SOMEWHERE, in the dim and distant past, when I was just starting out, I had a delivery of logs from a farm. Mixed in among the delivery was some oak.

Being bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and new to the world of wood, I sold them on to another sawmill. They then sold them to a timber importer who sent them to another sawmill to be milled. The sawn timber was then sent to a Cumbrian location, where it was used in the construction of a footpath across some marshy terrain. This, however, wasn’t the end of the story, as some of the milled timber had been cut to the wrong size and it had to go back to the mill to be resawn.

This gave me an idea. I really loved working with timber, so maybe I could establish a business in the local community? I could travel around local estates buying timber, mill it and sell it back into the local community. Okay, I’d probably never be rich and I was probably a bit naive, but I was also extremely cautious as I’d seen my own father and several people I’d already worked for reach for the stars too quickly. They’d over-expanded way too fast and ended up bankrupt. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.

Sawmilling in the 1980s was undergoing lots of changes, with mills trying to outdo each other, putting image over substance and, as a result, ending up out of business. 
So, when eventually I had a mill of my own, I decided to mill and stack oak in what I thought was the traditional manner – planked, on laths and left to dry. This, as it turned out, was not a good idea as the wood dried out so fast that it split badly and fell apart. Now, some years later – and with a good deal more experience – we cut only a small amount of hardwood, which we dry by storing it in the shed. This seems to slow the process down and has proved much more practical. 

Coupled to this, we have also seen a huge change in demand. Where once only pristine logs and planks were acceptable, the trend now is for flawed. Anything quirky, no matter how roughly gnarled, knobbly, warped, twisted or bent. Plus, it’s very rewarding to see everything being used from the trees I cut down and mill, with several customers often providing photographs of the completed project with the wood in situ.

Business is currently very good, with the mill working flat out. Timber is flying out of the yard as fast as it is cut and customers are being very pushy and expecting orders (sometimes substantial) almost as soon as they’ve placed them. The only fly in the ointment has been that I’ve been dragged into deliveries, which is something I could well have done without. We have a little 7.5-tonne delivery wagon which, for most of its life, could be driven on a car licence. This meant I could co-opt local trusted and experienced associates to help out from time to time. However, thanks to the Eurobureaucrats a driver must now not only take a test but also have a CPC, which means employing a driver. This, in a rural area, is almost impossible, and can be very costly if they decide to leave suddenly or become a difficult employee.

Having had a bad experience in the past, I’ve been reluctant to employ someone, and so together with someone who is semi-retired I’m currently doing part-time deliveries. The situation isn’t ideal as the semi-retired gentleman only has a 7.5-tonne licence and I wanted to upgrade the truck to 12 tonnes. This isn’t physically an awful lot larger, but the beauty of the 12-tonner is that it can still access the very tight and remote places that we have to supply. Also, having recently completed my heavy goods licence, it would mean that if I got one with a decent engine I could always stick a trailer on the back and turn it into an 18-tonner! 

Naturally, my part-time, semi-retired employee is reluctant at his age to complete his full heavy goods licence and so, for the time being, I’m stuck with what I have. I just have to hope that the little truck keeps going for the foreseeable future, as it’s starting to lose power. The injector pump is probably worn and is failing to pump sufficient diesel into the engine. In the old days, you could give it a tweak with a spanner, but when I had a look all I could see was a mass of wires leading to an engine management system – not good!

So, this leaves me with a dilemma. Do I buy a new truck, more suited to the current trends and needs of the business and thereby get rid of a reliable driver? Do I throw good money after bad and have the vehicle repaired? If I buy a larger truck do I take a chance on a more qualified employee with all the risks that entails?

Or do I hunt around for a replacement 7.5-tonner and maintain the status quo? With the last point in mind, I recently drove for six hours (three there and three back) to look at a 7.5-tonne second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- or even sixth-hand truck. Despite the flashy photos on eBay, the vehicle in real life bore zero resemblance, so I drove back without even getting out of the car. You can see the problem. The situation remains unresolved.

The other challenge I’m currently experiencing is storage. With several loads of beautiful oak lying around and nowhere to put it, I was worried I might well have to sell it for whatever I could get. Fortunately, I’ve been offered some storage at a nearby farm in return for a bit of landscaping and some tidying. This has worked a treat, as it will help the business long term and means we can store anything odd or unusual until an order comes in.

One of the benefits of having to do a lot more driving is that I get to meet the customers and see what’s going on in and around the region. I also get to hear their needs and concerns. I was recently chatting to a client who had his yard fenced only two years ago. The contractor chosen for the job insisted on providing the timber himself. The timber turned out to be OC4 ground-contact pine posts. Personally, I don’t trust pine posts with the new-generation treatment, as the posts themselves are very soft and the treatment seems to wash away. However, they did look good.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the WPA knows something I don’t. Maybe its advice is correct. Or maybe, just maybe, I was right all along. Yes, you guessed it – the fence has fallen over on account of the posts starting to rot at ground level. With creosote due to be outlawed in two years, it’s about time some of us involved in forestry got together and agreed on a treatment which actually works or we’re about to enter a period where we have no more preserved wood. In my view, we have a problem.