Buying a sawmill on a whim in Helmsley

As an impulse purchase, a sawmill takes some beating and it is hard to believe that calm, level-headed Emma Woods made that snap decision.

Emma Woods, who came to the rescue of Duncombe Sawmill.
Emma Woods, who came to the rescue of Duncombe Sawmill.

She bought Duncombe Sawmill, a loss-making business in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire, after receiving a letter about its forthcoming closure.

“I was a customer and they sent a letter saying they were about to close forever, which I thought was so sad.

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“I just thought, ‘why don’t I buy it?’ It was on a whim. I knew absolutely nothing about timber or sawmills,” says Emma, an antiques expert who previously worked for the Royal Household cataloguing the Queen’s silver.

The all-male staff at the Helmsley mill were equally surprised by the rescue, which was far more arduous than she thought it would be.

“The quality of the work was brilliant but prices hadn’t gone up for years so we were selling at a loss. I must admit that in the first few weeks I worried about what I had taken on,” says Emma.

She did, however, inherit a loyal clientele and an impressive history. The mill is over 120 years old and was originally part of the Duncombe Park estate.

Her efforts to refresh it and make it viable began by updating the price list, expanding the product range and researching new gate designs via the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Bespoke gates are best-sellers, along with fence panels, porches, planters, fire pits, benches and picnic tables.

Emma’s plan for 2015 is to diversify into timber buildings.

“I was the first woman to work there and that was a challenge, though there are now four women in the office. I also went from the antiques world to having to learn about accounts, employment law and, of course, the wood,” she says.

“I had a lot of help from Chris Storey who I took on as sawmill manager. He taught me all I know about timber.”

After 11 years with Emma at the helm, business is thriving and Duncombe Sawmill now supplies the North York Moors National Park, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency, along with home and business owners throughout Yorkshire and beyond.

The mill’s latest high-profile commission was for fashion designer Stella McCartney. The team was asked to make a gate for a forest installation at her recent fashion show in London.

The designer and an array of star guests, including Samuel L. Jackson, Paul McCartney, Colin Firth and Anna Wintour, passed through it on their way to the event.

The sawmill was chosen thanks to its dedication to using locally-sourced FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) timber, mainly larch and Douglas fir from local woodlands within a 20-mile radius of Helmsley.

Emma says: “Stella’s collection is dedicated to creating fashion that respects the environment as much as possible, so it was important that everything about the show echoed that.

“We craft all of our gates out of larch, which is the most durable of all the softwood timbers but can be difficult to work with, and that larch was from a local woodland, just outside Helmsley.”

Unlike many manufacturers, who buy in planked timber, the sawmill creates its own from larch logs. These are left to air and then cut into gate components and pressure treated. The two craftsman joiners, who have worked for the firm for the past 25 years, make everything by hand using traditional techniques

Emma says: “We have a fantastic team and some lovely customers. It’s a happy place to be. The Stella McCartney commission was one of the highlights of the year.

“Often, once we make something, it goes to its new owner and we don’t know what happens to it. But this time we can quite confidently say that dozens of celebrities have walked through one of our gates.”

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