“We are naturally sharply focused on quality steel production, so the manufacture of 50,000 pallets per year for Caldicot alone was a nuisance factor,” said Philip Hopkins, operations manager of the Corus facility at Caldicot, South Wales. “It took a lot of resource and time and timber supplies were sometimes erratic.”

So, in 1996 ex-Royal Marine David Holden established Holden Pallets Ltd in a nearby lock-up garage, equipping himself with a second-hand cross-cut saw and a generator. Very quickly, by working long and arduous hours, he reached an output of 400 pallets a week.

Corus’s timber costs were slashed by a third and it was so delighted it awarded Holden Pallets the contract to supply more of its rolling mills. “Dave Holden creates pallets of higher quality than we could,” added Mr Hopkins.

Similar delight on the part of Dave Holden was tempered by the exhausting nature of the now growing pallet operation. He and his wife Lesley, co-owner of the firm, took a hard look at it all and decided to invest in specialised equipment and rent dedicated premises.

Holden Pallets now supplies five Corus mills: Leeds, Caldicot, Wednesfield, Cross Keys and Blackburn and the key to this expansion has been a new timber processing layout in its new 1.5 acre premises at Darwen, near Blackburn. This Nationwide operation now provides 75% of Corus’s strip mills’ pallets.

This year Holden Pallets predicts a £1.25m turnover, including income from a new Corus site at Scarborough. It will expand the business by almost one-third.

At Holdens’ Darwen headquarters, the hub of the operation is the LT300, a recently-developed industrial scale band sawmill from Wood-Mizer.

The industrial bandsaw by itself represents a quantum leap for Holden Pallets, but it is complemented by a log loader, incline conveyor and transfer deck, a six-head multi-head saw and an edger/multi-rip. A smaller band sawmill, the LT20, has also been added.

The kit, all of which was supplied by Wood-Mizer, cost £106,000. “This is about one-quarter of the price for setting up a traditional sawmill operation but it does the same job,” said Mr Holden. “Corus have commented on the sawn timber’s quality even though that’s not a prime objective in pallet manufacture. Of more importance to our operation is the thin kerf technology, which produces less sawdust and consequently more cut wood, and which is incorporated into Wood-Mizer bandsaws. This compares favourably with the large kerf nature of traditional sawmilling. In effect it permits price values very different from traditional sawmilling charges”.

Timber sourcing

Holdens sources British-grown round timber, mostly Sitka spruce, but also some larch and pine from Carlisle-based Robert Tweddle Ltd. “It has become a growing contract as Corus increases the out-sourcing of its pallets,” said Robert Tweddle. “Our deliveries have increased to an average of 75 tonnes a week.

“Dave Holden has given us a specification of between 30 and 70cm diameter logs for speed and effectiveness, although I understand some of these mills are sawing logs up to 91cm diameter elsewhere,” he added.

Logs are moved into the building and placed next to either the LT300 industrial sawmill or the small LT20 which is used for small, extra runs of pallets.

“Two men working with the LT20 turn out sawn boards at half the speed of the LT300 which is operated from a remote operator by one man – or woman,” said Mr Holden, referring to his wife who is a trained LT300 operator and often runs it when Dave Berry, the regular operator is unavailable.

Once learned it is simple to perform most cutting and handling operations with ‘joy sticks’ and with the ‘Setworks’ which quickly and accurately position the cutting head to the right depth for pre-set pattern cutting, Holdens now processes 13 to 16m3 daily.

The LT20 ‘breaks down’ the logs into slabs and cants which are manhandled to the incline conveyor. The LT300 fires the slabs and cants directly on to the inclined conveyor and transfer deck and then to the six-head multi-head where they are sawn into 92x52mm struts or to the edger/multi-rip which does likewise.

The sawn component parts are subsequently placed on a jig, assembled into pallets and loaded onto lorries for delivery to various Corus sites.

All the Wood-Mizer equipment is powered from a generator avoiding the need for industrial scale cable from the local electricity company and high installation costs. Shifts have been reduced from two to one but the equipment achieves the same turnover.

Nationwide, Holden Pallets employs 23 people, 11 of whom are at the Darwen headquarters. The company can convert 15m3 of Sitka per day. It used to process 23m3 but decided to reduce that because the volume became too onerous. However, it maintains output with its five satellite sawmills.

The latter receive some sawn timber from Darwen, cut some themselves on cross-cut saws and assemble them on the various Corus sites, each of which tailors pallets to local requirements. Last year the company as a whole averaged 20-25m3 of pallet wood a day for Corus.

For Wood-Mizer the Holden Pallets operation is a novel development from the widely used (35,000 worldwide) band sawmills used in small form by farmers, in medium format by mobile sawing contractors and in semi-industrial form by small timber processors.

It is the first application of the LT300 band sawmill in Britain (indeed, in western Europe), although there are similar set-ups in North America, eastern/central Europe and Australasia.

Ease of installation

But for Mr Holden, being a pioneer proved easy and, he says, installing the equipment in the new facility was relatively simple. “The industrial band sawmill and its ancillary equipment can be quickly set in motion on virtually any level surface, whereas traditional sawmills of the same scale were fixed in concrete in dedicated buildings. Not only does this reduce set-up costs but also the industrial band saws can be moved to another site in a different part of the country where commercial opportunities arise or when local planning issues (motorways, housing projects, noise disturbance and so on) demand relocation.

“Such a move is a major event for traditional sawmills but, excluding travel, can be made in three days with the industrial bandsaws,” added Mr Holden. “When we changed sites from one part of Darwen to another, we finished production on a Thursday evening and were at full production at the new one by 10am the following Monday with the generator powering the LT300 and the rest of the equipment.”