Harvesting Urban Lumber

For some, turning urban and suburban trees into useable lumber can be a successful niche business. July 30, 2007

I've recently made a few contacts with tree services here in W. MI. It seems I can pick up some nice logs from yard trees around town. Is there a way to make money without buying a sawmill, building a kiln, opening a retail outlet, etc.? I'm happy to keep it small, but I do need it to be profitable. Is anyone doing this successfully as a one man outfit - full time? Are there any small guys selling logs successfully?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor A:
If you don't want to buy a sawmill, buy a log splitter. I am an urban logger, meaning I saw yard trees. But I don't pay enough (very rarely pay anything) for logs to make it profitable for a guy who would try to sell them. No one to my knowledge does. I hate to see good logs split for firewood, and it happens too frequently so the log splitter advice was partially tongue in cheek. If you really knew a lot about trees and could pick out figured wood (i.e. the one in a million curly/birdseye maple, burl wood...) those logs would sell, but from most yard trees you are going to make more selling firewood. These tree services, what are they doing with the logs now? I work with many tree services to get my logs, and 80% of what they cut down is not marketable. They have a list of what I will take/pay for delivery (labor, gas) if it is out of their way like persimmon, walnut, cherry, cedar. Most logs I fetch myself for free though, it saves them labor and this would cut you out as the middle man.

Any business is supply and demand. You have to know both ends of the market for it to work. You have the supply. Go to all your local sawmills and ask what the demand is and that will give you a better idea of the average to see if is worth your effort. Two things I will add Ė first, I do wish there were more people like you thinking about the use of urban logs, even part time. I don't see a living in it, but it is a good thing. And second, even if you get a sawmill or two that says they will take the yard trees, when you start bringing them logs full of nails and trash metal (the reasons most sawmills won't take them) they will lose interest in a hurry.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your thoughts. To clarify - is anyone partnering with a sawyer/dryer and just handling the pick-up and resale? I've spoken with quite a few sawyers, and getting the logs and cutting isn't the problem. Itís selling the finished hardwood, green or dried. Everyone I've spoken with seems to struggle with finding markets for the finished hardwood. I noticed from your website that the majority of your wood is used "in-house". That seems to be a trend, but the further down the value added path you travel the greater the complexity of your operation. I want to keep it simple.

From contributor A:
Maybe my website is somewhat misleading if you get the impression I use most of the lumber for finished products in my own woodshop. I am not a great woodworker. I enjoy it, but I have seen better work than mine for sure. I do some woodworking, but not enough to qualify my business as a finished product shop really. I sell much more lumber than I use (75% wood sales, 25% finished product is a ballpark). You are right in that the further you process it the higher the value. Smart money would have me invest more in shop equipment like a moulder and such. I just show things I have made in the past because updating with current lumber is nearly impossible, because of the source. I saw and sell what I get at the time and that makes for an unusual market. I am not a steady supplier for any one species. For example I may have 1500 bd ft of walnut sawn and it could be bought up next week and since I rely on urban logs it may take time to replenish that stock. So I get calls for lumber that I do not have on occasion, and other times I have a glut of another lumber and I wonder if it will ever sell. I think that is universal in the small scale lumber business, and that is what I am - small scale, by choice. As a small timer I have to be flexible, I don't see the possibility of being small and just focusing on one part of the business and keeping the lights on. I have to custom saw, custom dry, sell lumber/wood products, do custom woodworking and repair/refinish to keep my head above water.

I don't know what advice to give you but here is a thought since you want to keep it simple (not stupid, wise). If you have access to logs and there seem to be plenty of sawyers around you, approach them about share cutting for you (again don't bring them nail infested logs, it'll be your last trip to their mill). I share cut 50/50 on quality walnut for example. If you can get species that they will share cut on a decent enough % for you, you are out nothing except your labor. You will have a little lumber to sell, but an ad in the paper usually will do that pretty easy on small amounts at a time. Find out what the local sawmills are selling their green lumber for and do the same. Or build a little $300 homemade d/h kiln and sell it dried for twice the cost. You say the local mills are having trouble finding markets for hardwood lumber, that doesnít mean they are not selling any, just not enough to pay the overhead of a sawmill operation and still profit. If you spend a few hours fetching logs, getting your share after the milling is done and marketing it you have a lot less overhead and the pressure will not be on you to sell so much to profit.

