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Charitable and sustainable sawmilling
The ‘Scottish Wood’ sawmill at Oakley in Fife, Scotland is a woodyard that operates differently to many.
Its main aims involve the sourcing of timber from environmentally sustainable Scottish sources and converting it to quality products at a profit. This profit is then covenanted back to its owners, a charity called Dynamic Woods, who in turn use the money for the benefit of surrounding local communities.
The driving force behind the sawmill and charity are husband and wife team Jim and Maggie Birley. Maggie explains:
"We bought the land to build a house and the opening of the sawmill was accidental!". She explained that several large oaks needed to be removed to clear the site. After felling they found it hard to sell them, so utilising Jim’s background in the wood industry they hired a Wood-Mizer LT40 mobile band sawmill which he had once operated, and produced oak boards to sell themselves. This mill is the most widely used amongst Wood-Mizer’s band sawmills and ancillary wood processing kit around the world.
Maggie started life as a physicist and at one time had worked in agro’ forestry research. However, together working worldwide in the voluntary sector, they shaped a vision of combining their talents and skills in a project that would help others.
The land that they purchased on which to build the house also came with 21 hectares of woodland, called Inzievar Wood and part of an original estate owned by the Smith Sligo coal magnet family. This offered the Birley’s the perfect opportunity to begin realizing their dream. Working in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, who had started a ‘Pathfinders’ initiative in the area, Dynamic Woods, of which both Jim and Maggie are employees, was formed.
The woods are now managed with regard to the environment, the local community and economy and a trading arm called ‘Scottish Wood’ to operate the sawmill. ‘Scottish Wood’ now offers employment and training to local people, as well as help to promote the link between sustainability and the local economy.
The Birley’s are passionate in their beliefs that too much local hardwood was either wasted or under u tilised when they set up ‘Scottish Wood’. In their view only the best trees have been used in the past and a lot of timber had been deemed useless and either left on site or consigned to landfill. Both believe that:
"People are not using Scottish timber and if, certainly, woodlands are not managed correctly it is a bad for the economy, the environment and local communities".
They have therefore strived with their work at ‘Scottish Wood’ to meet these problems head on by linking local communities, landowners and businesses with environmentalists to develop their woodland resources. All the timber processed at the sawmill is from environmentally sustainable sources in Scotland. Scottish oak, elm, beech, ash, sycamore, yew and larch trees are transformed into quality timber for uses as diverse as flooring, internal joinery wood, furniture, cladding, lintels, posts and beams.
Including Jim and Maggie, the sawmill employs nine local people, most having arrived at ‘Scottish Wood’ through the Scottish Assembly’s ‘New Deal’ employment scheme. Jim has found over the years that: "This system has worked well for the yard, resulting in a stable, well trained and loyal workforce"
Such is the reputation of the quality of the timber supplied that they have a wide customer base all over Scotland. Sales values can vary from two or three pounds sterling to upwards of £20K sterling. The fact that half their customers spend less than £1 000 per year is testimony to their work to get local people using Scottish hardwoods. Ind
eed, Jim was quick to advise: "Set up a showroom to display products and ensure that anyone can come in to buy a bit of Scottish timber".
Commercially too, they have had interesting ranges of uses for their timber. For example, oak cut to size for work carried out at Leith dry docks in Edinburgh, ash wood for yurts (Mongolian tents!), oak to support a Scottish Natural Heritage viewing tower, lime for harp making and even yew for bow staves. Word of mouth and recommendation have proved a good source of customers as well as the website, which also offers information on Scottish hardwoods and their uses to allow customers to make informed decisions.
Scottish Wood also offers kiln dried timber which has found a market locally with craftsmen and furniture makers. The timber is air dried in stacks in the yard or in storage units before the moisture content is further reduced by placing the timber inside a Koetter KDK 10100 medium dry kiln. This has a 16 cubic metres of 25mm 4/4 board capability and 20 cubic metres of the larger 50mm 4/4 boards.
The system helps to speed up drying and utilises waste wood and sawdust to power it. Even better is the bi-product of being able to supply heating to the nearby office complex, all in keeping with the environmental credentials of the business.
It is not surprising that having previously worked with Wood-Mizer band sawmills, Jim contin
ues to use their products. His latest purchase, part funded under a Scottish Rural Development Plan (SDRP), has been a second Wood-Mizer band sawmill - a semi-industrial version dubbed the LT70L with a super hydraulic package - which he operates in static mode, believing that: "Not only will this increase capacity and services of ‘Scottish Wood’, but will also create opportunities for learning and training by local people".
