Urban Sawmill: Consider the Possibilities

Issue: 
May-June 2012

Of the 10,000 ash trees on city property of London, Ontario, only 384 are expected to survive the EAB, with treatment. The rest are scheduled to be cut down. Applying that ratio to the estimated 440,000 ash trees on city and private property, a total of 423,000 ash trees that will have to be removed – many of which were planted in the 1970s to replace elm trees. Even if only 10% of these trees are big enough to average 200 board feet per tree, that still amounts to 8.8 million board feet of valuable hardwood lumber that could be utilized – a 4.4 million dollar potential. This does not include trees of other species that will also be removed due to urban expansion, mortality, or at a landowner’s request. But it isn’t all just easy money. It takes time to figure out how to cut a tree to get a usable saw log, and there is always the prospect of striking metal in the tree. As one person put it, “there’s more money to be made selling urban trees for scrap metal value than for lumber.” And after it has been cut, there is the matter of marketing and selling the lumber.

My own interest in sawmilling began as a forester and tree farm manager near Joplin, Missouri, about 230 km south of Kansas City. After watching magnificent trees being cut into pallet lumber or being left in the woods to rot because they were the wrong size or species, I purchased a portable sawmill to see if I could do better. The wood that I work with comes from a variety of sources – some from area forests, and some right out of peoples’ yards. My mill is a Norwood MX34 that is capable of handling logs up to 34 inches in diameter. By design, it accommodates short, odd-shaped logs desired by woodworkers, as well as straight logs for conventional lumber. It is portable enough to get to where the logs are – I have even set it up in a customer’s driveway.

I interviewed owners of several tree care companies in Ontario to see whether they make any attempt to cash in on this resource. Some leave the disposal up to the homeowner. Others cut up the larger logs for firewood and haul the rest off to be ground into mulch. Scott Cook of Ontario Tree Specialists was fairly typical in his reply. A former logger, he is aware of the potential of the logs. “If there’s a take down of a tree and there’s some value in it, we send it to the mill,” he told me in a phone interview. “We’re arborists, not loggers.” He noted that EAB is causing a lot of mortality in ash trees, but that he also removes maple, red oak, walnut, ash, pine and cedar. He cuts some of the logs for firewood and grinds some for mulch.

Moving to Ontario Arborists
Tom Mikel has taken his tree care business to the next level. Tom teaches arboriculture at Fleming College in Lindsay. “I teach a range of classes from tree biology to showing students how to tie knots and climb trees,” he told me in a recent phone interview. Even though Tom’s Belleville, Ontario tree company is mostly a one-man operation, he has found it worthwhile to invest in a portable sawmill. “We used to cut beautiful logs into firewood, just so we could get them out,” he said. “That’s why I bought the mill.” The mill is small enough to move with an ATV four-wheeler and can be set up for milling at a customer’s location. “There have been a lot of times when we cut a tree down in a back yard and mill up the lumber right there,” he told me. 

Even though he runs a small manual sawmill, he says he has yet to encounter a log too big to handle. “I had a monster walnut log I had to do shave down with a chain saw so that it would fit on the mill, but I sure didn’t mind that!” Other species he commonly encounters include white pine, spruce, hemlock, beech, red oak, white oak, maple, hickory and ash. An avid woodworker, he now has a plentiful supply of wood to support his hobby and to sell to other area woodworkers, as well as to area farmers for barn siding, fencing and trailer flooring. According to Tom, many of his customers like the peace of mind knowing that the logs cut from their property will go to a good use. “Some times, I’ll mill the log for the client so that they wind up with lumber from their own trees. For some people, it helps seal the job if they know that they can have lumber from their tree. Some people get excited to know that it’s going to be sawn up and have other uses.”

After ten years, he says the mill has worked out well for him, and that he is puzzled why other tree care companies don’t offer a similar service. “Other arborists have talked to me about setting up a sawmill, but I don’t know of anyone else who is doing it,” he told me. “A lot of them cut the lumber-size logs into firewood. Some pay to drop their wood off at a city wood yard. A lot of that stuff gets ground up for mulch.”

Perhaps part of the answer was hinted at earlier – wood is not the only thing Tom cuts on his mill. “Metal [in the log] is always an issue,” he said. “Ninety percent of the metal is in the bottom six feet of the tree, or however high someone can drive a nail without standing on a ladder,” Tom explained. Cutting through metal with a band saw is more of a nuisance than a hazard. Band saw blades won’t normally break when they hit metal. The blade is well guarded and even if one does break, it is well contained. A new blade costs around $40 and takes only minutes to replace. “I’ve had to replace a lot of blades because of hardware,” he laughed.