From contributor B:
I'm doing exactly what you are trying to do. You can make money but it won't be easy. I get backyard trees from private homeowners, utility companies, park services and construction sites. Nowadays people want to be paid for their trees because a friend of a friend told them that walnut sells for $6 a foot.

After paying for the tree I hire a guy with a knuckleboom truck to pick it up and take it to the sawmill. I pay him for the service. Next I pay the sawyer for cutting the logs - the biggest advantage is he will cut to my specs, which helps if my customer is looking for something special. I then air dry the lumber and pay rent for the space it takes up. Then, if necessary, pay for kiln drying. Once dry, I have to ship it to its final destination, which is very expensive. So, is it worth it? Mostly yes. I do have my own woodshop and build furniture for sale. When I get some really nice wood it's quite easy to market as there is no shortage of demand for good hardwood. By keeping it small you have to find your own niche and forget about competing with the big guys.

If you can get trees free and haul them yourself you may be better off just selling them to the sawmill. Of course there are markets for green lumber too. Start small and see where it goes. You will meet lots of people in the business and some doors will open for you that you didn't know were there. Harvesting urban trees is a really delightful and very necessary service in my opinion. You'll have to take the bad with the good so just trust your instincts and learn as you go.

From the original questioner:
To contributor B: Where are you located? What have you found to be the best method of marketing your dried lumber? What volume of logs have you been able to acquire from your sources, per week or month. Where have you found the bottleneck to be, getting the logs or selling the finished lumber in a timely manner? Thanks for your help. I'm obviously trying to get a handle on a few variables.

From contributor B:
I get my logs in Ohio. I was astonished to find that there is almost a limitless supply of logs. For example, in 2005 after a winter with an ice storm and a wet, very windy spring, my little home town parks dept. had 30,000 bd. ft. of mostly walnut and oak to dispose of. Also, the tree services there work day and night and when a Super Walmart went in last year over 300 trees were felled to clear the land. Once people know you're looking you could probably get a semi load per week if you wanted.

I have the lumber trucked all the way out to Arizona where I live full time and found a ready market at the high end furniture shops and production cabinet shops. No advertising needed - word of mouth has THEM finding ME. I've sold everything from one bd.ft. to 1000 bd.ft. You soon learn what everyone is looking for - species, sizes, grade, slabs, etc. and can have the logs milled to meet their needs.

I think the most fun part is that I can provide wood not usually available at the local hardwood retailer, like sassafras, elm, buckeye, honey locust, osage orange, box elder, and on and on. Iíve recently discovered a whole new market out here in the carvers who need bass, butternut and tupelo.

Be careful - a lot of people will try to sell you crap logs, which is OK if you have the means and desire to produce firewood, which can still make you money. Believe me, you'll learn fast where you fit in and it'll be a heck of a lot of fun too. And every now and then you'll get a curly cherry or quilted maple and they'll be beating a path to your door.

From contributor C:
Buy a metal detector and learn to use it to find tramp metal in the logs. There are some especially designed to find metal in logs. They are expensive, but you will be confident in your logs and the sawmills will be forever grateful that you have clean logs for them. Even a cheap detector is much better than none. It takes experience to use a detector to its limit, so practice.

From contributor D:
I found a couple of building contractors who give you the trees when they clear a lot. There are people who clear lots off with a bulldozer and will give them to you, or they have to haul them off. Just ask them sometime when they are clearing a lot. I get a few nice logs and haul them off on my tractor trailer. I also get large limbs and small logs and sell as firewood.