Pros and Cons of Sawing Your Own

A solo cabinetmaker wonders if he should mill his own lumber on the side. March 14, 2005

I have a one man shop here in Connecticut. I'm very close to buying a Lucas sawmill to process wood for my business. My last kitchen project's lumber was over $3,000, so it seems to be a viable alternative to buying and it's a lot of fun, too. I've already gotten offers of beautiful logs from arborists around here, so supply is not a problem.

Are any of you processing your own lumber and is it worth it in the end? I'm trying to find a downside, besides cost, but haven't been able to yet.

Forum Responses
(Business Forum)
My experience has been that anything done outside your core business is a drain on not only time, but its closest relative in business, money. Decide what you want to make money for you. Trying to beat the system often ignores the reality of the situation. How are you going to make money while you are saving money by doing even more work? How are you going to handle the volume of material that comes along with the sawmill enterprise? They make a mess of sawdust, slabs, and low grade material that must find a home. Urban trees can yield wonders, it's true, but very often they don't give up cabinet grade material. You would be much better served to spend the time shopping around for better suppliers of materials in your price range. Think of all the work that has been done to produce the lumber you buy for one large project. Why do you think you can do all that work for less than the businesses that are in business to do those very operations? I once had this fantasy too, and dude, it's just about that... a fantasy. I would much rather raise my prices to cover the costs of high-end materials than try to beat the system... again.

I've been doing it for several years very successfully. The key is to focus on what your core business is and to treat the sawmill as a supplier, not as another line of business, since the sawmill activity can quickly overwhelm other aspects of your business. For instance, get a kiln up and running as quickly as possible and be selective in the types of logs that you acquire. Go for quality and not quantity. We just spent the past weekend milling about 20,000 BF of 8/4 red oak. That is more red oak than I will need for some time. All but a few are select or better. Gave only $250.00 for all of the logs. I can dry 3000 BF at a time and will load the kiln this following weekend. In a couple of months, I will have enough red oak to carry me into next year. Not a bad return on my investment.

I also have been doing this for some time. I have a partner, though. It definitely consumes a great amount of time, but it is well worth it. I feel I can be choosier about the wood I use. Get a kiln first, then cut. Only dry the best lumber you will actually use. I treat the sawmill as a separate entity, where the cabinet shop will buy the lumber from the sawmill. The money still goes to the same place, but I can track it better as I bid these projects.

I would seriously consider putting more thought into the processing of the lumber. I run a mill and it takes time and knowledge to successfully saw, kiln dry and process your wood. A kiln can be an expensive proposition, especially if you mess up several loads of lumber. The other aspect is if your lumber has defects that end up in your final product, your liability extends not just in labor spent but the materials as well. Running a mill to feed your core business can save some money, but I would recommend doing a cost benefit analysis to see if you are really saving money. Consider the time spent sawing, kiln drying and handling the wood and ask yourself "am I garnishing the same rate as I would making product for the customer?" If not, then you are not doing it to purely save coin.

This sounds like an interesting prospect. I'd have to agree about figuring your costs. Here's an example. I can buy dry 4/4 pine, poplar and flat sawn red oak all day long, planed to the thickness I want, and straight line ripped for a price I can't even come close to if I put the same value on my time as I get in the shop for building stuff.

However, there are times that I want a certain wood that is either really expensive or just plain unavailable, and sawing it makes more sense. I just priced Q-sawn white oak at $5.75/BF for 6" wide and smaller. Here's a case where I'm better off to have logs sawn if I need a bunch ( > 1K BDFT ). Another instance: I wanted to make some house doors out of Q-sawn pine. Doors were to finish out at about 1 3/4 thick. Try finding Q-sawn clear pine that thick. If you find it, let me know - I had to have it sawn and dried. What I'm trying to say is that if you're just buying run of the mill wood for your projects, I don't think you'll even come close by sawing it yourself (fun not factored in). However, if you want some specialty wood, there's real opportunity here.

Still - I would highly recommend you go through the process of having someone else saw up some logs, and have someone else dry the wood for you a few times because you'll learn so much if you're there for those processes. I bought a nice circular mill about a year ago, and haven't even set it up yet, because as luck would have it, I've met an excellent band saw mill owner/operator since then. I'll not even think of trying to saw my nice big white oak logs myself on my circular mill until I've spent a whole lot of time learning on poplar and junk pine.