’TWAS the weeks before Christmas and around this time I try to meet the demand of the public for Yule-time firewood. And, every year I promise myself it’s the last time I’ll do this. However, it does provide an opportunity to tidy the yard and process all the cruddy logs lurking in hidden corners of the mill.

With this awful weather and Christmas just around the corner the workforce are just counting off the days and production has gone off a cliff. Instead of a gentle run up to the festive season and a chance to catch up on things, I end up having to wield the chainsaw or work on the splitter to up production and keep from haemorrhaging money.

The problem with any business is getting your staff to follow your lead. When I first acquired the mill I spent many days working with my girlfriend, processing posts. I’d be on the saw bench and she’d be on the peeler and between us we’d produce a wagonload of pointed round stakes per day. The moment I employed staff that task suddenly took five days. That is why these days I operate the main saw. By doing so I can dictate the pace of production and avoid unnecessary stoppages. Having tried several other systems this appears to be the best way I can maintain a reasonable level of production.

I’m not complaining about people being idle or not trying but it’s just that people generally don’t think about how to get a job done quickly and efficiently. This brings me back to firewood. I recently received an order for sawn hardwood. The order is quite lucrative and the will take a lot of planning and thought. You can’t just mill the logs; you have to sort through them and grade them, and the process takes time. I really needed a few days of peace and quiet and to achieve this, so I was forced to put the workforce onto firewood production and leave them to get on with it. When I eventually got round to seeing how they were doing, I discovered that many of the logs were far too big. When I pointed this out and requested logs of a size that could be more easily handled, the offender then spent the entire day cutting logs into small regular slices in what appeared to be an act of petulance. When I checked the bags I then discovered them piled with large unmanageable logs, with a scattering of smaller stuff on the top. This only came to light when I delivered a bag and I stood there while large chunks of wood cascaded across the yard in front of a less than impressed customer.

I’m sure I’m not alone as an employer in trying to get the workforce to work methodically and to think about what they’re doing. I accept and always have that I’m never going to win manager of the year, but I try my best and this year maybe I’ve finally learned a trick or two.

For much of the last few weeks I’ve been tied up making deliveries of sawn wood, logs and sawdust. While I’m out I often try to do a back run. This involves collecting timber from tree surgeons or a recycling plant as well as scouring any skips I may pass for discarded dumpy bags. It’s not that I’m too mean to buy them, it just seems crazy to me not to reuse them and do my bit for the planet. In between, I’ve been slowly working my way through these hardwood orders. When I return to the yard I park the wagon in some appropriate spot and while the lads load it up I spend an hour on the saw, which I have to say has been working particularly well.

In the past I have been very reluctant to go out with the wagon in the middle of the day on account of the decline of production in my absence. After a couple of shaky days things improved dramatically. To begin, things seemed to take a familiar path but then suddenly it changed.

I’d decided to scoop up piles of sawdust and bits and bobs and take them to the recycling plant. Before going, I suggested that they cut up some big, old ash trees for firewood. It was a squally day and before I left I moved the trees with the loader from the yard to under cover from the elements. Normally, I’d put one man on the chainsaw, one on the splitter and one on the van delivering. As the van had broken down I put two on chainsaws and one on the splitter and off I went in the wagon. As I returned, my expectations were somewhat limited but to my disbelief I was confronted by a pile of discs ready for splitting. I couldn’t believe how well they’d seemed to get on and was at a bit of a loss as to what this sudden burst in production was due to.

I discovered that while I’d been away a Canadian international ice hockey player had been in the mill to collect some of his planked oak. These are seriously heavy items which he seems to have picked up with ease. The mill is a very macho environment where incidents like this don’t go unnoticed and the workforce, keen not be outdone, had responded in their own way, keen to impress. Also, by having two chainsaws going, a competition had developed and resulted in a job that would normally have cost money suddenly becoming profitable. It was a good day at the office and temporarily diverted attention from the pain of having to buy a new van.

The old van had played its part. It was eight years old, had done 125,000 miles, the gearbox had imploded, it needed new glow-plugs, discs, pads, tyres and an exhaust.

It had a dimpled appearance not unlike some distant asteroid, battered over time by collisions. It had had builders reversing into it, a drunk driver failing to see it and a fair bit of employee misuse. It was time to go. Unfortunately, the cost of such vehicles has doubled and so it was time for a rethink. The van wasn’t ideal but it did do 60 mpg and while I’d toyed with the idea of a pickup, I was too mean to put fuel in at 25 mpg. So, I set out to look at a two-wheel drive pickup as a potential compromise.

I stood in the compound, staring at the vehicles in front of me. First was an Isuzu. It had 40,000 miles on the clock and it looked as though it had had a short, hard life. At three years old it had bald tyres, a broken mirror, a missing load liner and underneath it was very rusty. Alongside stood a Toyota Hilux. Also three years old with 30,000 miles on the clock and without a scratch. It had new tyres and a heavy duty tow bar. The only downside was the fuel consumption.

Life generally is all about finding solutions. While the van had been broken down I’d had to use the motorbike, which had been very cost-effective, doing something like 100 mpg. Despite the appalling weather the heated handlebars made all the difference and it was still good fun to ride. The decision has been made and from now on I’ll commute on the bike and use the work vehicles for work. Obviously I may have to temporarily change this strategy in the event of snow.

As a 16-year-old, I used to travel to work over a moor on a trials bike with a collie dog sat on the tank. Those were carefree days where I seemed to be able to save over half of my wage. Then I bought a van and I never seem to have had any money since. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.