Drying lumber - selecting the best method

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Is a solar kiln the best choice for this startup sawmill? December 17, 2003

I'm hoping to one day build my own solar kiln. I'm going to have about 100,000 board feet of lumber cut over the winter that I'm hoping to sell, so I need to dry it to get a better return than selling it green.

If I get it down to 7% or so, then pull it from the kiln and store the pallet of boards in the top of my barn or in my machine shed... it's just going to suck in moisture again, and be worth less when I sell it, no?

Forum Responses
From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
It will regain moisture if left in an unheated shed, barn, etc. Within 3 to 4 weeks, it can already have gained enough moisture in a few pieces to cause trouble.

Incidentally, a solar kiln does not dry lumber very fast in the winter. In fact, 100,000 BF per year would require 15 kilns with a capacity of 1500 BF each.

From the original questioner:
Well, ain't that just super... This drying stuff may be the end of my plan.

If I simply air dry my lumber, properly stickered of course, am I still going to get less for it (than kiln dried) when I sell it? I mean, after it's used for building or whatever, it's going to regain moisture anyway, right?

I've got a local guy that'll kiln dry for .25 cents/bf, but that'll just kill me on 100,000 bf.

Do I buy a pre-made kiln? How much are those?

From contributor A:
If it isn't worth 25 cents a BF more kiln dried, then it can't be very good lumber. If you can get even 50 cents a BF more kiln dried than air dried, that's $50,000 and you can well afford a real kiln.

From contributor B:
Pay to have it dried by a pro. If you can't recoup that small expense, then don't even cut the trees down.

From the original questioner:
I'm surprised nobody's saying "save the $25,000 and build your own kiln." Are they more expensive than I realize?

From contributor C:
With the investment in time and money, you better have your customer(s) all lined up so you don't have to sit on it. That way you don't have to store it. Or you can kiln dry it as you sell it, keeping a small stockpile on hand that you can store properly and sell it by the board on E-Bay.

From contributor A:
You can build a kiln for that kind of money. Do you want to go into the lumber business? It's like any business. There are people who have made fortunes and people who have gone bust. And like any business, there are some things to learn. But they are not hard to learn or great secrets. The idea is to sell stuff for more than it costs you. Oops, I've given it all away. By the way, there are several decent kiln manufacturers listed here.

From the original questioner:
So, you're suggesting I line up my customers before I start cutting? I thought I'd do that while it's drying.

It's almost all white oak and sugar maple.

I've got at least 100K board feet of standing timber in my woods (I'll be taking inventory this weekend), and I really wouldn't be against a career change. Right now I'm a software developer, and I'm making six figures, but I'm tired of it. Tired of the rat-race in the big city programming their PCs.

So, that's why I'm investigating doing the lumber thing.

Many of these trees are 40" or more, so I was planning on buying a swinger. My neighbor will knock the trees down, and skid them up to my buildings for $15/hour, so he's cheap.

The drying thing has slowed me down, because most all the lumber I'm seeing sell on eBay is kiln dried, so I worry that air dried lumber won't move too well... but that's only a guess. I haven't investigated that one.

I'd prefer to kiln dry it, but it sounds like I'd need a very big building to store it all in after it comes out of the kiln. I'm not against putting up a large building, but it's got to be heated to keep the moisture from reentering the lumber... more expense.

That kind of sums up where I'm at with my wood drying issues.

From contributor D:
100000 bfd at 1.79, if it's cut at 4/4 FAS, would fetch approximately $179,000.00. 8/4 FAS = $257,000.00. Sounds like big business. Buy a kiln or two or three - you'll need them.

From the original questioner:
I have no idea how much this stuff will fetch. Where did you come up with the 1.79 and 2.57 figures? If those are accurate, then I'd better start kiln shopping.

From contributor A:
I don't know where you are but the species sort of give me a clue. With that kind of lumber, a band mill may make more sense. And a kiln always makes sense (though I may be biased). If you don't subscribe to Independent Sawmill and Woodlot Magazine, get some back issues. Sounds like you have a good resource, so give it a shot. You can do it full or part time.

