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Closer to the source

Even the newest woodworker soon learns that the earlier in the milling process he intercepts his lumber, the less expensive it is. Shrink-wrapped, pre-glued panels from the home center are convenient, but you pay a lot for the milling, packaging, and shipping, not to mention the retail space, forklift driver, front-door greeter … the list goes on. Even if you’re lucky to have a good lumberyard nearby, you’ll pay for any surfacing, straight-line ripping, or even skip-planing done to the board. But, it’s generally a far cry less expensive than home center prices because you’ve intercepted the wood closer to the source.

Repeat after me: “The closer to the tree, the cheaper it will be.”

Given my thrifty (pronounced cheapskate) nature, I’m always on the prowl for cheaper wood. I’ve lucked across several finds recently. The most recent discovery was local sawyer Michael Mendenhall. To supplement his income as an IT professional, Michael runs a Wood-Mizer LT-15 portable sawmill. After finding his low-price listing for air-dried maple, walnut, and oak on Craigslist, I was surprised to find that he lived just a few miles away from me in Hartford, IA, closer than my nearest lumberyard.

My hobby (and now occupation) allow me to meet some great people, and this time was no exception. Michael and his wife Joanne are active in local environmental groups and are working to restore the prairie around their rural home. Joanne has even gone back to school as an environmental scientist and serves on the board of the local watershed association.

Of course, I’m rarely without a video camera. Click below to see Michael in action:


Michael can crank out about 200 board feet per hour, which brings the cost of custom milling down to about 35¢/bdft. Not bad at all, especially for the customer who left that day with a loaded-down flatbed full of walnut. In addition, Michael selectively removes fallen and storm-damaged trees free of charge, air-dries the wood in his spacious basement, and sells it at great rates.

After watching Michael in action I checked out his stash of lumber. I’m a sucker for air-dried walnut, and I was able to snag a stack on the cheap, just the way I like it. Can’t get much closer to the source that that! If you’re in the Des Moines metro and you’re in the lumber market, shoot him an email. Otherwise, check with your local extension service or your state department of natural resources for a list of nearby sawmills.

Lucas Peters @ WOOD

11 Responses to “Closer to the source”

  1. I can’t sign up for one of your classes. . . right now, but I hope to soon. I am re-entering woodworking, since I retired as a RN, I did woodworking at a trade school in High School, and loved it! A whole lot has changed, since then, & I have lost what I learned, so will need to restart. I hope to see you in class, if not this year, then next. I love what I see in your work!

  2. A couple interesting things to add. That’s not just sawdust coming out of the dust chute. There’s a lot of steam as well. It’s generated from a combination of the water from the resevoir used for cooling the blade and the moisture in the wood hitting the heated blade.

    One thing I learned. The walnut had a surprisingly greenish tint to it fresh off the saw, but minutes after it was exposed to the oxygen in the air, it began turning its familiar deep reddish-brown.


  3. Know exacly what you mean,just had a little over 2000 bft done,it’s walnut,cedar,poplar,cherry.The cherry is 2 1/2″x24″x8′,the walnut is 1 1/4″x15″x8′,the poplar is 1 1/4″x15″x8′has been air drying for about 45 days.It’s been rainning and snowing here quiet a bit,been waiting for it to dry up so I can get it into my dryer.You have a good day,got to go,Hubert Sneed,Boonville NC.If you need to contact me try h16d2@yahoo.com

  4. I recently had a local owner of a sawmill come to my property to cut up some fallen cherry and maple from Hurricane Ike. It does sound very promising to do it this way until you consider all of the factors. There is a lot of work involved getting all of the logs to a common area to cut. Moving the sawmill to different spots on one property costs about $75 each move. There is also a lot of work in preparing a site for lumber drying, making stickers, and actually making the stack. Then there are the costs of sheltering the wood and the inevitable losses due to warpage, insect damage, etc. I have figured the true cost of the lumber sitting in my woods is very close to $2 a bdft, assuming a fairly low rate of unusable wood. My suggestion is to go this route only if having lumber from your property has some sentimental value. Unless you do not have a good lumberyard nearby, this method is not cheaper.

  5. If a serious hobby woodworker has a storage shed and all the stacking materials and supplies, then this is a very economical way to pick up material. I run into people quite often who have downed trees that are now stacks of beautiful wood in my storage shed just waiting to be used. And the wood that was cut is the thickness I prefer, not the thin prefinished stuff from the brand name lumber yards. So what I build is much more robust, and you can’t beat the pride of utilizing this fallen material that is so often burned up in someones fireplace!

  6. Well Gene, I think the broader point is that, this man is rescuing timber that would otherwise be destined for the landfill, fireplace or just left to rot. The world has a voracious appetite for wood, and unless we start using what we have left in a sensible manner, we will be in trouble in short order. Every tree utilized that would otherwise go to waste is a tree in the forest saved. By one estimate, 2-3 billion bf of timer is wasted every year, much of that being urban timber. If woodworkers would start using more local resources, a lot more folks could start small businesses turning waste timber into usable lumber. Just my 2 cents.

  7. I have found that old PVC pipe sawn lenght wise makes good stickers for drying lumber. It leaves no marks at all on the boards after it has dried.

  8. My Woodmiser LT15 as shown in the picture with this article has been a great investment. I have been able to install some beautiful red oak floors in my home cut from trees that have died. I’ve also cut some maple, walnut, white cedar and ash. Living in Northern Wisconsin, when I bought the saw I thought I would cut mainly pine but actually pine has been rare. I did cut one pine log that stressed the capacity of the saw throat and was getting 16 inch clear pine boards from the cant. I can cut shorter logs that most commercial sawmills won’t bother with and can get some nice figured woods from crotches etc. I have also produced a lot of quartersawn oak. Having my own mill allows me to take my time and get what I want from logs. Works great for resawing too.

  9. When I moved back to Canada in 2006 I had the money to set up a small sawmill operation until I did some real research and I found I was money poor for the startup. The sawmill whether bandsaw or my favorite, swingmill sawmill, I would need to move the logs with either a skid steer or a lift truck. If I was going to harvest my own trees I would need a boom truck or something to move the logs. The insurance was incredibly high and I needed a place with a flat yard with the ability to store piles of wood. All in all I found a sawyer a half hour from me with the same setup I wanted to have and I get Black cherry, oak, maple and butternut for $1.50 a bdft and black walnut for $2.00 a bdft. So if you like the work and have the investment be a sawyer, if not find a sawyer!

  10. Does anyone know of a mill for cherry, walnut, etc. in the Salem, OR area?

  11. just a thought, a few years ago the city put through a road close to my property (too close ) there was a lot of old growth timber taken out. I got with the guy taking out the timber and got some good deals. Keep an eye peeled

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