IT’S a measure of how strange things have become when I go to a fairly quiet rural location to cut wood and receive nothing but abuse! With a national timber shortage I cannot believe just how aggressive people can become over a garden gate or a few deck boards. With the sawmill under siege I can now see the benefits of a moat.

The telephone rings continuously and to such a degree I just don’t have the time to answer the vast majority of calls. I’ve had to prioritise the regular customers and delete the strangers in order to prevent the answering machine from becoming swamped and the line engaged. I always try to reply to the majority of calls but these are unprecedented times and the mill feels like it’s operating on a war footing. Clearly some people don’t like being ignored.

The problem, of course, is because the vast majority of people are at home and have the opportunity to undertake that DIY job that’s been on the back burner for years. Suddenly, everyone wants wood. The priority for me in trying to meet this demand is to keep my regular customers sweet. They are the people who get you through the hard times and they are the people who will be the backbone of the business when there’s any return to normality.

However, this isn’t as easy as it seems. Some customers, for instance, are quite big firms and rely on several suppliers. In one instance, the bulk of a firm’s supply comes from the big mills and I fill in the gaps. But with the big mills now advocating a two-, three- or four-month delivery date, they’re placing bigger and bigger orders with us.

This sounds great, I hear you say, but we can’t simply start sawing ten times as much timber, although herein lies the challenge. We are over-mechanised, and, despite being short of space, if we can get the right logs and some extra staff there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really make the sawmill sing. The space issue isn’t really a problem as the wood is going straight out of the mill the moment it’s been processed. A nearby farmer’s yard, which I’ve used for years as overspill, has now been completely empty for eight weeks, so storage isn’t an issue. With a good supply of sawlogs and a willing workforce, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to take full advantage of the situation and make hay while the sun shines.

I do have a new, young member of staff. In the few weeks he’s been with us he’s probably only spoken about five words (variations on ‘yes’ and ‘no’). An ex-serviceman also came along asking for work, so I gave him a trial – and wow! He’s punctual, he’s positive, he’s got a work ethic and he’s cheerful. What’s not to like? If all ex-servicepeople are the same then please send them this way! It’s a brighter place with him around and his positive nature is already rubbing off on the rest of us.

Running and working in a sawmill often involves dirty, heavy and noisy work. We now live in a culture which seems averse to this kind of work and is aided and abetted by what seems at times a somewhat overzealous health and safety culture. We can try and control things but you cannot eliminate dust, noise, lifting things, rain, cold, flies, wasps, or whatever nature brings to the table. I was beginning to think that my views on a work ethic were outdated but this ex-serviceman has brought a real positivity to the place. Long may it continue.

One rather bizarre element to this current crisis is that in order to gain preferential treatment, some traditionally reluctant payers have been racing to pay. I’ve even had people offering me more for existing orders. It’s crazy. While some of these offers have been quite substantial, I’ve refused as we try to do the right thing and be fair to everyone. Everyone needs to remember that eventually things will return to normal, and people have long memories. Those who exploit the situation in an unfair way will pay the price.

Working under this pressure has made me very proud of the entire workforce. Personally, I’ve been starting at 4.30am and finishing at 8pm. That’s a long day under any circumstances and trying to get any form of relaxation is difficult. At one point I was starting to lose my balance and I wondered whether I was suffering from exhaustion but it turned out to be a consequence of wearing ear protectors for such long periods. I suppose I’m fortunate that I work well under pressure, and as well as enjoying record production levels I’ve also been able to help one or two regular customers.

We supply many local builders and landscapers and decking boards had become a major problem. We supply the timber for the framework but they tend to get the boards from other suppliers. With no boards in sight for probably several months they were pleading with me for a solution. Setting up a four-way planer would have taken up too much time and money and occupied space that I currently don’t have. I came up with the idea of making a groove machine. Sorry to disappoint the club-goers as this has nothing to do with music. It would only machine the top of the board and would have to be made from existing parts, something akin to Scrapheap Challenge. In no time we had the thing up and running and, incredibly, it’s quite quick and efficient. It couldn’t have come at a better time as the demand for fencing subsides and the demand for decking increases. Similarly, as people turn their hands to DIY the demand for a wide range of timber has increased and I’m selling stuff I’d long forgotten about. The role of the post-COVID sawmill looks quite promising.

And so, back to the abuse! The two examples are typical of the moment. A client rang with a tirade of abuse. The basis of their ire was my promise to deliver by the end of the week. I’d delivered first thing Sunday morning, which is the end of the week to me. The second was a supplier that had two orders going to different locations. The orders had been submitted separately and I’d fulfilled the second order first. Cue uncontrollable rage and abuse. The conclusion of the abuse brought the usual threat to go elsewhere. A few days passed and then, having discovered that waiting lists are months, there was the indignity of the apologetic phone call.

As I said at the start, who ever thought that people could get so excited about bits of wood?

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