Can a Beginner Make a Living with a Portable Sawmill?

      Experienced sawmill operators counsel a newcomer on his odds of success with buying and operating a sawmill in a tough market — and describe what his life will be like if he tries it. November 16, 2010

Question
We've all read the sales brochure: "I paid for my $40,000 mill sawing part-time in 6 months." How realistic is it to buy a mill and make enough money to pay for it and sustain a steady income for my family? Who out there is making a full time living with their sawmill, and how are you doing it?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor R:
I think there are about 3 people making a full time living from saw milling in the last 5 years or more.



From contributor S:
Well, anything is possible. Let's look at the numbers:
Data: Part time milling for six months earns $40,000.
Assume 20 hours/week X 52/2 weeks = 520 hours
40,000+ operating cost (520hours X $10/hr = $5200) = $45200
$45200/520 hrs = $87/hr.
Is that a good hourly?

Note: There are no other expenses included, just operating expenses and paying for the mill. Caution: $10/hour is a fairly low operating cost when you add in blades, fuel, insurance, clothing, spare parts. At $20/hr the hourly would need to be nearly $100/hr to make it. Do you need an opinion?



From contributor B:
Just sawing alone, I'd say you'd have a pretty tough go of it. There is some money to be made in just about any job, but if it's enough to provide for you and a family, well, that comes down to how much you must make in your particular circumstance. If all I had was one sawmill, I wouldn't want to have to feed a family with it.


From contributor T:
Unless you're in an unusual situation, now is not the time to become a full time sawyer. And I'm sure contributor S means well, but that math looks funny, and is not half the story. The learning curve alone kills many a would-be sawyer, and that's in a booming lumber market, but when it's in the tank like it is now, in my opinion, you should forget it. Invest that money elsewhere. And this is coming from someone who is making a living as a sawyer, but I am in an unusual situation.


From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
It appears that we have lost over 30% of our commercial sawmills in the past two years as a result of the drop in housing and the loss of furniture, cabinet and flooring mills (as a result of off-shore operations). We have excess sawmill capacity now. Appreciate that about 75% of a sawmill's costs are the logs, so if you can get cheap, high quality logs, you have a better chance. But even then, the lower grades of lumber have little positive profit potential today. Some species have poor potential no matter what the grade today. We have seen a few positive signs recently, so perhaps by 2011, there will be a slightly better potential for a profitable sawmill operation. I could go on for pages about this.


From the original questioner:
I understand the math on how to figure a profit, and we live very inexpensively. So I do not need to make a very large profit to survive. I have been self-employed my whole life, so that does not scare me. I do not have a desire to buy logs and go into production, though. I am looking to keep the operation mobile and saw logs for customers at their site or mine.

How many people are running a mobile sawmill operation as their main source of income? Everyone I have ever met that owns a sawmill has another job or a wife that pays their bills. Can it be done like all the "I left my desk job and made a living just sawing" stories that Wood-Mizer sends me in the mail?

Contributor T, are you providing the sole income for your family with your mill? Thanks for your input.



From contributor R:
Right now I don't know of anyone who is running a mobile sawmill operation as their main source of income. There just are not many people that need logs sawed now.


From contributor S:
I picked 20 hours a week, $10/hr for operating expenses. Six months and $40K was given. That is working for no pay, just making payments, and he would need to charge $87/hour to do it. So what is not correct?


From contributor T:
I am the sole breadwinner. But I could not have survived the first couple years had my wife (an RN) not also worked in her field. Not just to help pay bills, but also because I have some health conditions that make me very expensive to insure, and through her insurance those pre-existing conditions were not rated up.

We also have 5 children and at the time we began this endeavor (2003) they were all still in the nest. So with health insurance and all the expenses of school activities, etc., I could not have provided for all of our needs alone, and times were pretty good in the lumber market at that time.

You might say she paid for my sawyer education, because we were buying equipment all along, while I was enrolled in the school of hard knocks. I learned how to shop for good used equipment. One thing I will stress is that it is foolish to go into debt to try and make this work. Had we done that, I would have been sunk 3 years ago if not sooner.

Although times are tough in this industry, we're getting by quite fine, even though four of our kids are away in college ($$$) and one has blessed us with two twin grandboys.

My point is there is no way I could provide for all of this had my wife not paid the bills early on. We built up a niche market for our products (burned midnight oil on the internet) and most of it is high end artists who haven't been affected by the economy because most of their customers are not dependent on paychecks, and no small part of them are in Europe. At some point, of course, it all rolls downhill, but as of yet we are fairly insulated from the overall economy here in North America. But we aren't tied to the lumber market either.

