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For most tree services, grinding or chipping the branches into mulch is a routine service. Some cut up the larger branches and stems for firewood either for the land owner, or sell it themselves for additional income. But what about the big logs? A growing number of tree care businesses are either hiring custom sawyers to come in and mill logs, or are investing in band sawmills for their own use.

Sawmills for the Tree Care Industry

By David Boyt


Trees eventually come down. It’s a fact of life. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that trees cut in urban areas pile up roughly 52,000,000 tons of branches, leaves and stems each year in the United States. For most tree services, grinding or chipping the branches into mulch is a routine service. Some cut up the larger branches and stems for firewood either for the land owner, or sell it themselves for additional income. But what about the big logs? Over 5 billion board feet, worth about 1.25 billion dollars could have been salvaged from urban areas in 2007. Yet selling logs can be a challenge.

Large commercial sawmills generally deal with only a few species, and cut for specific markets, such as flooring or trim. Even if a mill is willing to take an odd log, it will pay so little that you will not likely be back with another load. Urban trees grown for shade and aesthetics generally do not have the straight, tall stems that sawmills need. The biggest issue is metal embedded in the log. Ask any sawmill operator about hitting metal, and you will likely hear harrowing tales of teeth parting ways with the saw blade with bullet-like speed, sending all hands diving for cover from the flying metal. A $1,200 blade can be destroyed before the sawyer can flinch a muscle. Some of the more interesting metal strikes include steel posts, bolts, wrenches, and even a car axle no left leaning against a tree. Even cutting through a nail can shut down a mill for sharpening. Such encounters are common with urban trees, where nails from tree houses, garage sale posters, and lost pet notices remain as reminders of the families they once shaded.

Small sawmills that use band saw blades solve these problems, and a growing number of tree care businesses are either hiring custom sawyers to come in and mill logs, or are investing in band sawmills for their own use. Band sawmills typically run engines from 15 to 40 hp., although larger and smaller models are available. The blade is safely tucked inside a guard. If it does strike metal, the worst that can happen is the loss of $40 and five minutes to replace the blade. The cash outlay for these machines ranges from about $8,000 to $40,000, depending on capacity and options, such as hydraulic log handling and computerized setworks. The learning curve is surprisingly short, even for people with no experience. In fact, I have found that it is easier to teach a novice to run a band mill than to work with an experienced sawyer who is used to running a production circle mill.

Most of my logs come from the Ozark woods — oak, hickory, walnut, and cedar, with the odd Osage orange, persimmon, sassafras, and mulberry. Now and then, a tree service calls to let me know about a log that might interest me. These are usually too big to be cut for firewood and can’t be easily moved without special equipment. It saves the tree service time and money, and it provides me with logs of unusual size and shape — exactly what I need to provide custom woodworkers with the raw material for tables, desks, cabinets, and other furniture. Unlike the production sawmills, I thrive on the unusual, and can make more money on a single wide slab of maple than a production mill can make on an entire log. My Norwood MX34 sawmill is a manual mill — I load, turn, and clamp down the logs with muscle power, and push the blade through the logs by hand. The mill handles logs between 3- and 16-feet long and up to 34 inches in diameter, and has a flexible clamping system that holds odd shapes, such as down curved logs and crotches. When I suspect metal in the wood, I use a bi-metal blade designed to cut through nails and wire.


Photo provided by David BoytA growing number of tree services are investing in their own sawmills and training employees to run them. In most cases, it is a logical extension of the business. Hopefully, skilled chain saw operators are already on staff, and only need training on how to cut wood for the sawmill. Usable logs are in greater supply than most small sawmills can handle. Most of the support equipment — chain saws, loaders, and winches — is already in use. A sawmill can keep employees productive in the slow season and during inclement weather. And there is a public relations benefit to running a sawmill. Some homeowners are as fond of their trees as they are of a family pet. Knowing that the tree will be put to use, possibly even as furniture for their own home, makes the loss easier to deal with. Serving as a link in this process can be a strong selling point for your service. Finally, a small sawmill operation can provide significant revenue. A basic analysis of what a small sawmill operation involves is as follows:


Real estate — A small band sawmill only needs an area about 30 feet square to operate, though you will need room to store and sort the logs, as well as a place to dry and store lumber. An acre is enough to get started, but two acres would provide room for expansion. The logs could be stored in a rural area, and a portable mill towed out to the log yard for cutting, and returned to the office when not in use. Setting up my portable mill takes less than ten minutes, and preparing it to tow home is even quicker. For this analysis, let’s assume that you already have a suitable place for milling.


