FOR a small sawmill, apart from having to compete with larger ones, the most underlying and ongoing issue is definitely staffing.

On a personal level, I have always enjoyed the strange satisfaction of turning large sawlogs into sawn timber, available for a multitude of tasks. I realise these days I’m probably in the minority as most people will look at such an industry and just see noise and dust. Your attitude to work clearly comes from your background and the way you were brought up. If you’ve been pampered and raised in cotton wool, spending most of your days on a PlayStation, then the idea of working in a sawmill must be like a journey to hell.

If, on the other hand, you were from a less privileged background and started out in early life cutting tree branches with a bushman before progressing to a chainsaw, before progressing to a circular saw and a band rack and a joystick and buttons which make things happen to make life easier, then the perspective is different. So what one person views as hell to another may seem like utopia. But herein lies the problem. Fewer and fewer people are being brought up on farms or in households where solving day-to-day problems is the norm, rather than the exception. Greater mechanisation is seen as the only way to maintain production levels, yet it seems to result in a decline in personal skill and practical ability.

For example, as a teenager in Kielder forest we would aim to cut about 300 3-metre lengths of pulpwood per day. A modern teenager trained to work safely will probably cut 10 per cent of that figure; roughly about 30 lengths. Clearly there’ll be exceptions, and hats off to the youngsters who can hack it – but judging by some of the sawlogs that turn up at the mill, the work appears to have been done by a beaver. Clearly chainsaw skills have declined as harvesters have taken over.

The mill is no exception. People will and can do the work. However, you need to try to make the work process operate with as few people as possible. By this I don’t refer to forklift drivers or labourers. What I mean is you need the fewest skilled people operating machinery. You can guarantee someone will be off ill, someone doesn’t turn up or someone fiddles with something they shouldn’t. The big mills grade and sort the logs so they flow into the mill non stop with the sawmill dictating the flow and production and not the machine operators. Basically, you need the cart pulling the horse.

READ MORE: A voice from the woods: September 2021

To this end, I work the main saw, but for the last few years, despite my best efforts, I’ve been a man short to help with resawing and general labour. We tried a young lad, but he only lasted a week – which is hardly surprising when they can earn a similar wage stacking shelves in a supermarket and tins of beans are much lighter than sleepers or fence posts. I’m therefore trying to make things more automated, which isn’t easy for a small mill but, as Baldrick would say, “I have a cunning plan!” 

In a nutshell: our big saw cuts too quickly for the rest of the production process to keep pace, especially being a man short. I’m therefore going to make the main saw more efficient and do more. More wood will come off the saw as the finished article (apart from cross-cutting) and thereby reduce handling. This is a process I have already had great success with when I fitted vertical edgers for profiling the first boards off the log. I am now in the process of fitting gang saws to resaw rails and pegs straight off the log. In simple terms, the mill will cut both vertically and horizontally at the same time.

The important thing is this will work well for me as the system is set up entirely for me and I know what I’m mentally capable of. The upside is that I’m not so reliant on highly skilled staff, with the downside being the system is entirely reliant on me at the controls. I know this isn’t ideal, but needs must and, having studied production figures for the bigger mills which seem to operate at roughly 50 per cent, it is clear fully automated mills have their problems too.

Before I bought the sawmill, I used to buy standing timber to sell on to the sawmills, and a conversation I once had with an owner sticks in my mind. His mill was producing mainly pallet wood and pallets and his workforce were particularly unruly. Fist fights were common and there were incidents with nail guns best left unsaid. On a Monday morning I was in the office with the boss as the workforce began trickling in. They were all the worse for wear after their weekend indulgences of drink and drugs. The boss beckoned me to the window overlooking the mill and said: “One day all this lot will be gone. You’ll come in my office and press some buttons and the logs will come in one end and the processed timber will go out the other end without a man to be seen.”

Being a little dubious about how this would work I just nodded my head in agreement. The reason I was dubious was at the time the only systems available to fulfil this dream were Swedish and cost millions. Good luck anyway, I thought, and was interested to see how it would come together. At the same time, the boss had some large bins in the yard and I’d heard him say something to the effect that one more and his debts would be paid off. The bins belonged to a chipboard plant and a kitchen supplier called Channel Worktops. The bins were being filled with sawdust and probably contained about ten tonnes each. The name Channel Transport was one I’d come across several times as they owned a fleet of articulated wagons which regularly passed a filling station owned by my father. Along with the rest of British industry in the ’70s, the drivers went on strike and a rumour began to emerge that someone had bumped off the shop steward. The Channel empire was run by a local businessman with a dodgy reputation and if my first encounter was anything to go by, then these rumours were probably true.

This occurred when my brother had to go to court. Being several years younger, he had co-opted my services for moral support. My brother was the not-so-proud owner of a British Leyland truck and, as anyone who was around at the time will testify, the quality and quality control were appalling. Bits kept falling off and one day a wheel actually came off, resulting in a prosecution. 

While we waited in the court for our session, the same local businessman appeared with some of his henchmen, accused of setting fire to someone who had crossed him. Needless to say, the case was referred to the Crown Court, but the incident and the characters stuck in my mind as people to be avoided. I was later surprised to hear they were also involved in the forestry industry.

Once back home, I relayed the incident I had just experienced in court to an old school friend who, familiar with the character in question, gave me what looked like a Giles annual cartoon book. It had a black shiny cover, but this was no ordinary cartoon book. It featured Wally Worktop and his misdeeds and in it were pictures of gravestones upon which were the names of the deceased victims of Wally’s wrath, never to be seen again.