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Small-Scale Mobile Sawmill Tackles Large-Scale Problems
A sample of the charred timber.
By Barbara Coyner
As huge wildfires and pine beetles did a number on western forests again last summer, Colorado seemed to be ground zero for forest devastation. Experts agree the state has a large-scale problem, with over 80 percent bug kill in pine forests greatly increasing the fuels for wildfires. Yet there are no large-scale solutions in the works. Meanwhile, Scott Shaeffer and Kris Williams are plying away at their own customized small-scale solution to Colorado’s forestry woes, operating Wilfer Mobile Sawmill out of Denver.
“We’re the only mill in the metro area, including Boulder and Colorado Springs, that is mobile,” says Shaeffer of the LumberMate Pro MX 34 mobile band-saw mill he and Williams operate. The mill, produced by Norwood in both the U.S. and Canada, can handle logs up to 16 feet long and 34 inches in diameter. Currently Wilfer is milling 12-foot lengths and working with timber up to 24 inches in diameter.
The mill’s downside, according to Shaeffer, is that it doesn’t compete economically with circular saws when cutting dimensional lumber like 2x4s used in structural work. It does, however, do a variety of custom cuts, providing marketable slabs, beams, and boards for mantels, countertops, and interior accent pieces. The big advantage is its portability.
“The benefit of the mobile sawmill is that it eliminates the need for large skidding equipment and big logging trucks,” says Shaeffer. “Hauling lumber is much easier than hauling logs. It’s also great for our custom milling customers because we eliminate the need for them to transport their logs as well. We can bring the mill to them. That makes it very convenient for someone with no means of transporting logs, or someone with several acres of timber they would like milled.”
Scott Shaeffer, one of the owners of Wilfer Mobile Sawmill, operating a LumberMate Pro MX 34 mobile band-saw mill.
Portability resonates particularly with residents of the Black Forest, which sustained heavy residential losses in the 2013 inferno that destroyed nearly 500 homes. Much of the area didn’t qualify for disaster aid.
Shaeffer and Williams stepped up to offer services free of charge in exchange for the right to take the logs cleared from the residents’ land. The two will donate 10 percent of the profits from the Black Forest lumber sales to the Colorado Fire Fighter’s Fund, in cooperation with Mitchell Dillman of www.LogFurnitureHowTo.com who originally developed the program for victims of the 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire.
With dozens of logs waiting for the men to mill, business has been brisk, with 14 Black Forest landowners lined up to take advantage of the mobile sawmill services.
“After the fire, one guy who lost his home came to us and wants us to mill lumber from his burned timber to use in his new house,” Shaeffer says. “The mill has cut pretty well, and we’ve moved pretty fast. We aren’t a big operation working on high production rates.”
Whether the logs come from the Black Forest or some of the other areas Shaeffer and Williams work, their mill turns out a nice variety of products.
“We now have five or six species of wood in our storage barn, mostly beetle-killed pine, as that’s the hot ticket right now,” Shaeffer explains of Wilfer’s custom lumber yard in Arvada. “Customers can make an appointment and pick through our inventory to find only boards they can use, which cuts down on their waste. Most lumber yards make you buy bundles, which can have up to 40 percent waste. We can also take special requests for specific dimensions/species of lumber if customers are willing to wait.”
Small but Necessary
Of course Shaeffer and Williams know full well that their mill operation is small potatoes in the world of industrial sawmills. “The big mills scoff at us,” Shaeffer laughs. “They think we’re pretty cute, but we don’t claim to be on the same playing field.”
The woeful state of the timber industry within the state is no secret to Shaeffer. “There’s a shortage of loggers and trucks here, and we just don’t have the infrastructure. The preservation movement of the 70s closed down federal forests. These days it takes up to seven years to put together a Forest Service timber sale, and that means we are losing a lot of the resource. Beetle kill mitigation is way behind, and there’s just not much incentive to work with the Forest Service. In our case, where we work with private property owners, we probably have three or four years worth of work ahead of us right now.”
Business is good. Shaeffer and Miller say they are looking at a second mill to complement their LumberMate.
New Face of Timber Industry
In a way, Scott Shaeffer and Kris Williams represent the new face of the timber industry; those who combine their love of technology and Internet savvy with their feelings for the outdoors. “Lumber jocks” as some like to call them. Both of the 30-year-old men hail from metro backgrounds, with no connections whatsoever to the timber industry other than the fact that Shaeffer married a woman whose extended family works in the Idaho timber industry.
Shaeffer earned a business management degree from Fort Lewis College in Durango but found he was more drawn to working with his hands. During college, he tried landscaping and woodworking and eventually gained experience working for Bill Alberts of Rustic Style in Mancos.
“During my time there, I developed a great appreciation for the transition the raw materials take from log to finished furniture, especially when my hands are making it happen. It really did feel quite incredible. I loved doing it, and that’s where I fell in love with log furniture.”
Later, Shaeffer plied the electrician trade for a couple of years, but ultimately moved back to woodworking. In the meantime, he made two valuable connections: he met Tim Reader of the Colorado State Forest Service and Kris Williams, a rustic furniture builder creating products out of beetle killed pine.
Williams had spent 14 years in the machinist trade, and in time, started building rustic furniture from bug kill long before it became popular to do so. With a hands-on mastery of all things mechanical and an outdoorsy background, Williams’s skills complemented Shaeffer’s.
“Being a big outdoors man, Kris is affected on a personal level by the dead forests because of the danger of dead-fall, the dilapidation of wildlife habitats, and the depressing scenery. This is why Kris got into the beetle-kill furniture business. He wanted to help, even if it was in a small way.”
With a rallying cry of “First we cut ‘em down, then we cut ‘em up,” Williams and Shaeffer shook hands on a deal to buy the LumberMate Pro MX34 and began their milling career some months ago.
Norwood a Good Choice
Both men are pleased with the mobile mill and its features.
“Norwood supplies a variety of accessories for the mill, including a really good sharpener,” Shaeffer explains. “We’ve both learned to make adjustments and gained a lot of our experience at the same time. The mill was shipped to us in pieces, so we had to assemble it and learned it from the ground up.”
Because of Williams’s mechanical aptitude, Shaeffer leaves much of the mill’s maintenance to his partner, while applying his own business skills to marketing the mill and keeping up the website. He also produces a variety of YouTube how-to videos on woodworking, and his wife Wendy keeps the company books.
Williams and Shaeffer credit the Colorado State Forest Service and its network with helping launch the business. When the mill isn’t operating in the Black Forest or on other forest mitigation projects, the men turn their attention to the urban settings.
Miller taking down burned trees that Wilfer Mobile Sawmill will
“The urban jobs offer us exotic woods that don’t grow naturally in Colorado such as elm, walnut, cherry, oak, and many others,” says Shaeffer. “We’ve operated our mill in alleyways, in suburban neighborhoods, and on golf courses.”
As the pair gains experience and a steady clientele, their confidence has grown enough that they aspire to another mill, this time a circular saw that will stay at a fixed location. Perhaps one day, Wilfer will add other employees, as well.
“Our logging operation is very green and environmental,” Shaeffer says. “Every tree we cut is either dead-standing or part of a plan such as a fire barrier, trail construction, utility interference, etc. When we talk to customers about logging their land, we refer to ourselves as ‘Sniper Loggers’ because we can take only trees we want with almost no collateral damage.”
More can be learned about Shaeffer and Williams at their website www.wilfermobilesawmill.com.