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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Sawing Your Trees Into Lumber, Part 3

Dave Boyt and Wonderdog at the millMy last blog was about how to work with the wood that comes off the mill.  Now I’m going to back up and talk about working with the sawyer.  Like the logs they cut, sawyers are all different.  Even the same one can be different on different days, depending on things like arthritis flaring up in that leg he broke when he wasn’t quick enough to get out from under a log that dropped unexpectedly, or whether he stayed up all night putting a clutch in his truck.

First of all, make sure you have agreed on the terms of payment.  In my early days of cutting, a customer waited until I was finished, then informed me he didn’t have any money, but I could take “some” of the boards for payment.  You generally have three options for payment: by the hour, by the board foot, or on shares.

Most sawyers charge by the board foot.  Just measure the pile of boards when the job is done and settle up.   It is pretty easy to estimate the number of board feet in a log ahead of time.  Measure the diameter at the small end, just inside the bark and use the International 1/4” log scale.  If you’d rather print out a table of log volumes, here’s a good one.  If your sawyer runs a band saw mill, add 10% to the amount of lumber you can expect.  Disclaimer: this is for estimating only.  This does not account for crooked logs or decay.  You may get more or less, depending on your logs and the skill of the sawyer.  On the down side, a sawyer may refuse to cut small or crooked logs, because they take too much time for the amount of lumber you’ll get (and pay for).

I prefer to charge by the hour, because this more accurately reflects my costs.  I try to cut the best logs first, and keep track of the time and yield from each log to give the customer an idea of how much per board foot he or she is paying me.  One customer had some walnut to be cut up for plaques.  The pieces weren’t much more than firewood length, and I spent more time clamping them down than I did cutting them.  Because of the extra set-up time, it cost him $1.40 per board foot (more than three times the average cutting price), but he was delighted with the results.  That’s the key thing.  If the customer and I are both smiling at the end of a job (almost always the case), it has been a good day.

Sometimes, I cut on shares, if the customer has a species of wood that I either want to use myself or can easily sell.  Walnut, cedar, and cherry come to mind, but I’d consider less common species, such as hedge or persimmon, just to have some to play with.  Generally, it is 50-50 shares, but can vary.  The important thing is to have payment terms settled ahead of time.  Most sawyers can look over a pile of logs and give a pretty close estimate of the cost.

Then there are the miscellaneous costs.  The sawyer should talk them over with you or have it in a contract.  Some have a minimum charge.  I charge an hour for setting up the mill, plus a hauling fee based on the distance the mill is from my home.  This encourages the customer to bring the logs to me (which I prefer).  It also lets the customer decide whether a job is too small to be worthwhile, since I recover my costs no matter what the size of the job is.  While you shouldn’t expect to pay for normal wear on the mill, metal in the log may cost you the price of a new blade.  It may be hard to imagine a tree out in the woods having metal in it, but it happens.  Some people nail up “No Hunting” signs and others build deer stands (sometimes in the same tree).  I’ve hit enough nails to start my own scrap metal business, a couple of ceramic insulators (particularly nasty), and even an axe head that the tree had grown around.  If there is metal in the log, the sawyer will generally mutter a few things under his breath, roll it off the mill, put on a new blade and move on to the next log.

Stay where the sawyer knows you are safeFinally, about helping around the mill.  Some sawyers allow it, while others don’t.  It is a fascinating process, and it is natural to want to be involved.  It is great to be able to say that you helped cut the lumber that went into that tool shed, table, or even your house.  Be understanding if the sawyer declines your help.  There are liability issues, even if the sawyer is insured (many aren’t).  Bruce McElmurray has experience with sawmills and insurance.  In one of his comments to me, he said that he never allowed a customer within twenty feet of the mill.  If you are anywhere nearby, the sawyer will want to know where you are at all times.  This is a distraction and increase the chances that he will make a mistake and mis-cut the log or even damage the mill.  Finally, there is the chance that you’ll injure the sawyer.  The only times I’ve been hurt at the mill were when a customer caught me on the back of the head with a board, and when another customer gave a new bandsaw blade a helpful tug when I was putting on the mill.  Dragged the razor sharp teeth right across the palm of my hand.  In spite of the prevailing wisdom, if a customer is savvy enough to wear hearing protection, hard hat, steel-toed boots and leather gloves, I’ll allow him or her to help.  If they’re really interested, I might let the customer saw a few boards.  My Norwood mill is simple enough that they can’t get into too much trouble, and the sawyer’s location behind the mill is actually one of the safest places to be.

Really want to help?  Best thing you can do is have everything ready when the sawyer gets there.  How about bringing out some sandwiches and something to drink?  Ask questions.  I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned about sawmills and lumber, and often learn from my customers.  I only charge for the time the engine is running.

I’ll end this with an account of a particularly memorable customer a few years ago.  It was on a Veteran’s Day weekend.  I never served in uniform myself, but I have the highest respect for those who did (and do).  As we munched on the sandwiches he brought out, he mentioned that he had served in Korea.  Most of what I know about the Korean “conflict” is from watching M*A*S*H re-runs.  He lamented the fact that the Korean war, and those who had served in it had mostly been forgotten.  I had to agree.  When we settled up at the end of the day, I informed him that he qualified for my “veteran’s half-off Veteran’s Day discount”.  I love being my own boss!  It about covered my expenses.  Warm fuzzy feeling? Priceless.  It reminded me of the commercial “when did you last thank a veteran?”  That day, a veteran thanked ME.