Portable Sawmills Used to Salvage Urban Logs and Generate Lost Revenue

How many times have you taken down a tree and wondered whether there just might possibly be more to do with it than firewood, mulch or – as is all too often the case – landfill material?  Conventional wisdom is that lumber comes from trees, and trees come from forests, not out of someone’s yard. The stuff that comes out of yards is waste. The magnitude of this “waste” is staggering.  According to the U.S.  Forest Service, urban forests cover approximately 21 million acres, comprising 3.8 billion trees. At some point, every one of those trees will be removed, whether due to development or mortality.

walnut-crotch-salvaged-lumber

Bookmatched walnut crotch lumber from a piece that the author picked up from a yard.

This amounts to roughly 52 million tons per year for urban tree residues, not counting yard trimmings or land clearing. If half that weight is in usable saw logs, and the average yield is 200 board feet of lumber per ton, that quantity represents 5 billion board feet – about one third of all hardwood lumber harvested in the U.S. Even at $.25 per board foot, that comes to $1.25 billion! The value doubles to $2.5 billion, after the logs are sawn into boards. How much of that are you burning, chipping or dumping?

I called tree services in southwest Missouri to find out whether any of their larger logs are milled for lumber. With few exceptions, most saw timber-size trees from the local urban areas are either ground up for mulch, cut for firewood, hauled to the landfill, or burned. Three of the tree services I contacted sell the best logs to local sawmills, but none are set up to mill the lumber themselves. Considering the value of the timber resource, why do so many tree care companies see it as a waste disposal problem?

Part of it is a matter of focus. As one person explained, “I’m in the tree care business, not the lumber business. We get in, do the job as quickly as possible, and move on to the next job.” Sound familiar? Taking the time to cut the tree to the proper length for lumber, haul it to a local sawmill, or saw it themselves just doesn’t seem feasible.

This 38-inch-diameter sweetgum log is from a tree that blew down during the May, 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado. By calling sawmill service to remove the log, the tree service saved itself several hours of work. It yielded 551 board feet of clear lumber.

Then there is the issue of foreign material in the logs. I cut a lot of urban logs and have hit fence wire, nails, bolts, ceramic insulators, and even an ax head. Most memorable was a walnut log full of concrete! For me, it is a matter of replacing a $30 blade and moving on to the next log. It is a different matter for large commercial sawmills where the consequences can be more serious. A sawyer who runs a large circle mill pointed out the metal wall of the mill building that was riddled with holes when the carbide teeth shelled off after sawing into a steel fence post embedded in a log. “It’s a miracle no one was hurt,” he told me. “I totally destroyed a $1,200 blade.” Small wonder that logs brought in on tree service trucks are generally rejected. But there are opportunities, and a few tree care services are cashing in on them by adding portable sawmills to their business. The cost varies with the size and capacity of the machine, but most manual band-saw mills are less than a third the cost of a new pick- up truck, and some can handle logs up to 40-inch diameter and 16-feet long – if you’ve got the muscle power to maneuver the log. Hydraulic log handling is also available, either as a standard option or as a retrofit to a manual mill. Portable band sawmills tow behind a vehicle like a conventional trailer, and take between 10 and 30 minutes to set up, depending on the model. There is a learning curve, and you may need to teach your crews how to cut logs into usable lengths, but leaving an 8-foot log takes less time that cutting it into firewood. The mill itself may be a little intimidating at first, but my experience has been that the machine is easy to learn, and the safety features are pretty much idiot proof. In 12 years running band sawmills, I’ve had nothing worse than a few splinters.

If you want to explore the possibility of setting up a portable sawmill, one option is to contact a sawyer who is experienced with urban logs and has already solved most of the cutting issues. Even giving the log away saves the expense of cutting it into manageable size pieces and hauling it off. I work with several tree care companies on this basis. One of the biggest challenges is in teaching them that some of the most valuable wood is too short, too crooked, or has too many defects to go to a conventional sawmill, even if metal were not an issue. If I get a call about a good log on the ground, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and go pick it up.

Because I live near Joplin, Missouri, where a major tornado struck in May 2011, I have salvaged some remarkable logs, some more than 100 years old. I recently milled a half dozen logs from trees that blew down at an Elks’ Lodge where three people died in that tornado. When dry, the boards will go to a high school woodworking class to be made into furniture that will go into the new lodge. If FEMA contractors had picked up the logs, they would have been mulched or buried in the local landfill, along with the other 435,000 cubic yards of tree debris.

