Service to Country and Industry: Wisconsin veteran carves out a business with Lucas Mill portable sawmill and dedicated slabber

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Menomonie, Wisconsin – Even though J.R. Salzman grew up in a family with no direct ties to the forest products industry, apparently he was bound to be involved in and earn his living in the wood products industry.

Salzman operates a portable sawmill business, relying on a portable Lucas Mill. The Lucas Mill product line is currently distributed in North America by California-based Left Coast Supplies. He combines his business with writing about other people in the forest products industry and military topics, and he is a world champion competitor in professional lumberjack sports.

Salzman, 34, grew up in Hayward in the northwest corner of the Wisconsin. He worked in construction — carpentry — for a few years and attended several different colleges and universities, not quite certain what he wanted to do for a living although he was interested in forestry. “I wasn’t really sure,” he recalled.

One thing he knew he enjoyed: woodworking. He kept at the hobby during college and once had a portable sawmill owner mill some logs for his woodworking projects.

When he was in his early 20s he bought a portable sawmill, a Lucas Mill model 8-27 swingblade mill powered by a Kohler 27 hp engine.

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“The whole reason I got into milling,” J.R. explained, was to cut material for his own woodworking projects. He relied previously on a portable sawmill operator for wood material but was not satisfied with the quality of the lumber. “I just wasn’t happy with it,” he said of the arrangement. “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to get my own mill and do it myself.”

He met a representative for Australian-based Lucas Mill through timber sports competition. The representative, David Bolstad, showed him the ins and outs of a Lucas Mill portable sawmill.

“That’s how I got into it,” recalled J.R., cutting material for his own woodworking projects. “Next thing you know, you’re cutting for other people.”

J.R. soon added a Lucas Mill dedicated slabbing mill, which uses a bar saw to mill slabs from large logs. Lucas Mill also manufactures a slabber attachment for its regular sawmills.

Two years after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, though, J.R. made the decision to serve his country by joining the Minnesota Army National Guard. At the time he was living in Minnesota and working as a carpenter for a contractor who built and renovated houses.

He was eventually deployed to Iraq. J.R. had been in Iraq nine months when he was wounded by the blast of an improvised explosive device. He was riding ‘shotgun’ in the lead truck of a convoy entering northwest Baghdad. The explosive was hidden in a pile of rocks on the shoulder of the three-lane road. J.R. was reaching for something with this right hand when the blast ripped through the side of the humvee. His hand and arm were gone, and his left hand was mangled by shrapnel, too.

“The worst part,” he recalled, was that Army medics only carry morphine to deaden pain; J.R. was allergic to morphine, so he couldn’t take it.

He was wounded Dec. 19, 2006. He underwent surgeries in Baghdad and also at an Army base in Germany. Six days later, on Christmas Eve, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was there nine months for more surgeries, recovery, and therapy.

“I just really wanted out of there,” he recalled. The medical center was “like a black hole” at times, he said.

The Washington Post newspaper published a series of articles in early 2007 outlining cases of neglect at Walter Reed as reported by wounded soldiers and their family members. Less than a week later, the commander of the center was relieved. The scandal also led to an extensive review of the healthcare system for veterans.

J.R. received a medical discharge in 2007. He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie and earned a bachelor’s degree in technology education with plans to become a shop teacher. Since then he has supported himself with his portable sawmill business and also as a freelance writer, producing articles about other portable sawmill operators and also on military topics. “When I get tired of writing, I catch up on sawing,” he said, and alternates back and forth.

J.R. remains sold on circular saws for portable sawmills mainly because he contends they are more versatile. They can mill large logs regardless of where they are, for example. He once carried his Lucas Mill equipment a quarter of a mile into the woods for a job. It would be impossible to put some portable sawmills into the places where he has worked with his Lucas Mill, he said.

“I think it’s a good value,” added J.R., who also has Lucas Mill’s planer attachments.

Although there are more manufacturers of portable bandsaw mills, both band mills and circular sawmills have their various advantages. The circular saw on the Lucas Mill can swing on an axis to make both vertical and horizontal cuts. Once in position, the log does not need to be turned. Dimension lumber and boards can be milled right out of the log without the necessity to move and handle flitches in order to edge them.

Lucas Mill named Left Coast Supplies its U.S. distributor in October 2013. Left Coast Supplies has a website at and may be contacted via email at or telephone (888) 995-7307.

