropped out and I jumped at the opportunity to take his place. We had on-the-job ‘Blue Book’ training  – in fact, I think I still have it up the loft!”

This gave them both training in how to operate forest machinery. In Adam’s case, a Timberjack 1710 forwarder, while Chris drove a Valmet 820. Adam explained that although they only stayed six months, they both enjoyed the chance to get away from home and learn new skills, both on the job and from the local contractor they stayed with.

Both became involved in railway tree work through a Scottish contractor they knew who was taking on work for H W Martin (Fencing Contractors) from Derby. “So we did railway work between Stoke-on-Trent and Liverpool as part of a team assembled locally from our area in Scotland,” said Adam. “Chris, having his tickets, was on chainsaw duties clearing the trees and I was on the chipper most of the time, but also removing fences to allow access to the railway lines. Again, it was short term, due to the bird-nesting season.”

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The end of this work saw Adam return to Moffat in the early 2000s, embarking on a 15-year connection with RGL Engineering. Originally involved in agricultural work, the company branched out into forestry contracting, offering services such as mounding, vegetation clearance, and forest road construction. This saw Adam doing a varied and wide-ranging number of jobs.

He said: “On the forestry side, I was working on sites doing tree clearance for wind farms with mechanical mulchers. In complete contrast to this, I was also working on house construction in and around Moffat. Back at their base, I also assisted in the engineering workshop. During my time with RGL Engineering, I worked in Moffat, across Dumfries and Galloway, in Wooler and Stirling, then as far away as Wick and Campbeltown. RGL was a small team so we all had a good variety of work to do, which is what made it so enjoyable.”

Forestry Journal: The completed outdoor classroom at Gallow Hill.The completed outdoor classroom at Gallow Hill.

This time spent at RGL Engineering helped Adam build on the skills he had learned at college and within his family’s business, and gave him a wide range of experience that would aid him in setting up and operating his own business. At the start of 2018, Adam was given the opportunity to lease ground and a workspace at the old sawmill on the Balgray Estate. There was already a large industrial steel structure at this location, perfect for Adam to set up a base. It was taken ‘as seen’ on 18 February, and right away he set about bringing it up to standard.

“There was a local forestry contractor already based there, making the supply of wood a lot easier,” Adam said. “Also, while at RGL Engineering I had been working on building my own sawmill, but then the opportunity came along to purchase a second-hand Wood-Mizer LT15 at a good price. Once I had the Wood-Mizer, I mounted it on a mobile base that I had made at RGL, the intention being to take the sawmill to the job. Since I got it, it is has only moved to one job and then my base where it has been ever since.”

Forestry Journal: The nature hide at Dumfries.The nature hide at Dumfries.

According to those who know him, one of Adam’s great skills is the ability to get any kind of machinery working, no matter what the problems is. This and the fact that, in his own words, he is a ‘tight Scotsman’ means he is more than happy working with equipment he can buy at a reasonable price and keep going using his own technical and engineering skills.

Another example of this is Adam’s Case 895 tractor, which he bought from a farmer and rebuilt its engine. This, along with his Log Bus timber trailer, has been the main method of transporting timber and completed timber products to his customers in the last year.

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Adam has found Facebook a great medium to advertise his business. His Facebook page tells customers Thick and Thin Lumber Co. can offer custom-milled timber (soft and hardwood) and bespoke timber-frame buildings. Scrolling through the feed offers a chance to see the sort of things Adam is able to produce. Recent projects include timber posts and beams, large roof shingles, chicken runs, cedar cladding, fencing and peeling, as well as wedding table centrepieces. Such a diverse range of timber products proves Adam can turn his hand to making pretty much anything from wood.

Now he is working full time for himself, no two days are the same. “I can work depending on the projects I have to complete and how the weather is,” he said. “For smaller projects, and if the weather is bad, I can work indoors in the workshop, sticking the fire on and getting on with the job. On bigger projects, I can do a lot of the preparation work at the yard using the Wood-Mizer so that all I have to do is transport the timber to the site and carry out the construction work.”

Forestry Journal: Inside the nature hide at Dumfries.Inside the nature hide at Dumfries.

Some of Adam’s bigger projects in the last year have involved construction at a wildlife nature reserve and the installation of a woodland classroom on Gallow Hill at Moffat. The nature reserve near Dumfries was created on an 8-hectare site, involving the construction of a three-hectare pond alongside another pond and nature hide. Adam said: “The nature hide was built to a high specification and was framed out of larch and clad in red cedar. It is fully insulated and is designed both to be able to view wildlife but also to be used as an outdoor classroom area. It has an ex-RAF Tornado aircraft cockpit canopy as part of its roof to allow stargazing.

“The woodland classroom on Gallow Hill was a job I got after seeing it offered for tender on the Moffat Community Woodlands Facebook page. I was successful with my pricing and I milled everything at my yard on the Wood-Mizer. I then took it to the site and, having done all the ground works, I built it on the hill in September last year. The shelter is constructed in a traditional post-and-beam style from Douglas fir with larch roof shingles.”

Adam’s range of skills means he can offer more than just the timber for such jobs. He can handle the whole project management and construction work. “I can work out plans for jobs using CAD software. This not only allows me to do plans for clients, but also to work out the pricing and the materials needed. I can use it to produce a cutting list for each job, reducing waste.”