In fairness to your question and in the spirit of full disclosure, we do have another wood-related business unrelated to our sawmill business that has provided a steady and sizeable piece of the pie, but it is affected by the economy and those sales are down I am guessing ~25% from this time last year. We recently spent a large red cent on upgrades, though, and will roll them out this year God willing.

I am going to touch on a few areas that are part of the big puzzle. My wife no longer works as a nurse (though she stays on top of her CE and keeps her license current) but she is busier than ever. Between tending the garden, running errands, working in the shop in every aspect you can imagine, tailing on the mill when I can have her, doing the homemaking, cooking real meals everyday, not throwing junk together from a box or a bag, sometimes she wishes she was punching a clock again.

That's just hogwash of course - we have never worked harder and never been happier. The garden is important for many reasons. It's something we do together, it provides a great deal of our food even this time of year, and saves a lot of money. Everything you can do to save money that is also good for your health, adds quality time in the marriage, and is good for the soul (manual labor is my favorite way to work) is very important and one of the most overlooked assets to any family.

You better have a firm handle on your personal life. Make sure your wife understands what is ahead if you start a new journey like this, and don't sugarcoat it. I am the most blessed man I know of, and if I had not had the support of my best friend (my wife), my family, and the blessings of my Lord, I could not be paying the bills with a sawmill and still have my wife here with me all day in our little garden of Eden. No man is self made, and the one who believes that is headed for a coral reef in a swift storm at night.

I know this is a sawmill forum and you have asked a sawmill question, but if you forget these other things you cannot succeed as a mobile sawyer. If you put work/sawmilling/money or anything else ahead of the things that are truly important, then you'll fail no matter how much money you make.



From the original questioner:
Your response is exactly what I am looking for. I have the full support of my wife and 4 kids. We moved here to live a simple life, have a farm and be as self sufficient as possible. I have a job that pays the bills, but I would rather be sawing when I am not busy with the farm. I started my last business from scratch and sold it before we moved. So I have been down this road before. I am glad to hear from someone who has done it. I am working through my business plan before starting this time. If and when I buy a mill I will not be afraid to change with the times and do what makes the most sense. Even if that means keeping my real job. I have owned a mill before and loved it, but I never tried to make a living with it. Thanks for your input.


From contributor K:
I am milling beside a highway and have people stop to ask the same question. The answer is no. You will not be able to buy a sawmill and make a living. I love trying. I am still trying angles that might work. My wife has a good job. We do not have kids. I spent inheritance money to buy some time and learn the ropes. There is no assurance I will ever see that money again. I have a lot of new skills and a sore back. I do not have a profitable business that would pay me to keep going. Check with me in a year to see if I make progress or lose everything. I have been trying for four years.

I love my mill. I am happy and boldly optimistic. I made my choice. I may be a fool. Only time will tell. You are doing the right thing to take off the blinders, ask questions and look around.



From contributor E:
I'm in the same boat with this decision, though my situation is quite different. I am starting to see that in order to make this work, a product should be made out of what you are cutting rather than just cutting dimensional lumber. I am going to make sure I have outlets in place and ways of moving the byproducts before I start this adventure. This would not be my main source of income. Just a chance to give customers very good quality wood at a fair price.


From contributor C:
In the mid 80's I attended a seminar where Don Laskowski (one of the Wood-Mizer inventors) gave a talk on value added. How can you achieve the greatest value added with the least amount of cost? Look for those areas. At this time kiln dried oak 8/4 had a huge margin over 4/4. So if you could get 8/4 and dry it, you could get a premium. He was pushing his vacuum kiln to do this. I used that philosophy to get where I am today. We plane, mold, process high end sawdust, peel poles, sell architectural timbers, etc., all out of eastern red cedar. I found a niche and exploited it as much as I could.

I originally started out as a custom sawyer in 1983. But I did other things to increase income. Eventually, in 1992, we went to building a big mill and expanded our operation.

