PIERCE CITY, Missouri — Brandon and Sally Kieffer have cut out a nice little niche for themselves sawing walnut logs, with Sally at the controls of their Select Sawmill model 4221 high output band mill.
They sort of backed into the sawmill business. Their original business plan was to buy walnut timber, harvest it, and leave the sawing to a local Amish sawmill company.
After a short while, though, they figured if they operated their own mill, they would have control over the sawing and could produce a better product. In addition, the Amish company ran a circle sawmill, and Brandon and Sally figured they could increase the yield from each log by sawing with a band mill.
They went through a couple of other band mills, however, before they settled on the Select Sawmill electric-powered mill as their machine of choice. And along the way they decided to get married.
Their company, Walnut Valley Timber Products, is located in Pierce City in southwest Missouri, about 50 mile southwest of Springfield. They produce 4/4 to 12/4 rough-cut walnut lumber, random width and random length. Their customers are lumber businesses and other companies, from concentration yards to businesses that dry it for other eventual use by remanufacturers who make flooring, furniture, and other finished goods.
They also cut some live edge slabs — slabs about 1-3 inches thick with bark left on the two edges. They are typically used by woodworkers and some furniture companies to make a table top.
The mill is set up in a 3,200-squarefoot building, and they also have a small building set up over their debarker. Sawing about five to six hours per day, average daily production is about 5,000 board feet. The sawmill averages about 1,000 board feet per hour when cutting, according to Brandon. Walnut logs frequently are crooked or misshaped, and they have to be turned often to recover grade. Their company employs the two of them plus three to four other workers in the mill and a truck driver to haul logs.
Besides the Select Sawmill band mill, the company also has a Select Sawmill Rosser head debarker and also an Edmiston two-blade board edger.
They have other equipment for handling and moving logs and lumber: a log truck with Rotobec 910 knuckleboom loader and another log truck with a Hood loader, and a Cat 908 wheel loader. The company also owns a Timberjack 230 cable skidder and a John Deere 548E grapple skidder.
Although they started out buying standing walnut timber, Brandon is now buying more cut logs from logging contractors. At first about 60 percent of the logs came from timber that Brandon bought and felled himself; now about 90 percent are supplied by logging contractors. Logs are specified at a minimum 11 inches in diameter in lengths ranging from 6 to 15 feet.
Brandon, 42, and Sally, 44, have been in business four years and married two years ago.
Brandon began cutting timber while attending college. He withdrew from college and worked full-time, buying timber and harvesting it by hand felling, until he was 24. He also attended lumber grading classes. Then he got a job as log buyer and worked for other companies, buying logs for them, for 13 years.
Sally grew up in a community about 30 minutes away while Brandon originally is from northern Missouri.
They met, just under five years ago, through mutual friends who had a sawmill and had just retired. Sally operated her own painting contracting business, doing both interior and exterior painting and murals.
It was a big decision to invest in a sawmill, they agreed, particularly for Sally, who had a going business with established customers. “It was kind of scary,” she recalled, “but it was kind of fun. Taking a risk.” She had never been in a sawmill or been around one until their decision to get into the business more than four years ago.
Their business decision has worked out well for them. “We get to work together,” said Sally, and later married. “We figured if we can do business together,” she added, they probably would get along as husband and wife.
“I’ve been really happy with it,” said Sally.
She has used a lot of videos on the Internet to learn more about sawing and interviewed other sawyers who cut walnut lumber — all to learn how to get the best lumber and best yield out of a walnut log. She also attended some grading classes at the National Hardwood Lumber Association offices in Memphis, Tenn., to learn about lumber grades.
When they started their business, Brandon bought standing walnut timber for select cuts. He would buy anywhere from 30 to 250 trees at a time, and did all the felling by hand with a business partner who worked in the woods with him.
To see if she really would like and wanted to do it, at first they bought a small portable sawmill. Sally operated it with her oldest daughter for about four months. They moved onto a bigger band mill they owned and operated about two years, but they were not satisfied with the level of production and began considering other options for equipment. They wanted a sawmill that could run a wider band blade and considered several manufacturers.
Their mill from Canadian-based Select Sawmill runs a 6-inch-wide, double-cut blade. “And I love it,” said Sally.
With the double-cut blade, the mill cuts the log both directions, coming and going. “Plus, you can cut a large log with no dipping or swaying through the cut,” said Sally. “It cuts true.”
“Brandon is a super researcher and found them online,” said Sally. “We started looking at them and looking at their YouTube videos.” Select Sawmill was able to refer them to two customers just a few hours away, and the couple visited those mills to see them in operation. They also traveled to visit Select Sawmill’s offices and plant in Ontario, Canada, and spent several days trying the mill, talking with company officials, and touring the plant. “They were really good to work with us and set the machine up exactly the way we wanted,” said Sally.
