The new Hahn HFB240 tool is a log bucking attachment for skidsteer loaders and is mounted on the front of the loader like other Hahn attachments.
ELGIN, Minnesota — It’s been about five years since Marv Sawyer helped Hahn Machinery test and develop its first-to-market skidsteer attachment for producing firewood, a tool that uses the little loader’s hydraulics to buck logs and split the wood.
During that period the firewood business has gotten tougher in his region of Minnesota, primarily because logs are harder to come by.
Marv came up with an idea for another attachment that would help his business, ProCut Firewood, and Hahn has brought it to development. The new Hahn HFB240 is a log bucking attachment for skidsteer loaders. The new tool, mounted on the front of the loader like other Hahn attachments, will buck logs up to 24 inches in diameter.
Marv, 45, operates Sawyer Construction Services, Inc. located in Elgin, less than 10 miles northeast of Rochester. It is a multi-pronged business that does land-clearing, excavating, and snow removal in addition to firewood. The company also produces and sells mulch and operates wood yards.
Marv has had to adapt in recent years, however, due to the impact of the recession, which delivered a double-whammy to his business. It negatively affected revenues from snow removal work as well as land-clearing jobs.
When the recession hit in 2008-09, his snow plowing and snow removal work “really took a hit,” said Marv. Clearing snow — mainly parking lots for big stores — had been a large source of revenue for Marv’s company. When the economy took a turn for the worse, those national accounts “went looking for the cheapest guy or wanted less service,” he said, and he let the business go.
Land-clearing jobs “almost dried completely up” in the same period, said Marv. He recalled building sites that he had cleared that sat vacant, undeveloped, for four years. “So they’re not going to clear any more,” he observed, until those sites are developed. “Everything just went on hold.”
Accordingly, he sought to increase his firewood business to offset the lost revenue. Since a 2010 TimberLine article about Marv’s partnering with Hahn to develop its firewood processor attachments for skidsteer loaders, his firewood business has about doubled. He now has three locations for producing firewood, including a wood yard in Rochester that has been operating less than a year.
However, the firewood business has had its own challenges. The toughest one has been getting raw material. Logs are more difficult to come by than they were five years for a combination of reasons, according to Marv.
As recently as five years ago, Marv could make one or two phone calls to loggers and be assured of getting enough red oak logs to produce 500 cords of firewood. “Those days are gone for me,” he said, as well as for other businesses that rely on wood.
One reason simply is the shortage of loggers and the fact that the industry is not attracting young men; Marv has been told by representatives of several mills in the region that 58 is the average age of loggers within about a 200-mile circle. Another reason is competition for logs. Outdoor wood boilers have gained in popularity, according to Marv, and homeowners who have them are quick to ask loggers and tree service businesses for wood. Also, operators of small band sawmills compete for low-grade logs to cut pallet material and other industrial lumber.
Loggers supply about 30-40% of the logs he needs, and about another 30 percent comes from his land-clearing jobs. The remainder comes from tree service businesses, and Marv also buys some firewood wholesale by the semi-load from other producers.
Because he cannot rely on a steady supply from loggers, the firewood logs he is able to get are more diverse in diameter. They may be from 4 inches to 40 inches. “To make all that into pretty little (firewood) pieces is pretty challenging, to say the least,” said Marv.
Instead of processing large logs by hand, he wanted a saw that could buck them to fireplace length. Big, over-size logs are usable “as long as we can get them bucked to length,” noted Marv.
Marv worked with Hahn again for a solution. He approached Hahn with the idea for a new attachment that would buck larger logs. The Hahn staff was interested although it was not an immediate priority. When they eventually brought him a prototype, he ran it for a few weeks, and the company made a few relatively minor adjustments to it.
“They’re very good guys to work with,” said Marv. Hahn personnel are much better at listening to input from customers and incorporating that feedback in the design and construction of their equipment, he said.
The Hahn HFB240 can handle logs about 10-12 feet long, according to Hahn Machinery president Gary Olsen. The company can set the mechanical stop — which determines the length of the bucked pieces — at any length for the customer. The company has supplied two of the new attachments and will be marketing them. Of course, Marv owns the first, and allowed his friend Jack Foss of Lumberjack’s, Inc. to also demo it. Jack’s business was featured in the January 2015 issue of TimberLine. Jack went on to purchase his own Hahn HFB240 bucking attachment, and between these first two machines, over 1,000 full cords have been bucked within the last several months.
The new Hahn attachment “is working real good,” said Marv. “It makes beautiful wood out of ugly stuff without a terrible amount of work.”
The attachment is similar in some respects to the Hahn firewood processing attachments. “Everything is wired the same,” said Marv. “The controls are the same.”
Marv has a concrete slab at each wood yard for processing wood, which keeps it cleaner and makes it easier for picking up and handling the wood with the skidsteer loaders.
One location at his main shop also houses a kiln for heat-treating the firewood and equipment to produce bundled or packaged firewood, most of which is stacked on pallets for shipment.
The new wood yard in Rochester relies heavily on wood from tree service businesses; the new Hahn HFB240 is used at this location. As the logs are bucked, the operator picks the wood up with the loader and dumps it in a hopper that conveys it to one or two workers operating splitters. The facility also has a Kiln-Direct unit for heat-treating firewood.