Custom sawing can be one part of a bigger operation that allows you to capture money from adding value to your services (such as planing or drying) or making a product. One way of custom sawing would be to work with bigger mills where you could saw stuff they do not want to saw, when you do not have your own sawing jobs. It might be oversize logs, over length logs, logs with metal that you could defect and saw. Use a metal detector to find and eliminate. Even if you miss some, the expense of blade cost and down time should be less than the value of the lumber obtained. I did this on many semi loads of logs from veneer mills where their debarker showed metal and half logs where their saw hit metal. One veneer white oak log was kicked out because of one 16 penny nail on the outside of the 18" log. I was paying $300 for 4000 feet of junk logs and defect veneer 1/2 logs that had split or warped. Find a niche that others are not taking advantage of. Custom sawing usually evolves over time into something much bigger.



From contributor A:
Yes! You could.

"I paid for my $40,000 mill sawing part time in 6 months."

I would guess it could be done. If you sawed 2mbdft a day and sawed 120 days you could make it happen, but you may not have taken any coin home. To just run a WoodMizer LT40HDG25 takes about $0.08 bdft if you saw 1mbdft a day, 200 days a year. I know because I have close to 3 million bdft on one.

Yes, you can make a living and support a family doing it as I have in better times. It is how I got where I am now, but my wife allowed me to reinvest what I made back into the company. In 2001 I fell into this business and by 2002 was doing around $70,000 a year in sawing. Out of that I was bringing in about $30,000 to the house. Then I started to grow into something larger. Now I will be lucky to hang onto what I have. Some days I think I will sell the land and hook the mill up behind the truck and hit the road again. But it has been a fun ride.

You have got to learn to saw. Not run the mill, but saw. Then you have to learn how to run a business in your head and be very flexible. You will need to be in good health and stout as an ox. You will have to take a gamble and let it ride to see how it comes out. I once broke one of the bones in my lower leg on a sawing job and drove 5 hours home. Got up the next morning and went on the road again and sawed till noon when I was rained out. Then I went to the hospital to see about getting my black and blue leg looked at. When the weather cleared, I took my crutches and went back to work.

The area where you live and how much competition you have will make a big impact on how much work you get. How good you become will impact how busy you stay. Finding something that will help keep you busy in the down times really helps. Be it special woods, sheds, or uses for your products, there has to be something to fall back on. If anyone knows how to wear out a truck and mill being mobile, it is me.




From contributor R:
Here in West Virginia I don't believe there is anyone making a living with just a portable sawmill.


From contributor J:
It can be done. I've done it in a lot better times than we have now! Lumber prices are about 60% less than they were when they were at their highest! Try to find someone and work for them, to learn! I worked free for about six months every spare moment with a good teacher. My livestock operation keeps me afloat. My son started private college the year I started the business.

Words of advice - no debt! If you owe money, it is going to be very tough. Due to health problems caused by working too much, I sold out. It was a good ride, and I still miss it everyday. Go for it! Keep your eyes wide open, absorb knowledge like a sponge, don't quit over three times a day. Find a niche and fill it. 30% of the sawmills nationwide have gone out of business, so someone has got to fill the gap.



From contributor I:
Contributor S's math is correct. I had to read it twice to understand his point. The questioner has to charge $87 an hour to make it happen, with all fingers and toes crossed. He has to find customers willing to pay $87 an hour in our economy with 30% of mills shutting doors for lack of sales, while averaging 20 hours a week with new mill and new sawyer.

Contributors A and T are correct, and I understand from 26 years self-employment in construction, and starting with a dream and a great support system (wife and daughter). It was many years burning the midnight oil from both ends. Yes, I've been blessed and successful, and I've survived.

Now I've purchased a bandmill, not with the intention of getting rich quick or making my living, but to enjoy, saw some for myself (timber frame) and others, help offset costs, and if I'm guided in that direction, I'll saw to make a living later.

My advice would be buy the mill only if you can afford to sit on or possibly lose money while owning the mill and trying to build the business. Don't expect to pay for it in six months or even a year working part time. This economy is survival of the fittest, and it's the worst I've seen in 26 years. It can be done in due time. I've always heard it takes 9 years for most startup businesses to make a good living.



From contributor S:
A year and a half ago I would have told you that I was successful in developing my business to meet that rate and price range. Then the economy dropped, requiring new types of marketing, increasing the distance traveled, changing some of the business strategies.

I resisted a new business solution that would change my sawyer job. Others say they evolved into different, more profitable businesses. Good business move - it just isn't for me.

Without the house starts, there just isn't the demand. It is not just in wood products, but in all aspects. A gravel supplier told me this week their business is off 80%.