From contributor E:
If you make 6 digits a year, why are you worried about a few trees in your backyard?

As Dr. Wengert pointed out, it would take about 15 solar kilns to dry 100,000 bd ft of green lumber in a year, or more, depending on the species. What kind of trees do you have? Do you have a sawmill? I hope that you do more than just knock down the trees. Trees must be cut down properly to yield the highest quality lumber.

I think you need to do a little more research in this field before you start. Depending on what species of trees we're talking about, you could just sell them to a professional logger, make money, and not worry about it, or else just take a little walk through the forest and enjoy the beauty of nature for years to come.

From the original questioner:
It's my father's woodlot on his farm. I grew up as a farmer, and turned a city boy as a programmer, and now want to go back to the country. It's all white oak and sugar maple. Our farmhouse was and is still completely heated with a wood furnace. It would take 13 trees a winter to heat the house, and that's using all of the tops. When I got old enough, I did all the tree dropping, so I've got plenty of experience in felling.

I've been looking at saws, and plan on going with the big Lucas Mill, so I can mill some wide boards after blade flipping. I'm also planning on cutting everything I can quartersawn.

From contributor F:
I'd suggest the "easy does it" way. Why don't you invest some money and have some trees harvested and sawn up? Get the lumber dried and try your luck at peddling the stuff. If it goes well, invest a little more money and so on until you feel comfortable. I hope you are getting a forester to help you with your inventory.

From the original questioner:
That's probably the right approach. But it's hard to do, since I live 5 hours south of the woods. Woods are in upper WI, and I'm in the Chicago area. Right now, I'm trying to decide if I should build a solar kiln, or just buy one.

And yes, the local county agent and forester are helping cruise the woods. My dad and I do not want to raise hell in the woods and tear them all up. We're just looking to cull the woods, and take out what should be taken, before the next storm does. This woods hasn't been harvested for well over 100 years.

From contributor B:
White oak is very prone to honeycomb and surface checks. Maple is very, very prone to sticker stain. Both are drying defects and can greatly decrease the value of the lumber. Not two of the best species to learn with.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
If you want the whitest hard maple, in the summertime, you need to get it into the kiln within 6 hours after sawing. If the lumber is cold or frozen, you need to have the correct RH after the lumber is put into the kiln within 6 hours.

From contributor G:
The very first thing I would do is get a long range management plan for the woods. Use a competent forester and get references. Once you have the plan, you can decide how much you want to do yourself or hire done. This will let you rest easy that the woods are being managed well. Do what you are doing now. Get as educated on the lumber business as you can be. Don't rush it.

From the original questioner:
The reason I feel rushed is because my parents have someone interested in buying the farm for $150K (it's 150 acres, with 40 acres woods), and this possible buyer will be making a decision over deer hunting season.

From contributor H:
I would ask your neighbors to see who had recent logging done. Go visit their woods and see how it looks. Some loggers know what they are doing and some do not. The woods will look a little rough for the first year but should not look like a moonscape. The bigger the logging equipment, the bigger the mess. If you can find a logger that has a small skidder or farmi winch on a tractor, that would be your best bet.

Some of that maple and oak are likely veneer grade and you will lose money by sawing it into boards. Some of that maple could be birdseye or curly. You need to know how to tell the difference. The veneer buyer will spot it and not say boo and you will be out 6 figures while the veneer buyer laughs all the way to the bank.

You should be there for every load that is hauled away. Ask to see every scale slip. Keep an eye on property lines. Mark trees right away that you don't want harvested.

Does this potential buyer know that you are going to harvest all the valuable timber? This may cost you the deal!

Don't forget about all the firewood potential there after the harvest is done. Don't let those tops go to waste. You will have probably greater than 100 cord of firewood to sell. Your best bet would be to contract that out.

This should have been done 5 years ago when the market was up for lumber and veneer.

From the original questioner:
"ask and look at my neighbors"

My neighbor takes trees out of his woods all the time. He uses his tractor and winch. Very little, if any, destruction. Good guy. Willing to drop and drag my trees for $15/hour.

"Some of that maple and oak are likely veneer grade and you will lose money by sawing it into boards."

