How to Charge for Custom Sawing

A discussion of realistic fees for sawing a customer's logs at their location with a portable mill. January 14, 2008

I am going to start a portable sawing side business. I would charge a setup fee for transporting my mill, around $150, and $0.50 per board foot to cut their logs. $40 per hour if I have to do any prep work - cutting branches off, etc. I would also say a minimum of 1,000 bdft approximately, and they provide a flat working area with the logs easily accessible. Does this sound reasonable?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor R:
Looks okay for a starting point. Depending on your location, you may not be about to charge the .50/bdft. I would make the setup/transport fee variable to account for the distance a customer is away from you. I charge $1.25/mile each way, and setup is covered by my hourly onsite fee.

One other suggestion is not to make a minimum quantity job size. I charge a minimum fee, but I frequently go out for one or two logs. There are plenty of people out there where money is no object. If they are willing to pay, by all means cut their log(s). You'll make the same money and do less work.

From contributor B:
$150 to transport and set up your mill? You should have bought a Wood-Mizer.

From contributor C:

Allow for variables/flexibility. For new customers, it's a half day minimum flat fee. Many folks call wanting 4 or 5 logs milled and that's it, which is usually a 3-4 hour task if not just over 1. Some want a hundred - that's rare (for me). If I spend all my time off-loading and positioning logs, that's how it goes because it's a half day minimum. (I work hard.)

$.50 a bdft might be pushing the upper boundaries in softwoods (think framing lumber and siding). We're in the slow season at the moment in my area and there are lots of portable mills. A customer passed along another portable mill's price sheet. $.25/bdft, $50 setup fee. He runs the same mill I do, a LT40HD w/36hp Nissan and Accuset. Does good work and has been at it for 15 years or so. His goal is $55/hour, 200 bdft an hour. He does not allow the customer to help - I don't either, unless I know them (liability thing). I do other work as well so I can ride out the slow months and pass on the crappy work like big, knotty, sappy spruce. Granted I won't get the next job or a referral, but that's okay.

Starting out, don't jump on work. Ask species, diameter, and length and how long it's been on the ground. (20 black locust logs down for a few years will eat up a lot of bands - learned the hard way there. Junk pine and spruce I avoid as well.)

For old customers it's by the bdft or however they want to do business, within reason.

$150 setup fee if it includes transportation, fuel for the day, bands is not outrageous. Maybe treat it as a good faith gesture and return a percentage if number of bands used is lower or the fuel consumption is less than expected or the customer is pleasant. Tuesday night I left the job site with a few dozen cherry stone clams and a brown bag full with summer squash and skinny odd looking cucumbers (a great day). That customer's logs get milled no matter how much trash is in them.

I also have a skid steer and wood chipper that I can bring along and an older LT40HD I rent out. I'm not going to get rich anytime soon, but I enjoy the work. I also used to offer kiln and 4-sided molder service. Now I do that side of the business just for stock I plan on reselling or stuff I milled or friends milled. Lots of folks were bringing low grade junk over and expecting miracles. Swap your bands out sooner than later in that regard.

As for price, you can always come down. This has been my slowest most enjoyed year yet - 251 hours on the Nissan since February first. Tore off my driver side guide yesterday in nice hard maple. UPS should be here shortly.

From contributor A:
Are there any other mills offering the same service in the area? If so, you will need to be close to their range or be able to provide a different/better service. I would say to see what a backhoe would charge to do some digging. Your rate should be close to theirs. You need a blade charge for damaged blades unless you are going to eat the cost.

Now if you are charging $150 to show up and $100 an hour to saw and will not even pull on the place for less than $550, you may soon have to lower your prices, which is easier than taking them up. Your local market will bear it out. Just last year when I was still portable, I was getting $20 to show up local and $0.20 bdft to saw with a $10 move fee, and $20 blade cost for damaged blades. Our saw fee just went up to $0.25 bdft for logs brought into the mill.

I suggest a contract before sawing, stating what is covered and prices so that there is not a misunderstanding. Wood-Mizer gave me some when I bought my mill and I changed it a bit and had a printer make up carbon copies. I would not even start setting up the mill until it was read and signed. In 6 years of portable service, I had to go to court twice and each time the contract won the case and kept me out of trouble.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. As for pricing, I know that the average price is $0.40 per bdft, if you take it to them. I think I'm going to change the $150 setup to a per mile fee, due to today's gas prices. Those of you who do a portable mill, do you provide a skid steer or machine to move/load the logs - and not just a few feet? Do you make them have the logs ready/cleaned and close to the mill?

From contributor A:
I did not provide loader service. I had them place the logs in a pile in a flat spot, hopefully with the small ends all the same way and large logs on bottom.

As for hourly rate, take your normal sawing rate and money that would have been made. So if you charge $0.50 a bdft and saw 200 bdft an hour, then you should get $100 an hour to move and buck logs or whatever. This is time that you could have been sawing and making that money. Also, it will cut down the time you waste getting things ready to saw.

From contributor J:
I charge $75.00 an hour. $23.00 per damaged blade if I hit metal. $1.00 per mile one way to site. The hourly rate starts when I start setting up, and ends when I get done sawing. The take down and return trip are on me. If they have help, and their logs are in order and clean, it is a lot less money for them because it takes less time.