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Big to Small

Alberta's John O'Brien has made the transition from working for a big forest company to running his own small-and successful- saw-milling operation.

By Tony Kryzanowski

After more than 25 years working in the forest industry, most people start thinking about that condo near the golf course in Arizona, but not John O'Brien.

Six years ago when O'Brien retired from his job as woodlands manager for Weyerhaeuser Canada in Edson, Alberta, he set out to live his dream: to one day own and operate his own sawmill. His one-man operation isn't about to compete with industry giant Weyerhaeuser, but the harvesting, saw-milling and silvicultural principles of running his business are remarkably similar.

The only real difference is that when he makes a decision today, he can implement it tomorrow. As owner of Laibrooke Springs Forest Products near Pigeon Lake, Alberta, O'Brien enjoys having total control over his operation. His services include custom harvesting and saw-milling with his WoodMizer LT40 portable sawmill, as well as offering consulting services to other private woodlot owners on establishing timber values on their properties.

O'Brien also harvests a variety of timber species on his own quarter-section in a sustainable fashion, manufacturing and marketing lumber products from high end furniture stock to low end corral material.

"Six years ago, my stress level dropped about 80 per cent," he says. "Right now, I could easily have two sawmills running full time if I wanted to hire somebody. But I'm in this for the fun of it too, and riding herd on employees is not my idea of fun. I've been there and got the Tshirt. I don't want it any more ."

O'Brien and his wife Linda launched their new venture with the strong belief that it would succeed. He is a registered forester with a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry from the University of Montana and has held a variety of woodlands positions within industry, particularly with Imperial Lumber, Zeidler Forest Industries and Weyerhaeuser. He also has several years experience as an instructor. One motivating factor behind his decision to strike out on his own was his feeling that "it was time to put my money where my mouth was".

"When you are working in woodlands with large companies, it is very difficult to make that step between woodlands and the sawmill," says O'Brien. "Mills are always looking for engineers or people with a mechanical engineering background and it is very difficult to make that crossover to that side of things. Basically, I was looking for another challenge ."

What started out simply as a means of milling wood on his own land has grown into a healthy business for John O'Brien. He now has an established client list and mills anywhere from 2,000 to 65,000 board feet for a client, depending on individual customer needs.

The fact that O'Brien has such a wealth of knowledge in harvesting and woodlands management made the transition to operating a sawmill significantly easier than what most other novice portable sawmill owners would experience. However, his experiences over the past six years offer valuable lessons for those thinking about purchasing and operating their own portable sawmill, either as a sideline or as a business.

O'Brien's initial plan was to simply harvest and custom cut timber in a sustainable fashion from his own land holdings. That's the way it started, as he and his wife purchased a rather unique quarter section where only select harvesting had occurred. There was a mix of aspen, lodgepole pine, white spruce, and black poplar. The lodgepole pine was 150 years old. Trees cut on the property are replaced with seedlings growing in nurseries established within pipeline easements that run through O'Brien's land.

No sooner had he started things up when his neighbors began knocking on the door, wondering if he was interested in custom cutting some of their timber. Before long, he had established a client list and he is now milling anywhere from 2,000 to 65,000 board feet, depending on individual customer needs.

Although it is a year round business, O'Brien sets aside specific times of the year for manufacturing his own lumber and custom cutting for other people. He does not harvest any timber in summer because of the negative impact it would have on the nesting and habitat of songbirds, a throwback to his knowledge and experience in woodlands.

The key to his success has been low overhead as well as product and service diversification. O'Brien does everything himself, planning, harvesting, skidding, saw-milling, and replanting.

However, learning to operate his portable sawmill properly did not happen overnight. It took O'Brien about a year and a half to learn how to saw the wood properly and to understand how different species of wood require slightly different cutting techniques. He began his saw-milling business with a smaller WoodMizer portable sawmill that he has since upgraded to a WoodMizer LT40 HD G35 model. It is powered by a 35hp Wisconsin V4 gasoline engine. It generates power to operate the 12volt electric motor that controls the dual hydraulic system on the carriage. He uses a 158inch blade that is one and a quarter inch wide.

When he needed to replace his first WoodMizer sawmill, he shopped around extensively, spending a week at each of five different portable bandsaw suppliers. Among his biggest concerns were how easy it was for one person to operate the sawmill, how easily it could be towed and set up, and what sort of dealer support he could expect.

John O'Brien says that blade maintenance is an area of high priority for the operation. The equation is simple, he says. "If you are going to be cutting with dull blades, you are not going to produce good lumber and your production is not going to be very good ."

The WoodMizer was the most expensive portable bandsaw, but its ease of operation by one person and the fact that it was fully hydraulic encouraged him to pay the premium.

Dealer support was also important. He says as part of the purchase agreement, WoodMizer provides a representative for a couple of days to demonstrate the entire mill set up, mill operation and blade maintenance. "They were really the only ones that had such an extensive program that way," says O'Brien. "They also have an 800 number that you can phone if you have any problems at all. There is a technician who can help you on the phone ."

He emphasizes that blade maintenance is critical. He purchased WoodMizer's automatic sharpener with his sawmill package. It took a while to learn the fine art of blade sharpening, but he can now sharpen a blade in about 15 minutes.

"Blade maintenance is something that you have to pay attention to," says O'Brien. "If you are going to be cutting with dull blades, you are not going to produce good lumber and your production is not going to be very good ."

He typically uses a blade for two to three hours before replacing it. An eight hour work day results in about six hours of actual sawing when he includes time spent replacing blades and performing general maintenance. Blades themselves are not a huge expense, he says, and he is able to sharpen each blade at least 15 times before disposing of them.

O'Brien hand falls timber on his property and offers custom select harvesting services to customers. As a chainsaw operator instructor, he uses his training and experience to fall trees in order to minimize residual tree damage.

Once the trees are on the ground, his skidder comes into play. What he needed initially was a multipurpose piece of equipment. He found the answer in an agricultural tractor instead of a purpose-built skidder. "I needed a machine that could skid, build roads, load logs, load lumber and plow snow," says O'Brien. After looking at a number of tractor brands, he settled on leasing a 55hp, turbo-charged, three-cylinder diesel, 5300 series John Deere with a front wheel assist. It has a special metal canopy to protect against falling objects and attachments include a loader, bucket and forks. The tractor has a quick-attach system so that he can switch from one tool to the next in a matter of seconds. Logs are cable skidded using his custom built skidding arch that attaches to a threepoint hitch.

The diverse mix of wood species on his property and his saw-milling experience has taught O'Brien that it is preferable to find a market for higher value products. For example, because there is a cottage furniture manufacturing industry in the Pigeon Lake area, his company now manufactures significant amounts of clear pine to fill that industry's needs. Bandsaws have the ability to manufacture a wide variety of products, running from logs for the log housing industry to one-inch stock for the furniture manufacturing industry.

What he is trying to avoid in future is manufacturing lower grade corral material that does not bring in nearly as much revenue as higher end products. O'Brien offers his custom saw-milling service on an hourly basis. The customer is required to provide at least one helper. Initially, he tried to offer the service on a per thousand board foot basis, but because the help he received often proved unreliable, this approach was uneconomical. On a per hour basis, the customer realizes that if no quality help is provided, his custom saw-milling will take longer and cost more.

In terms of pricing out his own lumber products, O'Brien studies the market to see how much large lumber outlets are charging for identical products. That way, he keeps his prices competitive, and customers keep coming back.

O'Brien is living proof that a little knowledge and a lot of initiative can go a long way. After six years, he has thoroughly found the groove of his new saw-milling venture, to the point that his entire production year runs as smoothly as clockwork.

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