Manufacturing premium wood floors from log to finished board
Silvan Floors, formerly only a UK specialist flooring installer, increased profitability and have grown by establishing a self-contained flooring production in their hometown. They report on the process of financing and setting up a full production facility from round log to finished board.
Five years ago, Silvan Floors was enjoying a stable situation as a flooring installer. Profits were good, and their contract for flooring materials from a foreign mill was working well. However, to have full flexibility and control over their product and meeting clients specific needs, they came up with a business plan that included setting up a manufacturing facility in their hometown of Leicestershire, UK that would be able to produce flooring boards entirely from the round log.
"When we did this, it surprised a lot of people," recalls Richard Brewster, technical director at Silvan Floors, who oversees all daily activities on the shop floor. "With our in-depth knowledge of the timber industry, we felt that this was something we could achieve ourselves."
The product offering
Silvan specializes in very long, very wide handcrafted engineered wood floors that have few equals in the industry.
"The length of the boards gives designers, personal clients and architects a design aesthetic aspect that is second to none," explains Richard. "We do what is called ‘full length boards’, so we have the capability of going up to 16 metres, which means we can go skirting board to skirting board. In respect to width, we can go as wide as 600mm. This flexibility plus the design aspect is what our clients really like."
A recent project required 15.5 metre wall-to-wall lengths – their longest boards to date. Their clients are typically architects and designers, and although the majority of their business comes from the London area, they are regularly installing floors throughout Europe, in the Middle East and the USA.
Engineered wood floors are considered to be a more environmentally friendly and structural improvement on the traditional solid wood floors that have been around for centuries. A top solid wood layer, called a lamella, is bonded to a sturdy 5-layerblockboard that forms the base. Less premium timber is then needed to produce the floor, and the block board underlayment provides greater structural integrity. This combination makes engineered flooring longer lasting, but also in many cases less expensive than solid wood floors. Silvan uses British and French oak predominantly for the top layer, as well as maple, walnut, and some other species.
Setting up a flooring manufacturing facility
"At the time, we had felt that we were unable to grow further, and had limited control over our product development," Richard explains."We wanted to keep control of every aspect of what we do."
They crafted a new five year business plan that detailed their strategy for investment, growth, and profits that included all-new manufacturing equipment and additional employees. Financing the venture during a recession made it very difficult. Eventually, their determination paid off.
Key to the success of financial backing was the right blend of production machinery to make the idea profitable on paper. Selection for the various moulders, sanders, board edgers, and trimming saws progressed well, but the biggest question in their initial research was selecting the best possible method for the very first initial log breakdown and kilning.
"We looked at many varieties of bandsaws," says Richard."On the video website YouTube, we found a lot of videos of Wood-Mizer sawmills and we learned a lot about the machines."
Founded in the United States more than 30 years ago, Wood-Mizer manufactures a range of portable, stationary, and industrial sawmills that run on thin-kerf bandsaw blades that delivers benefits that have won worldwide acclaim. For the last 20 years, all Wood-Mizer sawmills sold in Europe are also built in Europe, and the company has representatives throughout the continent to provide local sales and support. According to their head office, the sawmills are quite popular, in spite of the recession, for businesses ranging from farms producing lumber for their daily projects to mills producing construction-grade timber on an industrial scale.
Attracted to Wood-Mizer’s offering of narrow band blade sawmills that would give them maximum log yield, the directors of Silvan Floors initially remained hesitant, concerned that the narrow blade would not be able to stand up to the rigors of sawing oak logs in one metre widths for 8-10 hours a day.
"We went up to an agricultural show, where we actually saw the mill cutting a log," Richard recalls."The Wood-Mizer guys cut a millimetre thick piece of wood for us and it was absolutely perfect. That really sold it to us that this was the correct piece of equipment for our initial processing. We felt that the traditional, big bandsaws were going to be too bulky, we needed something with a little finer touch for cutting the oak that we require."
Silvan placed their order for a static LT40 model, additionally a resaw for resizing cants and a kiln from Wood-Mizer. With the equipment installed at Silvan’s rural facility, an experienced crew of 14 runs the equipment and each one shares the same dedication and attention to quality. Signs posted everywhere in their facility keep two words at the forefront of the mind, "Think Quality!"
The manufacturing process
The first step is the initial breakdown of the logs on the LT40 sawmill - 10mm boards that can be up to 15 metres long and 600mm wide. The sapwood and heartwood areas of the log are avoided, and the results are beautiful boards where the wood grain is showcased at its best.
The decision to go with the narrow blade Wood-Mizer has paid off, according to Richard.
"It’s probably one of the most key, fundamental pieces of equipment that’s in the line of Silvan Floors," he shares. "You never truly know, until you open that log up, what it is going to look like inside, and 9 times out of 10, it’s beautiful. The excitement starts as soon as that blade hits the log and continues through to the final finishing."
The boards are stacked and dry in the open air for 2-3 weeks in the timber yard. Then the stacks are moved into the kiln – a typical heat/vent style unit – for approximately ten days with the lumber exiting at between four and six per cent moisture content.
Any rough areas are touched up by hand before they are pressed and bonded to the blockboard backing in Silvan’s large press. They are then moved to the belt sander, edger, and moulder to take their final form – tongue and groove flooring boards.
For textured floor surfaces, the boards are subjected to sometimes several rigorous passes through the six-headed wire brushing machine, each of which are adjustable to apply varying degrees of pressure to produce exactly the right amount of texture to the board.
The finishing line is really the most creative part of the process. With a virtual laboratory of oils, colours, and finishes at their disposal, any look the client has called for is possible. Silvan offers a standard range of 32 colours and customised finishes.
"Waste chips and sawdust are sold for animal bedding, briquetting, pelleting – so basically none of the log gets wasted at all – a small carbon footprint," Richard shares.
A typical floor is in production 10 weeks or so from when the trees are felled to the final installation. All their products are FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) certified.
Marketing themselves The principal form of marketing they believe very strongly in is attendance at trade shows, where they get an opportunity to talk directly with future clients, bring real samples to demonstrate, and impart their passion in person. Maintaining a first class website is also a top priority to Silvan, and they have just recently finished work on a brand new redesign of their site to display their final product and business philosophy.
Currently at the two-year mark in their business plan, Richard is pleased to share that they are ahead of their predictions.
Although they are planning for additional equipment expansions, they do not want to get too big. An additional sander has been installed, and they are eager to add additional kilns to reduce their material bottleneck. Considering that their sawmill is already running 10 hours a day, further growth will also mean additional upgrades.
"We’ve got the LT40 model. We will eventually add another one or two into the line... At the moment the LT40 we feel is absolutely perfect. It can cope with some real good-sized logs. We have had logs on there with a metre girth, and it copes with it no problem at all."
"It’s definitely been worth the investment and the heartache and tears that have been along the way to get this thing off the ground," Richard says. "We’re all very pleased as a company that it’s working."
By Jacob Mooney
Watch a video tour of the manufacturing process and meet the Silvan Floors team. For more information: www.silvanfloors.com