Portable sawing rates

Methods for charging, plus more on the business of sawmilling. January 21, 2002

I have a Wood-Mizer mill and have been set up stationary for almost 10 years. I've been running it as a full time job for 8 years, and have done pretty well custom sawing at 15 cents a bd ft. Due to my wife's job, we'll soon be moving. I'm trying to decide whether to make my mill portable and keep my job or find a new career. Could anyone tell me about their portable sawing experiences in the southeastern parts of the US?

Forum Responses
I have made it on 15 cents since 1990 and have just recently gone to 20 cents. I have enjoyed portable custom sawing and have made it pay. I bring the mill and the customer brings the labor. To really make a paycheck, be prepared to do something more than just saw. Retailing the wood or creating molding, furniture or finishing wood in a kiln and planing it for customers is "value added" well worth considering.

In North Central Arkansas I get 20 cents a bd ft plus a fee to show up and blade charge for very dirty logs or damaged blades. If I stack and sticker I get 23 cents a bd ft. If there are trees where you move, you should do okay. You will just have to learn to sell yourself all over again. It is the loggers that you will have problems with.

I'm curious if there is a different charge per bd ft depending on whether you are cutting 1x, 2x or even larger beams. Seems if it is charged by the board foot if I cut a 12x12 beam (as little as four passes), I'm going to get paid a lot more per pass of the saw than if I am cutting 1x6's (about 17 passes). Do I not understand something?

I saw by the hour--$50/hr plus $20 per damaged blade. The customer provides labor, so my time is spent sawing. So, if I'm sawing 12x12's, their paying .05/brd/ft or more common 4/4 to 6/4 runs between .15 - .35/ brd/ft. I think an hourly fee is fairer for both parties.

You may find hourly wages fairer but I find that it generally takes almost as long to get a 12x12 off of the mill without hurting anyone as it does to cut it up. From the marketing aspect I have better luck keeping my board foot charges simple and not making a distinction in size. The customers have never minded and, when they compare the cost to the retail purchase of the timber, are overjoyed with the deal.

If they are really good help and have equipment that makes sawing easier, I am quick to discount the total bill.

Part of what they are paying for is the convenience of having a portable mill come on site. Trucking timbers costs money too.

I set my fees up based on the species I am cutting. I have 2 Mobile Dimension Mills. They are circle saws, made here in Troutdale, Oregon. For the softer woods, firs, pines etc., it is 225mbf for any thickness above 2" and 235mbf for dimensions less that 2".

I just completed a small sawing job for a farmer. He wanted me to "get a coupla 6x6's for the wagon and whatever else ya can outta the rest". I told him the cost was $200 a thou (Canadian) or by the hour - for the beams this may save him money. He agreed to "whatever". When it came time to tally it out, I figured it would cost the customer more if I charged by the hour than by the foot, even though I had fewer cuts to make for the 4 6x6x16's. I also came across the conundrum of mixing pricing. If I were to charge by the hour for the beams and by the foot for the 1x and 2x, I would end up either spending hours tracking each piece of wood cut off the beam (to be edged later) or "double dip" by charging the client for severing the plank from the beam and charging him for the board footage it created in the general pile.

I ended up charging him by the foot for everything - I figured that it is actually cheaper for the client to pay by the foot for beams up to 8x8 than by the hour.

Is anyone out there charging using mixed pricing methods depending on the process (beams vs planks)? If so, I would be interested in your tally method and how you find the economics.

From the original questioner:
I was thinking 20 to 25 cents a board foot is a good rate, and a 25 dollar set up fee is fair. I'm curious about the deadbeats out there. Since I'm stationary now, if I saw for someone and they can't or won't pay, I sell the lumber myself. I'm not sure how to handle it if I go to someone else's place and saw for them and they decide they don't want to pay the bill. Has anyone been in this kind of situation?

As for sawing by the hour, I only charge by the hour for sawing fence posts, 4x4x8 or 6x6x8. Anything bigger or longer is by the bd ft. The weight of the bigger and longer beams makes them so much harder to handle.

Just once. You can minimize losses by:

Using small claims court. A signed contract is nice to have but not necessary.

Collecting for the sawing at a predetermined point, for example, at the end of the day or the week even if the job lasts longer. Once you know a customer, you can collect at the end of the job or put it on the books if he is reputable.

Ultimately "don't go back". That is the one ace in the hole that a portable sawyer has on his side. It costs money if you can't collect, but you can get some bad press out about a deadbeat real quick. His next wood purchase may have to be from Home Depot.

We don't do mobile sawing, but charge .25/BF for most of our custom sawing services and provide all the labor. I guess on some small jobs, we lose money, but on others we gain.