Many of them are veneer grade, but I can't seem to find veneer pricing anywhere on the web for Wisconsin timber. If I quarter saw most of my lumber, I can sell it on eBay for no less than $2/brdft (figuring very conservatively). Are veneer companies paying $2K/M? Yes, I realize that to get lumber in a form to sell on eBay or elsewhere, I have a lot more processing involved... but I feel that $2/brdft takes all that into consideration.

I've done quite a bit of research on identifying birdseye, curly, and burl while standing. In many cases it's still a crap-shoot, but I have found some good literature on IDing this sort of thing.

"You should be there for every load that is hauled away."

Nobody's hauling away any logs, unless I go veneer, in which case their scale should match my scale.

This potential buyer is willing to pay my parent's asking price of $150K sometime in November. I need to make a decision before then.

I've thought about the firewood, and yes, I would imagine there's additional money there. "Contract that out," you say... are you saying basically sell the tops where they lay, or are you saying hire someone to chunk up and split all the tops, and I do the selling?

I wish I could afford to buy it and sit on it, waiting for the market to come back. But I won't be greedy... just trying to punch numbers and see if I come out a little ahead, or a lot ahead.

From contributor I:
How about this... buy the farm. Lease the unforested acreage to a local farmer to help you make your payments. Find a sawyer in your area and a kiln operator in your area and go work with them for free to find out if this is the life for you before you cut those trees. They aren't going anywhere, after all.

Get all the knowledge you can and I would strongly advise you not to use these trees as your first experiment in drying or milling. They are way too valuable for that.

From contributor J:
As stated above, "the bigger the logging equipment the bigger the mess." The bigger the tree, the bigger the mess, also. It's hard for me to imagine timber that old and large only having 2500 bdft per acre. One tall 40 inch dbh hard maple or white oak should have that volume in it. Surely there's more than one of them per acre, plus several lesser ones.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
You can sell logs to a sawmill and do fairly well. They will give you a higher price for logs with veneer potential. A veneer log has special requirements, including freedom from knots, large diameter, no end splits or unsound centers, etc. You will find that selling logs, after you pay for logging, is not very profitable. Why not sell the farm minus the 40 acres? Then do it right and make some money. Or sell the farm including the woods, but include a provision for you to be able to log the merchantable timber for two years at no cost?

From the original questioner:
How does white oak dry in a vacuum kiln? Too slow to make it worth while? I like the idea of being able to take a lumber order, cut down the tree, lumber it out, and dry it quickly, to fulfill the order.

If a vacuum kiln doesn't work for white oak, will I be able to get my MC low enough putting it in drying sheds, to sell, or am I losing a lot of money if I don't kiln dry it?

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
Drying sheds will reach 12% MC, which is not dry enough to demand the high KD price.

I think that you sound like too small of an operation to consider a vacuum kiln. They need to work 24/7 to pay their high capital expense.

So, your idea of cutting a tree, drying it and getting it to the customer in a short time period sounds good, but unless you run the kilns every day, your lumber will cost more than someone using a hot air kiln and who carries an inventory so that they can meet the customer's needs.

From the original questioner:
Gene, is it pretty important, after I pull my lumber out of the kiln, that I do not simply put it into a drying shed? It'll just regain too much moisture again, right? Does it indeed need to be placed in a heated building?

From contributor J:
Think of your wood as a slow sponge.

From the original questioner:
Do most people have a heated building to put their kiln dried lumber into? Seems like they would have to, or it'll just go back up to 12% MC, making the time in the kiln a waste. Or do they scramble to find a buyer right away for their lumber, fresh out of the kiln?

Gene, you said that it sounds like a good idea for me to cut my tree when I get an order. Drying it then and getting it to the customer sounds good. But isn't it impossible to get it to the customer quickly without a vacuum kiln, due to the long drying time in the other kilns?

From contributor K:
I am from Australia and our family business has a solar kiln - a solar collector sitting on top of a 20' shipping container.

