THE fiasco of the ban on CCA wood treatment, now 20 years ago, still seems to dominate the fate of small sawmills. There are now only 160 sawmills across the UK and this figure is only likely to get smaller. Farmers are naturally reluctant to build new fences, preferring existing ones to last about 100 years, and so posts assuring a ‘desired life of 15 years’ don’t have much chance.

For the last 20 years I have concentrated on the heartwood of larch for my posts, but this means the production of square posts, whereas fencing contractors and farmers tend to prefer circular, which are easier to install. There was a point when I thought, ‘well, if you can’t beat them, then join them’ and I considered stocking imported creosoted round posts. However, ours is a small mill and this is what we do and want to do, so I dismissed the idea and in hindsight I’m glad we did.

Each spring the local mart (that I supply with sawdust) has a bit of a machinery collective sale and I supply various products such as sheep hurdles to the event. This gives me the opportunity to meet the locals and catch up with customers old and new. The older ones usually avoid me due to owing me money and some are even shamed into paying me, but after standing around in the cold watching pallets sell for about £1 each, the assembled group heads to the cafe. Here the conversation inevitably switches to the longevity of round posts. At times like this I wish people who advertise class 4 posts with a desired lifespan attended these events. They extol the virtues of kiln drying and incising all aided by lots of theoretical claptrap with guarantees containing more holes than the average tea strainer. The facts are there for all to see and I’ve long given up defending the indefensible, although this year things are a little different.


On the morning of the show I called into a local farm to collect my trailer. I keep it here now for security reasons after someone tried to steal it and while I was hitching up I noticed several packs of round creosoted posts neatly stacked in the yard. This reminded me of an incident last year when we pointed a pack of creosoted posts for a client and even though I didn’t touch the posts, being in their vicinity caused burning to my face. As I hitched up the trailer I began to feel sick and I even tried to hold my breath. This brief experience reinforced the fact there is no way I will ever get involved in creosote and although I messed around with it when I was younger and quite enjoyed the smell, I now seem to have developed an allergic reaction to the stuff. 

As I sat in the cafe and chatted to farmers and fencers, a different story began to emerge. I don’t know where this current imported creosote is made or what’s in it, but talk of round posts invariably turned to the brown chemical. The more people I chatted to, the more disturbing were the stories. One fencer said that whenever he worked with creosote posts he became angry and bad tempered, while another was being treated for a cancerous growth on his ear which he claimed was down to splashes of creosote, and another lad had quite visible burns on his arms. I know this isn’t a definitive study, but the mood was completely different from previous years and there was a definite sense of concern even to the point where people were coming to me for advice.

One chap had a client who demanded a 30-year guarantee (as illustrated on the packet), but didn’t want creosote, so had purchased a product illustrating such guarantees, but the guarantee diminished yearly and was invalid if you attached staples to the wood. One look at the product and I deemed it wouldn’t last three years let alone 30 and at £10 a post it’s double what our larch posts cost. I can only conclude that the people selling this stuff are being either very dishonest or incompetent or a mixture of both. I have therefore decided that until this whole agricultural fiasco with fencing is resolved (which may never happen) I will look for opportunities in other markets.

Forestry Journal:

I think it’s fair to say the last year has not been great for sawmills. The boom post-COVID has levelled out and continuous rain for the last nine months hasn’t helped, but thankfully we’ve managed to pick up some work in the industrial sector which has helped to alleviate our usual reliance on the domestic market. The good thing about the industrial market is that it’s consistent and all-year-round, rather than seasonal as with the domestic market. As chance would have it, my driver was off for the week, so I undertook those duties myself.

In the course of my deliveries I called into a garage for a quick repair, decided to take a walk in the area and happened upon a yard which looked as though it did palettes and packaging. Worried I might be attacked by some rabid Alsatian I approached cautiously. However, the owners of the business were very accommodating. It turns out that during COVID they’d stopped buying sawn timber and so, after a brief discussion, I left my number. Not long after returning to the yard I received an order from them, so getting out of the yard had clearly had its benefits. Towards the end of the week of deliveries I dropped off some 3x3 posts to a farmer who looked at me and said: “Better than those bloody round ones!” It must be spring.

However, electrics continue to test our patience. We replaced some junction boxes which were quite battered with new ones which were probably too small and an electrical connector had earthed out onto the side of the box, burning all the wires. I contacted the electrician, who came out and accused me of tampering. This led to a heated exchange as he seemed to take it personally and I was in no way complaining or criticising the guy – I just wanted it repaired. At the end of the day, things go wrong. What it illustrated to me is how paranoid we’ve all become over culpability and the role of Health and Safety. As soon as anything goes wrong now, the blame game swings into action and people are constantly trying to cover themselves and apportion decisions to other people. “Not my bag, guv!”

Shortly after this, another incident occurred whereby a number of machines wouldn’t work. I was convinced we only had two phases working, while the electrician’s equipment was showing three. Even my mains tester, which usually shows up a fault, was showing three phases live, which just goes to prove that sometimes even logic and intelligence aren’t enough and despite having spent years working on machines you should never rule anything in or out. 

Forestry Journal:

To me, this is where hands-on experience is invaluable and trumps relying on gadgets or computers. After altering the supply to a different breaker we still had a problem in that everything that worked off one isolator still wasn’t working. I was convinced that it was the isolator or the cable which was at fault. After much testing by the electrician he was adamant that power was flowing between all three phases, until he tested the fuses on the isolator and found one was blown. Bizarrely, the outfeed was still testing positive and must have been caused by electricity jumping the gap. I wasn’t surprised as I’d given up trusting testers years ago, preferring instead to use a light bulb. Thankfully, the problem was resolved in a couple of hours and the steel box was replaced with a larger plastic one, with my scepticism for testing having saved an awful lot of time and money. Yes, things have been a little tough of late, but hopefully when spring finally springs and the rain eventually stops, things will get better.