Waste wood into profit

Sawyers turn wood otherwise destined for the landfill into a business. June 5, 2002

Here's a great value-added story I heard recently. A landfill operator in North Carolina who accepts trees and brush bought a portable sawmill and is milling "waste wood" (logs brought in by tree trimmers, homeowners, etc.). He produces lumber and sells it to local hobbyists, furniture makers, etc., as well as making "packaging timber" which is sold to a steel manufacturer. His prime value-added product consists of surveying stakes, which he makes and sells green to utilities and land surveyors. He will soon be adding a small kiln to his operation so he can market dry lumber. Not bad for an operation that charges folks for the wood they deliver (tipping fee). Most of us have to buy our raw material as opposed to getting a payment to accept it.

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

From contributor T:
That is a good idea. It's also a good idea for a portable sawmill owner to sell landfill operators, tree surgeons, and utility right-of-way maintainers on utilizing their wood and turning a liability into a profit item. That way he gets a cut on the action and they don't have to learn how to saw, purchase or maintain the equipment.

According to my calculations (based on some previous research), the equivalent of 3.8 billion board feet, from municipal trees alone, is annually either landfilled, burned, chipped, left to rot, etc. This is roughly equivalent to 30 percent of the US annual hardwood lumber production. I agree that we need to look for ways to turn a liability into an asset.

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

From contributor T:
I have been sawing wood from right-of-way clearing salvaged/donated by our local electric authority for the past 10 years. A lot of pretty pine as well as average to above average red oaks, wild black cherry, gums, magnolia, bays, chinaberry and other lesser known woods have passed through my hands to wind up in local, backyard cabinetmaker shops. The economics have been passed on and these woods have sold air-dried to retirees for fractions of what the retail production market requests.

Is the competition hurting the production market? No, the quantities nor the demand are there.

Is it a favorable market niche? Yes, it pays its way, provides wood to individuals who couldn't otherwise support their hobby, creates availability of woods not on the market and saves landfill space. It utilizes trees that have, as a rule, been turned away from big mills because of tramp metal, odd lengths, large diameters and lack of quantity of single species.

Utility companies, tree surgeons and land clearing companies are happy to find a place to send their logs. It saves them money in dump fees and provides them with much-needed "good advertisement" in this environmentally sensitive society.

The unfortunate part of the operation is that the individuals who carry the wood will ultimately deliver limbs, trash, stumps, etc. because they don't know and because they mix loads of trash and logs on dump trucks and can't separate the good stuff. As well meaning as they are, it causes a hardship on the small mill.

The demise of "short wood" pulp wood haulers makes it difficult to clean up the small non-sawable wood because there is no place for it to go. The pulp mills that used urban wood for pulp and fuel have converted, almost exclusively, to tree length logs or recycled paper products and the short wood haulers are disappearing.

City governments don't appreciate the problem of urban wood. Councils and zoning departments who don't understand or care are making it difficult for a small mill or firewood company to exist in a lot of areas. There needs to be a government lobby to promote the use of urban woods as well as small businesses to utilize it. Governments can and do squash small business in this area because it isn't understood.

There is a program called Trees to Furniture sponsored by Wood-Mizer and popular woodworking that is designed to do exactly what we're discussing here and it gets the enthusiast and hobby woodworkers involved. Wood-Mizer has a nice pamphlet on the subject.

I've been told the Trees to Furniture program has changed its name to Harvesting Urban Timber (HUT). Sam Sherrill from Milford, Ohio (near Cincinnati) was instrumental in starting this program a few years ago in cooperation with Wood-Mizer.

Sam Sherrill has written a booklet (published by Wood-Mizer) called "How to Get Valuable Hardwoods for Pennies." It describes the 'How To' of converting urban trees into lumber and value-added products. Anyone interested in the booklet can get a free copy by sending a #10 (letter size) SASE with two first class stamps to Sam Sherrill, Harvesting Urban Timber, 5091 Beechwood Rd., Milford, OH 45150.

Steve Bratkovich, forum technical advisor

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

Comment from contributor D:
In the Northeast, where there are many homes presently being heated with oil, and with oil becoming more and more unsustainable economically, it would be a great benefit to the few of us rural dwellers who own woodburning boilers and other outdoor woodburning equipment that provides our primary source of heat for our homes to have access to the unlimited supply of 'short', trash, brush, slash and other debris left by loggers and landclearers, utilities and town dpws. It's incredibly wasteful - all those BTU's go up in smoke in a brushfire without finding some use for them.