If you could find a workable location I am sure you could make it work, but I would think it would take 2 years before you would build your market and reputation up so that you were making a profit. One potential location would be the West coast, near high value timber.



From contributor C:
You can learn to run the sawmill in a few days. You will still be learning to saw logs many months later. That is one reason you will struggle at the start. Last year our income was down 20%, but our profits were up 20%. We had a good year. This year orders are coming in great and my customers are seeing their businesses pick up. As of now things are looking better. Is this a small up tick? Are we on to a much better economy, or just treading water? This is something else you must ask yourself.


From contributor D:
Those brochures are probably far more dangerous to most men than the equipment pictured in them. They may be completely truthful, but they are not the whole truth, and I think they are not to be used safely apart from additional life and business experience and a huge dose of common sense about time and money. I can't imagine anyone quitting a job and borrowing money to buy portable sawmill equipment to support a family. I think if you look carefully at the brochure's story, you'll see "part time" and "supplemental" and "retirement," etc. in the description of mill owner's successes. Also, no debt and agreement of others in your life, as others said.

It isn't just the mill you'll need, but a reliable 4WD truck, log moving, winching, sharpening, chainsawing, metal detecting. Unless you resist it, you can spend most of the money you make on additional equipment even if you already have a sawmill. Driving is probably going to be your biggest expense besides equipment. You have a big leg up if you can receive logs and saw and sell lumber from your property. One challenge is to be able to afford to live in an area where a lot of people are also willing to pay you $60 or well over that per hour for a stack of green boards they have to take care of after you leave. Consider buying used equipment and get a valuable story from the seller, for free.



From the original questioner:
Thank you. We are debt free as of right now and I have a job that pays the bills working only 3 days a week. Therefore I will not have to make a tremendous amount of money to stay self-employed. I have some experience sawing already, as I owned a small manual mill for 2 years. Granted I still have a lot to learn. As for support equipment, I already have the 4x4 truck, tractor, saws and other tools to run the mill. I would love to survive on what we can make with just the mill and spend more time on the farm with my family and the alpacas. I am glad to hear that there are people surviving with a dream and a mill. I know it will not be easy, but starting a new business never is.


From contributor A:
The mill manufacturers sometimes paint a pretty picture. And in good times I could see where someone could buy a mill and fall into a forest of free logs that produce only FAS lumber. Everything they cut sells right off the mill for twice the going rate. But there are those who buy mills and never can seem to produce a flat board fit to use. Then the rest fall somewhere in the middle.

I offer people all the time to take a week's vacation and work for me for free for a few days or a week. Every year several take me up on it and take a crash course in sawing school 101. Most leave after a day or two and never buy a mill. When your back is sore and there is sawdust in places you did not know you could get sawdust into, the picture is not so pretty. When all day you are sawing out 2x10x16' oak deck boards and just hoping to cover your cost because what looked like sound logs have a bad spot about 4 ft up where someone nailed wire 30 years ago to hold mules while working in the woods... When you are pushed to finish a job and get it out today and half your hands do not show up for work... When the weather goes to crap and the ground is so muddy you can not move equipment or get logs delivered and everything seems to be falling apart and you have wrenches in your hands more often than lumber, the picture is not so bright.

Then you open up a log and the good Lord blesses you and all is right with the world again!




From contributor Q:
Most of the responses here are sound advice from people that use sawmills instead of those trying to sell them to you. What I found the most gratifying and surprising during the years building my company was the occasional success stories. They were real (the ones I knew first hand). The ratio between success and failure was lopsided, just like it is in every endeavor on earth, but they were real.

The other significant thing I noticed over the years was that the successful operator was good at managing his time, his space, and his money.



From contributor Y:
I started my full time lumber business in 1998. It's pretty much closed now, but I still have the equipment. The market for the items that were actually profitable just kept getting smaller, and margins shrank as well. The end finally came when I could no longer market all grades of lumber I was producing and inventory piled up.

My advice: Don't quit your job that pays the bills. Run a small scale lumber business on the side and focus on the items that earn a reasonable return for the time and money you have invested. It's a lot more fun to turn away unprofitable logs or questionable sawing jobs than to take those same jobs in the hope that you will eke out a small profit.

Don't pay attention to anyone that tells you to learn to saw first. Learn to run a business first. After all, unless you are a hobbyist, the whole reason to have a sawmill is to make money.



From contributor C:
Before doing anything, make a brutally honest business plan. This should cover procurement, processing and sales and marketing. Do your research to see what it costs others and what they receive for their work. Apply it to your area.

