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Selling Firewood Nationwide

Nic Snell of Certainly Wood on the advantages of producing firewood with industrial processes

Nic Snell talking woodfuel

To many of us, firewood creates images of collecting our own wood, perhaps thinning our own woodland or clearing windfall. To some it’s about the local guy who in his spare time produces firewood then delivers it to your home in his pick-up or trailer and perhaps even stacks it in your logstore. He probably only charges about £70-£80 for the load.

You have probably bought from him for years but before we go on, just ask yourself a few questions. Do you know what wood it is? Is it all hardwood or a mix with softwood? How much is the load? Is it the same every time? Is it tonne or a cubic metre? Is it the same quality every time and is it good quality? What is the moisture content? Does it have any quality assurance behind its supply? I suspect when you spend time considering the answers, it may be ‘no’ to most of them, but perhaps you then say “Does it matter – its cheap”.

You may not be aware but the firewood industry is on the move. It has been a cottage industry for centuries but with the foresight of one company in Herefordshire, changes are afoot.

Certainly Wood was set up five years ago by brothers George and Nic Snell and is now the largest firewood supplier in the UK. We ask ourselves whether it has revolutionised firewood supply – lets explore with a guide to woodfuel.

In this short period, as part of a farm diversification the business has increased from 1,000 tonnes to a staggering 16,000 tonnes of firewood per annum with a further 2,000 tonnes of kindling and a range of woodfuel related products which include heatlogs, wood pellets, log stores and flamers natural firelighters. The products are sold via a network of national retailers focusing on small retail packs with bulk deliveries being made locally and nationally via an online shop. The scale of the operation is vast – a massive yard, 4 firewood processors, large storage and packing sheds and a huge 1 megawatt wood fired boiler which fires the 4 kilns. Approx 100 tonnes of firewood are processed every day, stored in bins for a short period, then finished off in the kilns bringing the moisture content down from approx. 60% to an average of 20% - ready to burn logs, and not a single softwood log to be seen on site. The packaging is striking and is certainly a far cry from the standard plain log net seen at garage forecourts.

I was intrigued to know how they managed to source so much raw material. Chairman George Snell said “we work with several woodland management companies and for us it has been all about building relationships with such companies and ensuring we pay the highest prices to the woodland owners. Prices we are paying have risen by about 100% in the 5 year period and this is good news in respect of supply. Owners can now make money from thinning their woodland and will even be considering planting more. We work closely with our suppliers and actively look for people who have areas of neglected woodland that wish to bring it under management and make money” he said, “Supply is now increasing which is great, and we hope for the sake of the consumer there will now be a levelling of price. We think the price is reaching a point at which it is good for both the supplier and the consumer – a fair balance for a renewable and sustainable fuel” he added.

With regards costs, presumably the overheads must now be huge but are there economies of scale? “We have worked hard to ensure we are ultra efficient and it is only now that we feel we have reached the critical mass to match the significant investment. Always a difficult balance but we are confident that if others are to accurately cost their production, we will be able to produce a tonne of premium quality firewood cheaper than anyone else in the country. Having a unique wood fired drying system, our drying costs are minimal” said George.
But nothing is sold by the tonne. ” It is probably our biggest challenge – to educate our customers that they are buying a bag of energy. The drier the wood the more heat output” said Managing Director Nic Snell. “It is vital we get people to understand that buying wood by weight means they are probably paying for water. Our wood is lighter than most because it is so dry but most importantly consumers need to understand the benefits of dry wood – a clean burn and greater heat output, therefore you need less wood” He went on to say “Quality is therefore key to our business and this is why two years ago we worked closely with HETAS (The wood equivalent of Corgi) to set up a new quality scheme later launched as the Solid Biomass Assurance Scheme and Certainly Wood was the 1st company in the UK to be approved under this new scheme. More are being approved under the scheme but it will take time” Nic however expressed concern that more and more kiln dried logs are appearing on the market, not a problem in itself but the concern is that much is now imported and the consumer is not aware of this. There is no legislation to make suppliers declare the origin, however the HETAS scheme does insist that origin is declared.

And to other products, Certainly Wood has launched a range of wood fuel related products and the one I really love is the Flamers, natural firelighters. Wood wool dipped in was with a tiny amount of paraffin. Only one to light the fire and away it goes. “These have been a huge success and everyone just loves them” said Nic.