Wilson Lumber – Florida Company Increases Yield with Cook’s Saw Band Mill
MILTON, Florida — Many Southern sawmills cut pine. Not many cut cypress, and fewer still cut it well.
Wilson Lumber, located in Milton, Florida, is one of the latter. Gary Wilson and his sons, Frank and Stuart, have made cutting cypress lumber their specialty. Over the years they have developed the kind of niche market that every sawmill owner wishes he could have.
Wilson Lumber, which Gary and his father, Clifford, began in 1972, celebrated its 35th anniversary last year.
“We started with a little circle mill, just intending to cut some cypress,” Gary said. “But it grew over time, like small businesses are inclined to do. We cut a little export pine back in the early 1970s, and there was good money in it back then. But the pine timber on the land we owned was all gone about the same time as the export market. Once the pine export market was gone, we got over into cypress and have done that ever since.”
Although Gary was only 18 at the time he and his father started the company, he learned quickly. He took over ownership of Wilson Lumber in 1987, and his sons later followed him into the business.
“Frank does all the set-up and maintenance on the planer, which is a 1000-series Pinheiro,” Gary said. “Stuart primarily runs the yard. In addition, both of them do whatever has to be done at the time.” Frank’s wife, Raeann also works in the business, running the office and taking care of the day-to-day paperwork.
Wilson Lumber cuts a number of different lumber products from cypress. “We do it all,” said Gary. “We do exterior siding and interior paneling.”
The primary customers for Wilson Lumber’s products are contractors who are building high-end, custom homes. It is a market that Gary has developed gradually the past 36 years, building his customer base mainly by word of mouth.
“My market isn’t just northwest Florida,” he added. “I sell lumber as far away as 400 to 500 miles. It goes primarily to people who build custom homes.”
Gary is proud of the fact that none of the company’s lumber is used to build tract houses. It all goes to contractors who build “the best.”
“I’ve been doing this so long that people all over the Southeast know about me,” he said.
Gary’s approach to business and dealing with people is simple, but it has paid dividends. “I try to treat people in such a way that when they’re done with what they’re building, they’re pleased and happy with the product. That leads to happy customers who tell other potential customers where they purchased the siding or paneling or molding, and that in turns leads to new customers for Wilson Lumber.”
He has never been interested in operating a high-production sawmill. “I don’t try to operate off a volume market,” he said, “and I don’t ever intend to get involved in the volume market. This is the way we got started, and it’s always worked for me. I don’t want to get obligated to sell lumber to some big operation and have the lumber business and the economy go sour, and get a phone call that they’re not selling any lumber, so they’re not going to buy from me any more. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket like that.”
Wilson Lumber is located on 33 acres. The facilities include seven lumber sheds with a combined total of about 40,000 square feet under roof. “We own all of it,” said Gary. “I try not to owe anyone anything.”
Gary buys tree-length cypress logs. The mill cuts them according to the type and quality of the log. When a log is going to be cut, first it is placed on an infeed deck, and it goes to a cut-off saw to be bucked to the optimum length.
The logs are fed onto an HMC four-block, 20-foot carriage. “We run a 52-inch circle mill with a circle top saw,” said Gary. Big logs are squared up on the carriage to produce a cant that is about 10×10 or 12×12.
The large cants go by chain conveyor to a Cook’s Saw band sawmill to be resawn into lumber. “We cut the cants one at a time because, regardless of the width, our number one priority is to cut for grade,” said Gary.
Smaller logs, when they are squared up on the carriage, will produce cants that are about 4×4 or 6×6. These smaller cants go to a Frick 6-inch gang-edger to be resawn.
The finished lumber goes to a 160-foot-long green chain. Workers pull lumber, sorting it by length, width and grade, stacking the board and separating them with sticks. The lumber will be moved into the yard to air-dry.
“We have two Nyle dehumidification kilns,” Gary said. “They’re not very large kilns. They’ll run about 15,000 (board) feet each. We take the wood we’re going to use for tongue and groove paneling and flooring, and we kiln-dry that. The rest of it may stay on the yard for a year or more to air dry.”
When he took inventory at the beginning of the year, Gary had about 1.2 million board feet of lumber. “Right now — in early May — I still have about the same amount,” said Gary. “I’ve cut production because I have all the inventory I want. I’m trying to maintain about one million feet of inventory.”
The Cook’s Saw band mill was added to the sawmill in 2001 and has been a contributing factor to the company’s success. Gary has had a relationship with Cook’s Saw since the early days of Wilson Lumber.
Alabama-based Cook’s Saw Mfg. was started by Kenneth Cook in 1970. Ken was a full-time minister. He began repairing small saw blades for cabinet shops and evolved into serving and repair saw blades for industrial sawmills. The business is now operated by two of his sons, Tim and Stephen.
“Kenneth was hammering my circle head saws,” Gary recalled. “Then they got into the bandsaw business, and I bought one of them. It’s the same band sawmill I have now. We’ve upgraded it a little over time, and as they’ve had features and options that would help us, we’d try them.”