It surprises me that so many people are negative about solar kilns. We kiln dry from 30-35% MC to 12% MC in 3-4 weeks with little or no degrade. The standards within the timber (lumber) industry says that kiln drying below 12% MC can lead to high degrade.

The kiln holds about 10m3 of 1" stock and about 7m3 of 2" stock (sorry about the metric - not sure how to convert to board feet).

The solar kiln is hot and dry through the daylight hours and cooler and more moist through the night, allowing stresses to release.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
Australia is much warmer and closer to the equator than we are in the U.S. Hence solar works better in Australia. Could you dry 100,000 bf of lumber in your solar kiln? (424 bf = 1 cubic meter, so your kiln holds about 4000 BF.) How long would it take or how many kiln loads?

To the original questioner: You store KD lumber so you can respond quickly. Storage is done in a slightly heated (20 F warmer than outside) building. What would you do with a vacuum kiln if in December you had no orders? You need to keep it running. You would therefore have an inventory.

From contributor L:
I was wondering about the bd ft estimates. Are these estimates based on the idea that all the lumber coming out of the tree is marketable at $2 bd ft? I've read some crazy numbers in the above posts. A good No. 1 sawlog will yield only a certain percentage of high grade lumber that could be sold on eBay. My average is about 25% - 35% No. 1's and better. The rest goes into really low grade markets that pay .25 a bd ft for pallet cants. Are you figuring this into your calculations when you figure the stumpage in your woods? Basically you will have only 30% of your calculated bd ft in high enough grade that any cabinetmaker would be interested. What are your markets for the other 70%? That's my problem at the moment. Maybe you already figured that all into your bd ft estimates, but it didn't look like it to me.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
A No. 1 sawlog should yield 75% No.1 Common and better; a No.2, 50%; and a No.3, 25%.

From contributor G:
If a heated building is not available, could the kd wood be wrapped in plastic in a storage building? I am thinking 1000 foot or less bundles and 10 bundles or less. Set the bundles on the plastic and unwrap and rewrap as orders come in.

From contributor M:
Assuming everything you say is accurate, you should do whatever you can to buy the land yourself. With that kind of timber on it, your folks are giving their land away. If you can buy it, get yourself a little mill and a solar or DH kiln, etc. You could easily make up the payments on weekends alone. This way, you could give your folks the nest egg they're looking for, and you could let them continue to live there. Everybody wins except the guy that was going to steal it from them.

From the original questioner:
Due to the cold winters in Wisconsin USA, it sounds like a solar kiln will be disappointing to me.

Gene, you say I need to keep my vacuum kiln running... In order to make it pay for itself, right?

I understand that I would need to keep an inventory, in order to respond to orders quickly... but what dimensions do I store? Do 90% of the orders fall into certain dimensions, such that I'd have that in inventory? If not, that's a huge advantage to vacuum kilns - I can cut to order.

Contributor G, I would think the bundles would need to be wrapped air tight.

Gene, while in inventory, can the boards be laid directly against one another? Or do they still need to be stickered there, too?

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor
Tight piled KD inventory is fine.

Wrapping in plastic so that it is essentially sealed is fine. Remember that it takes 4 gallons of water to change the MC of 1000 BF by 1% MC. So wrapping is very good. It would take many months for that much water to get into a pack, and then it is only 1% MC change.

From the original questioner:
Contributor M, you're reading the situation perfectly. I would like to allow my folks to stay there, plus get them some good money.

I'm leaning against the solar kiln idea due to not getting much drying done in the winter. I guess DH is the way to go, then.

I hope what you're saying about being able to make the payments easily indeed works out, but I have no idea where to go for sales on my lumber. I've got the Lumber Wanted ads here on WOODWEB, but I guess after my boards are nearing low moisture in the kiln, I'd just start calling cabinet and furniture manufacturers, eh? Or are buyers typically found before you even start milling? If that's the case, I could at least start stacking logs and sealing the ends.

From contributor G:
There are lumber brokers out there that buy your wood and sell it to their customers for a few percent increase. By talking with them you can get a guaranteed market. The down side is they are usually at the low end. This will establish the floor in value for your lumber. We use a broker for cedar at times because they know we can saw unusual dimensions and it helps them with their customers. With a broker you can move your lumber quickly if needed. This still allows you to use your marketing skills to find the niche markets that pay a higher premium.

