Nov 2004 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Meeting a wide variety of wood needs
Ontario specialty sawmiller McQueen Custom Cuts has been successful serving the wide variety of wood needs of hobbyists, professional woodworkers and some large commercial customers.
By Paul MacDonald
To some people, it may not sound as exciting as working on the engines of F-18 fighter jets and being part of Canada’s armed forces, but for James McQueen there’s no life like running his own small sawmill operation. Prior to setting up McQueen Custom Cuts in Welland, Ontario, McQueen had another career, as a jet mechanic in the armed forces.
But while he enjoyed working on cutting-edge fighter jet aircraft, McQueen eventually grew tired of life in the forces and started his own small sawmilling operation in southern Ontario. That was 10 years ago and the company has steadily grown since then. “I was always interested in woodworking as a kid,” says McQueen, explaining his move into sawmilling “I had a passion for it, always wanted to build my own stuff.” These days, McQueen is manufacturing a lot of wood stuff for a variety of customers, everyone from the large national railways to local hobbyists.
McQueen picked up his portable sawmill with his dad, Gord, who at the time, had a bit of bush he wanted to thin. “And then we started doing jobs for other people, and bringing logs in and cutting it and selling it ourselves. We put our building in and a small dryer, and it sort of flew from there.” Welland, near Niagara Falls, is home to both the business and family. Being a wood lover, McQueen is building a timber frame home for his family (along with the furniture for the home) on property adjacent to the mill.
They picked a good central location for sourcing timber in this part of southern Ontario. They have a lot of nice red oak in the area, with beautiful colouring, that is quickly snapped up by customers visiting the shop/mill. “That was our mainstay for the longest time,” McQueen says. “But now we’re into a lot of ash and a lot of other varieties of wood. We sell a lot of cherry and hard maple, even though the prices have skyrocketed in the last few years.” Besides the cherry and hard maple, they produce wood in a wide variety of sizes and species, including white ash, hickory, bass wood, the pine family, and even quarter-sawn sycamore an white oak.
The operation is truly a family affair, with father, Gord, often working out on the sawmill. One of his brothers, Chris McQueen—who just received his MBA—is helping to develop a computer program for the company. And James’s mom, Judy McQueen, drops by to run the planer from time to time. “We’ll get everything set up for her and she’ll come in and run it steadily right through the day while we take care of customers.” In terms of customers, they literally don’t know who is going to come through the door next.
About 60 per cent of their business comes from hobbyists, looking for small amounts of specialty wood. But some of these people are more than weekend woodworkers. McQueen talks about one professional woodworker who came in looking for mahogany for panels he is doing for a library in a 38,000 square foot house. And then there are the commercial accounts, like the railways that occasionally call for specialty wood. If they have a derailment, the 350 ton jacks that lift up the locomotives need to be set on some pretty solid wood. Sometimes it will be a matter of putting one 4x10 white oak block after another under the jack, until they hit solid ground. “Now that’s a custom job,” says McQueen. “They need high end white oak, with as few defects as possible.”
While the business has grown over the years, McQueen would like to help it along further. To do this, the company has started to offer courses in joinery, and is thinking of offering courses in laminating, as well. “People are always looking for extra knowledge to get better, and the more confident people become about making things, the more wood they might buy.”
But he also has an ulterior motive in putting on the courses—he takes pride and satisfaction in helping other people build things. “I just want to pass on what I love. There are some older craftsman that have great knowledge, and it’s important to me to see that it is passed on.” McQueen Custom Cuts deals with four local loggers for its timber supply, often giving them a head’s up that it’s looking for a particular type of wood. But often, nice wood just seems to appear. “Sometimes one of the loggers will call us out of the blue to tell us they are doing a small bush, and they’ve got some really nice hard maple or oak, three or four thousand board feet, and we’ll ask them to load it up and bring it on down. “Being a custom cut operation, we’re not dealing with large quantities, thousands rather than millions of board feet, so we rely on the contractors to help us out.” The contractors all do selective harvesting, usually going in and cutting trees down with a chainsaw and skidding it out.
McQueen has made a point to try and work with reputable loggers in the area, guys who do a good job. With this selective logging approach, he says, the wood they leave behind when they harvest might just be even better than the wood they are taking out now. “I always compare it to an apple tree,” he explains. “If you prune it properly, and pick off half the blossoms, you are not going to get as many apples, but you are going to get quality apples. That’s what we are trying to do here, so every 15 years or so, you can go in and do a harvest.” It can be a struggle at times getting the logs they need. With the heavy demand for hardwoods in this part of Ontario, especially from larger mills, the timber is in high demand. “That’s the advantage we have in being a small mill. We don’t do enough volume that we will ever get too jammed up looking for wood.”
The company’s home-made kiln is scaled to the size of the operation, and is able to handle up to 4,500 board feet of wood, with the local hardwoods going through there. The wood is usually fully air dried before it sees the inside of the kiln, so drying times are generally about 14 days. James and his father have had a good run with the Wood-Mizer LT-40 portable sawmill they are using, but expect to be looking at replacing it sometime in the near future. They figure they have cut over a million and a half board feet on the mill. They purchased it used, with only about 1,500 hours of operating time on it. “That mill doesn’t owe us anything,” James says.
McQueen Custom Cuts has seen its fair share of bumps over the 10 years it has in business, but as McQueen puts it, “the mistakes we’ve made have been small and not costly.” Like any small sawmilling business, they have to keep a close watch on accounts receivable, and that pain to all small businesses, the occasional bad debt. “That can be a big frustration.” McQueen does not see why the courts view bad debts—in the form of bounced cheques—so lightly. “If someone came in and took a $1,000 chainsaw from the mill, that’s theft. But if they stiff me or someone else with a $1,000 bad cheque, you’ve pretty much got to live with it.” Going the small claims court route can often be fruitless, he says. “If people don’t want to pay you, they are going to get around it. What the courts should do is set up a payment plan, and if the person does not stick to it, they go to jail.”
While it may be a frustration, McQueen works hard to keep things under control on that front. Not one to just sit still with the mill business, McQueen has launched another venture, and is actively doing appearances at woodworking shows across the country promoting a new product called The Little Ripper. This Canadian-made product holds a log securely in place while the woodworker guides it though a bandsaw blade. Essentially, The Little Ripper is a mini-sawmill that will fit on any bandsaw, and mills anything from firewood to smaller logs.
In addition to developing the market for that product, he’s working to grow the main sawmill business, in a measured way. Though it would be good to get to the point of hiring a couple of employees, McQueen would also like to stay hands-on with the operations and the equipment. It’s what he likes best about being in the business. “In spite of the hundreds of thousands of board feet that I’ve cut, I still find myself looking over the mill to see what’s coming out with the next board. I still have a genuine passion for wood.”
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