WHEN I first began working in the woods, at the young age of 16, I worked alongside a cutter in his early 50s, whose eyesight wasn’t brilliant. I was fascinated by his ability to sharpen his saw by touch, but he could never quite make out what he actually did. Now, it’s 40 years on and I’m in the same boat!

For the last four or five years I’ve really struggled to sharpen my saws and was on the verge of buying an electronic sharpener when I discovered something. I’d tried a disc sharpener, but it’s a bit of a faff because you have to remove the chain, so what could be simpler than giving the chain a once over with a file? That’s obvious, I hear you cry! However, I’ve noticed the majority of files these days just seem to skate off the teeth when what you want is for the file to bite and cut away the dull metal. I began to believe the metal used to make modern chains was somewhat tougher. That was until I discovered a batch of old files hiding in the recesses of a long-neglected toolbox.

For whatever reason, I decided to give them a go and – hey presto! – I can suddenly sharpen a chain properly again. These old stock files do exactly what they’re meant to do and really bite into the metal and sharpen the chains in no time. When I think of the time and money I’ve spent on files, when all along it was down to their quality... There are so many brands on the market – the majority of which seem to be ineffective – and I’d be delighted if anyone out there could recommend one.

Watching the old guy sharpen his chains wasn’t the only observation I made. He would torture himself trying to turn suspended trees with a cant hook. He would heave like a lunatic in an attempt to lever a tree which was leaning back at an angle. Even as a naive 16-year-old, this action seemed to me highly inefficient, but it was something I copied for a while and now, 40 years on, I wish I’d steered my own course and been a lot more thoughtful and considerate towards my own body. Dodgy knees, stretched tendons and a back which seems to give up every so often are testament to these early practices. I suppose as a young man you never consider the long-term effects of these things, but now I have to suffer the consequences. My back will just suddenly ‘pop’ so that I can’t walk, can barely stand and I struggle to get in and out of a car, and yet it can recover as quickly as the pain arrives. Medical advice is usually to fill yourself with painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs – neither of which I’m prepared to take.

READ MORE: A voice from the woods: August 2021

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the internet can be a force for good and I only recently began to understand my back problem when I researched it online and talked the problem through with my physiotherapist. Basically, one has a series of small joints which join the pelvis to your spine/back and heaving on a cant hook or a lever will damage these little joints to the point where they can react or flare up when exertion is applied. So, in a nutshell, I’m now of an age, considering my history, where if I overdo things my body reacts and what I really need to do is to cut my hours. Fortunately, I spend a good deal of the day sat in an armchair operating the sawmill, interspersed with short bursts of activity on the chainsaw or driving the forklift. Obviously, if there’s some heavy lifting to be done I’ll go and assist the lads, but recently my lifting fragility was exposed. I thought I’d help by stacking some oak sleepers, which I did, but in the process I crippled myself. I now have to concede that poor working practice in the past, along with injuries in the woods, have brought my capacity for heavy manual work to an end and that I’m going to have to rely more on improved automation and the delegation of such tasks to younger workers.

The sawmill is really too small for modern milling which might otherwise allow automated stacking. Maybe in four or five years’ time, if I can’t overcome our reliance on manual labour, then I will be forced to change my lifestyle and even consider semi-retirement.

With the whole housing market going through the roof (excuse the pun) and my growing phobia about living next to other people, the prospect of building some kind of log cabin in the woods appeals to me more than ever. Needless to say, planning laws appear to be draconian and designed to force us all into boxes of varying sizes, but there are still a few options. A law allows you to convert old agricultural buildings with minimal planning and I’m also exploring whether it’s feasible to build a log cabin for ‘forestry workers use’. A little like the tie which used to be placed on farm workers’ cottages. Why tie yourself to some huge mortgage when you own a sawmill and could build a house from logs? Maybe I’ll submit a planning application and see what happens...

I can well see the reaction of some people in that it all seems like pie in the sky and it’s all been heard before, but timber kit homes have come an awful long way and many kit homes, although expensive, now have top energy ratings. And once the kit is assembled then all that is required is the cladding – the fun part! For years now I’ve helped customers on a weekly basis to achieve their dreams by sourcing and providing timber for such projects and I own and run a sawmill for goodness sake, so why shouldn’t I do it for myself?

I’ve recently become involved in a very interesting project: a new woodland crematorium. Being a woodland site, the owners clearly wanted a building that incorporated a natural feel. The owners decided they wanted oak to be the principal material in the construction. For whatever reasons, the oak they attempted to import got held up indefinitely at some French port, so they approached me. I was able to source some suitable wood which was about 300 miles away, but I secured two good loads. The home-grown oak must have been in a sheltered location as it’s long and straight; not particularly thick, but perfect for the job. Unusually for oak, it took very little time to grade and make decisions about which log was suited to which section of the building.

The upshot is a very happy customer, a very happy miller and a lorryload of beautifully straight timber. Perhaps this is where the urge to build my own log cabin has originated?

At the moment, everything in sawmilling is good and these are exciting times. Things will ease off, but that doesn’t matter as the business is in good shape. We’ve installed some new machinery and we have a stock of good timber bought and paid for. Maybe it’s now time to think about the future, which has suddenly become more pressing as I get married in little over a week’s time. As you can deduce from what I’ve written, I don’t really want to get stuck in some mid-terrace house in suburbia. There’s nothing wrong with mid-terraced houses in suburbia, it’s just that it’s not for me. After all, I’ve spent my life in the woods.