Tips for Shipping and Selling Lumber Nationwide

This discussion about the factors that affect shipping rates takes an interesting detour into sales psychology. February 4, 2011

I'm starting to get some requests for larger quantities of my lumber, from out of state buyers. Any of you have experience shipping lumber around the country? How do I find a trucker that'll truck 1,000 BF of dry white oak from Chicago to Phoenix?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor S:
Put it on a pallet, call any freight company - Fed-Ex, Roadway, CCX. We ship wood all across the USA.

From the original questioner:
Really? Wow. So for 8', 12', or 16' boards, you'd just build a large pallet? Any freight company that you typically find is the cheapest? Is there a calculator that can give me a rough calculation of what my pallet of dry lumber will weigh in at?

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The trucking company will not have a forklift to lift the package up into the truck. Do you have a loading dock or lift truck? The same question at the receiving end.

Is the wood kiln-dried? If so, wrap the pack very well in plastic to totally avoid any moisture change in shipment. Also, measure the MC of 10 pieces and put the readings on the lumber (big marker pen) and on the bill of lading to assure the customer of proper drying. Be aware that some areas, like Phoenix, need very dry lumber... under 6% MC). Consider end coating (Gem Paint is one coating) to enhance the appearance. Band the lumber very well, as a broken band and spilled lumber is not an option.

From the original questioner:
I do not have a loading dock, nor a lift truck. That's a show stopper, it sounds like. I've received lumber often, and every time the truckers are fine with me unloading by hand. I just received 2,000 BF the other day, and the two guys in the truck unloaded it all board by board, at no extra cost... So I'll let the guy on the receiving end deal with that. Thanks for the other pointers, Gene.

I just checked with Fedex Freight, and shipping 1 ton of lumber on a skid from Chicago to Phoenix will run almost $7,000... So something's not right with that picture. Looks like my first hurdle is figuring out the loading dock situation.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Don't give up. Maybe there is another industry nearby that has what you need and will let you borrow their dock or lift, and will let you make up the bundles at their site.

You need to call another company that handles small lots and split loads. That price is not reasonable. Appreciate that trucking companies have fuel expenses of about $1 per mile and driver expenses and overhead (about $1 per mile), but this is with 20 tons or more payload.

From contributor H:
Use a freight broker to find the best rate. Freightquote and Freightclick are both online. Or CH Robinson or Echo Logistics. Probably many out there. That FedEx rate was probably at full value. The brokers will find you LTL rates that you can probably live with, and sometimes it turns out that FedEx is picking up the load. You could consider loading by hand onto a pallet on your flat deck trailer, then take it to a nearby depot. Make sure they have a forklift, though. But then your broker might not be able to find the best rate for you because you just narrowed the field. Another way is to use Uship. Take a look at them online, where you can post your load and get bids on it.

From contributor T:
As the Doc points out, you got to have machinery to load the pallets. Once you get that, call Central Transport and get set up on the Pallet Saver program.

As much as you can, develop markets in general, and individual customers specifically that can use lumber no longer than 4' in length. It's not hard to do - most of the lumber that comes out of a mill gets cut into short lengths anyway. The Pallet Saver program is geared for small guys like us who don't ship in large volume. I might ship 7 pallets one week and then not a single one for two weeks, and then everything in between. That's just the way the ball bounces for me.

Their standard pallet dimensions are 4' x 4' x 56" from ground to the top. But you can also go up to 1500 pounds for a surcharge, and you can also ship a pallet up to 9' long for a surcharge. Even with the surcharges, they are much cheaper than anyone else I have looked into.

1000BF of white oak at 8% is ~3800 lbs, so you would have to break it up into 2 or 3 pallets, and the cost to ship a 1500 pound pallet from Chi to Phoenix is $1600 per pallet, so this would not work for you because white oak isn't going to fetch the kind of price that will pay for itself in that volume and distance. But there will be circumstances when shipping does pay for itself.

For example, do the math on what a pallet of tightly packed cants is: 48 x 48 x 36/144 x $8 to $12 per BF. I used 36" because that's roughly where my 1500 weight limit is for my species. But even if you don't have a species that can fetch $10 BF, would 576BF x $4BF still be profitable? $2304 for a few cants ain't bad beans, but that's nearly what some companies would charge just to ship it if you don't know who to call. You don't actually figure a pallet that way - you calculate the individual cants, but that's for illustration purposes.

For a real world example, I just stuck WOODWEB's zip code into my CT Pallet saver quote calculator and I could send 576 BF of 4' cants to them in Montrose, PA for less than half of that $2300 example I used above. $901.00 to be exact, and that includes the fuel surcharge if I ship today. And they take $2 off since I print the BOL and schedule the pickup from my computer and don't call it in. Now we are down to $899 - that don't sound near as expensive as $901. If I get the weight down to 750 lbs. then the rate drops to $592.00.

I have the wood and the address... All I got to do figure out is how to get a check out of them. ;) But I hope knowing about CT will help you in the future.

From contributor N:
Are people really willing to pay these prices for shipping? It sounds very high. I am thinking of doing some of this myself. I currently saw production, but I am thinking about backing down to just me and one or two people and doing what we can. I have thought about woodworking packs of lumber, and maybe building some rustic slab benches and other things. I just didn't know if those prices where common, and if people really do pay that much for shipping.

From contributor T:
Most people do not make a decision based on logic - they do it based on emotion. When I was a younger man I sold steaks off the back of a truck for a couple of weeks. By the 3rd day the manager had taken a picture of me and pinned it to the cork board in the room where we met every morning to get our rah-rah pep talk. He wrote on the white part below the picture (it was a Polaroid), "Mr. Sellout."

