Where Does The Timber Come From?

For many consumers in today’s market – in everything from food, to clothing, to construction materials – sustainability and the ethical sourcing of materials has become one of the main concerns when making a purchase. 

Ensuring you know the product you’re buying comes from a sustainable source isn’t just useful for environmental concerns; it also determines a baseline of quality, guarantees the people you’re dealing with consider multiple aspects of their product’s logistics, and makes it easier to determine the likelihood of your product suffering (or ideally not suffering) from defects. 

Each sawmill selects, buys, and transports its wood a little differently. For more about how Logie Timber goes about selecting its lumber, here’s an interview with co-founder Alec Laing. 

Let’s talk about the Logie Estate – what are some of the more common types of trees there? What’s the climate like?

Where we are here in Moray, it’s the driest part of the UK. There is a very low level of rainfall compared to other areas, and the ground in most places is quite sandy and light. What that means is that we’re predominantly a Scots pine area.

The tree we sell most of is usually sitka spruce, which we saw along with larch and Douglas fir, but the tree most present on the estate is Scots pine. We don’t normally cut a lot of Scots pine in the sawmill, which we’re hoping to change, and ideally use some of that local pine more. The Scots pine we cut now mostly goes to local sawmills within half an hour of here, who use it for fencing products. 

The estate is about 4,500 acres (1,800 hectares), and about half of that is what we would class as commercial forestry – areas planted specifically to sell, for biomass, etc. There’s quite a lot more forestry along the sides of the rivers, along banks and areas which are more accessible but aren’t classed as commercial forestry. But we think a lot of wood that we find on the estate is innately usable, whether it’s been specifically designated for commercial use or not, and we’re working to do more with wood from these other categories.

What are some of the first things you look for when you’re sizing up a tree to be used – some tell-tale visual qualities, or some signs of trouble?

What we’re looking for varies based on different trees and market options. We don’t really cut that much pine, for instance, but we cut Douglas fir and larch for our own use. The pine and spruce tend to go off-site to other sawmills. That pine and spruce would be cut at a smaller diameter; at Logie Timber, we prefer to let our trees grow longer because our sawmill has a larger capacity than other mills. 

In terms of qualities, the diameter and straightness are key. If you’ve got a trunk with a kink or sweep in it, that’s indicative of undesirable properties in the tree, and it means you can’t get straight bits of wood out of it. You might use want to use that bendy wood for things like boatbuilding, and we do have some small bespoke orders for those uniquely bent bits of wood. 

Generally, though, you usually want the straighter wood. Knots can be a problem; sections of wood with knots in them are more brittle and stand a greater chance of breaking. There’s a lot that goes unseen in trees; there’s butt rot, that can grow up from the roots. Butt rot might mean you could lose up to the bottom third of the tree, which can really sting, as that’s often the most valuable part of the tree. 

When it comes to buying, you can buy your timber standing, where you come in and buy the tree as it is; or, you buy it roadside, where someone else has cut it for you ahead of time. Roadside timber reduces the risk but increases the price. The Forestry Commission often works based on a bidding process, so it’s a little bit like an auction – they’ll say there’s a thousand tonnes standing in this place, and people put in their bids. On a smaller scale with our neighbours, we build up good relationships, and they’ll deal with us directly instead at a good price. There’s a bit of both.

Could you walk us through the stages involved in getting the wood to the mill?

I mentioned the routes to buying a tree, or a lorry-load; either by the roadside or as standing. We don’t have a felling team, so it’s difficult for us to buy standing trees as we’d have to subcontract to a specialist felling team. We tend to buy it roadside, then ring up the hauler that we use.

They’ll come and pick it up in an articulated timber lorry, and that’ll come into our yard and set the wood down in an area of the yard that is specific to that wood’s particular species and length. So, if we’ve bought 4.9 yards of larch, the people working at the mill will know what wood’s available at that time, and where to go in the yard to get it. 

Tell us a bit about the transportation method; the wood’s all very local, but how does it get to the yard? And apparently this is an area that’s a prime avenue for future emissions reduction?

If it’s on the estate, we have a tractor-timber trailer – an off-road trailer that can get into the woods and pick up around five tonnes of timber at a time. That’s how we would gather stuff close-by in small quantities, but that doesn’t tend to happen much. More often, we pick up maybe 25 tonnes at a time from different purchases. It’s a very efficient process because we’ve got good access here at the yard. 

The technology, as far as I’m aware, isn’t there yet for vehicles to transition to fully renewable, but I would pin my money on hydrogen-powered vehicles being the way forward for heavy-tonnage vehicles.  If you look at the whole timber cycle, there’s a lot of net-zero carbon activity, so the transportation of timber does remain the key area in which we can reduce emissions.

There are two employees on the site who are specifically trained and qualified in visually appraising trees for their qualities and strengths. How important is it that there are trained staff on-site for this purpose?

Visual grading is for timber rather than the trees specifically, but it is relevant to the trees. It’s very important for our sawmillers to understand the requirements from a visual grading perspective, so they can cut the right logs for the right job. If they cut a log without it being graded and then the grader confirms later that it won’t pass necessary quality requirements, it’s a waste of everybody’s time and money. 

What the visual qualification allows is for us to sell timber that’s stamped with approval in a certain construction class. That strength grade lets us sell it to companies for use in specific high-load parts of construction, so that’s what those guys are allowing us to do; sell timber that can be used structurally. A lot of the timber we sell doesn’t have to do that. For cladding, for instance, the timber is purely aesthetic. But, when we do need that qualification, the visual graders are a vital aspect of the mill operation. 

Logie has often cited sustainability in its forestry practices as an important factor. What are some steps that employees in the estate might take to keep the forest healthy, and help set up areas of continual growth to keep future timber to an equally high standard?

All the forestry practices we follow on the estate are guided and approved by Scottish Forestry, under our ten-year forest management plan. What it means is that we go to Scottish Forestry and have all the maps drawn up in collaboration with a forest consultant. What these maps then say is that, over the next ten years, we’ll fill these compartments, thin those compartments, fell these sections. That’s worked through with them, and that collaboration is really the key thing in place to make sure that we’re doing things correctly in the eyes of the conservation authorities.  

We do a little bit of forestry in-house, and we have a forester, but when it comes to felling we’re using contractors from outside. Choosing those contractors carefully and making sure their knowledge of the area is up to code is also vital. So is using operators that understand our aims here at Logie – we don’t want them to cut down trees that are under or over our preferred size, for example. There’s a huge amount of guidance, such as in safety , pesticides, diseases, and other factors coming through the industry bodies that we keep an eye on and follow. 

The other thing I would say is critical is planting the right tree in the right ground. Often, the most economically preferrable crop is prioritised over what the ground would prefer, so we’re constantly in talks with the Forestry Commission to make sure we don’t make that mistake. Very often, you can see in some commercial estates where they’ve favoured the short-term profitability over the long-term health of the forest, and just planted whatever trees they think will sell the best. That process really impacts the long-term health of those forests, which would be at odds with our main goal here at Logie – to ensure that the woodlands we hand down to the next generation will be just as healthy as the land we’ve inherited.  

While we’ve certainly covered a lot about the timber selection process here with Alec, it’s certainly possible that you might have more questions about how we do things here at the mill, especially if you’re thinking of ordering from us. If that’s the case, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us personally, where our team of experts will be more than happy to field any questions you might have. You can message us on Facebook or Instagram; call us on 01309 611769; or e-mail us at info@logietimber.co.uk

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