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French village sawmill bucks closure trend with thin kerf technology

French village sawmill bucks closure trend with thin kerf technology A small sawmill in the Therache region of Northern France has bucked the French trend to municipal sawmill closure over the past quarter of a century by manufacturing components for clients to assemble their own pallets. 4,300 small, local sawmills have closed since 1980 because of a mixture of outdated techniques and inflexibility but Produit Forestier, in Sainte-Hilaire-sur-Helpe, near the northern town of Valenciennes has installed up-to-date equipment and cornered a niche market.

Jean-Michel Defrene, 41 and Roland Roger, 52 have kept their old Rennepont band saw and complemented it with a Wood-Mizer Multihead horizontal band saw in 2004 to convert 40,000m3 of pine and poplar logs to pallet components down to 14mm thick and up to 600mm in length – increasing their volume by one-third. When their old Gillet band saw was burned down by an arsonist, the initially devasting blow became a cloud with a silver lining when they replaced it with a Wood-Mizer semi-industrial LT70 band sawmill at the end of 2006.

"We reckon that we further can increase output to 60,000m3 with the LT70 and rather wish we’d replaced the ancient Gillet sooner", grins Jean-Michel Defrene who used to work as a sawyer under the former owner of the firm, which was founded in 1985 Roland Roger who used to work in a local ironworks added that if the partners hadn’t bought out the former owner, the sawmill might well have closed.

They bought the multihead in 2006 with the objective of increasing production 30%. However, if they select particularly good logs they sometimes double the old output.

"It seems to provide an unusually fast and economical way to add value to our wood through resawing.

"It can saw butt-to-butt at up to 30 metres/minute and is ideal for sawing cants into any dimension and manufacturing our pallet boards", explains Jean-Michel Defrene.

Order books are full, not least because of their ability to make very thin boards not possible in relatively small quantities from most sawmills.

In effect they are feeding a niche market mostly within a 100Km radius and partly further afield, such as a Belgian pallet manufacturer (they are close to the Belgian border).

Most customers make their pallets for their own industrial equipment like steel railway equipment and also special pallets for export. They buy their poplar and pine from around the Therache and from Belgium. They became profitable by increasing volume with the multihead and have further improved as a result of the LT70 acquisition.

About 1,700 small sawmills still run in France and 80% are small, mostly family owned enterprises. Those turning out less than 1,500m3 of sawn timber per year have proved most vulnerable.

The average amount of timber logged in French forests is almost 40 million cubic metres p.a. since 1980 and yearly sawn goods output is 2.1 million m3 of hardwoods and 7.7 million m3 softwoods*.

Today, big sawmills (processing over 50,000 million m3) – representing 15% of the number of sawmills – deliver 60% of the total production of sawn timber.

"So there’s plenty of work for us small sawmills", claims Jean-Michel Defrene.

"Provided they get the right kit like we have", concludes Jean-Michel, with a Gallic smile.

* 2004 figures

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