Joplin’s F-5 Tornado
Instead of losing its trees to disease over the course of several years, Joplin, Missouri, U.S.A. lost nearly half of its urban trees in just thirty-four minutes. That is the time it took for an F-5 tornado to rip the town apart on May 22, 2011. With the loss of 161 lives, a third of the homes and businesses, and a major hospital complex, the destruction of the trees is trivial by comparison. Even so, while working as a volunteer during the clean-up, I was struck by the sight of the trees. Many were uprooted, crushing houses and cars, and taking down miles of power lines. Thousands of trees still stand like ghosts, stripped bare of leaves, branches and bark by the 200 mph wind. A nearly continuous line of trucks rumbled down the streets hauling debris – a mixture of shingles, insulation, twisted metal, house framing, brush and logs – to the local landfill for disposal. In all, most of the five million cubic yards of debris was buried in the landfill. With the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in charge, there was no attempt to separate out the debris or salvage or recycle any of it.

Clearing wind thrown trees is some of the most difficult chain saw work I know of. There is every kind of stress possible – compression, tension, shear and torsion – and sometimes all in the same log. Root balls return to their upright position with amazing speed once the stem has been cut, and the grit in the logs make short work of a sharp chain. The presence of other volunteers –some of whom had just purchased their first chain saw for the occasion – made the job even more hazardous. There is nothing like a tree rolling on you because someone else decided they needed to work on the same tree. Volunteers had to wear FEMA-issued dust masks, but no other safety gear. A coordinator explained that as long as we signed the injury waiver, the dust mask was the only requirement. He went on to inform me that a volunteer had cut himself open with a chain saw the previous day and required a number of stitches. Those of us with hard hats, chaps and steel-toe boots tended to work together and let the others figure out how to free their pinched bars – tightly wedged in a log was probably the best place for their saws!

Trees have emerged as a symbol of hope and renewal in Joplin. Those that survived the tornado are cherished, and many homeowners planted new trees even before the last of the debris of their homes had been cleared away. Pledges for donations of seedlings are coming in from nurseries around the country, but urban forester Jon Skinner is concerned about the future of the trees. “We’re getting all these donations of trees, but who’s going to take care of them? Most homeowners don’t take care of them. And we don’t have the city staff to take care of transplanted trees in the parks.” “I tell people to wait until the area has been cleaned up. 2014 [in two years] will be a good year, let the dust settle.”

I have been working with a few tree services to salvage some of the lumber from the trees that were destroyed. Over time, I expect that some people will want something of their lives before the event, and furniture made from logs salvaged from the tornado will be valued. Last summer, I milled up five post oak logs that came from the Joplin Elks’ Lodge where three people died in the tornado. Although it is in the white oak family, post oak is generally unsuitable for lumber because it warps and cracks during the drying process, has so many knots in it, and is difficult to work. But these twisted, cracked boards are more valuable than any exotic wood from Africa or South America. Students at a Joplin High School woodworking class are using the lumber to build furniture for the new Elks’ lodge. 

Consider The Multiple Uses & Benefits
The rewards of running a small sawmill are more than worth the effort it takes to meet the challenges. Some of the lumber from urban logs is amazing. The size and species of the trees yields lumber that brings high dollars from woodworkers. The feathered grain found in a walnut crotch, for example, can bring several hundred dollars for a gun stock, if properly cut – or it can end up in a fireplace. Aside from the value of the wood itself, many people appreciate the fact that a tree can go to good use after it has been cut. Several tree services contact me to remove logs that they know I can use. This saves them the trouble of cutting it up and hauling it off, provides me with usable logs, and helps the homeowner deal with the loss of a tree. Not a bad arrangement. In some cases, I have passed the lumber on to a local woodworker who has made furniture out of it for the homeowner. To me, the greatest reward is the satisfaction I get from being part of this process. As Tom Mikel explained it, “Once you start sawmilling you really enjoy it. It is different every time you cut a log open.”

One of the best sources for sawmilling is the Arborsite forum. Forum topics cover the range of tree care issues. The people who post on the forum express opinions, share experiences, and offer encouragement to anyone who logs on. It is one of my favourite hangouts. Sawmill & Woodlot Management magazine has a lot of information on equipment, as well as articles on forestry and tree care. I am a frequent contributor. Woodweb.com and Forestryforum.com also have forums that anyone involved in tree care and sawmills will find useful. Norwood’s Town Hall forum is also a great source of sawmilling information that is helpful to anyone interested in portable band saw mills. 

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