Oak Leaf Wood ‘N Supplies: Portable Mill Owner Added Nyle Kiln to Add Value
MOWEAQUA, Ill. — Paul Easley loves his work. “I couldn’t be happier with the job that I have,” he said. “Before I started my own lumber business 18 years ago, I spent 30 years in a factory. Knowing what I know now, I find that deplorable. In my own business I’ve made enough money to last me the rest of my life, and I still enjoy it so much that you couldn’t drag me out of here. This industry’s been wonderful for me and to me.”
Easley owns and operates Oak Leaf Wood ’N Supplies in the central Illinois town of Moweaqua. Although the region is known for its farms, it also supports orchards, wood lots and small forests that bear high-quality hardwoods in species highly sought by craftsmen.
Beginning with just 17 acres of trees, Paul has built a profitable business utilizing a portable sawmill and a Nyle dehumidification dry kiln. He has a retail store, but with an enthusiasm for his business that few can match, Paul also markets products throughout the U.S. and to customers in seven foreign countries. Perhaps more importantly, Paul believes that virtually anyone can duplicate his success, and he is not shy about encouraging competitors to come into the marketplace because he says it is substantially under-served.
When Paul started his business, the original 17 acres was largely forested with ‘old-growth’ white oak with associated understory. At the time that he and his wife, Kathy, bought the land, many of the trees were dying and needed to be culled. Although the timber needed to be harvested in order to maintain forest health, Paul could not bear the thought of cutting down the trees simply for firewood. He investigated alternative uses for the wood and discovered portable sawmills.
“I bought a band mill and set about producing hardwood products,” he recalled. Paul laughed when he recalled that neighbors considered him a bit loony for setting up a
portable sawmill in the middle of the Illinois corn and soybean belt. “I’m still a nut case,” he joked, “but the green I’m seeing isn’t just on my neighbor’s John Deere.”
The business was profitable almost immediately. However, it wasn’t long before Paul realized that while sawing logs for green lumber was profitable, for a small additional investment he could increase profits significantly. “Every time you handle lumber you add value,” he said. “To me it made sense to recover that value myself, so we bought our Nyle dry kiln and began to dry lumber.”
The next step was to expand the business by opening a retail store. Today, the company saws material, drys, planes, and shapes the lumber, then sells it throughout the world from Oak Leaf Wood ’N Supplies retail facility in Illinois.
Along the way to growing his company into what it is today, Paul learned some important things about business. One of the most important principles, he said, is that equipment purchases should be appropriate for the level of business operations. “I think the real secret to success in a business like this is added value,” he said. But revenues gained from adding value to products must benefit the business and not be wasted on fancy ‘bells and whistles’ that do not contribute to profitability. A person farming five acres does not buy the biggest, fanciest tractor, he said by way of example; that persons buys a tractor that will do a great job at farming five acres.
The same applies to a lumber business like Oak Leaf Wood ’N Supplies. “If you want to be profitable in a business like mine, it’s important to be conservative with your equipment and still be able to get the job done,” said Paul. “I have sought out equipment that’s efficient and dependable, that will still get the job done without a lot of ‘bells and whistles.’ And I recommend that same path to others who might want to do what we’ve done.”
Paul’s interest in adding value to his lumber and his common-sense approach to equipment and machinery led him to Nyle Dry Kiln Systems of Bangor, Maine. Nyle’s dehumidification dryers were ideal for the extremely high-value woods Paul’s business works with, he said.
“The drying process is critical when it comes to adding value to the lumber you saw,” he said. “These dehumidification units are inexpensive, but more important, they are the most gentle way of drying wood I know of. If you have a good piece of wood, you have a lot of dollars at risk when you dry.
“I’m often asked to teach people about how I do things,” he continued. “One of the things I stress is that when you cut a gun stock piece out of a walnut crotch you’d better know what to do with it after its been sawn. What you hold in your hand at that point is a $100 piece of wood that — mishandled — can be turned into a 50-cent piece of firewood.”