I disagree about borrowing money. Money is a tool just the same as a sawmill is. Money should only be spent on capital items that will leverage your time to make more money. Never borrow money for vacations, etc. I have borrowed lots of money over the years. Even in these hard times we are paying all loans without any more difficulty than 3 or 4 years ago. It can make life extremely stressful, but it also is a force to keep you working when you would rather watch TV. In the future you can rely on social security, pensions and/or the money you make from your business.

I am enjoying the ride, as brutal as it may be at times. I would rather go down after all these years knowing I gave it my all, than be laid off from a job and wondering if only.



From contributor U:
Boy, have I learned a lot from this thread. Many thanks. What I've learned since my original WM sawmill purchase back in 1997 is that my full time job gets in the way with my part-time job. I've truly been blessed with a good paying job that allowed me to purchase all my toys prior to retirement (273 days less weekends/vacation - if I was counting). I often daydreamed about what I hoped my future sawing business would be, but I never could visualize getting any better off financially than what I am now. Unless you fall within the successful ranks, don't expect a whole lot until the lumber market takes a major turn. I only expect to cover my expenses and make a little money on the side. What a dream to retire at 59 and hopefully continue to be blessed with enough good health to enjoy making the dust fly. My suggestion is not to put your family in a financial bind unless you have a really good plan to make this business work.


From contributor T:
Contributor C, making broad sweeping statements either way doesn't tell the whole story. I know you don't mean to say it's a good idea for anyone to borrow in order to expand their operation, no more than I would say it's never a good idea. When I say it is a mistake to go into debt though, I'm not generalizing - I was speaking specifically to what I perceive the questioner's situation is.

He's starting from scratch in a terrible market, with no apparent supply and demand channels other than general ideas. That's not to say he cannot formulate a business plan and come to the point eventually where it may be justifiable to leverage a proven business model, if his research shows there's room for expansion in all aspects of his operation, but there's a bunch of factors to consider at that point.

The reason I will always caution a small sawmill outfit against borrowing is because in general, a small operation should grow slowly by feeding profits back into the business. Most small operators can't even make their mill payments, having had the best intentions, and an operator who cannot even make the small monthly mill payment has no business borrowing money right off the bat to leverage himself into a larger catastrophe, i.e. having borrowed to buy support equipment because they own 50 acres of timber land and see big money.

95% of the guys buying a new mill on installment don't even know the basics of logging and milling, and certainly not how to read a log. I have long thought that anyone seriously considering buying a mill to show a profit, either part time or full, should first buy a used mill they can afford, to learn the fundamentals of sawing, and then consider whether they have what it takes to jump in full time. If they stick with it long enough and don't get burned out, bored or crippled, they can take the next step. That can be in 6 months or 60 months, but at least they can learn with no pressure. Once someone defaults on a loan on a sawmill, it's almost a given they'll never try their hand at it again.

Of course there are small operations like contributor A, me, and several others in this thread that can borrow and make it work, or we at least know when conditions are not right to do it, but even at our age, we can still work most young bucks into the ground and more importantly, are willing to do so. I rolled a ~ 500 lb shorty off the mill last week because I was in a hurry to beat sundown. It was wedged between the stack of slabs I allowed to build up too high, and on top of that was on the too-muddy side of the mill and I couldn't get my forklift in there to pick it up. I could've rigged a makeshift cherry picker and used the tongs to get it, but I didn't want to mess with it, so I wrestled that log back up onto the mill using slabs, some brain, and a lot of Scot Irish grunting. My point is I enjoy the feeling I have after that kind of hard work. It makes my body and spirit feel just plain good. Not because of a macho he-man thing at all, just because I love hard work.

I have come to believe that many men do not like this, and to get into the sawmill business by taking out a loan, even just for the mill, before they have to do any hard work to speak of, often for 14 - 16 hours a day, is a big mistake.

I'm not saying we are the only hard working men on the block, but let's face it, a vast majority of the failures of the small sawyers are because at some point they just ran out of steam and threw in the towel. It's not easy to work like a banshee day after day with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Now, do that everyday with a debt load on top of it. That starts to appear unserviceable to the already overworked newbie, especially with a spouse who was not 100% in it to begin with.

Yes, money is a tool. People who lust for it usually don't understand it's not even the money they seek, it's the lifestyle they perceive it can provide. Do I say it's never a good idea to use that tool? No, but if you have to ask because you are truly uncertain, then you probably ought to wait until it's clear in your own head.