I make a point of keeping on good terms with the other sawyers in my area. When I'm up front with what I charge and what work I like to do, they also respond in kind. We've agreed not to let the customers play one against the other. We exchange names of customers that have not settled up and refuse to saw for them until they do. Knock on wood, we've had little problems with payment and collection. As we saw at our location, the material does not leave until the bill is paid.

I charge by the hour, plus a flat fee for mobilizing and demobilizing, plus blades. I'm on the clock when setting up and doing regular maintenance. If they have a challenging place to set up, it's not my problem. Charging by the hour means I don't need to look at logs before accepting a job. If they're dirty, crooked, small, need trimming, whatever, it's not my problem. When I quote my dollar rate, I also quote my sawing rate (bd ft/hr). If I fall short of that speed, it's because their help or logs were poor or they wanted a lot of thin lumber. No need to tally lumber when I'm done. The customer usually does and to my knowledge is always pleased when they convert to $/bd ft, and I get paid what I should for my time. It seems like the simplest and fairest way. I don't understand why it is not more common.

From the original questioner:
I can see your point about charging by the hour. I've had to spend a half a day or more just to get logs someone brought ready to saw.

I'm stationary now, and at 15 cents a bdft in smaller logs, I average about $30 an hour. On the bigger logs I can do about $60 an hour if I don't have any problems. I'm using an 87 model Wood-Mizer lt30g18. I've modified it with a hydraulic turner and a 24 hp onan. Some of my customers do the math to figure out what I'm making per hour. They think they're being charged too much. If I charged them an hourly rate, I think they would fall over from a heart attack.

I feel that a mobile sawing service should price their work per hour, about the same as someone with a trencher or a bobcat. If they’ve got a top-dog high production bandmill like the Wood-Mizer Super Hydraulic and can really pour out the lumber, then maybe charge more like a backhoe or track loader service.

Early on, I had to fight the argument that: “Ol’ Bud only charged .05/BF”. I’d just say; “Then that's where you should take your logs”. Of course, Ol’ Bud ain’t put sawdust on his pile in 20 years and he has brush growing up through the rotted down mill. Most have come back around, paid up and liked it.

I haven't done work for others yet and only plan to as a side to my construction business, but I am thinking of charging $60-80 hour--that's what the typical midsize tractor gets. Just being in business is so expensive with insurance, taxes, employment junk and payment and maintenance on equipment like a sawmill. We need to charge that much.

I have charged .15/ft to saw on site with help from the owner. $40/hr for resaw work, and sell pine starting at .35/ft. Our local rates for pine lumber start at .35/ft, hence you can't charge more than half of the lumber rate or they may just as well buy it!

At .15/ft I have had days of a $50 profit and a best day of 4300 ft in 9 hours! You do the math on that one.

A good discussion can make a serious difference on customer relations. I brief customers on the quality of lumber, minimum and maximum size pricing and may even take a drive by to visit them prior to an onsite job to lend advice and show them what kind of logs to cull out of the pile.

Most customers balk at prices exceeding $30/hr, but it is a fair price even if you are cutting at a .15 cents a foot rate you may come out well ahead of $30/hr..

Different jobs may need to be quoted differently.

I have three circle mills in competition within a 5-mile radius, while I run an hd40 Wood-Mizer. I charge between $40 and $50 an hour depending on the level of support and equipment the customer has. On jobs where I am traveling, I start the clock at my house. Using hour rates means I will set up more than once onsite, cut to the customer's satisfaction, and not charge for blades until metal is hit. Then either I get paid to scan or the customer scans to my satisfaction.

90% of the customers have saved money over the bd ft prices they were willing to pay and they have received more lumber, without the trucking costs of logs and the handling and pickup of cut lumber. The few jobs that ended up over the bd ft cost were those with smaller logs or special sawing like quartering. The best job was for one customer who was in the tree removal business who had a log truck and two helpers beside himself. We cut 12,000 feet of 2" red oak in 40 hours and he paid me $1,600. He wanted to pay 20 cents in the beginning and was very happy that I convinced him to pay by the hour.

I sell pine for a quarter right off the mill to farmers but get a dollar for clear air-dried pine. Oak trailer decking starts at 80 cents, but I have one customer who buys quartered oak for barrels at $2.50.

You need a contract. I made up one that models the one WM puts on their sheets. I get paid at the end of the day or half of the lumber goes home with me. Cost of blades and re-setup plus other charges must be agreed on before setting up. I have more then once turned around and gone home. Also, the contract states that the person wanting the sawing owns the logs. Contract got me off the hook on that one.

I charge by the foot or by the hour and both in the same job. Small stuff and odd cutting by the hour only! Big stuff (8" and larger) by the bdft, regardless how sawn. Bigger timbers are not faster when you have to off bear them or work them out of less-than-perfect logs. But each area is different and old timers here will only pay by the foot because that is all they know. About 1/2 of my sawing is on the road, so I know the deal.

