• The downturn is opening machining opportunities for merchants.
• Manufacturers say both vertical and horizontal panel saws have merchant appeal.
Daltons suggests merchants look at up-cut machines.
• User-friendly software and tool set-up systems make moulders more accessible.

Many companies have responded to the recession by locking the capital spending chequebook in the bottom drawer. Their caution has been reinforced by the credit squeeze and the end result, says the CBI, has been a 9.9% drop in UK business investment since 2007.

But wood machinery suppliers question the wisdom of merchants slamming the lid entirely on spending. In fact, now could be the right time to upgrade an existing machine shop, or even set one up. In a tough market, they say, adding value, enhancing service and standing out from the crowd are more critical than ever and latest wood machinery can help with all three. And, they insist, there are ways through the credit barriers too.

According to SCM’s Brian Stacey, even before recession struck there was a renewed trend towards more timber processing by merchants at local level; more independents investing in equipment to augment their processed product offer and bigger groups devolving more machining from feeder mills.

”It’s about the ability to respond to demand immediately,” said Mr Stacey. “In the case of bigger multi-branch business, they’ve been realising that, while they can cater well to the £20,000-plus jobs with central processing, they may be losing the £500-1,000 customers who worry they’ll be at the back of the queue behind the big orders.”

And recession has added to the incentive for merchants to be versatile and handle small batches quickly.

“Areas that have held up relatively well are RMI and DIY, so you’ve got more people coming in for just a few machined pieces. Develop a reputation for providing this kind of service and the business builds up.”

SCM’s Colin Simmons said that a machining facility can also cut overall stock costs.

“In today’s market, with slower stock turn, you’ve got added risk too of costly machined items deteriorating in storage; machine yourself, and you reduce that as well.”

According to Weinig UK’s Malcolm Cuthbertson, merchants offering bespoke machining can also help customers compete in the downturn. “Many are looking for something to differentiate themselves. One practical way is to make a design statement through creative use of wood mouldings. So an area where merchants can succeed is by producing these to customer requirements.”

Making the cut

Asked to pick out a machine from his company’s range suited to the merchant, Syd Mather of band resaw specialist Stenner highlighted its entry level ST80.

“It can do the work some firms are still using an old 48in resaw for,” he said. “In fact, some customers have bought it to replace bigger saws which aren’t up to latest safety rules on DC braking, modern guards and so on.”

Having a resaw simplifies a merchant’s stock proposition, he added. “They don’t need such a range of lengths and can carry more standard packs to cut to size.”

Pitless and just 1x2m, the ST80 is also simple to install and ideal for a merchant running a saw three hours a day (above that it recommends its ST100), Stenner says.

Another fixture of the merchant’s machine shop, not to mention the DIY sheds, is the vertical panel saw and manufacturers say their focus on making them more versatile, accurate and affordable means they’re set to become more popular still.

Exemplifying the capabilities and value for money of the modern panel saw, says distributor AL Dalton, is the Elcon 155D. “With a capacity of 3500x1550mm, this represents a marked improvement in terms of ease of operation and accuracy,” said director Francis Dalton. “And it’s available for £8,750 plus VAT.”


Striebig UK’s Matt Pearce said merchants are primarily looking for robustness and ease of use in vertical panel saw. Consequently, the ‘stalwarts’ of Striebig’s range are the Compact and Standard (starting at £11,000). But there is also demand for more sophisticated models, like the top of its manual range Evolution. In addition to automated head swivel, head plunge and beam/head/roller locking, this now includes touch screen control and optimisation. “Some merchants need this type of machine for larger cut-to-size orders,” said Mr Pearce. “For example, Champions at New Malden use a basic and a top-of-the-range for different requirements.”

Daltons also recommends merchants consider an up-cut machine. “Cross-cutting can be improved with an automatic up-cut with auto-stop systems, as opposed to traditional hand-operated models,” said Mr Dalton. “We offer a Tiger Stop fully-automated up-cut machine with stop system or, for a fully optimising high production machine, the Salvador Super Push 200.”

Horizontal perspectives

According to Mr Hayes, merchants should also look at the option of a modern horizontal or floor panel saw, like SCM’s Technomax 350 series. “This gives you that much more flexibility, as you can rip solid wood too,” he said.

Where space is an issue, he added, the Technomax’s panel outrigger can be removed when not in use, “turning it into a solid wood dimension saw”.

The core merchant’s set-up, in his view, is one of these saws, a straightforward spindle moulder, such as SCM’s T100 Nova – “mainly for rebating and some shaping” – and a planer/thicknesser, where SCM’s options range from the 16×9 F41 Elite S to the advanced 20×9 FS20 Klass. This combination, he said, would cover most customer requirements and the price range for each machine type is broadly £4,000-8,500.

Homag’s Simon Brooks said merchants looking to develop their sheet materials business should also consider a Holzma auto panel saw, which start at £35,000 and can process anything from single sheets to 10-panel stacks.

“These are sophisticated machines, but easy to operate and, using Cut Rite optimising software, give absolute maximum yield, which in today’s climate is vital.”


Alongside this kind of equipment, Mr Brooks added, it might be worth merchants looking at the next stage in panel processing, edgebanding. “Suppliers who can cut to size and edge band to specification can be an attractive proposition to the customer,” he said. “And our edgebanders start at under £5,000.”

In the past, merchants might have thought moulding was a machining step too far, but manufacturers say latest models, with easy-to-use software and set-up systems, also make them a viable option.

A first step down this route, suggested Mr Simmons, might be a square dressing machine, such as SCM’s £12,000 Syntex NT. But, he said, going for a moulder proper today is not such a big leap for the uninitiated. “Our £20,000-25,000 Compact NT range is straightforward and gives merchants the added option of producing skirting, dado rails, architraves and so on.”

Mr Cuthbertson added that the versatility and productivity of new generation moulders mean users can compete with fewer machine. “Companies can replace three conventional moulders with one of our Powermat range,” he said. “It covers all capacity requirements and, using ‘plug in’ tool technology and latest setting aids, offers huge benefits in small batch processing.”


Besides supplying easy to operate technology, machine companies say they’re also making it less painful in other ways for merchants to commission new equipment. User training is now a given and service packages are tailored to customers’ specific needs.

Suppliers say they can also help customers secure finance on machine purchases, working in partnership with brokers and other finance operations. For instance Homag Finance, set up last year with UK Asset Solutions, says it has had a 100% success rate.

“Some people don’t even pick up the phone because they think they won’t get credit, but we haven’t had a single refusal,” said Robin Timms of Homag Finance.

So the consensus is that the merchants’ timber machine shop has a solid present and bright future.

“Market trends are towards smaller quantity orders required quickly and today’s technology makes just-in-time machining a practical proposition,” said Mr Cuthbertson. “Companies providing this service will prosper.”