Starting out in 2006, Pentland Biomass has switched its focus from selling boilers to producing woodchip to selling firewood, following the market where it leads. Forestry Journal paid a visit to learn about the latest developments.

YOU could be forgiven for imagining a company with the name Pentland Biomass was occupied exclusively with the business of biomass – but you would be mistaken.

Based in Loanhead, near Edinburgh, the family firm offers products and services including woodchip, machine hire, timber harvesting and sawmilling, but lately its attention has been fixed firmly on firewood.

Starting out in 2006, Pentland Biomass was set up after its parent company, garden centre and bedding plant producer Pentland Plants, went looking for a more sustainable way to heat its five-and-a-half-acres of greenhouses.

Owner and manager Richard Spray explained: “My mum, dad, sister and I own the company. In the days before RHI, we used to go through a million litres of kerosene a year and the price of oil kept jumping up and up.

“We installed a 2 MW Danish Reka boiler and within two years we had our money back. Initially, we bought recycled timber to burn in the boiler, but soon started to explore sourcing and producing our own timber fuel.”

The Spray family found there was a lot of interest in what they were doing. Having put together the means to source and produce their own wood fuel, they decided to start supplying the Edinburgh area with firewood, wood pellets, and other biofuels.

From this plan, Pentland Biomass was born.

In the early days of RHI grants, the company also sold Biomass boilers, its marketing pitch enhanced by its own success story. But it wasn’t to last.

Forestry Journal: Richard Spray, owner and manager of Pentland Biomass.Richard Spray, owner and manager of Pentland Biomass. (Image: FJ/John McNee)

“To begin with, we could go to a customer and say with confidence a boiler would pay for itself within two or three years. As RHI wound down that became five years, then eight years, 10 years, 12 years. Eventually it got to the point where I genuinely could not say to someone they were going to save money. So we stopped selling them.”

By 2019 the company’s primary focus had become woodchip production, sourcing its own roundwood and investing in serious kit to process it from the likes of Jenz and Mus-Max. That took a dramatic turn in 2022 when its latest chipper, a Mus-Max WT 11XL, caught fire.

“It had been working away fine all morning, but after lunch the operator phoned me to say there was a problem,” said Richard. “From the window of my office I could see a wee bit of smoke and by the time I got to the timber yard it was fully ablaze. We phoned the fire brigade, but they couldn’t find their way into the yard, so it all burned and we spent the next four months arguing with the insurance company.

Forestry Journal: Logs are tidied up to remove branches and butts before processing.Logs are tidied up to remove branches and butts before processing. (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

“It was a great machine and would fill an artic in 20 minutes. Because of our boilers we burn 5,000 tonnes of woodchip a year, so it was handy having our own chipper.

"We used to provide chip for other people, but that market had gradually died, so we finally decided not to replace it.

“We still do a bit of chipping, but we just hire in an Albach in from Angus Biofuels. It works out cheaper and if there are any breakdowns or fires it’s their problem.”

While cutting back on the chipping side, Pentland found demand increasing for firewood, so turned its attention to that.

The Loanhead site has a drying floor heated by an 800 kW Herz Biofire boiler and Lauber L-ENZ 370 dryer, a high-performance fan and heat-exchanger system. Split in two, the drying floor has long been used to produce both woodchip and kiln-dried logs.

Forestry Journal: Multiple processing lines keep things busy in the timber yard.Multiple processing lines keep things busy in the timber yard. (Image: FJ/John McNee)

Around five years ago, annual firewood production was around 1,500 tonnes per year. Today it is closer to 5,000 tonnes, half going to private local customers and the rest going to commercial firewood suppliers.

During that time, while demand has shot up, Pentland Biomass has established itself as one of Edinburgh’s leading suppliers of kiln-dried hardwood logs, delivering firewood throughout Edinburgh, Lothian and the Scottish Borders.

All of the wood it uses is sourced within an hour’s drive from its base, typically from the same two or three suppliers. Frequently this involves collecting at the roadside using its own fleet of trucks.

The logs, mostly beech, ash, sycamore, oak and birch, are brought back to a log yard a short distance from the main site for processing. Investment in good machinery means timber can be fired efficiently through production with only two or three members of staff on hand.

Forestry Journal:  It’s surprising how much is removed by the screening process. It’s surprising how much is removed by the screening process. (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

Key to the operation are a Posch 650 and Tajfun RCA 480 JOY firewood processor, both running at the same time to feed cut logs onto conveyers and straight into walking-floor trailers.

“All our timber comes from down in the Borders, from the same group of contractors,” said Richard. “I’ll take everything they send me, which means I’ll get a nice load of five or six rows of poker-straight, 10-inch-diameter logs followed by a load of oversized, horrible rubbish that makes you wonder what you’re going to do with it. 

“But you have to take it, because if you don’t take it then the guy who does will get the good stuff next time to make up for it. So I just buy it all and quietly shake my head.  

Forestry Journal: The Tajfun processor has a 25-tonne splitting force and the end product is uniformly split logs.The Tajfun processor has a 25-tonne splitting force and the end product is uniformly split logs. (Image: FJ/Jack Haugh)

“The good things is we do have options. If it’s below two feet, it’ll go through the 650. If it’s above that, we cut it in half with a Posch horizontal splitter, then quarter it. We don’t bin much. Because we need so much chip, anything that’s wee, bent, horrible, we can always chip.

