Jo Denbury, Features Writer
Wood, for many, is the fifth element. It exists in our souls, in our nature and in our culture. To enter into a wood is to enter into another world, a world in which we ourselves can be transformed. Shakespeare often used a greenwood as a backdrop before which his characters grow and learn. Merlin sends King Arthur as a boy into a wood to fend for himself in The Sword in the Stone. Far beyond the realm of fiction and legend, man has worked with wood since time began.
Will Miller is one such man, who has turned his hand to wood to become a Dorset ‘sawyer’. His story began with elm trees, the ‘ulmus’ species. These big, tall, strong trees have always been tinged with melancholy. Their vast branches have a tendency to drop without warning and they traditionally produced the wood in which human remains were laid to rest.
It was in the 1970s that Dutch elm disease – which had already carried so many of these trees away – struck again. Will grew up on a farm in Devon, but it was at this time that his father turned his hand to running a mobile saw mill, as a way to manage the elms that needed to be felled. He watched from afar as his father worked the wood, little knowing that in the future he, Will, would be doing the same.
In 2009 Will inherited the mill and, although he was in full-time employment as a mechanical engineer and had three young children to absorb his time, he began to work as a part-time sawyer. In 2015, he progressed to a full-time career in the art of woodwork. “I moved from one ‘not so happy’ week to a ‘happy’ week,” he says, explaining why he knew at once that he had made the right decision. Nowadays the work is not limited to elms. “It is such a privilege to be the first person to see inside a tree. It can look like firewood from the outside, but when I open it, it gives me a buzz,” he explains.
When they decided to go full-time, it was a joint decision between Will and his wife Charlie. “We had a long conversation over a glass of wine or two,” says Will. “But what was important to us was that, if we were to do it seriously, there would be no waste from the milling of the trees.” So it was that Timber Millers was born, primarily out of a deep respect for the trees.
Charlie had studied photography and, after three children, was keen to get back to something creative. So she developed a range of chopping boards, spoons and butter and cheese knives from the offcuts. Burrs, in which the grain of a tree has grown in an unusual pattern, are like the secret ‘pearls’ of an ancient tree. So when such precious pieces appear, Charlie makes a point of saving them for her beautiful boards.
Clearly hours of work go into the making of these cheese and serving boards, as they are silken to touch. “I spend about six hours on every board,” Charlie tells me. “I want to make each one a piece of art.” Their luxurious finish is the result not only sanding, but also of oiling and, finally, a silken wax from the bees they keep in their local woods.
“Walnut is my favourite wood, because of its grain and colour,” Charlie enthuses. “But the satisfaction is starting out with something raw and ending up with something I am really proud of. In fact, I put so much time into each board that I become protective of it and don’t want to sell it,” she laughs.
‘Headquarters’ is a cosy wooden cabin that has been ingeniously built inside a hangar barn, although Will is often out with his ‘travelling’ mill. Recently they have had a call about an ancient walnut tree that has gone over in the gales, while another customer has asked for his apple trees to be milled, so that he can use the wood for boards and possibly a bench. The couple only works with fallen trees. They are a sad sight for anyone, but as far as Timber Millers are concerned, every fallen tree has an afterlife. It makes me think of a quotation from Virginia Woolf, which says, “There are a million, patient watchful lives for a tree, in bedrooms, in dining rooms, where men and women sit after tea. It is full of peaceful, happy thoughts, this tree.”
When the best pieces have been saved by Charlie to adorn our tables, Will turns his hand to cladding for houses. It is increasingly in demand, as people begin to realise its eco and thermal benefits. “Larch, douglas fir, western red cedar and oak are the most popular,” says Will. He happily cuts it according to requirements, whether that’s bark-on, feather-board, tapered or tongue-and-groove, but it is all dependent on what is available, as he likes to use locally sourced wood. They are also beginning to geo-tag the wood, a service that will name the tree and source.
Starting their own business while having a young family has been a leap of faith for Will and Charlie – but they were determined to create a better work- life balance. “I enjoyed growing up on a farm,” says Will, “and I wanted to give my children some of the same experience. ‘Frog Eyes’, the old tractor, was a 14th birthday present from my dad and now our own children can come up here and play on him too, when they’re not off in the woods nearby.” Will pauses briefly, "Dad would be so proud to see what we are doing here,” he adds.
Timber Millers provide seasoned firewood logs in a mixture of hard and softwoods with free local delivery.