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Despite UK credit crunch, ex-RAF man adds value to mobile sawing

Despite UK credit crunch, ex-RAF man adds value to mobile sawing
A former RAF engineer is expanding his one-man mobile sawing operation in the West of England with a narrow band sawmill.

He cites the mill's accuracy, easy handling, sustainability, mobility and quick set-up as important factors in the operation's growing success. Although he doesn't saw an enormous amount of timber –– 300 cubic metres per year –– the mill enables him to bring added value into the equation from activities like producing green oak buildings.

Nick Houghton, 38, bought a Wood-Mizer LT40 band sawmill when he left the Royal Air Force in 2002, having served as a propulsion engineer for 12 years. With his RAF severance pay he paid approximately £21,000 for the mill.

He had long envisaged a travelling contract sawmilling operation, converting clients' logs to boards, cants and other lumber on customer sites. However, initially, around his home in the county of Wiltshire, demand for such contract sawing was limited and already satisfied. So for a while, part-time, he undertook freelance aircraft and helicopter servicing and signing-off aeroplanes at neighbouring Gloucestershire's small Kemble airport, in parallel with cutting.

But the call of timber drew him more to his band sawmill, especially as demand gradually increased and additional activities boosted income. Over the past eighteen months income has grown ten per cent. A move into timber framing and a new workshop partly explain this and he reveals:

"I have received more customer enquiries over the past six months than ever". He feels this justifies the LT40, known as Wood-Mizer's 'workhorse' and says it has a local reputation for quality of cut, adding:

"From my point of view particularly, its hydraulic log loading and manipulation make it self-contained for a one-man band - I didn't want to employ anyone.

"It is one of the higher end of smallish mills and even though I haven't worked it as hard as some people do it has done pretty well.

"I like the mono-rail system which, unlike the dual rails on certain other mobile mills, doesn't limit log sizes. As long as it isn't
too heavy I can fit an oversize log on mine.

"The 'Setworks' computerised-dimensions system helps me maintain productivity and accuracy as it positions the head for the next cut.

"The sustainability factor inherent in this mill's thin kerf technology is an obvious benefit. When I compare it with my old chainsaw, which loses almost a board from every four cuts, I remind myself that the LT40 almost gains a board! I also find this aspect fulfilling!

"The relatively low cost of the mill and its ability to saw good quality lumber are behind my move into adding value to what I saw", he adds.

Before taking up timber sawing Nick Houghton trained for three days in Devon with Stephen Cull, Wood-Mizer's agent in S-W England and Wales, cutting up 3,000 tree stakes there.

Returning to his yard and workshop near the 12th-century Wiltshire town of Malmesbury, he received a request from a tree management firm to convert a big beech and a walnut tree to lumber. The trees, at Dodington Park in Gloucestershire, owned by James Dyson, inventor of the bag-less vacuum cleaner, had to be felled because they were a danger to nearby buildings, and Nick Houghton adds:

"The beech was particularly heavy but the LT40 manipulated it onto the rails and easily cut the three feet (almost one metre) wide tree into boards of 24 inches (61cm) wide x two/three inches (5/7.5cm) thickness.

"The lumber was then used to make furniture by craftsmen on the estate", he explains.

A typical contract recently was cutting out oak beams for the renovation of a barn and cottage. Mostly he uses Wood-Mizer's SilverTip bandsaw blades and changes them three-to-five times a day depending on the species cut. Sawing oak, for example, calls for three blade changes. He retains the same pack of bandsaw blades he bought when he acquired the mill nine years ago, sharpening and setting them himself with a Wood-Mizer blade maintenance package.

Sometimes he gets a job from clients who are not quite sure what to do with the resulting lumber so he recommends cutting it into manageable two-to-three inches (5/7.5cm) thick 'chunks' that can be resawn later.

Reflecting on a currently healthy demand for his services he explains it partly through increasing local awareness about relatively small-scale sawmilling. Most value now is from cutting beams, especially for country estates increasingly aware of the value of their natural assets. He charges £280 (€311) + VAT for a day's sawing, sells green oak for £22 (€25) + VAT per cubic foot and can often mill a 30 cubic feet tree in 15 minutes.

It is a huge saving for clients if they actually own the tree and additionally, they can offset the cost of the milling by selling some of the lumber. As well as offering a mobile sawing service, he makes oak frames and provides components for other framers. He has also diversified into wood products for sale at craft markets. Nick Houghton adds:

"Admittedly, aircraft contract maintenance has been a key to my sawmilling enterprise.

"But the encouraging new demand for green oak frame components and structures like garages, home extensions and outbuildings is particularly welcome and an eventual recovery of the building market would get us flying!

"Furthermore, now I have my own yard and workshop and clients in and around my home county of Wiltshire I shan't have to spend as much time in a dimly-lit hanger.

"My heart lies here, converting wood into things worthwhile", he concludes.

More info: houghtonsmobilesawmill.co.uk
From an article in Living Woods magazine, UK

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