The best part about running a portable sawmill is being out on a beautiful day with a light breeze at your back (blowing the sawdust away from you) and taking one perfect board at a time off each log you cut. However, after a while, it may occur to you (or, in my case, my wife reminded me) that you may actually need to part with some of the lumber you’ve been piling up behind the barn. Selling lumber can be a tricky business. If you cut ahead and store it, as sure as you cut 4×4 cedar planks, someone will want 6×4 boards of a different species. Cutting as you sell it (otherwise called “Just in Time” manufacturing) generally doesn’t work well with lumber, unless your customers want to buy it green, right off the mill. The rule of thumb for air-drying lumber is one year per inch board thickness, though this varies with climate, airflow and wood species. Air-dried wood will bring a higher price than green, but who wants to wait a year to be paid for lumber cut today? From your customer’s perspective, who wants to pay for lumber today, then have to wait a year to use it? One solution is to work with your customers and anticipate what they will want in the future. If you know, for example that a cabinet shop typically buys 1,000 board feet of red oak every two months, it is relatively easy to cut ahead so the lumber is ready when they need it. Regular repeat customers will be your bread and butter. Be sure to take good care of them! Industrial buyers can be a good potential market for your lumber as well. The best way to find industrial buyers is to check with your state’s or province’s Forest Products Association. Flooring mills, pallet manufacturers and railroad tie suppliers or installers are the biggest industrial markets here in the Midwest US, though dimensional lumber may be a viable market where softwoods are more common. Industrial markets are generally steady and you pretty well know how much you’ll be paid for your lumber, however, it won’t be top dollar. I still remember hauling my first load of 1,000 board feet of oak to a flooring mill, proud of my big load of perfect lumber. When I arrived, I was quickly humbled. First, I had to wait while two semi-trailers, each carrying ten times the load on my flatbed, were unloaded. Then, without ceremony, the forklift driver relieved me of my load and whisked it away for grading and stacking somewhere in the million board feet of inventory waiting its turn in the kiln. The price was a little lower than I expected, as my lumber was graded mostly #1 & #2 common. Common??? How could they call my wood common? I could point out every unique knot in every piece of wood. It wasn’t common…it had character! Another steady industrial market is in railroad ties. Again, you are competing with much larger mills working for slim profit margins on much higher volume. Even small ties weigh over 200 pounds and you need a strong back and equipment to pick up bundles of ten at a time. Still, this can be a good way to move your lower quality logs.
Sometimes it is hard to imagine what life was like selling or buying wood before craigslist. If you search for “logs” or “lumber”, you will undoubtedly find several entries. When selling on craigslist, be sure to list the size and species of your lumber. Also, be sure to post your add with good photos. If you really want the grain to pop out in the photos, pour some denatured alcohol on your boards. It evaporates quickly and won’t discolor the wood. If you have unusual wood, be sure to advertise with craigslist postings outside your area and especially in large cities. You would be amazed to learn how far some woodworkers are willing travel just to pick up a unique board or two! Of course, the downside of selling this way is you are generally only selling one or two boards at a time and your customer may spend hours going through a stack to find the perfect board. Once you get started, word of mouth will be your best advertising. There are also many Internet forums for sawyers and woodworkers. Many any of these have a “for sale” section for tools and wood. Prices tend to be a little higher, which is a good thing for the seller, especially if you have something truly unique. Crotches, burls, turning stock and even roots may capture the imagination of some woodworkers. Make sure you are clear about shipping in your advertisements. While you’re on the forum, check in and see what people are talking about. There are often questions about wood properties, wood identification and other topics you might be able to answer. When woodworkers know you’re as passionate about wood as they are, you will surely start receiving orders. Speaking of the Internet, do you have a website up and running? What about Facebook, Google + or Twitter? If you are one of those sawyers who doesn’t do the Internet, you are missing out on a huge marketing opportunity. A website can help people find you and your wood. Facebook, Google + and Twitter are more interactive, can show people what you’re sawmilling business is up to and allows them to leave comments. All three have surprisingly large communities of like-minded wood lovers looking to interact, share stories and find deals on lumber. Some businesses even post sawmilling videos on YouTube, showing how they cut their lumber or to chronicle special projects. If you are not up to doing all this yourself, there are consultants who can help you. Other ways to get the word out include putting up posters at the local farm or grocery store for trailer decking, fencing and barn siding depending on your location. Keep in mind this is one of the great advantages of having a mobile sawmill – if your customers won’t come to you, you can always go to them. This is often a good way to sell lumber, because the sizes are standard and you can keep some inventory on hand. Unlike woodworkers though, local farmers will likely be very cost-aware and will likely try to talk you down on price. The good news is this wood can usually be sold green and you can often cut for specific orders, which means your lumber is sold before the log ever goes on the sawmill. That’s a great way to do business. Payment for your lumber is another matter. First, in order to stay legal, check the rules around state or provincial sales taxes. I’ll gladly take a check or cash and it’s becoming easier to accept payments by credit card, as well. My personal favorite transaction is barter. I have traded for garden produce (as I have a green thumb), honey and even a firewood splitter. There are certainly a variety of options for deriving value from your logs. Finally, use good judgment when selling or shipping lumber to woodworkers outside of your area in light of recent threats from pests and disease to certain species of trees. The Emerald Ash Borer (a particularly nasty tree-killing beetle) spread very quickly because of ash firewood being transported across regions. Another potentially destructive disease is the Thousand Cankers Black Walnut Disease, which threatens the future of walnut. Some states have quarantines on black walnut, unless it has been heat-treated. If you are in doubt, check with your local conservation department, state or provincial forest products association. There are many tools available to help you sell your lumber and/or services. Find the combination that works best for you and your intended customers. Plan on business starting out slowly and let word of mouth be your best marketing tool as you provide quality products, on time and at a reasonable cost to your customers. As always, we welcome any other tips or suggestions you may have based on your own experiences milling and selling lumber.