David Zucal, low-grade lumber, Elk State Forest, timberland, firewood business, oak, Emporium Hardwoods, custom sawing, computerized setworks, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, FastLine Gator, residual material
EMPORIUM, Penn. – A portable sawmill enabled David Zucal to work in Pennsylvania’s beautiful forests and to launch a business that he quickly expanded into a full-time enterprise.
The mainstay of his business is a Log-Master portable sawmill, which Dave is currently using to saw low-grade logs into pallet cants and railroad ties.
Dave grew up in the hard coal region of Pennsylvania and worked in factories. At the last plant where he worked, though, he was frequently laid off at various times if business slowed. “I knew I had to do something to start making money on the side,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to the factory.”
He had bought 33 acres in 1989 in Elk State Forest near the Allegheny National Forest in north-central Pennsylvania in order to have a small ‘camp’ for hunting and getaways. Coming from an industrial area of strip mining and coal-burning co-generation plants, he was attracted to the north-central part of the state when he visited the region once on a camping trip. “I couldn’t believe the difference,” he recalled. “I saw this pristine wilderness and fell in love with it.”
In addition to having a desire to start his own business, he also wanted to utilize the property in some way to help pay for it. “Owning the land is what steered me in the direction of the wood business,” he said.
Dave began a firewood business in 1996. He bought a Stihl 044 chain saw and a log splitter and Belle, a draft horse, to skid out the logs. Calling his business Zucal Low Impact Logging, he began harvesting oaks on his 33 acres that had been killed from gypsy moth infestation. He felled the trees, cut them into firewood, split it and stacked it into face cords for sale.
“Then I got the brainstorm of turning the logs into lumber and making more money,” said Dave. “Cutting firewood isn’t easy work,” he added.
He bought a portable sawmill and began sawing oak into rail ties. His market was a Pennsylvania company that purchases ties, treats them and resells them to railroads.
In 1998 he added a used dump truck to his business. The truck, purchased from a railroad company, was equipped with a crane and a cable, and Dave could use it for skidding and feeding logs to the mill. He began getting calls from farmers and others who wanted him to cut down a few trees and saw them into lumber for out buildings.
The next year he subcontracted his services to Emporium Hardwoods, a hardwood lumber manufacturer serving the furniture industry and specializing in black cherry. The company contracted with Dave to mill small diameter logs – mainly tops, 8 to 12 inches – into cants. The logs were too small for the company’s head rig but too valuable to leave in the woods. The company debarks the logs before they are milled. After a year of being a portable business, he moved his portable sawmill inside the Emporium plant.
The work was steady, but Dave still wanted to manufacture railroad ties and do custom sawing. “It was the same thing every day,” he said. He decided to maintain the business with Emporium Hardwoods while expanding at the same time. Hiring two employees, he trained them to operate the portable sawmill and to continue the work for Emporium Hardwoods. Then Dave went shopping for another portable sawmill.
Dave had a certain price range in mind – about $30,000. He began collecting information from companies that built or distributed portable sawmills and compared them. He gathered promotional videos showing the mills in action and attended timber trade shows to see them exhibited.
For the tough, knotty, low-grade hardwood he would be milling, he wanted a
heavy-duty, durable portable sawmill. Dave specifically wanted a heavy-weight mill with
a high horsepower motor that ran wide blades.
After considering various machines, he selected a Log-Master portable sawmill, which met all his requirements. Log-Master Portable Sawmill Mfg. is based in Nacogdoches, Tex. The company manufactures portable sawmills that can produce as much as 10,000 board feet of 2×6 lumber per day given the right timber and two or three people working the machine.
Log-Master portable sawmills are made of 3×6, heavy wall tubular steel with a 9-inch deck. They are fully hydraulic, eliminating the need for belts and pulleys. Power is supplied by a Cummins 85hp turbo diesel engine; wheel speed is 800 rpm with a saw speed of 60 feet per minute. A 19-foot, 3-inch band blade is used for sawing logs that are up to 24 feet long and 36 inches in diameter. Computerized setworks ensure accurate sawing. Log-Master portable sawmills are mounted on tandem axles for transport and can be towed by a pick-up truck; the entire sawmill weighs 8,000 pounds.
“I do this every day,” said Dave, so he wanted a mill that would be very durable and reliable.
Another thing that Dave liked about the Log-Master was that the sawmill motor does not move, which would make it easier to pipe out the exhaust. A mill with a stationary motor also means the engine is not always close to the saw head, which he found helped to reduce clogging of the air filter. “Another great feature is that it cuts into the clean side of the log,” said Dave. “When you make a cut and turn it, your next cut is going into a clean face, not into the back side on a bark face.”
Soon after buying the Log-Master, Dave rented a building and moved the mill inside and added an infeed deck.
Dave uses the Log-Master primarily for sawing low-grade logs into cants and ties. With logs that are large enough to be sawn into a tie, he makes 3/4-inch cuts until it has been sawn to the right dimensions. The flitches are fed through a Norwood edger to be edged to 3 ½-inch or 6-inch wide boards, then he saws them to length on a chop saw. Logs that are too small to be sawn into a tie are milled to a 6×6 cant.
Dave also resaws some cants into pallet stock, and cants and pallet stock are sold to a single pallet manufacturing company, Wennin Pallets. He cuts the cants to size with a chain saw and then resaws the material on a FastLine Gator 128 horizontal band saw.
Dave, who is a certified participant in the American Forest and Paper Industry’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative program, also makes use of all residual materials. Slabs are converted into firewood and sold; he cuts them to firewood length on a 10-inch miter saw. Edgings are processed in a Whisper chipper, and the chips are sold or given away.
Dave also does custom sawing on weekends, mainly milling softwood logs into framing lumber for camps, sheds and other small buildings.
He has used his portable mill to manufacture grade lumber but exited the market when prices fell. He may return to that market if conditions improve.
Dave runs a 3-inch, swedge-toothed blade on the Log-Master, which is the same type of blade recommended by the company. On a set tooth blade, every other tooth is bent, creating the kerf to remove saw dust. The teeth of a swedge tooth blade are straight, but the tips are hammered to flare out, providing the kerf. The straight, in-line configuration of the teeth enables fast sawing, according to Dave. “This saw goes through a log fast,” he said, and production is comparable to a circular sawmill.
Dave buys blades from Minnesota Saw Works, which also services the blades – re-tensioning, re-grinding and re-swedging them. “They do an excellent job on these blades,” he said. “You can’t do it yourself,” Dave noted. Affordable equipment is available on the market to resharpen and re-set tooth blades, but equipment to maintain swedge-toothed blades can be very expensive. So even though the mill offers high production capability, there is slightly more cost to using the swedge-toothed blades.
“Once you start making sawdust, it’s a disease. You get hooked. I can see why so many people are out there buying these portable mills. There is just something about taking that ugly, crooked log and turning into beautiful, straight lumber.”