When the Customer Wants to "Help" You Saw

Long, spirited exchange on the tricky situations created when you let a sawmilling customer help with the work. December 12, 2008

I normally saw alone, so if the customer helps, I can produce a lot more finished bf. How would you charge? Is this the case where charging per board foot is much better than by the hour?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From contributor R:
If you charge by the bdft, and allow them to help, you would have to lower your rate. Otherwise, there would be absolutely no reason other than curiosity for them to help. I charge strictly by the hour. For my business, mainly custom sawing, every job is different. There are just way too many variables - i.e. site conditions, log species, log cleanliness, what happens to waste, dimensions the customer wants, quartersawing... The list goes on and on. It's a lot easier to sell a customer on a flat bdft charge, but for me, it seems like an easier way for me to get burned. Once you have a good reputation for quality work, charging an hourly rate isn't a hard sell.

That said, stacking lumber and hauling slabs are absolutely my least favorite parts of sawing, so I encourage help on the part of the customer. I may make a little less money at the end of the day, but I'm a lot happier passing those tasks on to the customer if they want.

From contributor B:
I never allow a customer to help. If you are charging to saw, even though they are the customer, they must be treated as an employee. That means insurance and workman's comp need to be paid. I was audited by the IRS several years ago and the agent specifically asked me if I allow customers to help saw. I was also told by my insurance agent that I couldn't have customers help saw their logs. I don't even like customers watching me saw because of liability issues.

From contributor R:
I think the IRS thing is easy enough to legally get around, but the insurance issue is a very important consideration. As a matter of interest, I only let the actual owner of the logs help, not employees or friends - I only let them stack lumber or slabs that I've taken off the mill, and I have them sign a waiver before starting work. I guess I'm still on thin ice if something happens.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the replies. I don't often receive help, so I was surprised by the increase in output. I certainly was paid my daily rate, but I did not recover the extra cost in blades. I like the comment about the owner becoming an employee, because it shows the dual relationship that is created. You end up being the boss of your employer.

From contributor R:
I can basically double my production with a good helper. Just curious - did you charge by the hour or by the bdft for that job?

From contributor A:
I always let them help. I had a contract that stated that they were responsible for them and theirs, and me for me and mine. I charged the same if they helped or not. Yes, they saved me some physical labor, but often cost me time in the long run and messed up my rhythm in sawing. You will do some things slower because of them but you will not be as tired.

Used to have some ole guys have me come and saw several logs belonging to different ones at one place. It was a good time for them and they paid by the hour.

If you cut your rate and then they do not help as much or slow you down, they will expect the cheaper rate regardless of how much or little they helped.

From contributor K:
Had a sign in our shop that said:
Shop time $75.00 per hr.
$100.00 if you watch.
$150.00 if you help.

This usually made the point with the client - too many issues, workers comp, insurance, lawsuits. Not worth taking the chance.

From the original questioner:
I did charge by the day. I did not recover the operating cost for the extra sawing. I am considering going back to charging per board foot but I know that as soon as I do that the next customer will have small logs.

Cutting by myself I can pretty much determine the size of the job. This helps to set the cost before the job starts. I haven't found many customers who know how many board feet will be produced. They are always surprised by the size of the wood pile, often finding that they do not have equipment to move it or a place to store it.

However as a portable business I find that I provide other services for the customer which take extra time and different equipment. For example I almost always do a double move in bringing an all terrain forklift. The forklift has made some jobs possible.

From contributor S:
Seems like some of you guys live in fear. Fear of the IRS. Fear of the insurance man. Afraid to charge enough to make a decent wage.

If I hired a guy with a sawmill to come on my property to saw some logs and he told me I couldn't stack the boards, I'd tell him to take a hike. I'd also expect to pay him a decent wage for a decent day's work. Now having said all that, I have thrown some "helpers" off my place that I thought were a danger to themselves and others. At no point would I consider the landowner an "employee." It's his wood, his property, and he can do as he pleases as long as he doesn't put his hands near any moving parts.

From contributor D:
I charge by the hour and allow the owner to help out, but I do provide logger's hard hat with eye and ear protection and require they wear it. They very seldom save me any time, and are generally a hazard to you and themselves. You've gotta keep an eye on them at all times, and communicate clearly - like it or not, you are responsible, and need to let them know if they are creating a hazard. They can do something stupid before you can stop them. I got hit on the head pretty hard when a customer swung a board around. Fortunately, I was also wearing a hard hat.

