In a few months time Ralf Pollmeier will take up residence in his new home after eight years spent living in a hotel.

And when he moves in to his apartment Mr Pollmeier will be living right next door to the Creuzburg headquarters of the multi-million pound business he has built up over the past 10 years.

Pollmeier, which specialises in added-value beech, boasts the largest hardwood sawmills in Europe. As well as Creuzburg it has a second mill in Malchow in northern Germany and a third under construction at Aschaffenburg, near to Frankfurt and due to open in February next year. This mill will use an adjacent river to ship product, so keeping it off the roads and reducing transport costs.

A fourth mill in Heimsheim is in the planning stage – the land has been bought and planning permissions are being applied for. The Aschaffenburg and Heimsheim mills, which will mirror each other, will cost in the region of €60m each and both will have cutting capacities of 600,000m3. At Creuzburg, cutting capacity stands at 500,000m3 of logs, while at Malchow it is 300,000m3.

Ralf Pollmeier’s involvement in the industry began in 1987 when his parents founded Pollmeier Leimholz GmbH to produce edge-glued panels for the furniture industry and solid wooden flooring. The company mainly used beech, but found it increasingly difficult to purchase sawn beechwood of consistently good quality in Germany. The main problems were its instability, due to inner tension caused by poor drying techniques, and inconsistent colour.

American experience

In 1987 Ralf Pollmeier went to the US to set up a factory in Seattle for the production of edge-glued panels made from American red alder – selling mainly to furniture manufacturers in Germany.

He learned a great deal about the American hardwood industry and its production techniques, and in 1995 he brought that expertise to Creuzburg where he set up his first mill with machinery from the US, cutting and grading German beech US-style.

The mill was the first of its type in central Germany and Mr Pollmeier also set up a sawmill technology company, Hanses, which replicated the hardwood cutting techniques he had learned in the US but which were not then available in Germany.

“We take a new approach and see how it works,” he said. “It is about being creative and doing something more fascinating than the normal.”

Beech is available in large quantities in Germany – 18 million m3 of it grows a year – and it can be bought at a moderate price.

No harvesting is undertaken during the summer in Germany so the company has to ensure it has enough logs to last between June and October. At Creuzburg, for example, around 160,000m3 of logs can be stored at any one time – around four months supply.

The stored logs, which have a minimum diameter of 40cm going up to 1m, are kept soaked with water, which is filtered and reused time and again, prior to processing.

And it is in the processing that Mr Pollmeier has found a niche. “I want to find the best way of doing things with the beech. It is not rocket science,” he said.

In setting up his first hardwood sawmill in Germany, Mr Pollmeier introduced some revolutionary ideas.

All the boards are cut, kiln dried, steamed and sanded. The idea is that discolourations can be seen better after sanding and the timber can be more easily graded into different qual-ities with no hidden faults.

The initial process is straightforward enough. After going through a metal detector, the logs are cut into standard lengths of 11ft, 10ft and 8ft.

Each log is measured and a computer decides the optimum cut before debarking. The logs are then cut on all four sides, after which a bandsaw cuts one board at a time under the direction of two operators, one of whom decides from which side to cut the board, and the other who makes a prediction for the grade.

“Being able to cut from the best side is one of the crucial steps to give us better quality,” explained sales manager Jan Hassan.

Resaw technology

The company is currently developing resaw technology which will enable the process to be carried out by one operator and a computer. Each new resaw costs €1.3m and several will be implemented in each of the new mills. The present system at Creuzburg is a prototype which will be rolled out to all the new sawmills.

But it is the attention to sanding and grading which really brings Pollmeier into a class of its own.

“We have a high quality and consistency in both colour and moisture content,” said Mr Hassan. “The timber is very stable and does not bend or twist. Through optimised drying and steaming we can deliver boards that are almost the same colour. We have worked very hard to achieve this and thought a lot of developments through to improve the product.”

One of these is aluminium sticking, used to reduce the stick marks left on the product during kiln drying.

And the company believes it is the only one to steam packs first, then kiln dry them before putting them through further “conditioning steaming”.

At Creuzburg there are nearly 80 kilns with an average capacity of 200m3. “The kilning can take anything from two weeks up to two months, depending on the thickness of the boards,” said Mr Hassan.

“Initially we dry the timber to a moisture content of 5-6%, but at the core the moisture content is 7-9%, and by additional steaming we bring the moisture content back up to 7-9% which relieves the tension in the wood which then stays stable and will not warp.

“We have done a lot of research on this and it is one of the features that the end users really appreciate.”

After sanding, teams of visual graders, who have a minimum of six months’ training, have just six seconds to make a decision between 12-13 different qualities which they mark with a pencil – and they need to be extremely accurate.

The marked boards move on to sorters who put them into the relevant bins. Once a bin is full it is taken to the scales and the volume is calculated by the weight of each pack.

Pollmeier’s product is aimed at a global market and it exports to more than 1,000 customers in 60 countries around the world. The UK provides plenty of custom for the company, with all the major timber importers and around 20 independent traders buying direct from Pollmeier.

The estimated annual output for 2006 is 250,000m3 of sawn timber for furniture, mouldings, architectural joinery, internal doors.

The boards are sold in different lengths and thicknesses and the packs are sold in different volumes which are then manufactured by the customer.

Currently around 100 lorry loads a day leave the Creuzburg mill, destined for anywhere in the world.

And with the two new mills due to come on stream, and a managing director who is constantly thinking of new ways to improve the business, the Pollmeier empire looks set for a rosy future.