Forestry Journal: A 16 x 8 larch beam cut using the LT 15, showing its capability to deal with big timber.A 16 x 8 larch beam cut using the LT 15, showing its capability to deal with big timber.

The advantage of the Wood-Mizer LT 15, Adam explained, is that it can deal with the larger and older logs which commercial sawmills do not want. These logs usually allow the production of a quality end product when milled. 

“I am lucky that where I am located we are surrounded by timber and, having stayed here all my life, I have the advantage of local knowledge and contacts. This allows me to get access to good wood when it becomes available. I reciprocate by supplying local farmers with sawdust and woodchips to use for animal bedding. Nothing is wasted as the slat wood left from squaring off the logs I leave seasoning in the yard for a year or so, then I cut and split it into seasoned firewood, which I sell and deliver locally.

“Red cedar, although expensive, is nice timber to mill. I love older European larch, which has been slower grown, resulting in a tighter grain, making it a stronger timber and great to mill. There is a distinctive ‘ping’ off larch logs like this when putting them through the sawmill. I was lucky recently to get a hold of some larch that came down near Beattock that was planted in 1948.”

Adam has a licence through Forest and Land Scotland to deal with larch trees affected by Phytophthora ramorum (larch dieback). “This has been spreading up to our area from New Galloway. The needles and outer bark are affected, but once these are removed and dealt with on site, the trunk that is left can be milled and turned into good wood, rather than wasting it completely.”

Forestry Journal: Milling 10 x 10 larch posts.Milling 10 x 10 larch posts.

Adam’s Wood-Mizer LT15 has proven to be a great investment for him and is fundamental to what he does in his business. He has found it more than capable of milling anything he has fed it. Another recent investment has been a Wood-Mizer blade sharpener. He had been in the habit of using it anyway, but when it was offered for sale, he took the opportunity to buy it and install it in his yard shed. With new blades costing around £20 a time (and needing to be replaced or sharpened every couple of hours) it is a piece of kit that will certainly pay back quickly on its investment.

Yet another second-hand purchase has been a Wood-Mizer log moulder MP 150. “This runs along the sawmill bed and I can use it to produce moulded and planed timber products. It can also mould patterns to create columns or interlocking beams. After I have milled a log, I can use the moulder to mould or plane the final product. It can also allow me to mould logs for use in building log cabins, which is something I can see as an area to develop in future.”

Adam has another string to his bow; he is also a chainsaw carver, who I first met at Carve Carrbridge. When I was talking to him at the competition, held annually, he announced that he was part of ‘Team Bowsher’, being the family and supporters of Pete Bowsher, chainsaw carver extraordinaire.

Adam’s partner Laura is Pete’s daughter. They met while Adam was building Pete’s carving shed 11 years ago and have been together since, with Laura now trying to get Adam to build an extension to their family home.

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It was Pete that got Adam into chainsaw carving. “Pete offered me the opportunity to go along with him, Julie, his wife and of course Laura to the Ridgeway Rendezvous chainsaw carving event in Pennsylvania in 2011. He told me that if I was coming I would need to be able to carve at the event. So with a practice owl carved and not much experience other than obviously being able to use a chainsaw, I was off to the USA.”

He found it a great experience and has gone on to carve at other competitions over the years, including Carrbridge, the Tweed Valley Forest Festival at Peebles and the first Garnock Valley Carves. It is not just the fun of making something out of a log that appeals to him, but the whole social side of being with the other carvers who go around the circuit each year with their families. While work commitments mean he does not carve as much these days, he still uses his saws on an almost daily basis.

He has no real preference between either of the major brands, Husqvarna and Stihl, having saws from each in his collection. Following the pattern of his equipment buying,  his saws have been bought second hand. “Why buy new when I can buy perfectly good used saws and, if they go wrong, I can fix them myself?” he said. “My big saw is a Husqvarna 3120, which has a lot of muscle and power to deal with big logs. My favourite saw, which I have had for 11 years, but the saw is older than that, is a Husqvarna 575, which proves my point. It has never failed me once in all the time I have had it. I have a rear-handled Stihl 192, which I use for doing my joinery, working on jobs and if I am carving, as it is small and light. With a carving bar on it I can use it for boring work on my wood projects.”

So, if 2020 has been a breakthrough year for Adam, I wondered how he saw 2021 and the future. “I have a few big projects in the pipeline, including another nature reserve in the Galloway Glens for another client. I will also be building an outdoor classroom in the wood next to our local primary school. This a sure sign that COVID-19 will continue to have an impact on changing the way things are done long after it has gone.

“House prices have been rising in our area as more people are moving here from the city, knowing that working from home will become more of a norm in the years to come. I am starting to be asked to quote for the building of garden office spaces at some of these homes and I think this could become another area for my business to expand into. I will still be looking to do many other smaller projects to ensure that I have a good mix of jobs. It will all be about working to bring cash into the business to take it forward.”

Adam clearly loves doing what he does and has a passion for the outdoors and working in it. He has the pleasure of being his own boss and deciding each day what he needs to do and when he needs to do it by. Little seems to bother him about the industry he works in. He is certainly glad to have taken the plunge in the 2020 COVID-19 year to strike out and work full time in his own business, and there is plenty of evidence to show this was the right decision.


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