Some homeowners are as attached to a tree as they would be to a pet cat or dog. Suggesting that the tree can continue to be a part of their lives as a kitchen table, fire- place mantle or other furniture can help them deal with the loss, and help create good will with your customers. I once milled a burr oak tree in a customer’s yard. There was no way to move the 48-inch-diameter by 12-foot-long log. It took two days to mill it to his requirements, but he was absolutely thrilled with the results. He has a fireplace mantle and an 8-foot by 4- foot table built out of a single, solid slab from the tree he played in as a child. Other lumber from the tree went into furniture for his children and grandchildren.

Gene Meurer of Meurer Brothers Tree Service of Belville, Illionis,  a  25-year TCIA member company, is an ISA certified arborist, competitive climber – and a sawyer. “About 10 years ago, we bought a sawmill so we could put the logs to a better use than just pushing them into a pile and burning them,” he recalls. “Now, when we cut a tree down, we put each part of it to its best use. We have a stack for logs that go to the pallet mill. If it is good for flooring, we’ll make flooring. Crotches and anything with a Meurer-Brothers-Urban-Sawmillersweird grain, we cut for furniture.”

With the purchase of a second mill, the Meurer brothers now have the capability to cut slabs up to 60 inches wide for tabletops and specialty furniture. With five brothers sharing the two sawmills, he says the sawmilling and woodworking dovetail nicely with their tree care service. “Our focus is the tree service, and in the winter we mill the logs, and stack the lumber. In the evening, we’re woodworkers.”

While Gene says that he would like to move more into full-time woodworking, he is first and foremost an arborist. Still, the tree care business and the sawmills have provided the brothers with some outstanding material for their woodworking. “My whole house is built of stuff we cut down,” he laughs. He continues, “a lot of times, the cemeteries, parks and lots being developed yield the nicest logs, but some of the old houses have trees a couple of hundred years old. Occasionally, we find a nice tree in a backyard.” As for metal, Gene acknowledges that he has hit his share. “We’ve got a metal detector,” he explains. “But with the band saw, you just change out blades and keep milling. You have to figure destroying a blade (with metal in the log) as part of the job. Usually it’s nails or screws, but occasionally we hit a bolt or a pipe. Ninety percent of the time, we’re prepared for it.”

Even other tree services will contact Gene if they have a log they think he would want. “Usually people are pretty cooperative if it finds the best use of a log,” he explains. “I don’t mind driving 30 miles to get a decent log and paying a little for it.” He acknowledges he salvages only a tiny fraction of the resource in his area. “It is unfortunate that there aren’t more tree services using sawmills,” he laments. “A lot of times they’re just ignorant of the fact that they have something worthwhile.”

Adding the portable sawmills to their business has opened up new possibilities for the Meurer brothers. They have milled flooring from ash trees cut from the customer’s property, and built cypress furniture for a restaurant made from the trees that were removed during its construction. “One lady put a tree trunk in her house as a post support,” Gene comments. The Meurer brothers are looking at expanding the woodworking end of the business with a kiln to dry the lumber, and a have a long- term goal of setting up a material yard where people can come and pick out exactly the lumber they want.

Trash, or treasure? It is your choice. If you want to explore the possibility of set- ting up a sawmill, a great way to start is to yard up some logs and have a portable sawmill owner cut them for you. Most portable sawmill owners are glad to talk about their experiences, and would demonstrate their mills, if asked. Portable sawmill manufacturers’ websites have machine specs, as well as knowledgeable people who can answer questions. Among the sites I check frequently is NorwoodSawmills.com, which has its own forum called Norwood Connect where mill owners discuss ideas. Woodweb.com and forestryforum.com have forums for sawing as well as listings  of portable band-saw operators  in  the  U.S.  and Canada.

salvaged-wood-steps

Steps and railing made from recycled urban wood.

Dave Boyt has a degree in Forest Management and manages a family tree farm near Neosho, Missouri. He is a certified logger, and has been running band saw mills for 12 years. He is a frequent contributor to Sawmill & Woodlot Management magazine, and a technical writer for Norwood Industries, a portable sawmill and forestry equipment manufacturer.  Article originally published in May 2012 edition of Tree Care Magazine.

 

Comments

  1. Bought an Norwood Mill in ’98 to replace poorly engineered Delta Lumber Co mill. It took 10 yrs to break even but lately is used more than ever getting much better quality logs although still regularly find embedded hardware. I am in Key West with No forest or large sources of trees,(closest is Cuba 90 miles away by boat and off limits) everything I mill is urban and we do have a large variety of tropical trees growing around the Island and a few skilled woodworkers who know how to turn this reclaimed wood into beautiful finished products.

  2. Post_Oakie says:

    Conchwood, I know what you mean. I think some of the urban wood I’ve salvaged would have brought more money as scrap metal! Good luck with your business.

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