20 September 1996

Welsh saw slices fallen trees into hardwood profits

On many farms, hardwood timber remains a wasted asset. Robert Davies travelled to Pembrokeshire to meet a contractor who is adding profitable value to Welsh wood.

A SAW, designed and built in Wales, will let farmers add value to small diameter hardwood trees currently sold for pulp or firewood.

Large, static twin-bladed saws have been available for generations, but those made by Blossom Designs, Pencader, Carmarthen, can be transported to a site mounted on a tractors rear linkage. And at £8500, it is far cheaper.

The saws development was commissioned by Coed Cymru, the agency that advises Welsh farmers and landowners on all aspects of woodland management and grants. Co-ordinator David Jenkins is convinced that the machine will unleash the income generating potential of huge areas of neglected hardwoods on farms.

"Improving returns will encourage woodland management, bringing significant environmental benefits," Mr Jenkins claims. "About 90% of standing hardwood timber in Wales is on farms. Much of this is natural regrowth after war-time clear felling, and has never been managed to produce large trees. So we have 59,000ha (145,789 acres) of small diameter, often misshapen, hardwood trees in Wales worth £1-£5/cu metre standing, or £18-£20/t at the roadside for pulp or firewood. As it costs about £18/t to harvest, there is no incentive. But, using the new double-slabber saw, 25% of the weight harvested can be converted into green timber worth £200/t."

After drying in an open sided shed for three to six months the value rises to £280/t. This can be increased by another £70/t if a simple kiln is used to reduce moisture content to 20%.

"Theres big potential for substituting home-grown timber for some imported hardwoods used in a range of products such as flooring, kitchens and furniture. We have a large computer database of interested manufacturers, but these are not prepared to commit themselves because a continuous supply of quality 7.35cm x 2.45cm (3in x 1in) or 9.8cm x 2.45cm (4in x 1in) British timber cannot be guaranteed."

Welsh hardwood trees alone put on 210,000t of growth each year, of which only 30,000t is harvested, and just 4000t goes into some form of value adding processing. Mr Jenkins reckons this is about to change. A new Woodland Improvement Grant is available to cover 50% of the cost of providing safe working access to woods, and farmers are taking up woodland management grants. Contractors are now plentiful, or farmers can get ATB-Landbase training to do the work themselves.

"Now we also have a machine that can add value to small logs on site, and most farms have barns in which the sawn timber can be dried.

"There is a big potential for groups of farmers to share labour and equipment, including a low cost kiln like the one we have developed with Bangor University."

Contractor Colin Robbins has used one of the prototype saws for 14 months, and many of his suggested modifications were built into the two production models sold to date. He is convinced that 10 machines could be operating on Welsh farms within a few years.

"The figures speak for themselves," says Mr Robbins, Bryn Mawr Farm Timber, Corner House, Milford Haven Marina, Pembrokeshire. "Spending £340/day in contracting charges to saw small diameter hardwood logs, worth £237 as pulp wood, produces green timber that would sell for £1330."

He would like to see the half-round timber left after milling, converted into charcoal worth £700/t. Farmers should, he insists, aim to add yet more value to their timber by drying it, and even getting involved in product making.

"It seems the penny has not yet dropped. They are neglecting a very valuable asset. Imported hardwood timber is getting scarcer and more expensive, but manufacturers will not buy British unless a continuous supply of standard quality product is available.

"Farmers have the standing timber. They have the labour and machinery to fell and extract it, and can get the necessary training. Using the new saw, 1.2m (4ft) long 14.7cm (6in) diameter logs, which no conventional sawyers want, can be converted into something that does have a market."

To prove the point, Mr Robbins runs a quayside shop selling timber products made wholly or partly from small dimension Welsh hardwoods.n

Contractor Colin Robbins has been using a prototype version of the Welsh-built saw to convert fallen hardwood into a more saleable product.

And heres one he prepared earlier.