Forestry Journal met up with mobile sawmiller Keith Threadgall on a job in Argyll, Scotland, to learn more about his life on the road and working with Wood-Mizer.

THERE are carports and then there are carports. One of joiner Alasdair Marshall’s clients, a farmer based in Argyll, has his heart set on a three-bay carport with a bar at one end, constructed entirely from larch, requiring rafters 7.4 m in length to go on one side and 6 m on the other. The logs are all supplied by the farmer, but too big for Alasdair to mill himself, and to engage the services of a sawmill, plus transporting the material there and back, would blow the budget for the job.

And so, on a sunny day towards the end of June, Alasdair was paid a visit by contract sawmiller Keith Threadgall, towing his trusty Wood-Mizer LT40, to cut the logs down to size.

Forestry Journal met the pair in the yard of Alasdair’s firewood business, Home Grown Firewood, which adjoins his home and workshop near Dunoon. A side-line which evolved from doing a bit of milling and having his own biomass timber surplus, Alasdair confessed his firewood enterprise has turned into a bit of a beast, with close to 300 customers keeping him and his business partner in constant demand. Still, the yard makes a good spot to set up the Wood-Mizer, which was just getting started when Forestry Journal arrived.

Forestry Journal: Keith Threadgall.Keith Threadgall.

Comprising a log loader, front and rear tow boards, three backstops with claw turner, two hold-down clamps, de-barker and autoclutch, the LT40 diesel hydraulic package boasts a D42 engine with 42 hp. On this job it was fitted with 38 mm Vortex blades, which Keith said take more sawdust out of the timber and have proven very good for cutting larch.

READ MORE: Trading the Royal Marines for the tree corp

The pair got started with the larger logs first, with Alasdair bringing them in on the loader and putting them on the LT40. The first log had a slight bend and, with a bed extension giving him an extra 50 cm, Keith was still just shy of being able to run the saw down its full length. This made the task a little more complicated and required some careful thought about how best to proceed. Once the log had been manoeuvred into place, however, cutting soon got underway, producing the first 7.4 m beams for the carport roof, all straight and with four clean faces, along with some 20 mm boards off the sides for cladding and a pile of slab for firewood – all in all, an excellent yield from a single piece of timber.

Forestry Journal: Ruggedly constructed to withstand demanding working conditions while delivering consistent timber production, the LT40 sawmill is fully mobile and has travelled with Keith all over Scotland.Ruggedly constructed to withstand demanding working conditions while delivering consistent timber production, the LT40 sawmill is fully mobile and has travelled with Keith all over Scotland.

Armed with a list of nearly 60 cuts (relating to several different jobs) Alasdair said the carport would be built flatpack, like an IKEA unit, and transported to the customer for assembly, where it would be put together entirely using wooden pegs (also tight-grain larch) with no nails and no screws.

A joiner by trade, Alasdair moved into milling and firewood nearly 20 years ago after buying the house next to his firewood yard, which included a good bit of land and an oak tree which had fallen in the field.

“It was massive, about a metre in diameter, and I wanted to make use of it,” he said. “So I got a local mill to saw it, but they didn’t do it well and I lost a lot of the timber, so that started me thinking about getting a mill of my own.

“In 2008 I bought a Wood-Mizer privately from an old estate and found it was handy as hell. You can take it to any job and people are amazed by what it does. It makes wood useable really quickly. I think they’re fantastic bits of kit. Joinery used to be my main line of business, building extensions, fitting kitchens and all that, but when I got the mill I decided I wouldn’t do that anymore. I would build furniture and wooden structures, hot-tubs, interesting projects, predominantly using my own timber.”

Forestry Journal: Alasdair Marshall of Home Grown Firewood.Alasdair Marshall of Home Grown Firewood.

Alasdair first met Keith through his role as an agent for Wood-Mizer, calling him up to order new blades or for servicing. It was through this that he learned about Keith’s contract sawmilling, a service he has made use of whenever a project has called for it – as with the larch carport.

“You can see the boards we’re getting today. Not just the beams for the carport, but cladding which I’ll use on another project and slabs for firewood. The yield is phenomenal, but if you went to a sawmill and said you needed these beams, you’d be paying an arm and a leg.

​READ MORE: Buyer's guide: 4 MEWP solutions for access

“Not only that, but the transport would be an issue. My closest place might charge me more than £100 a beam, but then I’d have to hire a flatbed or a trailer to bring them round here, which is a job in itself. I have done stuff like that in the past, but it adds a lot of expense onto a job. By doing it this way, I can build things without having to pass too much additional cost on to the end user.”

Forestry Journal: Alasdair carefully transports the finished beams out between the two trees at the front of his yard.Alasdair carefully transports the finished beams out between the two trees at the front of his yard.

Keith said: “It’s always fun being a part of projects like this, because you get to see things being built from your machine. It’s like when you do an installation at an estate and you go back a couple of years later to see all the things they’ve milled, whether it’s dog kennels, cladding, buildings. You feel involved because you helped provide them with something that’s saved them a lot of money.”

