Sawdust in Larsen's veins

Local company sends milled redwood to the USA, the home of redwood

Local company sends milled redwood to the USA, the home of redwood

INGRAINED: Larsen Sawmilling owner John Larsen started up his Makaraka business 28 years ago and is “pretty bloody happy” with it.
Picture by Rebecca Grunwell

ONLY three New Zealand mills export milled redwood to US company Woodplay Playset, and one of them is Gisborne business Larsen Sawmilling.

Milled redwood for the American company’s demand for wooden swing sets and play sets is a little outside-the-box for mill owner John Larsen.

The timber yard supplies two or three Gisborne builders with materials but Mr Larsen’s main customer base is the rural sector. Demands for farming products “just evolved” as core business, he says.

Among lines of product his business has tried are clothing — a non-starter — grass seed and stock-handling systems.

Larsen Sawmilling has a staff of six, including two office workers. Mr Larsen shakes his head at the potential employees who chuck a job in after a few days. People do not want to work.

Yard staff include an Italian man whose visa restrictions mean he will have to leave the country soon, and Mr Larsen will be sorry to lose him. He’s a good worker. Other yard men have been with the business a long time. All good workers, says Mr Larsen. Good staff makes a business.

His own hands-on work ethic means he puts in 12-13 hour days. Asked if he takes weekends off he says: “Weekends? What are they?”

Watching the rugby

That changes during rugby season when he knocks off at lunchtime on Saturdays to watch the rugby. As a Ngatapa Rugby Club sponsor he likes to have close involvement. Every Thursday night, he goes along to watch the club training and to catch up with the boys.

“It comes down to my attitude to sponsorship: front up. I think I’m the only sponsor who will phone if I can’t make a training session.”

He also sponsors show-jumping events, Waipaoa cadets and dog trials.

“They all have a rural connection.”

As a what-you-see-is-what-you-get character, he and the Makaraka business are “no frills”. Always have been.

“There’s no need for a fancy office,” he says, pointing at a computer behind him.

“I know it’s a computer. That’s as much as I know about it.”

Email communications with no contact phone number frustrate him because he often needs more information about what the customer wants than is in a brief email. A brief conversation helps identify what a customer plans to use a product for — John can point him or her “in the right direction”.

After several decades in the milling business, Mr Larsen is as tantalised, grainy and fibred as the timber he works with. His grandfather was a bushman sawmiller, so milling is in his veins, he says.

Before he graduated to sawmilling, Mr Larsen was involved with post and batten production in the 1970s. The seed of his business was planted in the early 1980s when young John went to the annual national agricultural show, Fieldays.

Loving the sawdust

“I fell in love with a portable sawmill and have been involved with timber ever since. I love making sawdust.”

He first worked his mill at Makaraka’s East Coast Museum of Technology. One day he looked across the paddock to the Pacific Pine Products-owned timber yard and had an idea.

“I said to my accountant, ‘I should buy that site one day’.” And then he did. That was 28 years ago. He grew into his life as timber miller and that has clearly grown into a love of his craft and the materials he works with.

“I try to get the best and the most out of a log. I recover what I can.”

Mr Larsen enjoys working with all timber except pine. “Pine is all right but it’s so bland. It’s a great product but there’s no real character in it.

“You see some wonderful grain and colouring and smell in freshly-sawn timber. You get a high from it.

“Redwood is heavy when it’s green but good timber to mill because it’s so soft. The saws behave themselves even if they are a bit blunt. It’s like butter and it dries out light.”

Birds-eye macrocapra “with that fleck in it” brings out the elegiac in John.

“Every now and then you get a bit of birds-eye redwood or gum. One of the nicest timbers I’ve milled would be Old English Plane. It has a beautiful grain and it chips well, but there’s not a lot around.”

“He reads the log,” says long-time office assistant Lucy.

ONLY three New Zealand mills export milled redwood to US company Woodplay Playset, and one of them is Gisborne business Larsen Sawmilling.

Milled redwood for the American company’s demand for wooden swing sets and play sets is a little outside-the-box for mill owner John Larsen.

The timber yard supplies two or three Gisborne builders with materials but Mr Larsen’s main customer base is the rural sector. Demands for farming products “just evolved” as core business, he says.

Among lines of product his business has tried are clothing — a non-starter — grass seed and stock-handling systems.

Larsen Sawmilling has a staff of six, including two office workers. Mr Larsen shakes his head at the potential employees who chuck a job in after a few days. People do not want to work.

Yard staff include an Italian man whose visa restrictions mean he will have to leave the country soon, and Mr Larsen will be sorry to lose him. He’s a good worker. Other yard men have been with the business a long time. All good workers, says Mr Larsen. Good staff makes a business.

His own hands-on work ethic means he puts in 12-13 hour days. Asked if he takes weekends off he says: “Weekends? What are they?”

Watching the rugby

That changes during rugby season when he knocks off at lunchtime on Saturdays to watch the rugby. As a Ngatapa Rugby Club sponsor he likes to have close involvement. Every Thursday night, he goes along to watch the club training and to catch up with the boys.

“It comes down to my attitude to sponsorship: front up. I think I’m the only sponsor who will phone if I can’t make a training session.”

He also sponsors show-jumping events, Waipaoa cadets and dog trials.

“They all have a rural connection.”

As a what-you-see-is-what-you-get character, he and the Makaraka business are “no frills”. Always have been.

“There’s no need for a fancy office,” he says, pointing at a computer behind him.

“I know it’s a computer. That’s as much as I know about it.”

Email communications with no contact phone number frustrate him because he often needs more information about what the customer wants than is in a brief email. A brief conversation helps identify what a customer plans to use a product for — John can point him or her “in the right direction”.

After several decades in the milling business, Mr Larsen is as tantalised, grainy and fibred as the timber he works with. His grandfather was a bushman sawmiller, so milling is in his veins, he says.

Before he graduated to sawmilling, Mr Larsen was involved with post and batten production in the 1970s. The seed of his business was planted in the early 1980s when young John went to the annual national agricultural show, Fieldays.

Loving the sawdust

“I fell in love with a portable sawmill and have been involved with timber ever since. I love making sawdust.”

He first worked his mill at Makaraka’s East Coast Museum of Technology. One day he looked across the paddock to the Pacific Pine Products-owned timber yard and had an idea.

“I said to my accountant, ‘I should buy that site one day’.” And then he did. That was 28 years ago. He grew into his life as timber miller and that has clearly grown into a love of his craft and the materials he works with.

“I try to get the best and the most out of a log. I recover what I can.”

Mr Larsen enjoys working with all timber except pine. “Pine is all right but it’s so bland. It’s a great product but there’s no real character in it.

“You see some wonderful grain and colouring and smell in freshly-sawn timber. You get a high from it.

“Redwood is heavy when it’s green but good timber to mill because it’s so soft. The saws behave themselves even if they are a bit blunt. It’s like butter and it dries out light.”

Birds-eye macrocapra “with that fleck in it” brings out the elegiac in John.

“Every now and then you get a bit of birds-eye redwood or gum. One of the nicest timbers I’ve milled would be Old English Plane. It has a beautiful grain and it chips well, but there’s not a lot around.”

“He reads the log,” says long-time office assistant Lucy.

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