When Peter Tutton became disillusioned with the profits in pig farming he looked around for a new business opportunity. He eventually opted for wood – and it proved to be a smart move. Today Tutton Timber is a profitable small-scale timber processing operation based around an electrically-powered bandsaw, a multi-rip, Baker resaw, planer and a range of other equipment.

Tutton Timber now achieves 200% gross margin from lumber, equal to the return from pigs in the ‘good old days’. Every bit of timber, including the chips and sawdust, is sold and the logs-to-lumber set-up brings in 80% of farm income.

The Tutton family have worked Shardelowes Farm at Gosfield, near Halstead in Essex for 40 years, Peter succeeding his father ‘Buster’ who still lives there. At its height, the farm sent 1,500 swill-fed pigs for slaughter annually, but in 1983, pig prices slumped and it went into the red.

So that year, after having already done some modest timber work making fencing panels with a Wadkin sawbench, Peter Tutton progressed to an old Stenner band rack saw which he bought in pieces.

He later acquired a steam-powered reciprocating saw and converted it to electricity.

He operated this successfully for three years, including during the frenetic post-1987 hurricane period.

But eventually the machine proved too slow so Mr Tutton mounted a Trekasaw head on the track and bought a multi-rip saw to edge the boards.

This advance, in turn, also proved insufficient. Local builders wanted high grade beams and Tutton’s was on the lookout for a faster, more user-friendly sawmill to produce quality lumber and serve as a focus for the ancillary equipment it had accumulated.

Faster process

In January 2001, the firm found the answer: an electrically-powered Wood-Mizer LT40HD band sawmill. Operated in stationary mode, it became the pivot of a highly cost-effective wood processing operation. It cost £15,590 plus the cost of a Wood-Mizer blade sharpener (£1,700) – paid in cash from profits.

Primary breakdown proved much faster with the Wood-Mizer. In addition, whereas Tuttons had to clamp by hand previously, now the new mill does it all hydraulically.

‘Another attraction is that after seven sharpening processes I can throw away old blades and replace them, compared with having to send them away to a saw doctor,’ said Mr Tutton. ‘I might buy a debarker to clean the very muddy logs I bring in. Now I just attack them with a stiff brush!’ he added.

Mr Tutton buys the bulk of his wood – oak, as well as some softwoods – from two dealers for about £2.50 per ft³ and converts 60% of it to beams. He estimates he gets another £2.50-worth in waste before selling direct to builders and local councils for just over £14. There are no middle men so both he and his customers get a good deal. And there is no lack of available oak in Essex and Suffolk.

Tutton’s usually stocks about 200 tonnes of oak and other logs 50 yards from the sawmill, turning out about 30 tonnes of timber a week. It uses a JCB with a log grab to carry the logs to the Wood-Mizer.

The Wood-Mizer LT40HD-electric saws 1,560 tonnes of wood – mostly oak – a year. Seventy-five per cent of it is sold as beams to builders, mostly for use in the restoration of Essex and Suffolk buildings.

If beams are required they are cut completely on the Wood-Mizer, while if posts are called for, the logs are sawn on the Wood-Mizer, usually into 12-inch squares, and resawn into four-inch squares without taking them off the mill. Posts account for 20% of output.

Oak logs destined for laths proceed from the mill to the baker resaw, then the multi-rip. Mr Tutton would like to sell more laths but demand is relatively limited.

For board production (5% of output) 6×6 squares are cut on the Wood-Mizer and then finished on the resaw. There are also a certain amount of ‘odd-sized’ products turned out by the set-up.

Co-products include off-cuts for oak laths, fencing posts and boards, while chips are sold for golf club footpaths and shrub beds. The sawdust is mixed with a neighbour’s cow manure which the Tuttons sell as bulk compost to landscape gardeners. There is no true waste so his margin could be calculated as double the 200%!

Mr Tutton has taken on three men to assist him – one of them working part-time – and three of the four-man team operate the Wood-Mizer.

‘Being electric, the new mill is so convenient. We leave it idling between sawing and we hardly hear it – and it uses less power than its predecessor.

‘The hydraulics enable me to handle big logs – sometimes 8m in length, 3ft in diameter and weighing 2.5 metric tonnes – lightly and easily, even though the machine is designed for 6m-long logs. Typically, how-ever, I cut logs weighing half a metric tonne, 18in in diameter and 12ft long.

‘I’m pleasantly surprised at the fine cut we achieve with the Wood-Mizer, as are our customers, even though we run it fast, flat out four hours a day, six days a week, all year.’

He added that he would recommend the machines ‘for any timber sawing’.

‘We used to think that only bigger mills could achieve such quality at such speed with very little handling,’ he said.

Tuttons is very happy with the scale of business it’s achieved and, from Mr Tutton’s comments, it seems this is the size it will stay. But, if it wanted to, he maintained, the

present machinery set-up working double shifts would enable it to process up to 5,000 metric tonnes of timber a year.

Essex and Suffolk, just over the border from the farm, represent a good area for business where the restoration of old buildings accounts for perhaps 50% of Tutton Timber’s trade. The building of imitation cart lodges, which are used as garages, is also a source of business. Sometimes Mr Tutton finds himself making oak knees and boat building components, which are a particularly profitable way of turning a waste piece of timber into £100 for little effort.

‘We are even more versatile now which accounts for our popularity,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I cut a beam while a desperate restorer stands and waits for it. After all, if an 18th century wall is propped up somewhere, a new beam is needed very quickly – it can’t be left artificially supported and open to the elements,’ he added.

New lifestyle

The business aspect aside, Tutton’s Timber has clearly transformed the Tutton family lifestyle. They’re delighted to be still living on their 45-acre farm. Barns have been let out to small businesses, six acres have been planted with English hardwoods and the rest is set to horse grazing. Quality of life has improved: the family has started taking holidays, the two sons have home-made go-karts and Mr Tutton has taken up pheasant shooting again.

‘I enjoy the hands-on approach to wood, we’ve been able to retain our farm and the whole family can now enjoy themselves,’ he concluded. ‘It beats pig farming.’