Elegant Line is a striking example of a sawmill that has come through a restart and clawed its way back to competitiveness, in partnership with Gearing Moss.The sawmill is situated just outside Sabie, off the old Lydenburg Road. Gerhard Swart, co-owner, begins by providing some background on the mill itself.
by Gareth Nisbet
“The mill is co-owned by Joekie Bezuidenhout, Kallie Swart, my father, who has a long history of sawmilling and run a number of sawmills in the past, and myself. We have one LT 20 Breakdown saw, one LT40 Breakdown saw and 3 Resaws, amongst others, which we bought from Gearing Moss.
“We installed and maintain them ourselves too, for the most part. We’re in our third year in these premises. We’re building new office space, plus extra space for workshops. The mill burnt down three years ago, but you could say we’ve risen from the ashes. We were Sappi Mining Timber before this.
“When we set up our new line, we chose Gearing Moss machines because they’re easy to maintain, straightforward, as well as being cost-effective and affordable. Additionally, there’s the ready availability of spares.
“Henry Steenkamp, the Gearing Moss representative based in White River, calls frequently. He’s like part of the family. He’s always ready to help sort out problems. Their after-sales service is very good, too. If you have a problem, they will make an extra effort to help you.
“It cuts both ways, though. By maintaining your own machines, you have more control over the whole process and can run for longer between breaks. Gearing Moss know their products very well. If you phone and say you have a problem, you’ll get the help you need and you won’t have to wait for spares. Wood-Mizer, the GM brand, is particularly reliable.”
“In terms of production volume, going on seven planks per minute through the mill – we estimate, on an eight-hour shift, that our production is between 22 and 25 cubes per day. That’s seven planks at 2,4 m each per minute times 60 minutes x eight hours, according to my calculations, works out at 22 464 m per shift.
“We have the two machines, plus one for sideboards. On 5 460 planks per shift, we would be doing 25,39 cubes per shift. For two shifts, that would work out at around 48 cubes. Our shifts run from 7.30 – 4.30 and from 6.00 – 2.15. We’re busy, but it’s not easy,” Gerhard confirms.
“For us sawmillers,” he continues, “it’s all about timber supplies. After York closed three sawmills, supplies were not consistent. Then there’s the matter of the gap between orders and delivery. Gum is sitting on R 320 per cube, delivered, while pine is currently on R 450 – 500 per cube, delivered (second grade).
Wood was R260 a cube
“The selling price is pegged at R 1 350–1 400. Then, of course, with Eucalyptus, you have A and B grades. This recession has hit us all hard. With the forests that burnt, York then stockpiled a lot of timber and put it on wet decks. From November of last year until May this year, everything was dead quiet. Last year, we used 24 loads a month, including April, when wood was R260 a cube – or less. It’s for this reason that some sawmills have closed down – the jump from R260 to R320 a cube; the guys just couldn’t afford it.
“The bigger guys who have a lot of stock are flooding the market at prices smaller guys can’t meet. We’re fortunate; Elegant Line has some loyal customers but we’ve also introduced our own innovations, such as the laser reader, to optimise recovery. We’re even looking at using the sawmill waste to generate electricity.
“Zebrapellets take our sawdust waste at no cost to us. They put their bins outside and collect them when they’re full. It works for us.
“If we come back to what we turn out, these machines weren’t built for the production we get out of them. In terms of what we cut, gum has more tension than pine. With pine, the saw goes through like a knife through butter, whereas with gum, you have to cut it straight to avoid pulling, distortion or cracking.
“We’re cutting 50 cubes on a 24-hour shift with the narrow bandsaws. We may be working at optimum, but we set achievable targets. We don’t want to push the machines too hard.
“We train the operators to maintain the machines – the basic running procedures. We cut from Monday to Friday and have training and maintenance on Saturday. In fact, we have the same training every Saturday. We want to see the operators checking everything properly.
“We issue certificates after training is complete, especially to new operators. We have our own exam sheets and operators must score 70% or higher. Additionally, we have emergency stop switches for blockages and safety.”
“Sales last year up to November were fantastic,” he recalls, “but things have been picking up again after April. The cost of sawmilling is very high, so it comes down to your recovery – and then it’s about selling everything that you cut.
“We employ 50 people per shift, so we have to do volumes, but what you cut is underwritten by a demand for sales. With this in mind, we’re looking at exporting and at becoming more versatile. It’s a matter of survival.
“Six months ago, wood was fetching R1 800 – 1 850, and an average of R1 700 delivered in Johannesburg. Now it’s down to R1 400. Some sawmills are only cutting to order. What this means is: when the order comes in, the mill starts up, cuts and then closes down again.
We believe in loyalty
“We should be aiming for cooperation to facilitate the coexistence of the big and the small mills. If you’ve been doing business with a guy for a long time, you should try to keep him on the team. When those three York sawmills closed down, it put 500 people out of work.
“Firstly, timber prices are the main concern. Secondly, there’s labour. We look at redesigning processes, at speeding things up and sometimes even slowing them down. You could say that our quest is for ‘optimum performance’.
Gareth Nisbet: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in June 2010