Friday, February 16, 2007

Pine Supplies near Bolton

Thornton Kay writes about husband and wife reclaimed wood specialist Pine Supplies in Lancashire UK

Above: Fiona and Nick Gordon in the main machine shop of Pine Supplies in one of their farm outhouses on just outside Bolton. A husband and wife business working from home with no employees can result in a sometimes tempestuous very rewarding relationship. They look good on it anyway.

Bolton, Lancashire UK - "TWENTY-THREE year's ago I went to a salvage yard for a piece of old oak for a mantelpiece and thought, this guy is making a living by not being helpful and polite - I can do that. At the same time I was using a hand-saw to rip beams down and someone said get a table saw. I went to look at one which turned out to be a Wadkin 36ins circular dated - 1 June 1951 - my birthday. It was a beautifully well-made machine," Nick Gordon said in his stream of consciousness manner of speaking. It seemed like destiny, so he bought it on the spot.

Nick left school to start a career in the family scrap metal business in Westhoughton, but eventually decided to give flagging a go. This ended with him sending reclaimed flagstones to Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and the Imperial War Museum. Fiona Gordon also lived locally. Their paths probably crossed at a very young age - neither seemed too sure - and they got married. The flagstone business had to stop when they lost their premises.

So they moved on to reclaimed timber, based at their farmhouse nestling in the countryside above Bolton. Nick put an ad in the Farmer's Guardian. The orders started coming in, mainly for pine flooring and cutting lists. His first big order came after the 1987 storms from a boat repairer. Nick already had good contacts with the demolition trade from his scrap and flagstone days so supply was not a big issue.

Nick Gordon's skill for mechanics soon came in handy and he started acquiring, commissioning and adapting machinery suited to the task of ripping beams, mainly pitch pine, into boards and sections. Fiona was, and still is, his labourer as well as his taskmaster, dealing with the phone and orders. One can be justly envious of their blissful life in a rural idyll with an old farmhouse land and outbuildings, poultry and dog running around - their kids have grown up and left now - and no employees to worry about.

The tools the Gordons have bought and developed include a bolt-puller, power-adze, bandsaw converted to run hydraulically using a six litre lorry engine, a Farm 2000 wood waste boiler in which they burn sawdust collected by their home-made extraction system, and a circular saw with Nick's unique home-made blade capable of chomping its way through a thousand six-inch steel nails. They use a Protovale Imp to search for nails, bolts and screws which Nick says will find things as small as a carpet staple. They also steam clean the beams to get rid of grit and reduce wear on the saws and planer.

The wood they buy is pitch pine or yellow pine, taken out of buildings locally and further afield, much of which is first growth forest timber of North America and the Baltic logged in Victorian times. As if to prove its pedigree, among the embedded objects found by the Gordon's, usually wire fencing and the occasional lead bullet, was an iron tomahawk-head which they found buried deep in a pine beam from the old Warburton's Victorian bakery building. Iron tomahawk heads were first taken to North America by the French in the late eighteenth century to trade with the indigenous population, and would have been the prized possession of an Indian brave who would rarely threw a tomahawk in anger unless in serious trouble and then would normally unerringly hit the target. What a story it could tell!

When converting the beams Nick will start with boards then, if the beam is good, take out the biggest sections, and then go back to floorboards again. For clean wood he uses a 1946 Robinson band resaw, which he describes as a lovely machine, the most powerful saw of its size in England, which will cut a 12in square beam at 3 1/2 feet per second. He converted it to run hydraulically on an old Ford Cargo six litre engine (petrol I guess). He also has a Wadkins 36in circular saw and blades, including one he has made especially for ripping through six inch nails, the result of a job he got from Michael Aspel who wanted extra naily wood for one of the floors in his house. Conspicuous salvage that. The Wadkin's saw blades date from early plate saws that are set traditionally, through to later complex inserted tooth tungsten-tipped saws. He changes them according to the number of residual nails and the amount of resin in the wood. There is a also a Dominion four-cutter for planer thicknessing.

Sawdust is collected in a home-made cyclone extractor and is then burnt, along with scrap off-cuts, in their Farm 2000 wood waste burner, which heats their house and hot water. Chickens forage for woodlice. Nothing goes to waste.

After converting the wood, it is stacked in a kiln made from the body of a 20ft lorry refrigeration container, containing a dehumidifier and a 3kw fan heater. "It is so well insulated that the fan heater is hardly needed," Nick said. The finished wood is kept in a barn, every piece of dimension timber marked with its length width and breadth. "Fiona deals with cutting list orders. She seems to be able to complete a £10,000 order without making a dent on our stock. I go in and have a look at the pile and it doesn't look any different," said Nick. "That said we are always after yellow pine and pitch pine. The trouble these days is that too many demolition contractors are shredding reclaimable timber on site or smashing it in the process of demolition. Buildings are not being sympathetically destroyed like they were a few years back."

He describes pitch pine as Pinus palustris - longleaf pine but accepts that other heavy pines could also lay claim to being pitch. (See Salvo Guide 2000 p209-212 for Salvo's story of pitch pine which names a dozen species that have been called pitch over the years.) He has a love hate relationship with pitch. It is a strongly figured dense durable wood which is sought-after by customers but it is a pig to work. "It is the worst stuff to cut," he sighs. On the subject of pine species, I mentioned that the only UK native pine, Pinus sylvestris Scots Pine, can grow dense enough to be considered a pitch pine. Nick said that at a castle in Elgin they had to supply floorboards to match the locally-grown originals which must have been cut from Scots pine. "They looked exactly like pitch pine, so I guess slow-growing Scots pine could be dense and pitchy enough to be classified as pitch pine," he said.