Gary has participated in field testing for Cook’s Saw. “Every time they’ve tried a new blade or a new technology, Tim would pass it on to me to try and take input from us as to how it worked for us,” said Gary. “Some of the things they’ve done haven’t suited our needs but a lot of them have.”
Gary pushes the Cook’s band sawmill to the limit every day, and it performs very well. “We run every blade wide open just as fast and hard as the mill will push it,” he said. “Each blade runs an average of four to five hours, and then it breaks. We don’t ever run a blade long enough for it to get dull. We just take it off and replace it with a new one.”
“It’s more cost effective for me to run the blade hard and break it than it is to slow down and try to make it last,” added Gary. “The extra production I get out of running the mill hard outweighs slowing down.” The good news, Gary said, is that the Cook’s mill is strong enough to take that kind of abuse and just shrug it off and keep on running.
One of the reasons the Cook’s mill has helped him so much, Gary said, is that it increased his lumber yield.
“There’s not much money in sawdust,” noted Gary. “The kerf on the Cook’s mill is about 0.068-inch, and the kerf on a circle saw is about 5/16 of an inch (0.312-inch). If I have 11 inches of wood to work with, cutting 1-inch lumber, I’ll gain two boards out of one cant using the Cook’s mill. If I’m saving two boards out of one cant, and I’m cutting one cant every five to seven minutes, that’s a lot of lumber at the end of the day. Numbers don’t lie, and I’ve figured it out. On the average day, it can amount to $1,500 in savings.”
In addition, using the Cook’s mill as a resaw for cants allows him to do a better job of cutting for grade lumber and is more efficient.
“You can slow down and study the cants and decide what you want to do,” observed Gary. “When you’re working on the head saw, you have nine or 10 men waiting on the production, and you have to just go with it.”
When he first got the band mill, Gary had a few technical issues he had to work out as he learned to run it. Getting help was as simple as picking up the phone and calling Tim or Stephen Cook.
“We’d call them, and they’d talk us through whatever it was,” said Gary. “I’d recommend them to anyone just because of their technical support because when you start out with one of these mills, you’re going to need some support, and they give it to you.”
In the past, Wilson Lumber has employed as many as 18 to 20 workers at a time. The way the economy and the homebuilding industry are now, Gary is down to 12 employees.
“I’m doing less business, so I’m doing what I’m doing with fewer people, and we’ve slowed down some,” he said. “We’re still doing everything we’ve been doing, but we’re doing less of it because we’re selling less.”
The slowdown has been relatively recent. “We were hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and that really hurt us,” Gary recalled. “But a few months later, things got really good, and that lasted for about three years. Then, last fall, things fell off again. I saw it coming, so I slowed everything down.”
Gary makes good use of his residuals and is aggressive about finding markets for them. “I have a saying about waste,” he said. “It’s, ‘We get the squeal out of the pig.’ ” In other words, he uses everything in order to add to the company’s bottom line.
“All the planer shavings are sold for horse bedding,” said Gary. “Nearly all my sawdust is sold for horse bedding. Sometimes I have too much sawdust, and when that happens the rest of it goes for boiler fuel.”
Scrap wood from the sawmill, such as slabs, edgings and trim ends, are processed into mulch by a Montgomery Wood Hog. “It’s a vertical gravity-feed grinder, not a tub grinder,” said Gary. “It’s been good for me.”
Mulch is an important segment of the business. “I sold 24,000 cubic yards of mulch last year,” said Gary.
To supplement the scrap material that is a by-product of the sawmill, he buys pulpwood and tops from loggers in Florida and Alabama. “During the peak of the mulch season, I buy several hundred tons of pine pulpwood at a time and bring it in and grind it for mulch to color,” said Gary.
When time gets really tight and the demand for mulch is high, Gary will even hire a contractor with a Morbark horizontal grinder to grind more material into mulch. “Sometimes it’s just too time-consuming for me to do it with my equipment,” he said. “But mulch has been really good for me.”
Gary sells most of his mulch within a 50-mile radius of Milton. “I sell most of it from Pensacola to Ft. Walton Beach to Crestview,” he said. “It goes primarily to nurseries and landscapers, and I retail some to drive-in customers.” Some of the mulch goes out the natural wood color, but Gary also makes colored mulch – red mulch, which is so popular just now.
One of his biggest strengths, Gary said, is his sales and marketing ability. “If that’s not strong, your business isn’t going to survive,” he said. “Cutting lumber is the easy part. You can get labor and equipment and cut lumber all day long. But that’s not the key. The key is marketing it, and selling it at a profit. If you don’t, the rest of it isn’t going to work.”
After 36 years, Gary still thoroughly enjoys what he does. “I start out the day with a smile on my face because I’m able to get up and put my boots on and go to work,” he said. “I’ve been doing it 36 years, and I still enjoy getting up and going to work. I have good employees, and I hope they go home thinking they have a decent job, and they do a good job. I want them to be happy because if they’re not happy, then I’m not going to be happy. All my help lives within seven miles of the mill, and I have a close relationship with all of them.”
What makes him smile the most, Gary said, is that he’s made a success of being self-employed. “I guess I could work for someone else if I had to,” he said, “but I sure hope I can remain self-employed the rest of my working days.”