From contributor B:
It doesn't matter what you call them, but it's what the IRS and the insurance people call them. I have too much at risk to take the chance of someone getting injured and their insurance company expecting me to pay the bill because they were "working for me." Also, as some of you said, it slows down production more than it helps. Do you expect to help repair your car when you take it to the garage? I can just imagine the mechanic's response when you tell him you want to help. If you go to the paint store, do you get to help mix it? Why should sawmilling be any different? It's one of the most dangerous jobs for experienced people. And even more so for the inexperienced. The other part of it is if you do have insurance and allow a non-employee to help you, the insurance company can cancel your policy just for that reason even without a claim.

From contributor A:
I guess there are a lot of people that saw out there that have strong opinions about help from customers. I make it mandatory that they help. It is simple economics. I tell them they pay me to cut up their logs. If I have to move slabs and clean logs, this is not efficient. I am paid to cut logs, and the more they help, the less time I spend there and it costs them less. I charge $100.00 per hour, no matter which mill I am using. At home I have to clean up after they leave. In the field I have to load up the mill and the forklift and drive home. Yes, I take a forklift to every job! It saves on my back. I also can move 5000 lbs. of wood at a time. Iíve been doing this for 8 years now and it works very well.

From contributor S:
IRS publication 15-a (on the IRS website) has a good explanation of who is an employee, and if withholding and unemployment taxes have to be paid. A key section says that "an employee-employer relationship" has to exist before a person is considered an employee. That means you have to pay them, and give them direction on what their duties are, when to start and stop work, and several other things.

The IRS seems to be more interested in the independent contractor vs employee situation, but the document does go over some interesting items.

So if the landowner is going to stack his boards, let him stack them where he wants and how he wants and when he wants. But if there is no pay involved, I really don't see how anyone could be called an employee anyway.

But I understand some people's concerns about liability. There are plenty of vultures (lawyers) out there just waiting for the chance to pick over some dead meat.

From contributor N:
For the last several years I have had a sawyer bring his Timberking to my farm in Ohio to cut cherry logs and my son and I handle the slabs, boards, trimmings, loading, etc. We cut the logs to length and stack in advance to maximize our sawing time; we can cut over 2,000 BF on an average day. He charges by the BF and we both make money. This relationship has been rewarding in that my sawyer is now a personal friend; I have taught my son about timbering, sawmilling, and safety; and the woods are managed for sustainability and wildlife habitat. I can understand the liability issues but hope that others can experience what we have thus far.

From contributor T:
Contributor K, your sign is going up in my shop tomorrow!

I charge by the board foot. My mill is set up stationary. I can see different variables for on site work, but just because I charge by the board foot does not mean it is the same price every time. Every job will always have variables that you have to take into account while quoting or bidding the job. Always tell the client what your price is regardless of if you think they can afford it. If you are not confident in the quality of your craftsmanship while first talking to the customer, you will not get the work. If they can't afford it, you won't profit, but cash is always king!

From contributor F:
I do not let the customer help. The few times I tried, they seemed to get in the way - I did not have time to teach them how to handle and carry a green 2x8x16 - they wanted it to be a two man carry. Not only that, having someone in the way interferes with my thought process trying to maximize board production from each log.

As you can tell I have some pet peeves here. I want the customer to tell me what he wants and let me make it happen. No questions, no suggestions, no discussions during the sawing process. When I take a break, then I will shoot the bull. Bottom line - no matter how you are charging, if you have the sawing process down, a helper will slow everything down unless he/she is well trained and motivated.

From contributor L:
You guys are nuts to let the customer work! I had a lady trespass on my farm, fall after crossing back on her property, get hurt, sue me, and get 20K. Enough said? Just say that insurance regulations won't permit them to help you due to liability factors if they were to get hurt. Thank them for the offer (do it sincerely), tell them you would appreciate a glass of tea every once in a while, that you are going to give them a great deal anyway, and to kick back and enjoy watching you work (and then charge your going rate). I promise if you do it right, they will love you and refer you business.