Sawing Your Trees Into Lumber, Part 3

Reader Contribution by David Boyt
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My 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.

Finally, 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

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.