Living the Sawmilling Dream

by | Feb 16, 2024 | 2024, DIY, Small Scale, January/February, Logging & Sawmilling Journal

Lee White, the owner of B.C.’s Okanagan Sawmill and Kiln, has always wanted to own and operate a sawmill—and slowly and surely over the last couple of years, that ambition has become a reality.

Working with mostly urban hardwood from the Kelowna area, and using small sawmills, White has developed a steady business supplying local manufacturers of everything from charcuterie boards to furniture with finely grained wood slabs.

White has over 30 years of experience as a machinist. His career actually began in industrial machining at car maker Jaguar in Britain. After moving to Canada, and making a couple of stops in B.C., he moved to 10 acres about 20 minutes outside of Kelowna.

White’s interest in sawmills was initially piqued by watching videos on YouTube.

White and partner, Colleen, had worked to clean up their acreage, after they bought it.

“At the end of that, I was thinking I always wanted a sawmill. I should have a look and see how much they are, and if it’s worth buying one.”

The purchase numbers penciled out, and in 2019 he purchased his first sawmill, from Ontario-based forest equipment manufacturer, Woodland Mills. With a 22” wide cut capacity, the Woodland Mills HM130 machine enabled White to offer custom sawmill services, including live edge and dimensional lumber production.

White did some no-cost marketing online, on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

“It worked out well—I picked up some clients, and I was milling wood for them from time to time. It was not a huge amount of work, but over time it ended up paying for the sawmill, and we had positive cash flow coming in, which was awesome,” he explained.

The Woodland Mills sawmills have very reasonable price points, says White. “You can get a sawmill without a huge capital investment—for most people who have an interest in sawmilling, it’s attainable.”

And they are super reliable, he added. “Their quality is phenomenal, and their after-sales service is great. I can’t say enough good things about Woodland Mills.”

Seeing a need for larger slabs for furniture making, White built a larger custom sawmill in 2022, from scratch. It was a true labour of love, he notes, with it taking about two months to build, with all the welding and fabricating taking place on their acreage. With this new sawmill, he can now cut up to 6-foot-wide and 20-foot-long logs.

White believes it is the widest cut sawmill in Western Canada and only one of a handful this size in North America.

The new and improved sawmill was built from a plan.

Like some sawmillers, White is a fan, and watcher, of Minnesota-based small sawmiller Matt Cremona, on YouTube.

“I was in touch with Matt, and he put out a set of plans for his sawmill—and I bought the plans in 2022, then started buying the components, and then started building the mill.”

The extensive Matt Cremona plan—at 134 pages—contains all the details you need to build a wide slabber bandsaw mill capable of handling and cutting a 76” diameter log, with heavy duty build construction for smooth and stable cuts. The 30” wheels drive either a 1.5” or 2” blade.

The plan document includes parts lists and suppliers for each component, cut lists for breaking down full lengths of steel, and step by step assembly instructions.  Each section also has informative write-ups covering things to consider and further information on the sawmill’s design. A listing of all components that would need to be modified if a sawmiller wants to change any of the cut capacities is also included.

“The plan is great—it’s super detailed,” says White. “Being a machinist, I appreciate the time and effort that went into the plans. Matt Cremona has done a fantastic job.” And the plans were very reasonably priced, he added.

“It was a bit of a learning curve,” says White, of the sawmill building process, with a laugh. “I’m really not a welder at all, but I’ve done some welding, and can put pieces together.”

The key, from his perspective, and perhaps reflecting his machinist background, was that everything had to be square and level—period. The last thing he wanted to do was put a nice log on the mill carriage, and have it produce some wavy lumber due to it not being level.

“It was a challenge to build it because it was just me, but I was in no rush,” he says. Short of wiring it up (he had an electrician do that), it was an all Lee White mill construction build.

“I built the case, then started on the carriage, making sure that was level and that it rolled up and down nicely. I then started working on the saw head itself, putting on the band wheels.” Being a machinist, some of this work was familiar territory, he said.

White purchased the metal required from Metal Supermarket. “That worked out quite well because I had bought from them before, and know them.” The band wheels and a few other items were ordered from Cook’s Saw Mfg, in Alabama, and was shipped up to B.C. Other components, like the engine and VFDs, were sourced locally.

“I just went through it slowly, step by step, and took my time building it.”

He did make a couple of changes. The plan calls for the mill to be 20 feet long, meaning that once the equipment is all installed, you can cut to 16 feet.

“I bought 24 foot rails, so I can cut to 20 feet,” says White. “Matt’s plan called for a 10 hp motor, and I upgraded that to 15 hp. Everything else is basically the same.”

White started doing some cutting towards the end of 2022, producing slabs and some dimensional lumber for local people looking to build sheds and lean-to’s. Along the way, he’s had some very minor teething issues with the mill. “That was not surprising,” he said, noting that any new mill, small, medium or big, always needs some adjustments. “I was able to figure them out.”

Once he figured out the wrinkles in the new mill, he sold the Woodland Mills mill.