Contributor C, you have my utmost respect for what you have achieved, but you are an overachiever with business smarts, a long term plan (vision), discipline, and the support of family. Subtract any single element and the odds of success fall through the floor.

There is always more to a big decision like taking out a $10K or a $1M loan; it has to be paid back and there are many considerations.



From contributor C:
I agree completely with what you just said. I know some of the obstacles you have overcome. I love the business. It is definitely more than making money.

I was able to learn over the course of several years before expanding. You need to accumulate the equivalent of a college education on sawing, wood properties, markets, customer relations, selling, etc.



From contributor Y:
How do you make a small fortune in the lumber business?
Start with a large one.

That's a tired old joke, but very true. Here's a more positive story. A local guy I know started with a small ground mounted push type sawmill. His neighbor was a logger and he could buy all kinds of low grade logs from him, mostly oak. So he started sawing up low grade logs, put in a very small D/H kiln, and started making things like paneling and doors in his woodshop. If he made any extra money, he would buy a new planer or some other item to help his business. Eventually he found it was better to buy K/D low grade lumber from a local mill and use that for his products. His oak doors were his big seller, because he made special sizes that you can't buy at a store. When things were going really good, he couldn't keep up with all the orders. Eventually the downturn in home building put a big dent in his business, and the last I heard, he was driving a tractor trailer hauling garbage from NJ to PA.



From contributor V:
I started my business in 1998 and did all my own sawing until 2002. At that time I didn't have the time for sawing anymore, so I started hiring all my sawing. Last year, 2009, I paid my sawyer $58,000 for sawing. He doesn't work for me full time - he still takes his mill mobile when time allows. I feel there is work out there if you want to go get it. Right now I'm working less hours because it's winter - only 75 hours/week. When spring rolls in it goes to 100 hours/week till next winter.

Knowing what I know now, to start all over again, would I do it? In a heartbeat. I would just invest in better work boots.



From contributor F:
One niche market perhaps for a small portable mill is in squaring ash timbers and other hardwoods because of insects. I've run into this problem in a small cut where the log buyers cannot take the ash because of the ash borer unless it is squared or the outer layer and bark removed. We may see more of this in the future where the waste bark and chips can be left behind and returned to the forest floor. The partially air dried timbers are lighter, saving on transportation costs to the main mill. Leaving waste behind keeps the yard clear, there's savings on insurance, and the spread of insects.

I am afraid the next generation of sawyers will not have the enjoyment of our trade as we have. Global trade has brought in insects that we have not dealt with. New building methods, e.g. the Lego house built of foam forms and concrete, reduce the need for exterior wall studding, and steel studding is popular for non-bearing walls. However, we do what we do because the ups outweigh the downs.

I started working with my father in his mill in the mid 1950s and the feeling was the same then as it is now. We would work all day and not earn our board. A mouse couldn't live off of a mill without a job in town.

However, a sawmill does open up other avenues. In other businesses it is called a lost leader. Customers are brought in for other services which may be more profitable - kiln drying, planing small building projects, etc. In our situation with our construction, it helps to have inventory to carry over to the next draw or we are not held up for an order from a supplier.



From contributor O:
I have been custom sawing (among other things) since '99. The problem with portable sawing is that for many customers it's optional. If it comes to making a house payment or making 2000 feet of lumber for a woodworking hobby, everyone will choose the prior. Another drawback is there are many who do this for a retirement hobby. You are competing against folks whose only goal is to pay for the machine and keep active.

With respect to money, one must consider a reasonable payback. Not too many businesses expect a true 6 month payback on a large capital expense. Sure it happens, but it doesn't have to in order to be considered a good investment. Another mistake some make is assuming you need the biggest machine you can afford. For portable sawing you don't need to be able to saw 1500 feet an hour; you need to get the average job done in one trip. Most portable jobs are 4-5 MBF max. With a big machine all you end up doing is explaining to your customer why you are charging $90 per hour when the guy down the road is charging $50. Get a nice, used, midsized machine (there are lots of them out there), all hydraulic. You don't need 65 hp to saw. To run a portable rig, you must be a good sawyer, not just a machine operator. The customer sees every move you make and every board you cut. You can't throw the mis-cut stuff in the chipper, or mess up their best logs.

Match the machine to the job, have reasonable expectations, be willing to do other things while you work at building your sawing business.



