Harnessing the Untapped Value of Reclaimed Urban Lumber

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The beauty of reclaimed wood and live-edge furniture are at the heart of a growing demand for lumber that only a portable sawmill can produce. That, coupled with increasing global ecological awareness, are leading many entrepreneurial sawyers to look to cities as fertile ground for both valuable markets and valuable sawlogs.

Setting up a sawmill in an urban area (zoned industrial), miles away from the nearest patch of forest sounds like a crazy idea, but there is a growing number of sawyers who are joining this growing trend, and supplying lumber to nature-conscious consumers who like the idea of “recycling” urban trees into lumber. Of course, with those opportunities come unique challenges.

The Site of Your Sawmilling Operation

First of all, where do you set up the sawmill? If you live in a rural area, chances are no one will raise an eyebrow if you start a sawmill on your own property. But if you live in an urban area, space is at a premium and your neighbors may frown on the noise and sawdust, even if the mill is quieter than their leaf blower. You have some options:

1) If you are a one-person operation, you could store your portable sawmill in your garage and transport it elsewhere to operate in a less contentious place. You may, for example, strike a deal with someone who has a flat area and would be willing to let you deck up logs and mill lumber on the property (possibly exchanging the “rent” for a little milling).

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2) Larger operations set up mills in properly zoned areas. Access to a building for sawmill, kiln and lumber storage, and maybe even a sales area and woodworking shop keeps everything tidy. An asphalt area makes it easy to move logs and lumber with an industrial fork lift and keeps the logs clean.

Sourcing Your Logs

Cities are teeming with incredibly valuable trees, and that means a golden opportunity! Tapping into those assets, sourcing the logs, requires a certain amount of creativity and resourcefulness.

1. A quick search in Craig’s List always turns up ads for “free” wood if you are willing to cut down the tree. To the homeowner, this is a way to avoid the expense of hiring a tree service. The downside is, aside from the work, it also puts the liability on you if anything goes wrong which is probably not worth the risk.

2. Connecting with one or two tree services can work very well for both parties. It may take some persistence to get your foot in the door, but once you have a couple established relationships, you are in business. You have to be willing to work to their schedule; you will be expected to drop everything and get the logs at a moment’s notice. Your tree service partners will like several upsides of working together with you:

3. From a financial standpoint, they will be glad to save the expense of cutting up and disposing of the log. Or, they will like the extra revenue from selling you the logs. Either way, make sure you are in agreement before you load up your logs.

4. They can offer value-added services to potential clients. They could offer your sawmilling services as a way to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Many homeowners like the idea that the special tree out in front of their house is transformed into a family heirloom coffee table instead of wood chips.

When you develop a good working relationship with a tree service outfit, be sure to show up promptly and be professional so that you enhance their reputation in front of their clients.

Collecting Your Sawlogs

In the best scenario, the tree service will haul the logs to you, but this is rare. Usually it will be up to you to find a way to load and haul the log to your sawmill. At the very least, you will need a truck and flatbed trailer capable of hauling a minimum of four tons legally and safely. In addition, you will need the means of moving the log to the trailer, and loading it. The technique will depend on the terrain and the size of the log.

The simplest solution is to maneuver the log and trailer parallel to each other and winch the log up ramps with a parbuckle arrangement. Properly executed, the log rolls up the ramps and onto the trailer with little effort. The winch, of course must be heavy enough to handle the load. I use a Lewis winch, which attaches to a chain saw (in my case, a Husqvarna 365) for power. It has never let me down. My record size yard log was 36-diameter, and 10′ long oak; calculated weight was over 4,000 pounds and scaled 535 board feet (International quarter inch scale)! In another case, I rented a Bobcat loader for a day. The $200 rental fee was well worth it in terms of the time saved, light footprint on the owner’s yard, and safety.

As a final note on safety, be sure to check with trailer requirements in your state. In addition to the regular hook-ups, you will need trailer brakes, and likely a break-away brake that stops the trailer in the event that it parts ways with your truck.

Maximizing the Value of Your Urban Logs

The challenges (or opportunities) continue when you get the urban log on the mill. Many are too short for conventional sawmills, but would make incredible tables or counter tops, if you can figure out how to mill them. The key here is to use a sawmill that handles the oddball logs easily. The flexible clamping system and extra-wide cutting capacity of Norwood’s LumberPro HD36 (32″ wide planks if you take off the movable guide) make it an ideal sawmill for these logs.

In many cases, I quarter the big logs with a chain saw, which not only gets the size and weight down, but also gives me the option of quarter sawing the log. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to pick up several huge black oak logs, up to 46-diameter, that were covered with burls. For that one, I swallowed my pride and hired a sawyer with a wide slabber, and was rewarded with some beautiful slabs that are now in the drying yard.

The other challenge is objects inside the log. Not much opportunity here, since nails, spikes, steel fence posts, wrenches, and other metal objects tend to destroy blades in a hurry. One of the worst in my experience was a beautiful 22″ diameter walnut log that, at one point, was hollow and filled with cement. I nicknamed that one “Juglans concretia.” I even milled through bullets in logs that came from a residential area of nearby Joplin, MO. From a Bonnie & Clyde shoot-out? Maybe!

Marketing is surprisingly easy, but it is important to get the word out beyond your area. Reclaimed lumber is popular now, and hopefully will be for some time to come. Combine that with specialty cuts, such as natural live-edge slabs, and you may find yourself backlogged on orders. Often the customer is the landowner who wants something of the old tree in the yard that had to come out.

Opportunities to mill quality are all around you! Even in a part of the country otherwise barren of trees, urban landscapes offer opportunities. With the right equipment, good relations with tree services and a little ingenuity, you may find yourself recovering trees from an urban forest! And profiting big time!