With the new mill, he was able to handle larger logs, some three and four feet wide. “That was great,” he says

“I was getting customers who were saying, OK, we’ve got the slabs, let’s get them into the kiln—and we did not have one.” So any kiln drying initially had to be done off site.

So, next on the To Do List was the kiln part.

White says he built their kiln with furniture makers in mind. The kiln dramatically speeds up the drying time of wood slabs, to a couple of weeks.

Like many small sawmill operators, White is extremely resourceful. The kiln is fabricated from a repurposed, insulated van body from a very generous neighbour. He framed and insulated the body, installed three fans for plenty of air flow and a heater and dehumidifier. The kiln is temperature controlled to ensure the slabs dry at an even temperature.

With the 18-foot x 6-foot x 5-foot kiln, Okanagan Sawmilling and Kiln is now more of a one-stop shop for customers.

Through the winter of 2022/2023, White did more cutting, and homework, developing contacts with local arborists and landscaping companies, to source more urban logs.

“I’ve now got several that contact me regularly about logs, but I’d like to get a few more,” he says.

The company pretty much works entirely with urban wood.

“Urban trees are being cut down all the time, or blown down, and 99 per cent of the time they go to the landfill, where they are usually chipped, which is good, or turned into compost. It does not go to waste.

“But some of those urban trees have been around for a long time, and that seems like a waste—I thought they could be turned into a generational piece of furniture that might get passed down in a family, or something like that.”

And his customers are producing exactly that, and many other items.

White normally buys one or two logs at a go. “With the relationships I’ve built, the guys know what I’m looking for. They’ll often let me know they are going to cut a particular size/type of tree and ask me if I’m interested—and if I am, off I go with my trailer.” He has an 18-foot long trailer that can carry a total of 9500 pounds.

With a 10-acre site, he has a lot of room for log storage, so White says he is not super particular about the type of wood he buys. “I can move the logs around, with the space I have.”

With that kind of storage space, White will sometimes take whatever is on offer.

“I’m going to be picking up an oak log next week in Kelowna, with a 30-inch base,” he said. “It’s a nice size and I don’t have any oak at the moment. I’m always looking for wood that I don’t have.”

Almost all of the logs are cut into 2.5-inch-thick slabs. “Some of the smaller wood, I might do 1.5 inches for charcuterie boards or cutting boards. And if it’s really big, like four feet plus wide, I might do three inches thick.”

In terms of added value, White is happy to leave that to his customers. “I really just like to do the milling.”

White finds that online is a good way to market his products, and services. “Most of our postings are Facebook Marketplace—it seems to get the most eyeballs, and the listings are free.”

White admits that it was a bit of a jump going from the smaller mill, cutting 22” logs, to a larger mill that can take a six-foot log.

“You’re doing the same thing, but it’s different, if I can explain it that way,” he says.

He can mill 10 logs perfectly, and then the 11th log might get a little wave or have a little wobble. Wood, of course, being a natural material, each log is different. “It could be a different log, I might be pushing too hard, or not hard enough, is the band not tight enough or too tight? I keep a careful eye on things.”

This kind of sawmilling is very different from the large scale sawmilling that goes on at the high production B.C. Interior sawmills of a Canfor or West Fraser.

“You can cut through a log, and then all of a sudden, it starts twisting on you out of nowhere. There might be all this stress in the log, and you can’t tell that by looking at the outside of the log. It can be nice and steady until you hit an old branch in the middle of the log.” Or hit metal, which happens from time to time.

“I’d like it to happen less, but it does happen. You can look outside the log and there is nothing, and then you start cutting, and there is metal right in the centre of the log.”

White says he is still learning, and happily so. He was very comfortable cutting with the Woodland mill, and he looks forward to being very comfortable soon cutting with the new mill.

In terms of mobile equipment, he has a John Deere 35 excavator to move logs and slabs around. “I can manoeuver logs around pretty well with that.” He plans to build some forks for the Deere, to move the slabs around easier.

The same neighbour who supplied the van for the kiln also has a good sized Kubota SVL65, that White borrows from time to time. White also has a big Clark IT70 forklift with a 10,000-pound capacity. “It’s nice to have for the really big logs,” he says.

“I pretty much have all that I need,” he says, “I’m pretty lucky in that sense.”

From here, he’d like to continue to build the business, but there is no panic.

“I’m more interested in building it slowly, and whatever money it generates, I’ll put it back in the business. And whatever I can afford to buy, I’ll buy, and if I can’t afford it, I won’t buy it.

If you have a lot of cash, and you just throw it at a problem, it does not necessarily solve it, he says. “If you don’t have the money to solve a problem, I think it makes you more creative, in a way—you look at other options to solve a problem.” Some might call this MacGyvering.

If it gets busy enough, he might hire a person to help out on the saw. “But if that never happened, it would not bother me.

“I want to build the business, but I don’t want it to be a grind.”

And he’s intent on staying on the mill. “I really enjoy the milling. I like putting a log on and never knowing what is going to be inside. You can open it up and it’s amazing. And you keep cutting, and every slab gets better and better. I really love that.”

Paul MacDonald

Author

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