custom sawmilling business, Cook WoodsCaterpillar 568 shovel logger at work.

Custom Sawmilling Profitable for Oregon Family Business

By Paul MacDonald

Chris Cook of Klamath Falls, Oregon, went from being a commercial pilot to producing wood used in fly fishing boxes and dozens of other items when he created his custom sawmilling business, Cook Woods.

“I was a commercial pilot working for a small commuter airline, and I loved aviation, but not the time it took away from my family,” explains Chris. In fact, his interest in sawmilling stretches back even further—he bought his first sawmill, a Wood-Mizer portable mill, while he was a graduate student at the University of North Dakota. “I turned wood pens in my dorm room and milled city trees all summer long. I stored the wood and the mill at a garage I rented.”

custom sawmilling business, Cook Woods

Chris Cook with his family.

Passion

After meeting his wife Catherine at college, the couple returned to Chris’ native state of Oregon in 1999, purchased land, and began building Cook Woods. “Back then, and right through to today, we have a passion for wood and enjoy seeing the uniqueness of every species of wood,” says Chris.

Like a lot of custom sawmillers who have seen success and grown, Cook Woods may have had modest beginnings, but they have worked hard, and today the operation employs 11 people and cuts upwards of 4,000 board feet a day from 250 different species that are sourced from all over the world. On any day, Cook Woods might be cutting ash from a city tree down the block in Klamath Falls, muninga wood from Kenya, or amboyna burl from Laos.

custom sawmilling business, Cook WoodsMilling

At the center of the business is a Wood-Mizer WM1000 industrial sawmill with all hydraulic modules and equipped with gravity self-slope, self-cleaning, and a customized conveyor. To turn a phrase, it is an awesome setup, says Chris. “This behemoth tips the scales at a combined 5.5 million pounds of rock, concrete, and steel superstructure,” he explained. “The rock is four feet thick for seismic activity in this part of Oregon.” They have a 125,000 pound loader with 68” grapples that can lift a 57,000 pound log onto the mill and can handle logs up to 40’ long and 67” in diameter.

And they’ve added to the mill setup to deliver extra customer service and value. “We had a company make a custom spiral head 69” planer to marry up with the mill,” explains Chris. “Planers are significantly faster than larger sanders, so the planer saves our customers money. We can lift, mill dry, and surface plane 67” wide slabs.” This added edge in the market allows them to do what most mills can’t and has increased their business because they are able to offer all the services needed for the wood with secondary processing.

custom sawmilling business, Cook WoodsCook Woods WM1000 industrial sawmill.

Organization

Cook Woods begins every day with a dry erase board listing everyone’s name, including Chris, since he is the primary sawyer. “The board covers everything from log procurement and milling to cleanup and maintenance or construction,” he explains. “We have every hour of the day plotted on that board, so we can hit all the deadlines on time.” And they are extremely good at meeting those deadlines, he added, thanks to a solid work crew.

Their products include live edge slabs, mantles, beams, counter tops, bar tops, lumber, turning blanks, knife scales, pen blanks, and acoustic and electric guitar components.

custom sawmilling business, Cook WoodsCook with slabs; milling unique slabs and burls.

Choices

From running a sawmilling business from his dorm room close to 20 years ago to his very successful extensive operation today, Chris says he has made careful equipment choices, and those choices always involved Wood-Mizer sawmill equipment. “Wood-Mizer mills are designed to help average people be successful if they are willing to work hard and think outside the box,” says Chris.

The Wood-Mizer equipment is very productive, he added. “For our needs, I can cut a slab for a conference table — that used to take over an hour to mill with a chainsaw mill — in a little over a minute. Chainsaw mills are rough-cut at best and generally wipe out ¾” or more with kerf and chatter during a cut. Our Wood-Mizer WM1000 is laser leveled to 1/32” over the entire track, so we might lose only 3/16” to those factors.”

Chris emphasizes that some of the woods they cut are extremely rare, so every fraction of an inch can mean the difference between making money and losing money on a certain product. In addition to the WM1000, they also have a Wood-Mizer industrial headrig.

Chris says that growing the business has not been without its challenges. “The difficult part of the business at times for us has been finding employees that are motivated and hard working,” he says. The easy choice has been in the production machinery they use, most notably working with the Wood-Mizer milling equipment.

custom sawmilling business, Cook WoodsMyrtle and Box Elder lumber.

Customers

Like many successful businesses, Cook Woods works hard to satisfy existing customers and develop new business. “I’ve been told that it’s 99 percent easier to keep your existing customers happy than to find new customers.” In the small town of Klamath Falls and beyond, (thanks to sales via the internet) the Cooks and their employees work hard to keep their customers satisfied.

“Our customers value our honesty and integrity the most. We are able to help them obtain the wood they require to build anything, and we are able to mill it for them.” Chris noted that he used to travel to woodworking shows all over the country in the company’s semi, but thanks to the internet and their website, they are still able to get broad marketing exposure to customers across the state, around the country, and even overseas.

In addition to their successful sawmilling operation, Chris and Catherine are considering starting a nonprofit that would help get mills into other countries to help in the Christian mission.

“Cook Woods would donate slabs and boards that are raffled off our website to raise funds for the nonprofit — this would help achieve what we believe is our greatest calling: to be fishers of men,” says Chris. 

TimberWest November/December 2013
July/August 2019

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