A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

Timber Milling – The Big Time

Over half a century ago some young Douglas fir trees were planted on high ground in a small compartment of Fingle Woods. The vision of those 20th Century tree planters was that these trees would grow tall and straight and, with careful selective thinning, would produce some high-grade timber. Douglas fir is one of species of conifer that, after being introduced from North America as a timber tree, has developed a reputation for high quality structural material here in the UK. Though much of the Douglas fir plantations in Fingle Woods are decades away from maturity, this crop at Willingstone Plantation is in prime condition and, as part of the woodland restoration project, will be progressively felled until enough sunlight can reach the forest floor to kick-start the growth of a healthy woodland ecosystem. In this area of the woods it is possible that some of these coniferous giants may eventually become the canopy trees, standing over a mixed deciduous woodland below. Time will tell but, for now, as the thinning process continues, the felled timber is being processed on site with a 21st Century mobile sawmill.

Jim operating the sawmill [P Moody]

Jim White, the woodland contractor in charge of the milling team, has set up his aluminium framed Peterson sawmill on the forest track to process the raw sawlogs into some valuable timber. Working to a predetermined cutting list, his team are reducing the hulking stems down to some useable structural beams and boards. Jim said, “Some of these logs are reaching the capacity of this sawmill. We have already extended the length of the rails to accommodate the 8.2 metre logs. The heaviest one we have milled so far was easily 2 ½ tonnes, possibly 3. When the timber is freshly felled it is very heavy”. Due to their great weight, the team take care to slowly lower each giant log onto the bed of the sawmill using a winch.

Milling square sections of Douglas fir [P Moody]

The largest beams on Jim’s cutting list are due to be the main structural elements of some shepherds’ huts and, at over 8 metres, will be used in their full length. As an expert in stress-grading timber, he described how “Douglas fir has good structural strength and stiffness, with excellent durability. It can last for many years when exposed to weather”. Other sections being milled will be for building more bridges and boardwalks around the local woodlands (read the recent blog about the new footpath at Fingle Woods).

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Some of the boards of smaller dimensions will be used for nest boxes where Fingle’s birds and dormice will set up home, or they may even become part of people’s homes as they could even be used as floor boards.

Discussing the cutting list by the loaded trailer [P Moody]

One of the advantages of milling timber on site is that it becomes easier to transport and using large trucks to haul huge timbers along the narrow lanes of Devon is something that can be avoided. The waste slab wood and offcuts can remain on site while the timber, once milled to size, can be transported with smaller vehicles; most of it will be used within a few miles of where these giant trees were growing.


by Matt Parkins

Photos: Paul Moody and Matt Parkins

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