Adapting to change: Watts To Mill

By: Vivienne Haldane

Adapting to change: Watts To Mill Adapting to change: Watts To Mill
Adapting to change: Watts To Mill Adapting to change: Watts To Mill
Adapting to change: Watts To Mill Adapting to change: Watts To Mill

Like many businesses, sawmilling has to adapt to market trends. Farm Trader spoke to a niche market sawmill which has evolved over 20 years to cope with different challenges.

Andrew Watts jokes that like himself, all the equipment he uses is getting on in years, but still goes well and does an excellent job.

Watts, who runs a macrocarpa specialist sawmill in Waipukurau in Central Hawke’s Bay, started out using a Peterson portable sawmill about 20 years ago. He’d sold his farm but decided to retain a woodlot of macrocarpa trees that needed milling. Then once people found out what he was doing, he got busy milling for others as well.

Watts says he owned two Peterson portable sawmills that did a great job before he decided to build a factory to house his sawmill. He then bought a sawmill built by an engineer in Fielding – a copy of a Mahoe sawmill – which he still uses. "It’s big and robust, runs hydraulically and is driven by a big diesel 120hp motor. We haven’t had any problems. My milling guy, Ross MacDonald is a good operator and there is nothing we can’t fix ourselves."

He remembers when there were about 23 other portable sawmills operating in the district, now there are only a handful. It’s all changed, "mainly because of a dwindling resource of easy-to-access macrocarpa trees."

"A lot of macrocarpa got turned into garden sleepers but I was looking for the better quality timber so that’s where now we’ve ended up. We take it to the most valuable end-product such as scotias, architraves and skirtings. I sell to architects and joiners and fill a niche market that rimu used to occupy."

He once ran a business called Kiwibackyard, which grew out of the need to use the large amount of lower grade timber they were milling. In its heyday Watts employed 14 staff who built everything from sleep-outs, garden sheds, playhouses, chook houses, garden beds, letterboxes to dog kennels. But a combination of the financial downturn beginning in 2008, a flood of similar low priced imported products and ‘every man and his dog selling copy cat versions on Trade Me’, put paid to that business.


Watts is pleased to see wood is coming back into favour. "In the past 10 years the trend has been for painted interior surfaces and lots of stainless steel, but I am starting to see a reversal of that; there’s an option now for those wanting nice feature timber."

Some architects like the quality of Watts to Mill’s timber so much that they specify finishing details are done using only his. "I do enjoy seeing the finished work. Macrocarpa timber is very warm: it’s got life. It really replaces rimu, in that sense."

"However, the problem with the macrocarpa that they grow now is that the timber is very white; it doesn’t have the nice colour, and sheen of the timber that the old trees do."

Now he is nearly at retirement age, Watts says he works at his own pace. "I am only as busy as I want to be. I would like to be able to lock the door and go off and do what I want to do more often in the future"

He’s had a long connection with the NZ Farm Forestry Association and was instrumental in setting up an arboretum The Forest of Memory on the outskirts of town.

"We still mill but not on a daily basis – I have a few logs out in the yard and the portable mills supply me from time to time too. We also do a bit of custom milling for farmers who want to use their own logs."

Eighty percent of the timber milled is macrocarpa.

A tour of his factory reveals a collection of well-used machinery, mostly German and English brands.

The Spida 2000, has an out-feed measuring system and hydraulic stops for the different sizes. Andrew uses this to cut and grade wood. "I like this part of processing the best. All the time I am deciding where I am going to cut and what I am going to take out. The good stuff is selected for future house timber and the lower grade goes to make garden beds."

The Danckaert bandsaw, which breaks down the timber to the right thickness, is a beast of a machine but it looks as if it will go for a few years yet. "I bought this in Australia, it can break down anything, even to small shavings."


The Kupfermuhle machine – a four-sider – is used to create the right width and arris the edges of the garden beds after they have been through the bandsaw.

Then it goes into a machine (without a name) "that no-one else in New Zealand or the world has. My staff made it here. It’s especially designed to notch the timber for the garden beds six at a time."

Andrew explains. "It’s two pieces of German equipment, two pieces of English equipment, one mounted upside down. The boards go in, the air compressor holds them, then you push button and the machine notches six boards. The secret of these garden beds is they have to be absolutely perfect in size to fit together."

Watts also has a Sanderson teleporter, from England – it’s the forerunner of the JCB. This is used to transport and feed logs and all the timber into the mill. "We’ve had it for 20 years and it’s been totally reliable."

A Nissan forklift is used for moving timber before it is hand stacked.

Timber is air dried in the factory for a minimum of 12 months and up to three years for the larger dimensions. All timber dried is cut to grade, marked to length and the clears sealed on the ends.

Reflecting on how he has worked with mostly macrocarpa for 20 years he says, "We’ve made a business out of firewood trees really. They were never pruned; they were just farm shelterbelts that we cleaned up. A lot of logs we’ve handled were very rough."

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