The last year has been a busy period for Keith as both a contract sawmiller and an agent for Wood-Mizer. When most of the big sawmills shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for his sawmilling services skyrocketed. And with government support making money available for machinery and equipment, firms have not been scared to invest in mills of their own.

Forestry Journal: Alasdair cuts a piece from the end of the 7.4 m log to get a clean, straight edge all the way along.Alasdair cuts a piece from the end of the 7.4 m log to get a clean, straight edge all the way along.

“When lockdown came in, I was initially quite worried about what would happen to the business, whether we would get any sales,” he admitted. “It was briefly quiet, but then it was like a bomb went off and everything boomed. People are not scared to invest right now. Especially with the price of timber jacking up, a lot of people are looking at these mills as a really viable option. If you’re doing any kind of construction work and you can get a hold of the logs, as in Alasdair’s case, it’s so worthwhile.”

Keith has been a contract sawmiller for 22 years and an agent for Wood-Mizer since 2010 – added to which, he is currently the chairman of the Association of Scottish Hardwood Sawmillers. It sounds like a lot to handle, especially when his services are in such demand, but his business and responsibilities have all developed organically, without an overarching plan.

Forestry Journal: It’s tough for Alasdair to get his hands on straight larch of this quality, so all care must be taken to get the best yield.It’s tough for Alasdair to get his hands on straight larch of this quality, so all care must be taken to get the best yield.

Growing up, he said, his ambition was to become a joiner, but instead he found himself entering the workforce as a hand cutter, a job he did for 12 years. Though he described this period in the late ’80s to late ’90s as “fun times” for chainsaw operators, he was looking for something less physically taxing when he was invited to work for the Woodschool in the Scottish Borders on a part-time casual contract.

His duties included management of the hardwood timber yard, stacking cut planks and beams, and sourcing and cutting hardwood timber on a Woodmizer LT30 mill to Woodschool’s hardwood makers’ requirements.

Keith gradually developed his expertise as a wood miller, hardwood timber buyer and businessman up to 2009, when a change in the structure and management of Woodschool saw him become a director of the new entity, Real Wood Studios.

​READ MORE: Production to start at Komatsu Forest One

“At that time we bought another mill, an LT40, and that’s how I got to know the guys at Wood-Mizer a bit more and it was suggested that I become an agent,” he said. “I was just covering the south of Scotland for the first couple of years, but was eventually given the whole of Scotland. I worked at Realwood Studios up until six years ago when I decided to strike out on my own, strictly doing contract milling and selling for Wood-Mizer. It’s just grown and grown and grown since then, but it is still just me. It’s not just the machine doing the work. It’s the years of experience behind it. A lot comes down to knowledge and experience.”

Keith now averages around 200 contract days a year, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland, from Stornoway to Stranraer, processing timber, setting up or installing sawmilling machines, and providing timber-processing training for the likes of Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Research. Plus, he maintains an interest in tree planting, in order to give something back.

Forestry Journal: Keith pays close attention to ensure a high-quality end product.Keith pays close attention to ensure a high-quality end product.Keith pays close attention to ensure a high-quality end product.Keith pays close attention to ensure a high-quality end product.

“This time last week I was in Skye,” he said. “I drove 980 miles in one week. The week before I did 1,180. I’ll be in here today and tomorrow, then going to Glenrothes, Coupar Angus, over to Galston to install an edger for a customer, and then next week I’m going down to Preston for two or three days milling. It’s quite manic and a logistical nightmare to put a plan together, but you’ve got to make hay while the sun’s shining.

“It works because every contract job is a potential Wood-Mizer customer. Around 80 to 90 per cent of my sales come from my contract milling, which allows people to see the potential of the machine. A lot of places, you turn up and they see this little orange machine and they think ‘what’s that going to do?’. Then they realise it can lift more than their forklift or tractor and is making mincemeat of the job pretty quickly. Their attitude changes as the day goes on.”

Given the demand for mobile sawmilling, which has only increased over the last 20 years, Keith expressed surprise that more people haven’t seized the opportunity to do it themselves, even if only as a side-line to their existing business.

“There are probably more doing what I do down south, but in Scotland there’s only one or two others I know of,” he said. “There’s an opportunity there for someone. It’s good work to do if you enjoy getting out and meeting people. It’s interesting who you end up spending time with, from a joiner to a laird to a farmer to an estate manager. It keeps things interesting. If I was stuck in one yard by myself all the time I’d probably go mad. It can be stressful when the phone never stops ringing, but I do still really enjoy it.”

Following coffee and cake in Alasdair’s garden – on the decking he built himself – Forestry Journal left the pair to get back to work. With 10 tonnes of long logs still to get through and five tonnes of smaller stuff, there was plenty to keep them busy throughout the rest of the afternoon and the following day. Though Keith warned against forming an overly rosy impression of the work (more commonly undertaken in high winds and driving rain), with the sun shining, birds singing and the promise of a few beers at the end of the shift, it didn’t seem like a bad job at all.

Forestry Journal:

Forestry Journal:

Forestry Journal: The finished beams put to work in the car port construction.The finished beams put to work in the car port construction.

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £75 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link:

Thanks – and stay safe.