Also, if you buy logs from someone, take them home to saw. Because even if you pay them more than a fair price, they will see three times that in lumber and feel cheated. Then you get the bad mouth.

Hourly rates can be misleading to the log owner. A bdft rate is fair, as costs are determined before cutting. I charge .25 softwoods, .30 some hardwoods, .35 other hardwoods. Log length must be over 8'. If not, 5 cents more. Smaller logs, 5 cents more because volume goes down. No charge for edging, loading, turning, blade changes, fuel. The other charges are depending on cants or thicker boards to be resawn. If our blade is damaged by nails, the customer pays $45. I had problems with dirty logs onsite, but I have a debarker now, which fixed that problem.

How do you charge for stickers? Do you leave the customer to find his own? Charge him to cut a log into sticks? Make extra passes during edging to get the sticks?

I charge hourly and give my customers my best. If one wants stickers, they're included. I have been lucky so far working without contracts. I have not been stiffed, though I expect contracts are the best way to proceed.

From the original questioner:
The folks here are only comfortable with price by the bdft. They show me a list of material they want sawed, then I figure the total bdft and give them a total cost. I explain that I will get more lumber out of the logs they bring than they have listed. So when they leave, they have a pretty close idea of what the bill will be before I ever saw their logs. They are pretty happy with that.

I charge an extra 3 cents a bdft for stickering lumber. I also put bands around the bundles. As I saw, I save any 4/4 edgings. I stack them to dry. When someone wants their lumber stickered, I've always got plenty ready. Just cut them to length.

I don't charge for stickers that I cut while edging and don't mind making extra cuts. I don't expect to cut up logs into 1x1's for free but will for a big job, especially a customer that keeps coming back. I try to get the customers to save their sticks, first by telling them that they perform better when dry and second that the next sawyer may not cut them for free. I have had stickers drying at home that I will trade for the green stickers on the job just so that he won't ruin his wood. Stickers are like gold. I have trouble keeping enough on hand.

I like to meet the prospective log owner on the job before any price is quoted. Nice straight logs will get the bd/ft rate, while small, crooked or really large logs get the hourly rate. My choice, whichever one will put the most in my pocket. If I don't like the logs or the log owner I am already booked and can't seem to fit him in.

I have been drying lumber for 15 years. My first 8 years, I made lots of mistakes and ended up with cracking, mold and sticker staining. Never use green sticks. Air can not flow between and if the weather is warm, mold will destroy your boards. I now use the proper drying stick that I also sell to my customers for 50 cents. When they bring them back, I give them .35 cents (there is a .15 rental charge).

I worked for 5 years in northern CA with a portable non-hydraulic Wood-Mizer, and just recently moved back to SW Washington. When I started out at $200/mbf, I was buried in work and it took a long time to learn which jobs to decline so that I wasn't always working for $6 hour. First, I raised it to $250, then $300/mbf. That helped get people to take it a little more seriously and provide support, and failing that, I could still survive on all but the most miserable logs at $300.

Then I started charging by the hour ($45) for: small jobs (1000bf or less), small and/or short logs, all hardwoods, thin cuts, custom/odd cuts. I also charged $25/ hour for "excessive log handling", bucking, limbing and other chainsaw work, and cleaning/debarking dirty logs. In exceptionally bad cases I did charge a full $45/ hour for cleaning logs. Generally, I do not sticker.

Now that I am back in western Washington, my prices have had to fall back some, as there are more mills and less money in people's pockets. I did cut some 3X12 bridge decking and sticker it for $200/mbf in a time of great need, but I also tracked my production and found that I only made 22-27/hour, not including blade sharpening and commuting. So now I've drawn the line at $225/mbf for lumber bigger than one bf/lineal ft (ie a 2X6) and $250 for lumber 2X6 sized and smaller. I haven't tried too much hourly here yet, as people seem to be mistrustful of it. Also, it makes the job very hard to estimate, and people like estimates.

Mostly I have been getting trade jobs, where I take half the lumber. Great for my chicken coop plans and so forth, but not so great for the bank balance. Working by the board foot, I have made anywhere from about $22/hour all the way to $75/ hour. Almost all of the work I've ever had has been portable. I charge $25-40 for set-up and $40 hour to move the mill once the job starts. I've been pretty lucky with metal, but occasionally charge $10 for damaged blades.

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

Comment from contributor J:
We have been portable milling for 12 years and we charge by the hour to protect ourselves from small, dirty, nail-infected logs or just a poor setup when we get there. We get $70 for two people and a super HD Wood-Mizer. We also charge if we hit metal - an extra $10 or $20 depending how bad. We are from MA and everything is a little expensive here.