From contributor N:
“Who out there is making a full time living with their sawmill and how are you doing it?”

We are. (But it’s getting tougher.)

You have to have a lot more than a $40,000 sawmill. You need a lot of experience over and above just making boards. You need to have a good understanding of running a business; dealing with customers, finding markets, accounting, taxes, insurance, cash flow management, on and on. You need to know something about forestry, logging, carpentry, and construction, anything related to wood – your customers will test you on these subjects. You need to be fairly competent at being a mechanic and electrician, as you can’t afford to pay someone to fix or adjust everything. You’ll need support equipment, truck, tools of the trade, loader of some kind, trailer, spare parts.

You’ll also need something money can’t buy – experience and a good reputation.



From the original questioner:
I learned a few things when I started my last business. I tried keeping my full time job the first year. In year two I quit my job and worked full time to make the business grow. It worked and we made year two without my other job. I am not saying I am going to quit the job I have now, but I understand the level of commitment it will take to be successful.

In year 6 we were making a really good living. I got the idea that I needed to expand. I bought lots of new equipment. I managed to double our operating expenses, but our income only went up 50%. So I have no plans to expand in the future unless we have the cash. I think it is better to be really busy and wish you had more equipment than to have the equipment and wish you had more jobs. In year 12 I sold the business and moved my family to the Midwest to have a simple and more fulfilling life.

I think I am in a unique situation to make this happen with my experience and very low overhead. I am looking forward to the challenges I will face.

Thank you all. I am always willing to listen to people with more experience than me. I am glad there are a few people making a living doing what they love!

"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." - Theodore Roosevelt Speech - April 3, 1903

I have never had a job that was inside, and can't imagine having a boss to answer to. I would rather scratch out a living working for myself than get rich working for someone else.



From contributor N:
Sawing, especially custom sawing, tends to be seasonal. We have most requests for custom sawing in the warmer part of the spring months and fall. Summer is usually okay until it gets real hot and a lot of folks are off on vacation. Winter is real slow. Most people can’t or won’t get out and cut logs in the winter. So we tend to work a lot in nice weather in spring and fall and fatten up for winter.

Another point… For every hour you spend sawing, you’ll spend another hour doing something else, be it moving the mill, maintenance, talking with customers, setting up and so on. Some customers will take up more time than they are worth.



From contributor Z:
I know from 25 years experience that it can be done with a lot of hard work. My family, for many generations, has been in the timber business in some fashion or another. As far back as I can remember, my dad has been logging, and when I turned 12, he built his first circular mill. My childhood ended that day. It was built only as a hobby, but people kept bringing us logs that were too big for the mill, so we had to upgrade to a larger mill. It turned into a full time job. We worked 12 to 16 hours a day 7 days a week just to keep up with orders. If you are dead set on trying this, with the way the residential market is, then lace up your boots real tight and buy some real thick gloves, because you are going to be in for the ride of your life.

In the spring, summer, and fall, you can saw for the other person. Buy loads of good quality logs to store for the winter months. This will allow you to keep sawing during the slow time of year and charge a little more for the lumber when things pick back up.



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

Comment from contributor A:
Sawmilling used to be a lucrative business, but has always been built on sweat, long hours, and key business relationships. Through good markets and bad markets the one thing that remains consistent are those relationships that have been forged through both of those. A beginner, with limited to no prior experience will face an uphill battle, not only in marketing, but also the learning curve, finding good labor, surviving break downs (which you will have), energy costs, cost of sawblades, and etc.

I will say this; if you manage to make it through all of that, there are niche markets where you could quite possibly do well. Finding property owners who want lumber sawn for their farms can be rewarding. Buying logs in order to make lumber to sell on the market in low volume isn't all it’s cracked up to be, and in small production scenarios the larger mills know that the cost of portable mill production is lower in many cases. Perhaps they don't want to pay market prices, even though you paid fair market price for logs.

Is your lumber going to ship out uninspected and are you going to get paid on the buyers grade and tally? Are they trustworthy people, because as great as this industry is there are always those who have an angle they are working where your best interest is not at hand.
Always weigh the pro’s and cons of starting up a business, and always be content with the worst case scenario. If you lose everything are you going to be okay with that? I guess that is the bottom line if you are financing your equipment. Regarding shop around, everyone says theirs is the best, but ask operators. I had a small bandmill and with the right setup and equipment I was able to saw 1200' an hour, but we worked very hard at doing that.



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