What is the lead time from customer asking for lumber and when they expect delivery? Knowing this will help you decide whether you have enough time to go from tree to kd or you need to stockpile.

Another question is how much wood actually sells on E-Bay. Is that a good marketplace?

From the original questioner:
I think I should use eBay as a place to sell very small amounts at a premium. I've seen some quartersawn oak go for $9/bf. But for the bulk of my lumber, I'd need to go elsewhere.

Your question on leadtime is something I need to find out. It determines a lot. If my prospects can wait for it to kiln dry, then that's fine. But if they can't wait, then that means inventory, and my need to build a huge building and heat it.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:

A BROKER never has title to the lumber, but connects buyer and seller. You get your money when the lumber is delivered. It is hard to use a broker for small quantities.

A WHOLESALER buys the lumber and can use several small lots to make a larger lot. You get paid right away; not wait for a buyer who will be using the lumber.

The hobbyist market is very large. Think about how you can let these people know about your lumber. Also, many schools need lumber; they may be mail-ordering from Chicago or another distant city. Check the yellow pages for cabinet shops. Your state will also have an index of manufacturers; go to forest products and contact all of these people. Most people will buy based on NHLA grades. Can you grade? If not, you need to hire a grader to come in on weekends, etc.

From the original questioner:
Excellent, Gene. I think one of the best ways to hit the hobby market is eBay. Their craft and hobby audience is huge. But all your possible markets should be easy to contact.

From contributor N:
If this land is as you describe it, contributor M is giving you good advice. If you must get this done this winter, learning all you need to know and developing the marketing contacts is a big order. It might be to both you and your parents' advantage if you purchase the farm on a contract. Your parents will receive an interest rate higher than they will get at the bank, and a regular payment.

I would not want much time to pass between cutting the trees and sawing them, especially in warmer weather. Both main species you have tend to stain quickly in warm weather, at least here in the humid Ohio valley.

From contributor O:
If the KD lumber has to be kept warm and dry to keep its value, why do people pay such steep prices at Lowe's and Home Depot for wood that has set stacked out in the rain before being brought inside? Heck, I've seen KD lumber out in the rain at construction sites.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
We have been talking about hardwoods that would be used for interior projects (furniture, cabinets, flooring, etc.). For construction purposes, the rain issue is not very important.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor R:
Don't be fooled by some of these guys out there. We log in Kentucky and do a little sawing. To get the best return, just be willing to ship your logs to other states. Also have a bid day for your logs. Invite 5-10, or however many log buyers you can find, out for a sealed bid day for the harvested logs. The key is to do this while they are fresh and to have the logs sorted by grade and type. Then mark each log with an ID number. Have the buyers bid on each log they want. Most people don't know this method or haven't tried it but it works. I tend to set the pricing for my area each time I sell. Also, I tend to see very good money on all my logs. In past sales I have gotten up to $14.00 a bdft on walnut and $8.50 a bdft on cherry veneers. I see over $2.25 a bdft on threesided logs right now. We cut red oak, white oak, hard maple, cherry, walnut and hickory. Plus I have a great speciality log market for osage orange ($3.00 a bdft in the log), cedar ($0.75-$1.25 in the log), and a few others. I try not to mill anything that I can see $2-2.50 a bdft for without starting my mill or having to market outside the log sale.

Comment from contributor H:
You could try using a dehumidifying shipping container to dry the wood. They aren't too expensive and are pretty bullet proof. They are about 8 X 8 X 40.

Comment from contributor P:
I saw and dry some rock maple here in the northeast with good results on small scale building furniture. You should check to see if there was ever a sugar maple operation on the farm. The trees can be damaged somewhat by the tap hole and also the wood stains darker several inches or feet.

Also note that rock maple and oak are heavy and a small farm tractor may suffer the consequences. Lastly I have my boards sawn by a radial saw blade with lots of power which gives good results, as compared to the smaller less powerful portable band saw mills. Check this out carefully before investing in a sawmill.