Lloyd Knowles: sawmilling

The Shed - - Sawmillers -

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.

Fruit boxes

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

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