From Woodland... Woodland Heritage's training course: Part 1

Thursday, April 21, 2016

From Woodland... Woodland Heritage's training course: Part 1

People often ask me to describe Wood-Mizer’s average customer and my typical answer is something like, “Anyone with a need to process logs into a semi-finished or finished timber product.” Quite broad, but true. We have large segments of customers who simply use the sawmill for their own hobby wood projects, farmers who produce their own timber for maintaining their outbuildings, masterful woodworkers who need specific species in specific sizes, and the list goes on.

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Our range of small to large sawmilling systems has resulted in a wide variety of customers, all using the sawmill to do the exact same thing – cut wood, but that may be the only similarity between them. Each is very involved with wood, but in different ways and are at different points along the processing chain.

Many customers manage the entire growing, felling, sawmilling, drying and final processing in their own backyard, demonstrating the entire timber industry using their own woodland. That requires a lot of knowledge in areas of the timber industry that often do not overlap when it comes to educational courses.

I was pleasantly surprised when I heard about a course offered in Herefordshire twice annually – ‘From Woodland to Workshop’, put on by the Woodland Heritage charity. I immediately grasped the value to be gained simply by the four-word title, which matched up surprisingly closely to Wood-Mizer’s own motto of ‘From Forest to Final Form’. 

Their course covers the use of timber from the planning and maintaining of a woodland, through to valuing trees, sawmilling logs, and then drying and turning the timber into a final product in the woodworking shop.

Since Wood-Mizer’s customers are represented at each stage that the course covered, I felt this was a course I should attend. Prior to working at Wood-Mizer, my only connection to the timber industry was a framing construction job for a few years in the United States, and so I am always looking for ways to learn more. 

“There are courses for cabinetmakers, there are courses for architects and designers, there are courses for foresters,” shares Will Bullough, one of the course founders and instructors, as well as the facility host. “But the whole middle area of the timber industry – the sawmilling, the drying, preparing and so on – there is no system of education for that, and there never has been, it’s always been learned in the trade. So one of the main reasons for the course was to try to put those trades together in the same room. And put them all on a single course where they will learn a huge amount about all the different aspects. We feel they will benefit greatly from knowing about what their allied trades do.”  

The Woodland to Workshop courses are so important because people come to it that are foresters that know nothing about woodworking, and woodworkers come that know nothing about forestry.

The three-day course is hosted at Whitney Sawmill in Whitney-on-Wye, Herefordshire ( The instructors are all experts in their respective fields, and it was invaluable for all who attended to plumb their experience and knowledge during all three days. 

The full list of speakers can be found on the Woodland Heritage website, and all of them earn their living from the topics they cover in the course. So their advice is highly practical and based on experience in the real workplace. My description of the course contents will follow a slightly different order than how it was presented chronologically.

From Woodland…
We spent a full day in the stunning Duchy of Cornwall Woodland, and were able to see a real woodland in various stages of development along the trail. 

Planting trees
Deciding which species to plant is very important due to the length of time between planting and final harvesting. Once the tree is planted, it is there to stay until harvesting. A lot of discussion focused on what considerations should be made to determine the best possible planting strategy, and how to improve seedling survival rates during the first few years.
   1.  The Right Place – Start by looking at the climate, soil, local pest threats, existing trees that can provide shelter, etc. and know the conditions of your site.
   2.  The Right Tree – Then decide which species is best suited for the site. Once deciding on the mix of species, then it is important to use good quality tree seedlings. 
   3.  The Right Reason – Think about how the planted tree fits into the overall planting and site usage strategy. 

Shaping trees
Formative pruning when the tree is less than 3 m tall can be very effective in producing a single straight stem that will result in quality timber yield after harvesting. The goal is to encourage one leader to grow straight and reduce the number of large branches. Forks in the main stem should be eliminated so that one leader is left. Large branches and branches that angle upward should be thinned. Trees that are planted closely (2500+ stems per hectare) require less formative pruning than if they are widely spaced. 

Around three seasons after planting, well-established small tress are ready for pruning. Pruned branches should not be larger than 2 cm at the base. Additional pruning can be done every one or two years. As a general rule, pruning is best done in late springtime, just before the trees come to leaf.