The LT70L has Auto Clutch, which allows the clutch to be engaged from the operator panel and LubeMizer, which keeps the blade clean and lubricated, fitted as standard. This model has a maximum log capacity of 95cm diameter x 8.4m and Wood Mizer’s website states that: "Mill alignment and maintenance requirements have been reduced to a minimum". Jim echoes this, saying that his sawmill is definitely: "Low cost and able to cope with many different logs and sizes quite easily."
His original Wood Mizer ‘work horse’, in the form of an eight year old LT40L which replaced and brought enhancements over the rented, mobile LT40 still has its duties. This is a widely used and favoured sawmill by many operators because of its ease of operation and set-up with its centralised cutting controls and cantilevered head. Jim opted for a 3.6m bed extension for this machine, standard hydraulics and the 18.5 KW electric power option. His views on this piece of kit are that it…
"…Enables a small sawmill to be set up without high capital costs.
"All these Wood-Mizers incorporate the manufacturer’s thin kerf technology which is very good for reducing waste and maximising output from each log."
In the yard is yet another Wood Mizer, a Multi Rip Edger which Jim says: "…is used to take off edges and regularise boards before they go to final production". This handy piece of kit, he explains, allows edging in one single pass through, increasing productivity and maximising the amount of timber that can be recovered from each log. The twin bladed edger can be converted to a five blade multi rip and can deal with board lengths starting at 700mm and up to a maximum board thickness of 60mm.
Scottish Wood also use a Logosol PH 260 4 sided moulder and planer to achieve a similar result with smaller runs of wood, allowing timber to be prepared for moulding, cladding and flooring. Maggie says that: "It’s really easy to change blades, although sometimes timber needs to be put through twice to do the job but it is quick to change for the next task". She felt that the this piece of kit, which has a maximum planing depth of 8mm and 20mm for moulding, is also, like the Wood Mizers, a machine that is: "Able to do more, offer more and all at a low price!"
Like most saw mill yards, ‘Scottish Wood’ also have an older cross cut saw, two old planers, if a finer finish is required and a Teconomax S700P professional band saw. This piece of machinery they find is quick and easy to use, with its large cast iron work table, and a useful piece of machinery because of its high cutting capacity for the many varied jobs with which they are presented.
Finally, the operation boasts a particularly innovative wood show room. Here a wide variety of timber is displayed complete with details of species name and selling price. The Birleys say they are in effect, offering: "S
elf service wood!". Many customers enter the showroom, wander amongst the wood, check out what is on offer and call at the office to pay for the wood, before happily packing their purchases into their cars and driving off - rather like visiting a supermarket. Clearly, this initiative also helps to involve the local community in the work of Scottish Wood. Despite difficult times, business is pretty good currently. Jim says: "Its good, the main challenge has always been to keep up with a growing demand". They both feel they may be lagging behind the nationwide recession but that there are an increasing number of customers who want to support local businesses and to buy locally almost in protest at the economic crisis perceived to be caused by governments and financial institutions.
That said, Jim has suffered a 30% drop in softwood sales which he explains is in part due to larger sawmills selling Scottish larch. They seem to be picking up on a growing consumer demand for naturally durable timber, started by the smaller mills. This decline though, is more than being off-set by the increase in demand for hardwoods. Jim feels that their ability to cater for everything from large scale low quality timber requests right up to high quality hardwoods that are sought by skilled craftsmen, places them in a good position to continue their success to date.
They are members of ASHS, which is essentially a cooperative of small-scale home grown hardwood Scottish sawmills. The purpose of this group is to market Scottish hardwoods, provide its members with training opportunities, represent the sector and keep its members up to date with innovations.
‘Scottish Wood’ also supports the Scottish Working Woods Label, whose aim is to identify and help market timber which is grown in Scotland, made in Scotland and benefits the local environment, communities and economies. Being involved with both these bodies means that Jim and Maggie are able to work with like-minded businesses and individuals whose aims, goals and aspirations are similar to their own.
Clearly, Jim and Maggie have developed something special at Oakley. Jim explains that they didn’t necessarily want to increase production at their site but rather they would like to see: "Other sawmills opening up across the country, whether they are based on social enterprise or the conventional business model, adapted to suit the local area and the skills of the owners". They claim that they operate "…An open saw mill" and are happy to show other people what they are doing, what they have achieved and how this particular model of small scale sawmill can operate successfully.
They are certainly trail blazers in how to operate a community sawmill and woodland for the benefit of the local community in which they live and they are happy and fulfilled with life at the moment and what they are doing.
From an article by James Hendrie in FORESTRY JOURNAL, UK
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