The Left Coast Supplies website features 10 versions of the Lucas Mill, two dedicated slabber mills, and two slabber attachments. Sawmills are available with gasoline engines, some featuring electric start, and as 3-phase electric models.

Lucas Mill was established by the Lucas family in Australia in 1994. Working out of a small farm shed, they received orders for 50 portable sawmills the first month. The company’s portable sawmills have been sold into over 100 countries.

Lucas Mill has participated in the Great Portable Sawmill Shootout held in the U.S. every two years. In 2003, for example, a Lucas Mill achieved the highest board feet per hour output of all 12 competitors, including both circular blade and bandsaw mills; the Lucas Mill cut 922 board feet per hour with no miscuts or time out.

When J.R. decided to purchase a portable sawmill, he considered other manufacturers, but he was not interested in a fully hydraulic sawmill. He wanted a small mill, but he wanted the capability to cut big logs.

A manually-operated portable sawmill is a different animal than a mill with a bigger power plant and hydraulics, observed J.R. “You gotta get sweaty. You gotta get dirty.” There’s more work involved than standing or sitting with a set of hydraulic controls and pushing levers, he acknowledged. “For what I do, my niche, the versatility, I wouldn’t trade it,” he said. He can do slabbing, planing, or cut lumber.

He works for a wide range of customers, now and then cutting lumber for someone who wants to build a shed or home, and hobbyists who need material for a woodworking project.

The lumber market is “kind of a race to the bottom” on price, he said, because there are numerous other portable sawmill operators in the region. Although he still cuts some lumber, he has developed business cutting slabs for hobbyists, cabinet and custom furniture makers. “The bulk of my business is slabbing…That’s been a great niche.” One customer, for example, has a cabinet and furniture shop.

He also deals with people in urban areas who may have a sentimental attachment for a tree. When it comes down, one way or another, they want something made out of it.

Many of the trees J.R. deals with in urban areas are big. He cut an American elm – 6 feet in diameter at the butt, it forked out to 9 feet, and the log was 15 feet long – into 10 slabs. “Every slab had metal in it,” he recalled.

“When you have a log that big,” said J.R., other small portable sawmill operators cannot handle it. The wood otherwise would wind up in a landfill, burned, or processed into firewood.

His customers also include tree service business, furniture makers, contractors, carpenters, hobbyists. They drive from northern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin. J.R. also goes on the road. Once arriving on site, his sawmill can be up and running in 30 minutes.

He markets his business through a website ( but also through word of mouth and referrals. “It comes in waves, like anything else,” he said. On his website J.R. provides information about services and prices for sawing, slabbing, surfacing, and slabs and lumber.

Pricing depends on the job (milling or slabbing), the species, and whether he supplies the logs. About 50 percent of his business is contract sawing, and the other includes supplying the wood. He charges an hourly rate for contract slabbing and by the board foot for milling lumber.

Some customers want some slabs out of a log and lumber out of the rest of it. He even has cut slabs for other portable sawmill owners who remanufacture them into other wood products.

Although the region’s forests contain both hardwood and softwood trees, most of his work is with hardwood logs. Some of the dominant hardwood species in the region are oak, maple, walnut, cherry, poplar, and ash.

Woodworking is still a hobby he pursues. He enjoys making fine furniture and cabinets.

His taste for woodworking usually runs to fine furniture. “I always have a backlog of people” who want him to make something out of wood, he said.

J.R. has distinguished himself in professional lumberjack sports. Hayward hosts the annual Lumberjack World Championships, a series of lumberjack sporting events, and he began competing in a log rolling school for children at the tender age of 5.

J.R. has won world championships in log rolling and boom running, an event in which contestants run the length of about nine or 10 logs connected end-to-end in the water, a distance of about 100 feet. Before being activated for military duty and deployed to Iraq, he had won six world titles in logrolling and three in boom running.

His nine world titles put him in a three-way tie with a Michigan man and a Canadian man. There is another Canadian who holds 10 world titles. J.R.’s goal is to notch one more to tie at 10 and then win 11, which would be more than anyone else.

Boom running is “kind of a younger man’s game,” said J.R., for those who “don’t mind falling now and then and cracking a few ribs.” As he started getting older, he got a “little smarter and less stupid” and gave up the event.

He is currently training every day for the upcoming lumberjack sports season. Although he has sworn off boom running, he still competes in log rolling. His training regimen includes running and-or bicycling and log rolling.