by Tony Kryzanowski, Wood-Mizer Contributing Author
Will Vohs, a farmer from Alberta, Canada, discovered that it made a lot more financial sense to transform his easily accessible and good quality trees into wood products than accept what forest companies were prepared to pay him for his standing timber.
Will says that he can manufacture a 12” x 12” x 20’ timber on his Wood-Mizer band sawmill and sell it for about $250. That’s compared to the $50 to $100 per raw log that forest companies would pay him. Never afraid to try something new, Will recently took advantage of a $20 introductory airplane ride and liked it so much that he fulfilled a childhood dream and obtained his pilot's license. That's sort of how he ended up as a sawmill owner, by trying it out first and deciding that he really enjoyed it.
Immigrating to Canada from Germany in the 1970s, the Vohs family purchased two and a half sections of land that they named the Valley of Hope Farm about a half hour west of Innisfail, Alberta. In Europe, private forests are highly valued. The Vohs family recognized the value of the woodlot on their Alberta farm when they purchased it back in 1979. While most of their land was converted to pasture, they left a half section as a woodlot. "Coming from Europe, it's pretty densely populated and fairly green over there, but a value is placed on trees," says Will. "We left a half section of timberland here pretty well untouched. So those trees grew and now I have some nice timber that I can run through a sawmill."
Over the years, they developed a successful cattle business, but they encountered an unfortunate series of circumstances involving a drought and one of their cows being diagnosed with mad cow disease. This caused Will and his partners to wind down their 130 head, pure Charolais cattle herd in 2005. Will decided to sell some standing timber from his woodlot to a forest company to raise some money, and that’s when it occurred to him that he could probably make more money sawing his own wood products. The log sales helped to pay for his Wood-Mizer band sawmill. Today, between running his sawmill, custom grazing cattle for other area ranchers, and offering farm services to his neighbours, Will says, “I am plenty entertained every day.”
“Being here forty years, I realized that stuff falls apart,” he adds. “So you need to buy lumber to fix it or you can cut your own lumber to fix it. Being that I already had a tractor to pull logs out of the bush, I already had a Bobcat to put logs on my sawmill, and a chainsaw - all I was missing was the sawmill.”
Timbers are the easiest wood product to manufacture on his all-hydraulic, 28 horsepower, gasoline-fuelled, Wood-Mizer LT40 band sawmill that he purchased for $30,000 about 12 years ago. Vohs also focuses on lumber dimensions not readily available from retail lumber yards. He recently milled a load of 1" X 10" boards for a friend. He generally cuts nothing smaller than 1" X 6" and as large as 2" X 12". He produces a fairly high volume of 2" X 6" and 2" X 8" for cattle fencing that he uses both on his own farm and sells to others.
"I chose Wood-Mizer because they are a popular brand, so parts availability is fairly easy," says Vohs. "Also, there are many sawmills around, so the resale value is quite decent on them." Furthermore, the band sawmill provides him with the option of producing either beams or boards. He purchased the debarker option with the mill which removes dirt and bark, resulting in reduced wear and tear on the blade. He appreciates the hydraulic functions on the sawmill, such as the hydraulic log lift and log turner. They make the operation of the sawmill less labor-intensive.
Waste wood from sawmilling is processed through a small wood chipper, with the material used in Voh's cattle operations. First-cut slabs are processed into firewood for his home and shop. Although Will didn’t launch his sawmilling venture to make a lot of money and doesn’t advertise, using a lot of the wood he manufactures on his own farm, he says that customers from all over the province still seem to find him through word of mouth, wanting all kinds of custom wood products. Typically, Vohs operates his sawmill two to three days a week in springtime.
Vohs carefully harvests about 50 spruce and aspen trees annually measuring at least 16” at the butt and up to 30”. Typically, he fells the trees and transports them to his band sawmill, which is set up in an enclosure that also serves as shelter to protect his sawn lumber.
When queried by friends and neighbours about the wisdom of making this investment into a band sawmill, he points out that the cost of the sawmill was about the same as a round baler. Having spent a couple of decades raising cattle, he says he’d rather be sawing lumber than baling hay. "I don't have the pressure of harvest and haying weather anymore," Vohs says. "The sawmill is really nice that way. If the unit breaks down, it's not that bad because there is nothing spoiling on you right away. You can just fix the sawmill and carry on."
While it isn’t a big money maker, he says he has built up equity in the business because the sawmill itself still has good value, if some day he decides to sell it. The key to anyone interested in making a sawmill investment is to try it first, because there is a lot of physical labor involved. He worked with another Wood-Mizer band sawmill owner for a few days to educate himself as to what was involved.
In addition to being prepared for the physical work, Vohs concludes that access to inexpensive, good quality standing timber, a dry place to store wood products, and the ability to produce custom wood products at a fair price are all important factors to consider before taking the plunge. The key business issues for prospective, small-scale sawmillers to consider are log supply, or the ability to get logs affordably, and customers to buy the end product, whether that is cants, lumber, furniture, etc.
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