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Don Jennings Takes Custom Cutting to New Level

By Barbara Coyner

“My Place or Yours, My Logs or Yours.” The motto on Don Jennings business card says plenty about the versatility of his business, thanks to a Mobile Dimension portable sawmill. Jennings, the owner of North Fork Portable Sawmill at Lewiston, Idaho, mills salvage timber that loggers and mills don’t want, turning the cast-off wood into handsome tongue-andgroove paneling and flooring, lumber, beams, and fence posts. Blued pine, non-merchantable timber, old utility poles, and mature city hardwood tree trunks are all fair game for Jennings.                       

As he built up his business three years ago, he sometimes hitched up his mill to make “house calls,” rescuing dead and dying timber and fallen city trees from slash piles and urban landfills. These days, however, he spends most of his time at his manufacturing plant, perched on Lewiston’s Old Spiral Highway. With his mill and planer situated on a spacious industrial site high above the Clearwater River, Jennings cranks out custom products, making the most of every log.                       

“I take the dead and dying, the pulp, the stuff the bigger mills don’t have time to work with,” he says. “I’m not really all that portable any more. I haven’t dropped the idea [of going out to a site] 100 percent, but it has to be a pretty sweet deal for me to leave here. Dollar-wise, no matter whose dollar it is, it is cheaper for me to stay here. I did the travel at first just to get my name out there.”

Connected
Getting his name out there certainly worked for Jennings, who was previously a logger, until a bad back forced him to rethink his livelihood. Since buying his mill, he’s carved a niche for himself, doing custom cutting for customers in the region, with quite a bit of repeat business. It helps that Jennings grew up in Pierce, Idaho, a diehard timber town, because he retains the connections from his years as a logger. His daily contacts with mills, truckers, and loggers later translated into valuable business contacts that now help him locate and transport his log supply.                       

“I loved logging. When I was a kid and watched logs run through a mill and turn into boards, I thought there was something neat about that,” says the 50-year-old Jennings, who spent many years in skyline logging. “When my back started going out, I played with a portable mill that belonged to a buddy of mine. Then I decided to get one of my own.”

Custom cut larch flooring.

Choosing the Right Mill
Researching the various portable sawmills, Jennings picked out the Mobile Dimension circle saw, manufactured in Troutdale, Ore. His first question was whether to buy a circle saw or band saw. “I was looking for both production and quality,” he says.                                   

“The band saw required a lot of rehandling, and it’s back breaking handling the cants. You have to turn and resaw the cants. But with this mill, you send a board down and it cuts lumber every time. I picked Mobile Dimension because they’ve been in business for years and years, and have sold mills all over the world. Even though they’ve sold a number of mills, I felt like I was dealing with a small company.”                                   

Jennings says the mill maintenance is straight forward, and he can sharpen the blade in place most of the time. For more intense sharpening, he removes the blade and uses a grinder to get the edge he needs. Because each saw blade costs over $1000, he frequently takes the preventative measure of pressure washing each log. That also gives him a chance to assess wood strength and grain, while inspecting for defects and metals, such as spikes.

Big on Blued Pine
“My biggest product is the blued pine, and people are using it in cabins and for paneling,” Jennings says. “I’ve been in the industry for a long time. Loggers and mills call me because they can get more than if they sell it for pulp. I can make it into tongue-and-groove, molding, paneling, and flooring. I also get dead and dying red fir, not good enough for saw logs, but it makes really nice beams. I can cut longer than most mills, and that gets me quite a bit of business.”                                   

Augmenting the sawmill with a Swedish-made Logosol planer, Jennings enjoys great flexibility as a custom wood products manufacturer. He recently expanded his open-sided shed by two thirds, and he has a radial arm saw handy to further his options. Eventually he plans to level more of his bench land, which will provide extra log storage and room for a dry kiln. “Even the dead trees have plenty of moisture content,” he says, explaining the need for the kiln. “Sometimes it gets way too hot, and pine is tricky to dry and keep stable.”

Logosol Advantages
The Logosol planer has been an especially good purchase for Jennings, and the five motors allow him to plane, cut tongue-and-groove, and adjust to any number of dimensions. “For what it does, it’s the most affordable machine out there,” he says of the entry-level model, which runs $15,000.                                   

“The next comparable machine would’ve run me $60,000. I absolutely love this machine, and I’ve run 90,000 board feet through it since February, with no down time. It’s got its little quirks, but I’m slowly learning them. It’s gotten me so much business, and the guy that used to do my planing now sends me business.” Jennings notes that the Wisconsin-based Logosol company has furnished him outstanding service, even letting him talk directly to the equipment designer.

Booming Business
With a 200 percent increase in business over the last three years, Jennings is currently churning out plenty of larch flooring and even some blued pine flooring. Much of his product is headed to a high-end cedar home being built at nearby Waha. Because of continued word-of-mouth references, demand for the tongue and groove blued pine just keeps increasing.                                   

To guard his back from further injuries, Jennings bought a used Bobcat mini wheel loader to haul inventory around the yard and bring logs to the mill. As for the mountains of sawdust, a private contractor comes around to collect it and chip up the bigger pieces, which all go back in the market as hog fuel. To add yet another layer of value to his business, Jennings has researched floor finishes and plans to offer one he especially likes as part of his product line. Clearly, the business keeps growing because Jennings has so many ideas, options, and connections.                                   

“This is a solo operation, and I’m intent on keeping it that way,” Jennings says of the mill. “It’s a good way to go. Where else can I come to work in shorts when it’s hot?”