That's because I had sold every single piece of meat off my truck every day. I ended up doing it all but one day out of the two weeks. The way I did it was "cook the meat." I never talked about price and money. I would describe in detail how my wife liked to cook these rib eyes and hamburgers, and make them hungry for it. Make their mouths water.

Then I would make them mad at the grocery store by asking right out of the blue, "Hey you know that little napkin underneath the steaks you get at the grocery store? I wonder if they weight that too!" The response was almost always something along the lines of "I'm sure they do. They always get you somehow."

Then I would take it away from them. I would throw the whole frozen pack back into the freezer and say "Man, I got to get down the road and meet a customer."

"No! Hang on, I want to buy a pack!" If I tried to appeal to their logic by saying they'll save time or money (which wouldn't have been true and is why I quit once I did the math), I wouldn't have sold hardly any.

But you get my point? Contributor C sends Eastern red cedar all over North America to people that have ERC growing all around them, but they want his cedar because they get the idea it's better than theirs. After all, it comes from Contributor C, not that jackleg down the road who owns the cedar mill.

Then you have the niche and specialty markets and if you have something they can't get elsewhere, shipping becomes secondary. You can't make a living trying to just shift your sales of common lumber from local to mail order - you have to have a combination of things. Some of it makes sense and some of it doesn't, but you don't sell based on what you would want to buy; you sell based on what your prospect needs, and most importantly, wants.

From the original questioner:

Man... Where did you guys come from? That's a ton of great information that will take a while for me to digest. Really, really helpful, gang. I ask for shipping help, and I get a ton of shipping help, as well as some great sales assistance. Some really smart lumber guys out there. Thanks again!

From contributor C:
Call freightquote at 800 323 5441 ext 1855 (I deal with Mitch). I have shipped hundreds of pallets of cedar and the only state we have not shipped to is Wyoming. Some pallets of lumber have weighed as much as 3500 lbs. The shipping companies have enough muscle to move those pallets with ease. I make them no wider than 43 inches and as long as needed to accommodate the longest boards. Some have been 18' long. Use steel strapping and pieces of cardboard under the corners to reduce damage. If you have multiple lengths, make it heavy at one end. You need a forklift to lift the pallet. For long pallets it helps to have 2 forklifts. If you have only one, swing one end into the trailer and make a super heavy duty sawhorse to set the other end on. Then go around to the end, pick up the pallet and push into the truck. Make sure the driver puts multiple ID stickers on the straps and lumber or covering. When calling the broker, you will need length, width, height and weight of pallet. Also delivery address with contact person and phone numbers. Delivery to a business address is usually 50 to 80 bucks cheaper than to a residential address. Tell your customer to have a strap cutter handy if they will be unloading by hand.

For class 50 8' lengths, cost is $455; for 16', cost of shipping is $721. Sounds about right. There are other companies to get quotes from that might do you even better.

From contributor H:
I use class 55 because of a re-class I got once. Are you always using class 50? Are they shipped with lath or dead stacked to get the class 50?

From contributor T:
Good info contributor C, but freightquote will lose you money if you use it exclusively.
Contributor H, you got rolled one time and stayed there. You are in control of the negotiation as long as you know it.

From contributor C:
I ship 300 or 400 pallets a year and all are at class 50 except cedar sawdust, which is in a higher class simply because they say cedar oil can permeate other products. I am not going to argue with them, as it is only 3 or 4 times a year. I always send it as class 50, called rough turned wood. That is a widely inclusive category.

I get a materials list from my customer and from that I can figure the weight. I get a quote and the customer prepays before I do the order and ship. They pay with check or money order - I never do credit cards. Once you hit about 10,000 lbs. it is time to look for a flat bed truck. If you can give them enough notice, you can get a decent rate. If you are shipping 300 or 400 lbs., make sure the customer knows now is the time to order as much as they think they will need. It will save a bundle on shipping those small quantities.

Black plastic works good to wrap, but we try to use old cardboard to enclose the wood. Coming up, we are shipping 4 6' pallets of cedar junk poles 3" to 6" diameter for the customer to burn to make coals for fire walking. You never know what people will want.

From contributor T:
I always use class 50 even when it's not and have never been recat'd yet. Maybe I should give freightquote another shot - I might be too fixated on what I know and missing out on what I don't. I compared them 5 or 6 times against CT and CT was always much lower - but I haven't tried them out in several years.

On the CC thing, yeah, your business is different. I sell a lot of small stuff off the website and couldn't operate without having the merchant account. I also recently succumbed to using an email account to update customers about our goings-on with the jig we sell. It costs a whole $8 a month and the first campaign paid for itself several hundred times over within the first 3 days. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

You might be surprised how many of your past customers are ready to make another purchase if you put it in front of them. We only sent out 100 emails on that campaign and only one customer opted for the unsubscribe option. All the rest who ordered or who did not order but opened the email so far have opted for the "Please send me information" link.

I hate spam and have avoided using email campaigns, but I am sold on it now. When that many people want to stay in touch with us, I figure it has to be a good thing. All you have to do is get something in front of them that they want or need. In this case it was the new aluminum jig models.

In your case, if you have not been collecting emails from your customers, a nice one-page flyer might do the trick if you ever need to generate some fast business. Certainly not trying to tell you how to run your business - you won businessman of the year and you deserved it, but even a wise old owl can learn a trick or two from a lucky dawg every now and again. Not saying you are old. Just saying...

From contributor C:
Your advice on e-mailing former customers with an update is very sound. I could mention new things we do and maybe offer a reward of some sort if they sent me a customer. I really could not stand more business for cedar lumber, peeled posts, logs, sawdust, split rails, etc. If we were a little slow, I would do it in a heartbeat. I don't want to expand either. Since mid January, business could not be much better. Glad your business is doing well. You probably spend too much time doing it like I do.