“Last year [2022], I think 75 per cent of what we bought in was made into logs, but this year [2023] we’re going for 90 per cent, so we’ve got to figure out ways to use more of the big stuff.”

After processing, the logs are transported down to the drying floor. To dry a 90 m³ artic load of logs (to less than 10-per-cent moisture content) takes around two and a half days. 

Part of any firewood processing throws up chaff and fines, which the end user doesn’t want in their firewood delivery. To ensure it is purely good firewood logs that Pentland Biomass supplies, Richard invested in a Posch LogFix XL Log Cleaner, which screens the dried product before it is bagged.

On the day of Forestry Journal’s visit, a new screener was delivered, the plan being to incorporate this into production after the firewood is processed but before it is dried. Richard explained that one drying floor holds 110 m3 of logs, but after screening 90 m3 will go off to be bagged.

“We are quite fussy about the quality of the logs we produce,” he said. “When a customer opens their bag and tips it out we don’t want a load of rubbish all over the ground.

“We try to mix hardwoods. Because we’ve got different machines in the yard we’ll have one doing big oak, the next on wee birch and so on. They’ll be mixed up before going into the drying shed. Other people process straight into bulk bags and dry in the bags, but if you get a rotten or poor log, the whole thing will end up going to one customer. So it’s better if you can mix.

“The big Posch does a square log, while the Tajfun does a quarter round one and most people do like a mixture. Some customers aren’t as keen, but they all burn just the same. I keep meaning to take some time to pick out the best-looking logs, put them in bulk bags and advertise them as ‘hand-picked’ for an extra £50 to see if anyone would go for it.”

Forestry Journal:  Logs being unloaded from one of the walking-floor trailers. Logs being unloaded from one of the walking-floor trailers. (Image: FJ/John McNee)

Pentland Biomass will produce 300–400 bags of firewood per week and is always looking for ways to make the process more efficient. That included a recent investment in a Multi Log Eazi-Pak bagging machine, a single-phase electric-powered log-delivery system with an adjustable hydraulic feed speed to allow bagging to be done by one or more operators.

“That’s the only machine we could find that will provide a constant stream of logs and semi-net them,” said Richard. “It’s a good thing to have to maintain efficiency. On a wet day, the guys can go and bag for half a day.”

Investing in such machinery and equipment is especially important when recruitment is so challenging.

“It’s quite hard finding people,” said Richard. “The guys we’ve got now are good. But from experience, if I post a vacancy, I’ll likely get six people apply and of those six maybe only three will turn up. From that three I might employ one, and they won’t turn up for their first day. Or if they do, they’ll bag logs for a day and get fed up because it’s boring. There was one guy we had who walked out before the morning break.

“The only solution for us seems to be buying bigger and better machines that can cut more logs. Instead of having to find three more people, you get one new machine.”

It’s a slick operation, but one that looked to be in jeopardy when the timber yard, which holds 5,000 tonnes of timber and all the processing machinery, was identified by Midlothian Council as the preferred location for realignment of the A701 road.

“We’ve had the timber yard for about 12 years, but we only rent it,” Richard explained.

“Edinburgh’s getting busier and busier and traffic’s getting worse and worse, so the council started talking about putting in a new road that would either go through the timber yard or around the side of it. We could see we were going to lose either half or all of the yard, which caused a bit of panic.”

Forestry Journal: This Multi Log Eazi-Pak has added efficiency at the bagging stage. This Multi Log Eazi-Pak has added efficiency at the bagging stage. (Image: FJ/John McNee)

Seeking a solution, Richard bought a field south-west of Westloch farmhouse, in Peebles, a 20-minute drive from Loanhead. Assured by architects and agents that he would easily be granted permission to build a new timber yard there, he confidently submitted an application – and was refused. Instead of breaking ground on construction in 2022 as hoped, he spent the following year in a tussle with planners.

Richard said: “The planning officer refused us permission on the grounds it was industrial, not forestry, because we had a sawmill. I had to explain the sawmill was a Wood-Mizer LT20 – not industrial at all. Then we had to go the whole route of getting a legal opinion from a lawyer who wrote the planning policy to say we did comply and then take it to the local planning review body and bring them to the site.

"Finally the refusal was overturned and we got planning, but they put in all these conditions. Trying to get them discharged was another eight weeks. It’s been an absolute nightmare.”

Work finally got underway early in November, with 30,000 tonnes of soil levelled and soil bunds built so the operation will be hidden from the main road.

The plan includes a large shed for chipping into and storing logs, a sawmill shed at the back, portable cabin for staff, weighbridge and 6,000–7,000 tonnes of timber storage, plus a house.

Forestry Journal:  The new yard taking shape in November. The new yard taking shape in November. (Image: Supplied)

“Having the new yard will be good, because it means we’ll have a bit more space and a bit more control,” said Richard. “It will secure the long-term future of the existing workforce and might see an extra person or two hired.

“I’m happy being the size we are, but everybody wants firewood and I can see us only getting busier once the new yard’s up and running. Things evolve and we 
always end up doing more and more. We try to do less, but it never seems to work out that way.”

Following a chaotic period for the industry, as many try to decide which way to pivot to preserve their businesses (and sanity), there is little doubt that for Pentland Biomass, 2024 will be a year of firewood.