Economics of Sawing Railroad Ties

Cost and quality of saw logs, your mill's production rate, and the market for byproduct lumber can all affect whether sawing ties will be profitable. June 8, 2011

I plan on cutting some railroad ties for business, and I want to know how many I should be able to make. I will have a 50 hp electric portable mill. Does anyone know how long it should take to cut a hardwood rail tie and how many I should be able to produce a day? Any tips?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor M:
I have cut ties, but from softwood. We do not have hardwood available to us here in western Canada. I have always found ties to be marginal when it comes to profitability. If they are to form the meat and potatoes of your business plan, I hope you have another source of income.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
If a tie is about 7 x 9", then you would need a log 13" in diameter. That log would scale as 50 bf. If a tie sells for $18, then 1000 bf of logs would have a gross income of $360 in ties. Deduct sawing costs, handling, etc. And you will have to buy logs at under $250 per mbf.

From the original questioner:
Thank you, Gene - that is great information. Do you know how many I should be able to cut in a day on average?

From contributor P:
I have cut a few ties from hardwood. The specs from treatment plants are kind of tough to meet. They don't want any shake, very little wane and barked edges. They also want the center inside or outside the tie 1.5''.

Cutting ties is not the hard part. If you only cut 4 cuts and turn every time, a tie could be cut out in 5 to 7 minutes. But bigger logs have a lot of side lumber on them that I wouldn't want to throw in the slab pile. They can pay as much or more than the tie. Log handling and offbearing ties is quite time consuming - sometimes as much as the sawing.

From contributor B:
We have a Wood-Mizer LT40 Super with 25hp 3ph motor and we saw 20-35 oak ties a day depending on log size. As mentioned, the size of log and how much outside lumber it makes kind of sets the tie production. We can break down a 14” by 9’ oak log into four boards and a tie in a couple of minutes after it hits the mill deck until it’s ready to roll out. 16” or larger may take as much as 15 minutes on the mill.

The big thing is getting the tie off the mill and trimmed to length spec, stacking, etc. We have rollers set up off the end of our mill so we can just roll them out, trim the ends with chainsaw and dump them onto loader forks. We have two Terex loaders – 5500 lbs and 6600 lbs to move things.

Sawing is not the time killer; we can crank out a tie from a log in a few minutes. It’s everything else that really eats up the time. I may mention there are just two of us (old enough to get the senior citizen’s discount) running the mill, so one is sawing and one is edging, offbearing, stacking lumber - we stop sawing a lot to do a hundred other things.

Adding at least one more person speeds up the process a lot. But then you’re dividing your production per person by three instead of two and at the end of the day, you’ve not gained anything.

Not every tie log will make a tie. Our logger is not any too good at making tie logs. Many will not make a tie even though they’re big enough and long enough. Many have heart defects, sweep, forks, etc. that disqualify them from making a tie from the start. Then when we saw logs that should make a tie, probably 20% fall out on the mill for finding internal defects not seen on the outside. We end up making what lumber we can from these logs – but they don’t help our tie production numbers.

As to what production numbers you can expect, we’ll need a lot more information than 50hp. How much support equipment do you have – loader, edger, live log deck, green chain, dust removal, etc.? How well are you organized to move logs in, slabs, sawdust, edgings, lumber, ties out? How many people will be working the operation?

The best tip I can give you is to ask your mill manufacturer if there are any mills like you’re getting in operation within driving distance that are making ties. If so, ask to go visit with them and see how it all works.

From contributor P:
Finding good tie logs is a problem for me too. The defects sometimes don't show up until you end trim the tie. The end is the only part of some of them the buyer sees, so it needs to be good. Breaking down a tie into blocking is even more time consuming since it isn't going to pay as much making even less money. Most mills in my area, if not all, don't just cut ties. They make blocking and grade lumber. My guess is that they are now making more off the grade lumber than off the ties. All hardwood here, mostly oak. Mills are paying $.25 for tie logs, $.19 for pallet logs, and some will pay up to $.40 for grade logs, all by the bd.ft. of course.