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Dutch rural buildings manufacture
Redundant dairyman turned rural buildings producer saws his own timber, ensuring a healthy margin

Dutch rural buildings manufacture A small rural buildings manufacturing business in Eastern Holland has grown significantly on the back of a mixture of nostalgia and rural needs.But sympathetic, authentic design and clever construction plus good quality, cost effective timber processing are also factors contributing to ‘De Holle’s’ growth.The timber processing centres on a relatively small, narrow blade band sawmill.

Harry Kolkman, 47, and his partner Jos Schoorlemmer, 36, run the company making barns, grain sheds, hovels, garages, carports, summer houses and stables at Heeten, near Deventer. It is his second career and it gives him the satisfaction of self-employment and working at his own pace.

Furthermore, the operation is profitable, accounted for by the popularity of his wooden buildings and by the fact that he saws his own timber from bought-in logs. This is mostly used for his buildings making them particularly profitable. Some is sold on, also profitably.

By sawing his own components in the form of 25x25cm, 10x15cm or 20x2.5cm slabs from logs up to 6-8.5 metres long and up to 1,700 kg in weight, he is able to avoid the extra cost of sub contractors and sawmills, which cannot provide flexibility of shapes, sizes or small quantities anyhow.

Logs are bought in for about 120 euros per m3 and sawing them at between 40 and 50% efficiency enables him to sell some of it as oak timber for about 600 euros per m3.

Before, he had worked as a process operator in a dairy business that suffered trading difficulties, forcing the owners to give the workforce two years’ notice prior to closure. Having always been interested in working with wood, he tracked down a second-hand, manually loaded band sawmill.

He was about to invest his redundancy money in it with a view to testing the market for a travelling sawing operation when one of the owners’ family decided to buy it instead. Undaunted, he cast around and bought a new, comparatively low-priced petrol-driven Wood-Mizer band sawmill for 25,000 euros to use in a travelling sawing service he called, appropriately ‘Harry Kolkman Mobile Sawmill’. He retains this name when he saws for other people, which now accounts for 20% of his work and 15% of his income.

He found the 1.8 tonnes mill had an overwhelming advantage over the one he had missed since it could be towed on the road and through the forest to customers’ stacked logs. This meant clients could harvest relatively small amounts of trees (sometimes blown down or partly diseased), unlike traditional sawmills which only deal economically with large quantities. Also, his Wood-Mizer sawmill and his Volkswagen Transporter T5 inflicts minimal damage to the forest floor or fields.

He likes the lightness of the mill and certain aspects of its inherent technology. The thin kerf technology, for example, gives him more timber and less sawdust from logs than circular saws with their 6mm-9mm kerf.

The contract sawing operation grew to 400m3 of processed timber in the first year, filling an evident gap in the Eastern Netherlands. Customers were residents of local crown land (covered by preservation orders), many Eastern Dutch farmers, landowners and private individuals who used the sawn wood for fence posts, cladding and – significantly – for barns. Soon he also found himself restoring old hayricks, barns and other agricultural buildings.

Clients expressed surprise that a small, simple sawmill could turn out such good quality timber. Harry Kolkman had noted it too and an idea was taking shape in his mind. Increasingly he was asked to cut beams to tailor ed shapes and sizes for builders and inevitably he witnessed his products’ end use as they were assembled into buildings. Struck by this opportunity he decided to build some sheds himself. He got off to a good start with an order for a ‘Steltenberg’ shed with hayrick above, in the nearby village of Lettele for 25,000 euros.

More orders followed and this aspect of his work attracted attention and increased, leading him to form another company called ‘De Holle’. This grew continuously and now his activities are divided between 80% manufacturing of rural buildings and 20% contract sawing. Income is disproportionate with 85% of revenues from the buildings and 15% from contract sawing.

In effect, he and his companion Jos Schoorlemmer have turned out about 50 tailor-made buildings plus renovations and cross beams in five years. Again, customers for the buildings are members of the residents’ association in the crown lands, farmers, landowners and families within a 50Km radius around Deventer. Both agricultural and domestic customers like the traditional style and structure.

The quickly increasing scale of the operation led him to sell his Wood-Mizer, with 5,000 working hours ‘on the clock’ for 13,000 euros and buy the latest model LT40HD, also petrol-driven, in 2003 for 28,000 euros. Net cost: 14,500 euros.

The new version gives him advantages of easier operation, the ability to ‘carve’-saw, enhanced height adjustment and sheer power while sawing oak (90% of his timber) which he imports in log form from Germany, some larch and some local Douglas fir. The logs are bought to order when a new building is on the books, keeping the whole process in his own hands.

He converts this to 30x30cm beams as well as the smaller sizes and dimensions. Each building starts its life in Harry Kolkman’s yard where logs are sawn into beams, planks etc. and finished until he has made a complete set of components. The green timber components are transported to the customer’s property and the structure erected. Usually, it takes half a day.

"The authentic, traditional approach to building is very satisfying. I like doing it and my clients seem to appreciate both my approach and the end result", Harry Kolkman explains, taking time off from an 80m2 barn he is constructing for a local farmer.

He doesn’t want to significantly expand the business but continue at the same level and mix of building vs. contract sawing and a certain amount of selling on. He is delighted to be working with wood which he describes as a natural medium, aesthetically superior to any other.

The enterprise has transformed his and Jos’s lives. Although they work hard, they now work to an acceptable routine which gives them a lot of enjoyment. Also, the popularity of ‘De Holle’ buildings has led to them being a fairly common sight in the Centre and East of The Netherlands –– making for a particularly fulfilling way of life for the couple.

It also demonstrates how a fairly small, relatively low cost band saw can become the basis of a rewarding business.

Mr. Kolkman : +31 (0)572 382148

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