While the relative values might differ, the same is true of any company’s wood products: handled properly, considerable value can be added while mishandling just creates costly firewood or some other low-value by-product.
Nyle Dry Kiln’s dehumidification systems have given Paul the ability to dry for maximum value with minimum losses. The supplier’s systems also have proved dependable. Paul said his Nyle 150 dryer — now sold as the 200 — “…has never seen 24 hours worth of down-time in the 11 years we’ve had it, and we run it continually.” The kiln, which is capable of drying 4,000 board feet every three weeks, has been used to dry more than 750,000 board feet of lumber over those years.
With the addition of drying capacity and finishing equipment, the company’s product mix — and profits — have grown. Paul’s company has evolved from a portable sawmill to a fully integrated business. “When we began cutting logs into lumber it was mostly for farm use,” he wrote recently in an article for Tree Farmer magazine. The products he first produced included fence boards and posts, hog farrowing crates, and other wood products for farm use. Today Oak Leaf Wood ’N Supplies produces cabinet and furniture grade lumber, spindle and bowl turning stock, gun stock blanks, carving stock, custom mantles, ball point pen stock, and dozens of other high-end lumber products. These high-grade lumber products are in addition to low-grade wood products for trailer bed stock, bridge planking, oak flooring, grade stakes, wood wedges, and similar markets. Of course, the value-added products bring the company significantly higher profits, Paul noted.
Paul has been as organized in his approach to the rest of his business as he is to equipment selection. After investing in a dry kiln and finishing machinery to produce higher-value lumber products, Paul and his wife decided they needed to look at opening a retail store. They began by visiting retail lumber businesses in several surrounding states and researched the size of the market. They identified niche markets they thought they could fill and then analyzed the population in a 50-mile radius around their home.
“We found that as a general rule at least 10 percent of the population does some kind of woodworking,” said Paul. “Based on the population within 50 miles of our location, we found that we would need to sell each potential customer $1 worth of wood per year to break even. We thought we could do that, so we went ahead and took the chance. Within 90 days we were in the black.”
In order to obtain the additional raw material required for their burgeoning business, the Easleys followed two strategies. First, Paul obtained the distributorship for the portable sawmill he had purchased from Kasco. He marketed and sold portable sawmills in the region and arranged to buy all or part of the lumber produced
by his sawmill customers. Second, he began to divert and recover usable wood that was being buried in landfills. At the time, contractors and others paid $90 per truckload to dispose of wood at a landfill. When Paul began advertising for the wood, he was immediately flooded with fiber. “I’ve literally had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free wood brought to me over the years,” he said. The Easleys also have expanded their tree farm to 60 acres.
While he continues to manage Oak Leaf Lumber ’N Supplies, Paul also is giving back to the forest products industry. For example, he is especially interested in working with others who may want to establish businesses similar to his. Paul also is very active in promoting tree farming; the future of the tree farming movement is closely tied to the ability of owners of sawmills and woodlots to make a living from their timber, he said. Paul spends a good deal of his time working for the tree farm movement: he has served as chairman of the Illinois Tree Farm Committee and as a member of the American Tree farm System’s National Operating Committee.
Just as important as serving on those formal committees, Paul said, are his efforts to help educate children and teachers about forestry and the sustainable forestry practices of tree farmers. “Last year we took more than 750 kids through our tree farm,” he said proudly.
“It’s a very satisfying experience,” Paul continued, “to see the wonder in both the kid’s and the teachers’ expressions when they actually see what we are talking about when we discuss regeneration, selective harvesting, and wildlife. To me, taking those classes through our farm and watching them learn what we are all about is one of the best things about what I do.”
At the Wood Tech trade show in Portland, Ore. two years ago, experts and analysts noted that while much attention has been paid to big companies in the forest products industry, a thriving industry has been developing among the small-scale businesses that it supports. Oak Leaf Wood ’N Supplies is an example of how the entrepreneurial spirit that has always driven the industry is alive and well. With the aid of suppliers like Nyle Dry Kiln Systems, small entrepreneurs that plan well, work hard, and demonstrate innovation still can prosper and grow.