Sawmill — A portable band mill in the 20- to 25-horsepower range is a versatile machine, and gives you the option to cut dimension lumber for flooring and trim, as well as wide slabs for custom furniture. This analysis assumes an initial cost of $12,000, amortized over 10 years.


Grapple loader — These are easy on yards and useful for sorting logs. For this analysis, we’ll consider a trailer-mounted unit, and assume that a one-ton or heavier truck is available to pull it. Initial cost is $15,000, amortized over 10 years.


Buildings — Two 15-foot-by-30-foot pole buildings (one for the sawmill and the other for drying and storing lumber). Initial cost is $20,000, amortized over ten years.


Operating cost — Small band mills are easy on fuel (I have yet to burn through more than five gallons in a day’s cutting) and require little maintenance. Band saw blades — especially in urban logs where metal is common — will be the biggest machine operating expense. For labor, assume two employees at a total of $400 per day, cutting 50 days per year.


Office support — Assume this to be a 1/4-time position. A common mistake is to assign this task to someone who is already working full time. The profitability of the sawmill hinges on selling the wood you cut at a price that will sustain that part of your operation. For this cost, assume $8,000 per year.


Production — A conservative estimate for two people on a small band mill is 1,500 board feet per day.


Logs per year — Do you cut, or can you get, enough logs to sustain the mill? To run the mill 50 days per year, you would need the equivalent of 750 10-foot-long by 15-inch-diameter logs. If you are in an area affected by the emerald ash borer, you will likely find yourself with more than you need. Otherwise, you may be able to contract with developers, utility companies, the highway department, or even other tree care companies to get more logs.


Income — The profit side of the ledger sheet depends a lot on the effectiveness of your marketing and the species you cut. Walnut, cherry, madrone, quarter-sawn sycamore, and some maple can easily bring more than $2 per board foot. Large walnut slabs can bring in more than $10 per board foot. We’ll assume a conservative average of $1.20 per board foot.


Now we’re ready to crunch numbers. Here is the breakdown of one year of operation, based on 50 days operation per year, 10 year amortization of the mill, loader, and buildings:


Sawmill/ Loader

            Operating expense =   $5,500

            Fixed expense =          $2,700

            Labor =           $20,000

Buildings =     $2,000

Office help =   $8,000

Taxes & Insurance =   $5,000

Total expense =           $43,200


Total income =            $90,000


Profit =            $46,800


Part of realizing this profit involves selling your product. Contacting area woodworkers and cabinet makers will help generate markets for your wood. You can also take advantage of the trend toward using local recycled lumber. The U.S. Green Building Council is a good source of information. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) offers incentives to use locally produced wood products. Anyone serious about marketing local wood should network with the Green Building Council and LEED. Once you have the mill up and running, you may find that setting up a kiln to dry the lumber and a planing operation are logical next steps. They make your lumber easier to sell and roughly double its value.

A great way to learn more about small sawmills is to stockpile a dozen logs and have an independent sawyer (like me) bring in a portable sawmill to cut them. This will provide a first-hand view of how they work. I am always glad to work with tree care companies, and would love to see more of them start a sawmilling “branch” of their business. The Forest Products association in your state may have a list of custom sawmills. A call to the conservation department can also help get you in touch with them. You may find that working with a custom sawyer is the best way to start converting your logs to lumber. Depending on the species and the market, some sawyers may even be willing to cut on shares, giving you a chance to market your lumber with minimal overhead expense.

Urban lumber represents a huge potential for resource recovery. This is one of those rare cases in which making the best use of a resource — turning urban trees into lumber — is environmentally sound and can also help the bottom line of the businesses that have the vision to pursue it.


David Boyt is a certified logger with a degree in Forest Management from the University of Missouri. He manages a family tree farm in southwest Missouri where he runs his custom sawing business and writes about sawmills and related topics for industry magazines. He works for Norwood Industries as a writer. For more information, view the forums at www.Woodweb.com, www.forestryforum.com and www.Norwoodindustries.com or contact the author at dboyt@netins.net




Case Study: Horigan Urban Forest Products


Bruce Horigan of Horigan Urban Forest Products, Chicago, started his career in tree care in 1978, and soon recognized the potential resource in urban logs. “Back then, most urban logs just went to the landfill,” he said. Twelve years later, he made the leap. Horigan sold his tree care company, bought a sawmill and went into the lumber business. “We had to learn the sawmill and kiln drying side of the business,” he said. “We went into a new business with no customers, no experience, and no market. I thought people would just flock to me. My accountant said we were crazy.”

