Those piles of lumber air drying out by the barn are a real source of pride for me, and I love it when someone looks at the wood and asks where I found the logs. The assumption is that wood with beauty and character must come from expensive logs, or imported from Africa or South America. My usual response is an elusive smile and reply something like, “Oh, here and there.” Actually, I know the source of every log that produced every piece of lumber, but there is no point divulging too much information.
But if you are interested in snagging logs worth several thousands of dollars, and if you are resourceful and are willing to put in a few hours of work, here are some good places to start looking.
While demonstrating my mobile bandsaw mill, people often come up to me and say that they wish they had a forest so that they could justify having a sawmill. The fact is, it is possible to keep a mobile sawmill as busy as you want, even if you don’t have so much as a rose bush in your back yard! The most amazing lumber I produce comes from the most unlikely sources. I have pulled cherry stumps out of ditches, saved walnut crotches from smoldering brush piles and once spent an entire afternoon removing a maple log from a yard that otherwise would have been hauled to a landfill. These are just a few examples of places I have found wood. Knowing that I have saved the wood from being wasted makes it all the more valuable to me. But that is just part of the story, as I get most of my logs for free. There have even been a few people who have offered to pay me to take them! Here are some of the techniques I have used.
First you need the right tools if you’re taking a log from a customer’s property. “Poor folks,” they say, “have poor ways.” My log extraction tools include a chainsaw, log arch, cant hook, chainsaw-powered winch and ramps. It is labor intensive, to say the least; it is possible to spend an entire afternoon working on one log. Rolling logs damages lawns less than dragging them sideways and the log-skidding arch comes in handy getting them through tight places. Often you’ll need to trim off branches or a flared end of the log to keep it from plowing into the turf as you drag it. The objective of all this is to get the log sideways to a trailer so you can use the winch to roll it up onto the trailer, a process called “parbuckling”. The winch is attached to the far side of the trailer and the line goes over the log and back to the trailer frame. If all goes to plan, the log will roll right up onto the trailer.
Salvaged lumber can pose several challenges. First, there is the problem of actually finding it. The chances of being at the right place at the right time to snag a really good log are pretty slim. Removing a three-ton log from someone’s yard and bringing it to your mill requires some special techniques as mentioned. And once you have brought it home, you face another set of challenges.
Many urban trees have low branches that make the logs too short, but may be bigger in diameter than your sawmill can handle. And with urban logs there can be every sort of metal imaginable buried inside. Nails from signs or steps to a tree house, bolts, wrenches, car parts and even bullets can be embedded in the wood. The reward — sometimes —can be unique wood you wouldn’t be able to obtain any other way. There may be trees not native to your area, logs big enough to produce slabs for a 4’ wide table or burls that will bring top dollar from wood turners.
Now the search begins to find the logs.
The first good place to look is the local landfill or log dump. Some municipalities provide free access to logs, which have been dumped by land owners or tree care services who have no need for them. Most people cut them for firewood, but if you get there at the right time, you just might come home with a prize. Some people show up with mobile chainsaw mills and cut their lumber right there on the spot. If you use this resource, be courteous to others, and only take what you can use. Remember, some people may have been coming there for years and you might be the “new kid on the block.”
Tree care companies are my #1 source of free logs. Most of them cut logs they removed for firewood or even haul them off to landfills. You may actually doing them a favor by taking a big cherry log off their hands! I have spent a couple of afternoons going through the phone book, calling every tree care service in my local area. Out of the thirty or so that I called, only four were initially interested in working with me, but this was more than enough to start with. The key is to be on time and to do a careful job. The tree care company probably won’t get paid until all the cleanup is finished, so you can’t wait until it’s convenient to do the job. If you arrive and find a log is hollow and not usable, you still need to make good on your agreement to haul it off. And it is not like a day in the woods. Most homeowners are proud of their well-manicured lawns and expect the log to be extracted without leaving so much as a divot; logs can do a lot more damage than golf clubs if you’re not careful.
Salvaging logs in rural areas is generally a lot easier and can also yield some good lumber. The number one rule here is: ALWAYS ASK. Unlike urban logs, you can generally be more selective. If you see a dead tree, stop in and talk to the owner. Most will expect payment. It is amazing how a tree, which may have been laying in a field for years is suddenly a valuable walnut log when someone expresses interest! Make an offer, if you feel it’s worth it, but also be prepared to walk away. After a while, you will be able to spot a “diamond in the rough”, and come home with what appears to be a half-rotted log, but with good heartwood (walnut heartwood stays solid for at least a decade) or a nice spalted pattern inside.
If you see someone clearing land with a bulldozer, this may also be a good place to obtain logs, but these have often been pushed through the dirt and are all jumbled up in a pile for burning. The landowner may be anxious to get rid of the pile of brush and not want to wait for you to come in to salvage them. Watching good logs go up in smoke is disheartening, but you have to accept that the decision rests with the landowner. Still, it never hurts to ask, and when the landowner finds out you have a mobile sawmill, you just might get an order to mill up some trailer decking, barn siding or other lumber.
If not cash payment, consider offering the owner something in return for the log like cleaning up the brush, cutting the smaller limbs for firewood or even offer to bring some slab firewood from the mill (cut and split). If the landowner wants too much—either in labor or cash—be prepared to walk away. It is sometimes amusing how much they think a scraggly walnut tree is worth!
One area in which I have never had success is with utilities clearing for power lines. They seem to be single-mindedly focused on the job with little interest in having someone with a chainsaw getting in the way. But your local utility workers may be different than mine and it never hurts to ask.
Another potential source of wood is the almighty Internet. It costs nothing but time to look through Craigslist or Kijiji by searching on the keywords “log”, “tree” or “lumber”. I’ve yet to have luck here, but I still check every now and then.
One final note. No matter how good you are with a chainsaw, do not agree to cut down a tree near a house, barn, power line or even a dog house! Trading the service for wood may look good, but it simply is not worth the risk, unless you are bonded and insured! Above all, be safe, have fun, and if you have something to brag about, post it here, on Facebook or on a sawmill forum like Norwood Connect. Just remember, without pictures, it didn’t happen!