How to Get Logs for Your Sawmill


Congratulations! You have purchased a sawmill and joined the elite guild of small-scale portable sawmill owners. But there is just one problem: You don’t have any logs. No worries—In this article, we will cover the four main methods of getting logs so you can keep your sawmill full and happy. Namely, the primary ways of acquiring logs are harvesting them from your land, asking local land clearing companies or individuals clearing land, asking local tree services, and of course, buying logs from a logging operation. Let’s go over each method, and you can decide which method of acquisitions works best for you and your situation.

Sawmill

1. Harvesting Logs from Your Land

Probably the most obvious (but also most complicated) method of acquiring logs for your sawmill is harvesting them off your own property. This is how most sawmill owners acquiring their logs. In fact, I ran a survey in a group of sawmill owners and found that 57% of sawmill owners acquired their logs from their own property, with the remaining 43% acquiring them primarily externally.

A survey of how most sawmill owners acquire logs.

Harvesting logs off your own property can of course be an excellent way of acquiring logs, but it also comes with a great deal of complications and caveats. First, you must own the property, and it should ideally be within proximity to your mill. If that’s you, excellent! If not, it can be a difficult process (both financially and logistically) to find land with sawlog stock that matches your needs and budget. That’s not to say it isn’t possible, merely that it may be better suited as a long-term goal. In the short term, finding other means of acquisition may be more practical.

Even if you do own land, there is always the issue of harvesting. Harvesting timber can be difficult, dangerous work, and it requires training. Luckily, there are classes that can teach you proper and safe methods of felling trees, so you can log safely with confidence. If you do decide to harvest your own timber, I highly recommend finding such a class.

With harvesting, however, comes the responsibility of managing your forest. How much timber are you growing per year? How do you manage sustainably? When should your timber be harvested? When you mill logs from your forest, you become an owner of a real vertically integrated (albeit small) forest enterprise, and so these are all questions you need to consider. Luckily, you have us to help you!

Once all those pieces fall into place, owning land is by far the best, most profitable, and most rewarding method of acquiring logs for your sawmill. It allows you to leverage your efforts and investments every step of the way. Imagine cutting quality boards from high-grade timber that you grew!

High grade logs

2. Asking Land Clearing Companies or Individuals

If harvesting from your land is out of the question, another good choice is talking to local land clearing companies or individuals clearing land. Because lots being cleared are often small in size (sometimes a fraction of an acre), there isn’t enough wood to bother selling commercially and hauling it with log trucks. But that doesn’t mean that these acreages hold no wood. In fact a single acre can hold quite a bit of volume. Tragically, the wood from cleared land (which in truth could be quite valuable) is often chipped on site and spread out or sold to mulching companies.

That’s your opportunity! If you visit these sites and offer to take some of that wood off their hands (taking responsibility for transport, of course) they often will give them to you or sell them to you at a nominal rate. As you build relationships with companies that do this work frequently, you can find yourself with a steady supply of wood for your mill (maybe even too steady).

If this is the route you want to go, it may be wise to invest in a trailer outfitted with a winch and/or log arch so you are better able to transport logs.

3. Contacting Local Tree Removal and Arborist Companies

Similar to the above route, local tree removal and arborist companies often have logs from trees they remove. With such small volume, they can find it difficult to off-load their logs, often resorting to chipping them or selling them as firewood. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for arborists to simultaneously operate firewood businesses just so they can give themselves a market for the wood they cut.

Once more, this is your opportunity! Introduce yourself to these companies and let them know your interests. They will usually be more than happy to work with you. In fact, because these companies are equipped for the on-site removal of trees and tree debris, they may even be equipped to bring the logs straight to you.

Contacting arborists can be a good way of getting logs for your sawmill.

Note, however, that because many of these logs come from open-grown environments, they may not always be the best quality. Many will be swept or crooked, and there could be a lot of knots. But these logs will be so cheap, you probably won’t mind. Besides, those defects just give the wood character!

4. Buying Logs from Loggers

Finally, one of the most sure-fire, traditional, and practical means of getting logs to your sawmill is buying them from local lumbers. Loggers are used to selling logs. It’s literally in their job description. Moreover, these guys are often looking for new relationships and new markets for their timber. Instead of contacting loggers directly, your best bet is to contact a local forester and ask them if they know of any loggers who may be willing to work with small sawmills. Explain to the forester what you are looking for (your approximate volume needs, species, lengths, diameters, and other specifications), and they can help you out.

Most foresters have relationships with a large pool of local loggers. Though their main job is to lookout for the interests of the timberland owners they work for, that often includes looking out for the economic health of the loggers who are ultimately the customers of the landowners. If there is any sort of slack in the log market, a forester can surely hook you up. They can also answer any questions about how to conduct the sale and any local laws that may pertain to log rules and scaling requirements (if applicable).

If you are brand new to the world of sawmills and forestry, however, it may be best to get logs from elsewhere first and learn the ropes a bit. At the very least, learn to speak the language and understand board feet, species, product, and grade. Logging is a serious business with constant pressures. If you are merely looking for “a log” its probably best to not waste their time. Instead, wait until you can be more of a serious customer for them.

Log Acquisition Strategy Is Key to a Successful Sawmill

Sawmilling can be a complicated business, but acquiring logs doesn’t have to be. There are numerous strategies you can use to get logs, and once you have relationships built or a harvest system in place, a steady stream of wood will flow through. After that, you can focus on the real challenges of milling–yield, productivity, and sales. So what are you waiting for, rev up your chainsaw, make some calls, and start cutting!

Zachary Lowry

Professionally trained as a forester, I spent my early career working for large timberland owners in northern Maine, managing forest land and investments. These days I work on my own land and help timberland owners large and small manage theirs.

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