Horigan has plenty of raw material. As a result of the contacts he had made while working as an arborist, most of the lumber he mills comes from tree services and municipalities in the Chicago area. But his experience as a tree care professional has stayed with him, and he is concerned about the health of the urban forest. “We don’t buy a log, ever,” he emphasized. “With this downturn in the economy, I get so many phone calls from people whose house is about to go under foreclosure, and they want to sell any trees to make a payment. They’re not going to make enough money for a payment, plus you have just devalued the house by taking the trees down. My goal as an arborist is to keep trees alive.”

To make his business more accessible to tree trimming services, Horigan set up his sawmill on the same street as a mulching yard. He noted that this arrangement works well for everyone, “We mill the bigger logs, and they mulch the smaller stuff. Our slabs and sawdust go back to them for recycling to mulch. Between the two of us, all the logs that are brought in get used. No one is doing exactly what we’re doing.” Although his goal is to recycle as many trees as humanly possible, Horigan estimates that he mills less than 1 percent of the saw logs that could be salvaged. “It’s really sad is to see good black walnut going into pallets,” he said.

The lumber also has to be accessible to customers. “It isn’t enough to just mill salvaged logs,” he pointed out. “Nothing — whether it’s plastic, metal, or wood — is recycled until it is actually re-used.” Horigan’s wife and business partner, Erika, handles that end of the business. “She runs the office and helps customers locate the wood they want in the warehouse,” he said. A large part of Erika’s job is getting the word out about their product and why customers should use it.

“The dilemma is how do you get your name out there, and where do you put your resources,” said Erika. “I give talks at garden shows, farmers markets, green fairs, and architectural and building seminars.” She also manages the company’s website.

Rounding out the family business is their son, Justin. He joined the business full time in 2005, after getting a degree in urban forestry. He started out running the sawmills, but now oversees the production end of the business, and is the dry kiln specialist, keeping track of the lumber in the company’s three dehumidification kilns. Using the chain saw mill to split the big logs in half before loading them on the band mill, Justin works with logs as much as 400 years old and up to 48inches diameter. “We haven’t found a log we can’t cut,” Justin said. “We quarter-saw everything we can.” Although he has attended classes and seminars on wood drying, he acknowledges that drying wood requires knowledge, experience, and a little luck. Drying a variety of species and thicknesses of wood is a real challenge.

“Drying wood is one of the biggest barriers to the business,” he said. “We had to learn everything from scratch.”

Bruce has found that changing the perception of urban lumber — both logs and boards — is no easy task. The city workers see the trees and logs as debris to be gotten rid of. He meets the crews on the job, shows them how to cut the logs, and explains how they benefit by cutting logs that he can use.

“It saves them time and money in cutting, because they make fewer cuts,” he added. “Plus if you cut the logs straight, you can get more on the truck, which reduces the transport cost. We’re trying to show them how it benefits them, as well as us.”

An additional benefit is that people object less to tree removal if they know that the wood will be used.

Bruce has been involved in some major projects. “One of the cool projects we’re involved in is that they’re building a new children’s memorial hospital,” he said. “We’re milling the wood for their ‘Sky Garden’, which is a special atrium for children. It will make an interactive display that tells the story about the tree. They’re doing some incredible things for these kids to make every moment as good as possible.”

When wind blew down a century-old bur oak at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, he was contacted to mill the lumber from the tree to make furniture for the museum. “It is exciting to think that the very tree that was planted before the Columbian Exposition of 1893, enhanced the landscape of the Exposition, provided shade and beauty for the museum’s enjoyment, and now has been made into beautiful furniture will possibly outlive the number of years this tree took to grow. Now that is recycling!” Horigan exclaimed.

“It is cool being in this industry,” Bruce added. “In a sense, it is an old industry, because that’s how we did it before — used local wood. Then we forgot to do it. Now we’re back to using the wood again. There is no end to the possibilities of what can be done. Whatever a customer wants, we can make it happen.”

For more information, visit http://horiganufp.com/

— David Boyt


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