Lloyd Knowles: sawmilling
The smell of macrocarpa and scream of saws greets visitors to a family-run sawmill up a valley behind Motueka where Lloyd Knowles specializes in making one-off timber products, often with intricate profiles, for do-it-yourself builders, renovators, and furniture-makers.
“We make a whole range of stuff, from weatherboards to architraves, as well as replica mouldings using different profiles. We just make a pattern to fit whatever they want. ‘ Negative detail’ is the flash term,” says Lloyd, who runs the business with his wife, Diane. Most requests for bespoke work come from Golden Bay and Motueka. “A lot of people around here are doing their own building now, especially baches.”
Lloyd’s father ran a small mill on the property in the 1960s before turning to tobacco farming. “He made the mill up from parts, starting with derelict steamdriven machines hitched to a tractor and adding electric motors. The gorse grew up through it and you couldn’t even see the sawmill when I got there,” he says.
Lloyd was working as a joiner in Motueka in the 1970s before hanging
“A lot of people around here are doing their own building now, especially baches”
up his hammer to resurrect the mill and build a house. “I made all the windows and cupboards before I left, then just had to build a house to put them in and hope they fitted,” says the droll sawmiller, who claims that he built the house, where he and Diane raised their family and their daughter now lives, with a skill saw.
In 1985, he transformed an old lean-to barn below the house into an operational mill and from small beginnings grew it into a boutique business that now employs a full-time staff member as well as the couple and their son.
“We started out making pallets for the kiwifruit industry,” says Lloyd. “Next they wanted trays. Little boxes out of thin bits of wood. One year I
made 44,000 of them. We got two or three years out of that before they went to cardboard.”
Garden trellis was their next bread-and-butter line. “We made miles and miles of that, then started doing tongue-and-groove with an old foursider. It’s a museum piece now,” he says. “Once we got this high-speed machine, we were away.” The Weinig four-sider sawmilling moulder acts like a giant router, with moulding blades attached to cylinders to shape the profiles a bit at a time. Lloyd cuts and files all the blades, or knife steels, to shape by hand.
No job is too small but Lloyd admits to losing a bit of sleep over fiddly jobs. “It can be a challenge. It takes a lot of time to set it all up and make a few bits of timber,” he says. “People restoring old houses will bring in a sample and ask for so many this long and so many that long. We’ve just done four 27cm pieces of detail for a tile edging.”
Hand-built belt sander
They keep a stock of dry timber stacked and ready to use, including macrocarpa, poplar, pine, and lawson cypress, as well as native beech and rimu.
“It can be a challenge. It takes a lot of time to set it all up and make a few bits of timber”
Most of it is plantation-grown or windfall, though a lot of people bring in wood from their own properties to be machined. Dryness can be an issue with privately supplied wood. “People have often stored it in sheds under plastic so it isn’t dry enough. It’s got to have air,” says Lloyd, who sometimes stacks wood in the office to speed- dry timber. “It’s my kiln,” he says.
The Knowles have built up an array of heavy- duty equipment over the years, much of it adapted from the early milling days. There’s nothing shiny in this shed and barely a shred of plastic in sight. The oldest saw still has its original Cadillac gearbox. Lloyd reckons his hand-built belt sander, a “relic” in leather and wood, does just as good a job and is more reliable than its modern counterparts.
“Most of it came out of the ark,” says Lloyd. “The whole site really needs to be turned into a museum.”
“Most of it came out of the ark. The whole site really needs to be turned into a museum”
Right: He fits his homemade knife steels to the cylinders ( you can see a couple to the far left of the photo), which are then attached to the machine and shape the timber in one pass
Above: Lloyd makes all the knife steels by hand, cutting new ones to specific profiles if they are not already in his collection. It takes a good eye and a fair bit of maths to replicate the negative detail of samples to be copied. He has 200 little...
Right: Lloyd insists timber needs air to dry correctly Below: Many of the tools in this shed are decades old - but still as reliable as the day they were new