The Select Sawmill model 4221 is a high output band sawmill that can cut logs up to 42 inches in diameter and 22 feet long. Powered by either a 75 hp electric motor or 115 hp John Deere turbo-charged diesel engine, it can cut up to 3 feet per second.
It has a complete hydraulic system powering the log turner, two back posts, two dogs, two tapers, carriage feed and head lift, and blade tensioning and guide. It also is equipped with an automatic electric blade lubrication system. The computerized setworks features 12 preset thicknesses and two hold and recall memories specially designed for sawing hardwood. Besides offering band sawmills, Select Sawmill offers debarkers, edgers, trim saws and chop saws, and live decks and conveyors. The company can provide a complete high production sawmill layout.
(For more information, visit the Select Sawmill website at www.selectsawmill.com, email email@example.com, or call (613) 673-1267.)
Brandon and Sally chose the 4221 model powered by a 75 hp electric motor. “Essentially, we went with Select because I’m the mechanic and because we liked the production and the simplicity of it,” said Sally. “I knew I could work on it.”
Sally likes the fact that most of the mill’s features are powered hydraulically. “So there are very little electronics to deal with. That’s definitely something that makes it workable for me.”
The majority of replacement parts are readily available from local hardware stores or other businesses, noted Brandon. “That makes it real handy,” said Sally.
She has found the control levers are more operator-friendly than joystick controls because they allow her to have a free hand now and then for a quick drink or to take a phone call.
Select Sawmill’s claims for speed and production proved accurate, according to Brandon.
The mill can cut 34 inches between the guides. “That benefits us because we cut a lot of big logs and tabletop pieces,” said Brandon.
After debarking, logs are picked up with the Cat and staged on a Select Sawmill live infeed log deck that is operated via the controls on the sawmill. The edger is set up to one side of the mill and about 12 feet away. A conveyor alongside the mill carries material from the mill to the rollers at the end, where a worker feeds material to the edger. Boards that do not require edging go to the green chain, which also collects the edged boards.
Most customers are located in other states, so the company uses contract carriers to deliver finished lumber products.
Brandon’s role in the business includes looking for timber, buying it, and harvesting the trees. He also handles log buying, sales and marketing, and coordinates trucking. If he has any spare time, he helps out in the mill by operating the edger.
In the last couple of years they have transitioned to buying more cut logs instead of timber. “It gives us a more immediate supply,” noted Brandon. They can send a truck to pick up logs immediately. A drawback to buying timber and harvesting it himself is that logging is dependent on favorable weather conditions.
They buy blades from Select Sawmill and run one blade per day. They send their blades out to a company for sharpening and servicing. The bands can be serviced and sharpened up to 55 times. With their inventory of blades, they have been getting about two years of service from each one.
They don’t cut for high-volume production, noted Brandon. “We focus on quality here more than quantity,” he said. “We have a pretty good reputation with the companies that we sell to.”
“We focus on quality,” he added, and grade, “so we turn our logs a lot.”
The company lacks consistent markets for byproducts, but they have 100 acres so there is plenty of space to store them. The slabs are not as desirable for fuel wood as oak because walnut doesn’t produce as many BTUs. And walnut is very acidic, so it is not used for any type of animal bedding product.
Brandon and Sally are active in a local non-denominational church. They also enjoy traveling together to hike and hunt. In fact, they were planning a trip to New Zealand in June. They also hunt deer locally in Missouri.
They have a blended family of five children, and all of them have worked at some point in the family business. Three — Jessica, Dalton, and Tiffany — have graduated from college and no longer work in the sawmill; two of whom are still at home. Kaylea, 19, graduated from high school in May and will start college in the fall; Luke, 15, is in high school.
For the first two years, it was all women working in the sawmill with Sally except for a brief time she was joined by her son.
The business is a member of the Missouri Forest Products Association. Brandon and Sally do not anticipate any major changes in the next few years, although they already need more room. “We’re probably going to add onto our building,” said Brandon. “We’ve pretty well outgrown it.”
“One thing we enjoy about the business is the relationships we’ve developed with our customers and suppliers,” said Brandon. “It’s very rewarding for us.”
“And our relationship with our employees,” added Sally.
Does she miss being a painting contractor? “Well, I’ll tell you. It has its pros and cons if you compare them, but overall I like it (operating the sawmill) better. I do miss painting, but I like it better. It’s more consistent, which is nice. And I work with Brandon. We have a good relationship. We have a good work relationship, too.”