Contact Fiona and Nick Gordon, Pine Supplies, Smithills, Bolton, Lancashire UK. Tel 01204 841416. Fax 01204 845814. Mobile 07860 166808. PINE SUPPLIES web site

Above: Pine Supplies favour their old Protovale Imp metal detector for finding metal in reclaimed beams. "It was originally developed for finding wall-ties and studwork, but will find anything down to a carpet staple or drawing pin in an old beam," said Nick Gordon. His most unusual find was a chunk of metal well-embedded in a beam of American pitch pine that turned out to be a tomahawk head. Oxford-based Protovale has been taken over by the US Elcometer group whch has an office in Manchester. The Elcometer P600 is the equivalent model which has a 4ins 6ins and 8ins induction coil. The photo shows Pine Supplies four inch coil which Nick Gordon says is the best size for the job. Tel Elcometer on 0161 371 6000. Web Elcometer

Above: After denailing the beams are steam cleaned to get rid of as much grit as possible, and then sawn into sections using the 1946 T Robinson & Son band resaw, made in Rochdale, which Nick Gordon runs hydraulically using an adapted Ford Cargo six litre petrol engine as the power source. "We've had it for fifteen years and it really is a lovely machine," he said. "It's the most powerful machine of its size - and will cut a twelve-inch beam at three and a half feet a second. Although most of the work is flooring, we cut the largest section out of the beam first, and then drop into flooring thickness. This way we keep up our stocks of cutting list sections." The Robinson saw came with several old bandsaw blades which need sharpening after up to eight hours use, depending on the species of wood being cut (pitch pine is hardest on the blade) and whether any nails are hit. A Dominion four cutter is used as a planer thicknesser.

T Robinson & Sons was one of Britain's oldest family firms, starting in 1813 and being incorporated in 1835. The firm made flour milling and woodworking machinery. By 1864 'it was estimated that 6,000 people found sitting and standing room in one half of Messrs Robinson's machine shop' during a hustings speech by Richard Cobden MP. In 1881 the firm employed 1200 men, opened the first works canteen in the north of England, and had offices in London, Paris, Sydney and later in Odessa, Russia. During the two wars Robinson made munitions and tanks, returning to flour and woodworking machinery afterwards. Its machines were designed and built, with the correct lubrication, to last for 80 years and many of them continued for longer. By the 1960's the era of cheaper less durable machinery resulted in T Robinson & Sons becoming uncompetitive, and the firm finally threw in the towel some time in the mid-1980's. T Robinson history

Left: Saw dust is extracted by a home-made system and, along with any scrap wood, is then put into the Farm 2000 wood waste burner which runs their heating system. Carbonised wood is used for charcoal on the barbie, so nothing goes to waste.

Above: Pine Supplies kiln dries all its wood using an old refrigerated 20ft container with a dehumidifier and intermittent use of a 3kw fan heater.

Above: For heavier work and truing up, Nick Gordon uses a Wadkin 24inch circular saw, with one of four types of blades. The earliest blade is a traditional plate blade around 35 years old, with teeth that are set or swaged alternately either way, giving a wide kerf typically of a quarter to three eighths of an inch when the wood is sawn. These blades were often hammered into a slight dish shape to produce tension on the inner edge which would straighten as the blade got hot. The next chronologically is the tungsten carbide tipped blade, without a set, which is handy for ripping through harder woods and the occasional soft iron nail and any damage is usually confined to the loss of a tip which can be replaced. Next up is the carbide-tipped positive hook positive gullet circular inserted tooth saw blade, which is a very tough blade designed for general slashing and plywoods. Each tooth is replaceable without needing to remove the blade from the machine. It is a good blade for cutting resinous woods and pitch pine. The final blade is Nick's own invention and was inspired by a job he did for Michael Aspel of Antiques Road Show fame who asked for a reclaimed wood floor with a lot of old nail holes. Nick gave him a typical sample, but he said it did not have enough holes. Eventually he chose the most naily wood in the yard, full of steel six-inch nails, and then Nick needed to work out how to slab it up without ruining all his blades and spending a fortune on the saw doctor. The design he came up with was a blade with alternating tungsten tips, with a higher V shaped tip on one tooth and a slightly lower flat tip on the next tooth. The idea was that the V tip would notch the nail and the flat tip would punch through it, so Nick and Alec Garry, his saw doctor, cut and ground the new blade - and it worked. It did Michael Aspel's floor and will, according to Mr Gordon, cut through a thousand six inch steel nails without a problem.

Above: Another Nick Gordon special - a home-made power adze using a 16inch bar Stihl electric chainsaw with the chain replaced with a bike chain and sprocket, all attached to a heavy steel stirrup and an axle-mounted electric planer head. It is slung from the roof with some baler twine to give more control and takes seconds to create an adzed chamfer.

Above: Fiona Gordon demonstrating another home-made tool - this one designed to extricate those 12inch bolts. The heavy metal puller consists of inch square section steel frame, and an inverted hydraulic lorry jack attached to a five inch engineer's vice.


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