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From Hobby to Business 

 A retirement hobby has become a successful business for Manitoulin Island portable sawmill owners.

By Tony Kryzanowski

It started out as a retirement hobby, but the owners of Gordon Bros custom sawmilling on Ontario's Manitoulin Island are finding themselves in such demand that they are even booked on weekends. Three important factors that are critical to any custom sawmilling business have contributed to their success: market research to determine what lumber products are in demand in their area; having access to an adequate timber supply; and the third key element, purchasing a durable, low maintenance portable sawmill that is relatively easy to use. Stan and Bruce Gordon began custom sawmilling in 1987 with an Enercraft portable sawmill that required a lot of manual labour. Four years later, they purchased an Enercraft SilvaSaw 30H hydraulic portable saw, which reduced the amount of manual effort required considerably. Since 1991, they've put over 5,700 hours on the saw, having to replace the motor after 3,200 hours. While this cost $1,800, they have easily made that money back and more in custom sawmilling, and it has run relatively problem free ever since. 

Enercraft portable sawmills are Canadian made and manufactured in Hillside, Ontario. Stan and Bruce visited some working sites and researched a number of portable sawmills before settling on their second Enercraft sawmill. "We certainly felt that it was well built," says Bruce. "It's quite a solid machine." Solid, but not complicated. "A lot of the replacement parts are available at auto supply or hardware stores." At the present time, they custom cut about 100,000 board feet of a mixed variety of wood annually. The vast majority-about 90,000 board feet-is custom sawn for other area residents. They harvest and saw about 10,000 board feet annually from their own properties. However, that's putting the cart before the horse. What Gordon Bros has discovered almost by accident is that there is significant market demand for cedar in their particular area and that there is a plentiful supply of white cedar on the island. This solves both the issues of market demand and timber supply. 

Lying between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island and the surrounding area attracts many cottage owners and vacationers. While escaping to the cottage from the steamy city is a regular weekend pilgrimage for many, it's a myth that most people go to the cottage entirely to relax. There always seems to be one or two cottage construction projects under way, and more often than not, it involves decks, docks and wood. "White cedar is particularly good for that," says Stan. "It withstands a lot of outdoor weather without deteriorating. There seems to be a fairly good market for anything in 2x6 in any length for decking. We usually cut eight, ten and 12foot lengths." He adds that restricted use of treated lumber in some cottage applications has also created growing demand for white cedar. While they are in the fortunate position of being able to supply custom sawing to local customers, sawing cedar presents its own challenges. 

Bruce (left) and Stan (right) of Gordon Bros custom sawmilling. Their retirement hobby has progressed to the point where they now saw about 100,000 board feet annually. 

 "We find that there is a fair amount of waste because of a tendency to taper off quickly with the white cedar," says Stan, "so we like to keep the lumber to maximum 12foot lengths." Logs in their area average 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Their Enercraft sawmill gives them the ability to saw logs up to 30 inches and in lengths of up to 20 feet 6 inches. Gordon Bros will saw down to a minimum five-inch top to recover four-inch material. A second downside to custom sawing cedar is the nature of the fibre itself. "Cedar is particularly hard to cut because it holds a lot of grit," says Bruce. "For example, chain saws and table saws will dull faster with cedar than with other types of wood. It's not hard to cut, but it's hard on blades. If we have clean logs, we can cut probably two to three hours with a blade." 

When they custom saw, the customer is responsible for felling the trees, providing access to the harvesting area and assisting with stacking the manufactured lumber. On occasion, Gordon Bros is required to build a trail to several smaller log piles. It only takes them about 15 minutes to take down and set up the Enercraft sawmill again. They can supply the lumber rough or planed, as they also own a small planer. Regarding their own logging operation, they select cut cedar, pine and spruce and are careful to avoid over harvesting. Both avid deer hunters, they want to maintain a healthy environment for wildlife. They have equipped a small farm tractor with a cable skidding attachment and focus on harvesting their own timber when there is just enough snow on the ground so that the logs slide more easily and cause less residual damage. "It also keeps the logs nice and clean," says Stan. "It's very hard on the blade if you are sawing dirty logs." They also use a front-end loader attachment on the tractor to load logs on to the portable sawmill carriage. 

Once the lumber is manufactured, it is air-dried. The Enercraft SilvaSaw 30H is a midsize portable sawmill in the company's line of products. Gordon Bros found that for a retirement business, buying a hydraulically powered unit saved on a lot of manual labour and made the job a lot more enjoyable. It is a bandsaw, powered by a 20hp Kohler gasoline engine. Like many other portable sawmills on the market, the Enercraft product line also has diesel or electric power options. Bandsaw blade maintenance is a fact of life with any portable sawmill and having a sharp and accurate blade is the difference between manufacturing lumber or sawdust. Bruce says their SilvaSaw 30H has a 13 foot 10 inch bandsaw blade that is manufactured by Lennox in the United States. However, owners can choose from a wide variety of bandsaw blades available on the market. "The Lennox blade is a reasonably good blade compared with others that we've had," says Bruce. "If we are sawing clean logs, we can probably cut two to three hours with a blade. 

We find that it's a lot better to change the blade before it gets too dull. It's easier on the blade because they don't break as quickly, and there isn't the pressure on the blade so it cuts much nicer material." Their blade sharpener is manufactured in Australia and sold through Enercraft. It operates on a 12volt motor with a stone that follows the entire contour of each tooth. It takes five to ten minutes to sharpen a blade. While there are many other bandsaw blades available, Bruce says their sharpener is custom designed for the blades they use. "There are several different bandsaw blades out there, but they are all a little different," he says. "The teeth are a different distance apart, so the sharpener doesn't work until it is reset. It's quite a chore, so we try to stick to the one type of blade that works well for us." They typically carry five blades with them to a job site. General equipment maintenance is also an important consideration when operating a portable sawmill, especially as a custom sawing business. The Gordon brothers grease and oil their sawmill every day and change the oil and filter every 50 hours. 

Other wear items need regular attention. "The little guide wheels where the blade runs have to be replaced about every year to year and a half," says Stan. "It's the same for the Vbelt that runs along the wheels. If these parts get worn out, then the blade will start to wobble." Enercraft has been manufacturing portable band sawmills, edgers, and resaws since 1985. They also build a debarker for cleaning dirty logs. The company's portable sawmills are capable of sawing logs from 24 to 42 inches in diameter. Models range from manual to fully hydraulic mills. The company recently introduced a 36HTL model to fill the gap between its 30HTL and 40HTL models. They have also launched a model 18 hobby saw that can be mounted on an axle and towed from place to place. Once the sawmill is in place, the axle can be removed so that the sawmill sits close to the ground. "This towing package gives our customers more flexibility with their sawmill and allows them to tackle some small custom sawing jobs," says Enercraft's general manager Peter Beacock. He adds that the company's thin kerf technology results in higher production, less waste and more profit per log. 

Logs in this area of Ontario average 12 to 14 inches in diameter. The Gordon brothers usually cut to eight, ten and 12 foot lengths, and find a good local market for 2x6 in any length for decking


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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004