During the woodland walk, many additional details and topics were covered – 
   • Biodiversity benefits of a properly planned and managed woodland 
   • Coppicing strategies and benefits
   • Pests and diseases and methods of protection 
   • Thinning strategies
   •  Using woodlands for sport and recreation
   •  Various forest management systems

Evaluating trees
In the classroom and in the forest, the basics of tree structure and markets for the various parts of the tree were discussed. 
   1.  Veneer or planking butts are used to produce high quality timber for furniture generally and are the most valuable part of the tree. First grade log lengths should be at least 2.7+ metres long, and not less than 45 cm in diameter in the middle and with clean grain. 
   2.  Beam logs come from the lower quality sections of the tree and are used for character planking and beams. Timber has strength but not the top quality appearance, with some knots visible. Beam logs should be 2.5+ metres long and at least 30 cm in diameter at the middle. 
   3.  Fencing timber usually comes from the upper parts of the tree. This lower quality timber does not meet structural standards and so is used for non-structural applications like fence posts. 
   4.  Most remaining parts of the trees are sold for firewood.  

After the discussion about various log grades, our instructors launched into the various issues commonly found within logs that degrade their quality and selling price. Armed with this new knowledge, we had several opportunities in the forest and the log yard to examine logs and identify the problem areas.

Growth ring centre not centred in the log is usually the result of the tree growing on a bank. This offset centre results in pressure-wood on one side of the log, and can create difficulty in sawmilling the wood because of the internal stresses. 

Sapwood, the outer ring just under the bark, is usually discarded after sawmilling, so the thinner the sapwood is, the better for the selling price of the log. Thick sapwood can significantly reduce the amount of usable timber from the log. 

Ring and Star shake
are splits/cracks in the wood. Ring shake is curved with the grain, while star shake originates at the centre, shooting out through the wood. Trees that grow in sandy and rocky soils often have shake. Shake sometimes only appears after 3-4 days of felling. Logs with bad shake are often only valuable for use as firewood. Shake can look similar to natural drying cracks, so the instructors showed us how to determine what kind of cracks we were looking at.

The instructors made sure we had a firm understanding of these problems and could identify them just by carefully examining standing trees and logs in the log yard. 

Other issues with trees were covered –
  •  Woodpecker damage
  • Internal rot
  • Spiral grain
  • Blue stain and fungi
  • Tree pests and diseases

Harvesting Trees
Quality timber is normally felled in winter and sawn as soon as possible. Felling and sawmilling second grade timber can be done year round. Sycamore should not be felled when the sap is high and is more susceptible to staining. Ash can tend to split if felled during winter. 

One point made clear was to never cut a tree down that you do not know you can sell. It is better to leave the tree standing until you are certain you have a market for it. Wait to cut until the market demand and price you can get are ideal.

The question of selling timber standing or managing the harvesting process yourself was discussed, with the advantages and risks of each being laid out. When you sell your timber standing, the buyer assumes the risk and possibility of higher profits, but manages the whole harvesting process. 

When selling ‘at stump’, the woodland owner manages the felling and extraction to the roadside, and can potentially get better prices. It is important that owners cut the logs in the right places. If a valuable log is sectioned in the wrong place, it greatly affects the potential selling price. Bends and problem areas in the log make the best places to make a cut, normally. However, some bends may be saved, as they can suit very well to timber frame beams. To maximise the selling price, logs should be left long and crosscutting decisions should be left to the buyer as possible. 

Read part 2: ...To Workshop!

It was obvious that everyone immensely enjoyed the course, the content presented, and the interactions with instructors and the other attendees alike. Among the attendees were arborists, apprentices, landowners, sawmillers, woodworkers, foresters, etc. The range of experiences and knowledge from the whole group made every moment educational and engaging.

Everyone was incredibly attentive, each one scribbling notes throughout the sessions, a testament to the quality of the material being presented, and the value it held for the listeners. 
The course is held twice a year, usually in May and September. Class size is limited.

An excellent video that summarizes the course:
For further information, please contact Woodland Heritage:



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