A Family Lumber Business

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PHOTO: RAY JOHNSON
Though "wood-in-the-rough" was on hand to process for resale, orders for custom planning and resawing kept the Wright's family lumber business busy for weeks.

Way back in 1971 (when MOTHER EARTH NEWS was still a mere girl), our
family escaped the clutches of city pollution in all its
varied forms and fell in love with the scrubbed-clean air
of rural Haliburton County, Ontario.

For us (my wife Mary, sons Dave and Mike, and daughters
Dawn-Liane and Karen) time really began that year, as we
happily took up the chores and routines of caring for our
chickens, a gelding, a Jersey cow, and a pair of
Yorkshire-Hampshire sows and their piglets. However, our
cash crop was cattle, and–by the fall of
1976–we had increased our herd to 20 head.
Then–to our dismay–beef prices plummeted,
expenses soared and our spirits sagged.

What to do? Sell out, of course: A two-year-old steer
simply won’t wait for market prices to improve. Instead,
his appetite for hay and grain marches onward to the
tune of big-dollar feed bills and small weight gains.
Nevertheless, it’s just about impossible to tend living
creatures without becoming attached to ’em, and we watched
the cattle buyer’s departure with a numbing sense of guilt,
shock, and dismay … but–as happens to many other
folks who strive to live independently in a natural
setting–circumstances (in our case the dropping beef
prices) demanded that we “buck up” and reconsider the uses
we’d been making of our resources.

A Careful Switchover

It was then that we decided to convert our sturdy, empty
barn (45′ X 51′) into a new mill and start a family lumber business. It would have cost $25,000 to $30,000 to erect a comparable
structure, but the conversion–which involved
removing the hay and stabling pens, installing additional
posts for support, and thickening the upper floor with
two-inch tamarack lumber sheathing–only required
about 70 man-hours of labor.

Before rushing into the venture, however, we consulted the
zoning bylaws to make certain the regulations that covered
our land and buildings would permit the establishment of a
lumber processing business. Much to our delight, the local
council gave us consent in writing. Equally important,
however, was the verbal approval we sought from our nearest
neighbors. When a green-light situation seemed to prevail
at every turn, we felt encouraged enough to go shopping for
machinery.

Since labor costs had been a major factor contributing to
the demise of many medium-to-small (eight to ten workers)
mills, we reasoned that–despite the considerable
expense of occasional equipment repairs–a small
family operation that used large-scale machinery
and had a good location would always have enough work to
keep busy and should manage a reasonable
return on the investment.

As it turned out, we were able to locate all the necessary equipment by
word-of-mouth within a 20-mile radius of our home and at
good prices! We obtained, for example, a fairly full and
compatible milling setup that was underused by a
firm which had shifted its operation to retailing. The
$5,000 price tag covered the power unit (a UD-14
International Diesel), planing mill, resaw mill, ripping
mill, and a complete line of accessories including
knives, band and rip saws, a line shaft, bearing mounts,
belts, pulleys, a blower, a belting and lacing tool, small
motors and grinders, exhaust piping, etc.

Further inquiries led us to a bargain forklift ($2,500) and
gravel truck ($1,500), the latter of which we lengthened to
accommodate loads of long lumber. Our mill equipment cost
us a grand total of $9,000.

Sweet Success

Of course, even after we’d cleaned out the barn and
purchased the necessary machinery, a fair amount of work
remained before we could open for business. For example,
since the planer mill was extremely heavy (an estimated 12
tons), the barn floor had to be braced with a row of
additional support posts. And prior to unloading any
heavy equipment, we had to take great care to decide
the best traffic pattern for material handling within the
limitations of the existing structure.

Using pipe, rollers, jacks, chains, and a “puller,” we
installed the machines. During the following weeks the
line shaft was leveled and lagged down, pulleys were
lined “plumb” and true to the shaft, and protective
railings were placed in potentially dangerous locations.
The exhaust piping (12″ diameter) and blower were connected
to all three mills and vented to the field at the northeast
corner of the barn.

Then, once again, we discovered that word-of-mouth
recommendations are indeed powerful. Even before the machines were in
operation, the phone started ringing with requests for
custom planing and resawing. Though many of these early
orders were fairly small (often under 1,000 board feet),
one person usually referred another to us, and customers
who came for one item often purchased much more than they’d
planned to.

In fact, the need for our service was so strong that our
10,000 board feet of white pine, spruce, and eastern cedar
(which we’d purchased in the rough for resale) wasn’t even
processed until well on in the season.

Better yet, dollars and busy-ness aside, we found
that we enjoyed dealing with our customers. The
do-it-yourself types who come to the “farm” (we still think
of it that way) are, without exception, interesting people.
Every one of them has plans for his or her material: studs,
joists, rafters, sheathing, floors, wall paneling, siding,
cabinets, furniture–the list is nearly endless. Some
folks come simply to haul away the clean planer shavings
for pet and livestock bedding, but every person is a
pleasure to have on the property.

Dollars and Other Rewards

A typical work day comprises five to six hours of actual
milling and one to three hours of sharpening, repairs,
material movement, and other maintenance chores.
And since the mill is very much a labor of
love, we often put in additional hours of planning and
construction activity.

Altogether, our start-up investment in machinery and
lumber, plus part-time “hired” labor, hovers close to
$15,000. Though we were in operation during our
first year for only five months out of a nine-month
season, we recorded 52 business transactions for a
value of about $4,000. At the beginning of our second
season, however, we already had a waiting list of four
weeks of custom work. At that rate, we plan to recover the
dollar portion of our investment–after costs and
wages–by the end of the third or fourth year.

There are other rewards too, including the learning
that comes from working as a team: During tough times, our
family really pulled together. And lumber–unlike the
two-year-old steer that wouldn’t wait for sale and
consumption–is always ready and never grows
old or tough, gets sick, or requires dally care. (As a
personal bonus, Mary prefers the fragrance of wood to the
heavier odors of a cow barn.)

This winter, while the machines are temporarily idle, we’re
busy constructing bins to organize the spring run of house
molding. Our need to grow and learn is now
directed toward offering a more complete line of products.
(Since excellent basswood is available in the area, picture
frames, liners, and stretchers made of this valued
wood could become our specialty.) In any event, we’re
determined to avoid the tedious repetition of labor common
in the majority of manufacturing shops.

It seems important to point out that lumber processing is
only one of many possible applications of
recycling privately owned resources (such as a barn and
land). Since we haven’t copied anyone else’s
experience, we don’t advise others to copy ours
necessarily. We simply wanted to share the details of our
enterprise in the hope that you too can use initiative to
redirect your particular “resources” when necessary.

Meanwhile, if you’re in our area, drop in at the
“mill-farm” near Lochlin, Ontario. (You’ll be able to hear
the song of my saw some distance away.) Our visitors seem
to enjoy the smell and touch of new lumber products–and the excitement of watching steel shape
wood–almost as much as we do!