A third wood yard north of Rochester is mainly used for collecting brushy material. Marv hires a contractor to come in once a year and grind the material, and Marv sells the mulch.
All firewood is kiln-dried. “Every stick,” said Marv. His approach to firewood is “to make it exceptionally well and get a high dollar for it.” The kiln cycle is about 28-30 hours, depending on the species and when the wood was processed.
His is the only firewood business in Minnesota that is certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to produce heat-treated, sterilized firewood, which allows him to ship to markets outside the state.
Marv has been supplying packaged firewood for about 15 years. He uses two different types of equipment, the Twister Industries equipment for some bundling and Wood-Paker for other.
About 60% of his firewood is sold within 80 miles to restaurants, homeowners, campgrounds, and some other businesses.
Marv now has two of the Hahn attachments for processing logs into firewood plus the new attachment for bucking big logs. He is still a firm believer in the Hanh Hahn firewood processor attachment he helped develop, and speaks from experience. “I’ve owned every brand of firewood processor there is to own,” he said. The only one he kept was the Hahn attachment.
“They all have their good points,” said Marv, referring to more traditional type firewood processors with live log decks. “They all have their bad points.”
Marv explained it this way. Traditional firewood processors are designed and built to process good, straight logs about 12-15 inches in diameter. With logs that size, a traditional processor can make the small, uniform pieces of firewood that pull top dollar. The problem is some logs are as small as 4 inches on the small end and others as big as 30 inches on the big end. In addition, many logs are crooked. “They can’t take all the different type of wood you get in…That’s the hang up with all of them, really.”
The Hahn HFP160 attachment not only eliminates the cost of a full-blown traditional firewood processor, it is a more efficient use of labor, according to Marv. In a competition between one man running a traditional processor and one man in a skid-steer loader with the Hahn processing attachment, “The Hahn will win every time,” said Marv. That’s because the man running the traditional processor loses time when he has to stop producing to load the live deck. “There’s really no comparison for a one man operation,” he said. However, in large-scale firewood operations, that have additional employees to man several traditional firewood processors, and an employee to load the live decks, a lot of firewood can be produced efficiently, he pointed out.
His firewood business employs from three to six people, depending on the time of year and how busy it is. The company’s firewood typically is oak or hickory. In the summer, producing wood for evening fires at campgrounds, there is more of a mix of species.
About 60 percent of the company’s production is loose, bulk firewood, and the other 40 percent is bundled or packaged. At the retail yard in Rochester, some customers will buy $25-50 worth of firewood and load it in the trunk of their car or in their SUV or pickup truck. For deliveries to homeowners, the company will either unload the wood with a dump truck or stack it for an extra fee.
Sometimes the men running the loaders and Hahn firewood processor attachments maneuver so that the loader holds the log over a wall. “It rolls right off ahead of you,” said Marv. Otherwise they use grapple attachments later to handle the wood.
Marv built a homemade splitter that is used at one wood yard. The bucked pieces of wood drop into a big tub with a hydraulic ram. A pull of a lever nudges a block forward, and workers slide them under a vertical splitter that is attached to it. He also uses a Timber Devil splitter in conjunction with a home-made hopper that conveys the wood.
Most packaged firewood is stacked on pallets and sold by the semi-load. The company also will deliver 20 pallets of bundled firewood at a time. Shrink-wrapped bundles of firewood wrapped by the Twister Industries equipment typically are loaded into trucks and then placed into racks at gas stations, convenience stores, and other businesses.
All the company’s firewood is processed the same, whether it is sold to homeowners or packaged for sale to retailers.
Marv has marketed his business in the past with local television commercials. He also markets with a website, although most local business now is generated by word of mouth. Marketing to large chain stores requires more of a direct contact and approach, he indicated.
“The web is kind of a big deal,” he said. (The website address is www.procutfirewood.com.) One benefit of the website is that he can post there the videos of his television commercials. “People like to watch those videos. I don’t know why.” He also has a Facebook page although he conceded he has not put much effort into it yet.
“I do try to utilize every piece of wood we get our hands on,” said Marv. “I think that’s a good thing.”
Most residual material — sawdust, scrap and odd pieces — is sold; all the material is stored under roof. Marv also uses some scrap material to fuel a boiler that heats two homes and two shops.
His newest wood yard, in Rochester, has been in place less than a year. City officials initially approved it, then required him to go through a costly process to have his Kiln-Direct unit inspected and approved by Underwriters Laboratories.
Marv is a member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce. His wife, Shelly, handles the business paperwork and also works outside the home. They have three children: Madison, 14, Maverik, 12, and Brooklyn, 7.
Marv’s company will take on land-clearing jobs as small as 1 acre and as big as 50 acres. His company is equipped with tree shears and also chain saws for hand felling, a 250 hp Vermeer chipper, and other equipment. For large jobs, like the 40-acre project, he contracts with a logger equipped with a cutter and a grapple skidder to do some work.
Thankfully, land-clearing activity has picked up again recently. Marv recently cleared two sites, including a 40-acre project for road construction.