Custom Milling on Your Portable Sawmill


The simplest solution to marketing lumber is to sell the service instead of the wood.  A number of sawyers have built successful businesses on the basis of custom milling. The simplest custom milling job is for the customer to provide the logs and hire you to mill them on your bandsaw mill either at your or their location. There is some debate among sawyers as to whether to charge by the hour or by the board foot. From a sawyer’s viewpoint, charging by the hour more accurately reflects the cost of the job, but the customer is more interested in what he or she is getting for the money. One compromise is to have the customer deck up or arrange the logs so that the best logs get cut first. Keep track of the time and board footage from each log and calculate the cost per board foot for the customer. As the quality of the logs decreases, the price per board foot will increase. When the price is too high for the customer based on what you’ve agreed upon, the job is over. The rest of the pile can be used for firewood or whatever the customer chooses.

towing a portable bandsaw mill

Providing a portable milling service opens up the possibility to work for customers who have enough logs to make moving the mill worthwhile. Most sawyers charge a mileage and setup fee to compensate for the time and travel expense. This will discourage customers who want you to drive 40 miles to mill one log and you can always waive the fee for large jobs. If you go portable, check on licensing requirements. Some states require registration, some don’t and some may consider a portable sawmill a trailer if you haul anything on it.

Be sure you and your customer have reached an understanding before sawing. Milling by the board foot sounds simple, but it requires an understanding between the sawyer and the customer. The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) is very specific about this. For example, the width of a board is rounded up or down to the nearest inch, and anything under 1” thick is considered 1”. And don’t wait until you destroy a blade on a horseshoe or spike to tell the customer about your policy of charging the price of a blade for any metal strikes.

Another agreement you need to reach is what help the customer can or should provide. You should consider the liability both to the customer and to yourself. Some sawyers welcome assistance in off-bearing the slabs and boards, while others won’t allow the customer to handle the boards until they are off the mill. Milling by the hour gives the customer the incentive to help as much as possible, but they can get carried away. In many cases, the “help” will actually slow you down and you run the risk of distraction while trying to keep an eye on a well-intentioned, but inexperienced helper. Even if you charge for hitting metal, the customer likely won’t cover the cost of a bandsaw blade if you hit your own clamps by accident!

Sometimes, it takes time to explain you can cut lumber to any dimensions. Often a customer will ask what dimensions you usually cut. The best approach here is to find out what final dimensions are required, then work backward from there. For example, ¾” kiln dried, surfaced hardwoods need to be cut 1-1/8” thick to accommodate shrinkage and planing. It is also a good idea to make sure the customer understands how to air dry lumber and to cut the blocking and stickers so that he or she can do so.

Stacked Cedar Lumber

The bottom line is if your customer is successful in building the desired project with the lumber you cut, he or she has will provide repeat business and referrals for more milling jobs on down the line.  No number of flyers or postings on Craigslist will do more to keep you in business than good references from your satisfied customers!


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