Despite a marked change in band sawmill use in France, with the European trend to a static role in semi-industrial timber processing set-ups, there is still a resolute band of travelling contract sawyers achieving handsome incomes with them.
Take William Testa whose successful on-the-spot sawing service has grown to 1200 cubic metres a year in the Nievre, in the south-west Burgundy region of France.
After serving in the French army, William Testa became a tree surgeon with a contractor working for the city of Paris. He found this limiting and not very well-paid and longed to do something ‘bigger’, preferably within Burgundy.
One day, near his Nievre home, he watched a portable band sawmill made by Wood-Mizer, the leader in the field, operating near Avalon and was struck by its performance.
His stepfather had used a traditional band saw and he could compare that with the quantum leap evident in the narrow blade sawmill turning out 15m3
of good quality sawn oak boards per day before his eyes.
"I was particularly taken by the thin kerf technology inherent in these mills, which meant that my customers would get more sawn, good quality wood."
This, he decided, would be the key to starting his own contract sawing business. He bought a basic Wood-Mizer LT40 in 1987 in order to set up a service sawing neighbours’ timber throughout Burgundy, the first such service in his area. He was surprised how quickly he mastered the easy-to-operate mill, commenting:
"I was also impressed by its quality of cut and easy man?uvrability to my customers’ log piles.
"I soon appreciated the importance of good band blades and I dumped blades from dubious suppliers and stuck entirely to those made by the manufacturer of the sawmill", he adds.
Nevertheless, it got off to a slow start. He launched with a campaign of small advertisements in local newspapers but the locals were conservative, almost distrustful of the innovative service. However, after the first two or three clients tried it others asked him to saw their logs. Even so, it was still difficult going. The turning point came with the two Christmas 1989 tempests, after which 4,459,200 m3 of Burgundian trees ( 1,785,200 m3
in public forestry and 2,674,000 m3
in private forests) lay on the ground. Similar havoc was caused in much of France.
William Testa like everyone viewed the storms as a tragedy. Nevertheless, suddenly everyone was clamouring for his services. A lot of wood lay on the ground waiting to be harvested. Output doubled from 700m3
of timber p.a. to 1500m3
in that year of devastation. Towing the 1.8-tonne sawmill around Burgundy he was able to set up, usually in ten minutes at spots where owners had stacked logs. Having sawn them, he would reconnect the sawmill to his Dodge and drive to the next anxious customer. He worked all days of the week.
His reputation was made.
Subsequently, the business settled at 1000 – 1200m3
p.a. of sawn timber from a four-day week (say, 160 days a year) and has remained at that level since.
At the end of 1999 he invested some of his money by upgrading to a LT40HD super hydraulic which he says: "… was perfection. The hydraulics made my work that much easier". It cost 45,000 euros.
On the crest of a wave he got married in August 1998 to Nathalie who took over the bookkeeping. They now have two young children.
He set aside two months in winter for pruning and tree surgery work around Burgundy. Now 20% of his work is tree surgery, 15% is involved in pulling out trees and 65% comes from his most profitable activity, the contract sawing.
At the end of 2002 he decided to further invest in Wood-Mizer’s new model LT80, the speed of which he now uses for greater quantities or lengths of logs. The LT40HD is retained for sawing contracts involving smaller cubic quantities and log lengths. When at a client’s site he saws alone but clients help load logs onto the mill and unload sawn boards. Clients are Burgundian farmers, carpenters, cabinet makers and a few private woodlot owners. They use their sawn timber for big garages; livestock, hay & straw barns; and fencing.
In the Nievre there are two other mobile sawing services but William Testa says that now the concept has been
accepted there is plenty of work for all throughout Burgundy. He saws both hard and softwoods in his hilly but not mountainous region. Most species are oak and Douglas fir, both plentiful in Burgundy. He saws for a lot of private forest owners and some small joinery and carpentry operations.
He foresees that in the future he will continue sawing but reduce tree removal. Depending on the demand for finished timber and consequent added value, he may increase his sawing activities. He notes that in his region and indeed throughout France normal business is somewhat stagnant at the moment. But he is relatively unaffected. The Wood-Mizer-based business has changed his life in the last 10 years. He is more fulfilled and financially comfortable, supporting his young family and even enjoying himself. He recently bought a Polaris quad bike on which he tears around the local hills to let off steam.
The trend to fixed operations doesn’t interest him and he thinks there is still an increasing parallel-trend in mobile sawing.