Turn Straw Into Gold

As a forest owner, three challenges confronted my efforts to make money from our family timberland.  Loggers in the past had taken all the good trees, leaving a mess and large amounts of commercially worthless  Small-diameter trees,  Curved large trees, and Low-value species.   I tried the usual markets and said, “There has to be a better way.”   Now I take these “low-value” commodities and turn them into High-value wood products and earn about a thousand times the traditional market price.  Straw into Gold!

We have learned to take what we have and make things that people need.  We promote the use of locally grown and manufactured wood products to keep our money and jobs in the local economy.

Small Diameter Timber
When working to restore a degraded forest, or manage a young stand or plantation, about 80% of the wood that should be thinned out is small diameter logs – cordwood, pulpwood and/or fuelwood.    Advantages to using small logs are they are relatively lightweight and easy to handle, lots of small logs are available, and the wood has really good character.

I earn about 1,000  (one thousand!!) times the industrial market price for my small diameter trees.  The return on investment is so high because the price paid to landowners by industry is so low. 

This cherry tree produced two eight foot long logs, 6" and 7" diameter small end

As an example, I cut an 8 inch diameter birch tree that had naturally seeded into an abandoned pasture above my home.  The price a timber buyer would pay for that tree is about 20 cents.  If a logger cut the tree and hauled it to a papermill or firewood producer, it would be worth about 2 dollars, delivered.   

The two logs were "live" sawn into flitches, and stacked in the kiln with the bark still on.

Instead, I sawmilled the logs, solar kiln dried the lumber, and made beautiful flooring.  The butt log had an estimated 10 board feet using the Scribner log scale, but produced 19 board feet using the WoodMizer.  The second log scaled 5 bf and produced 12 bf.  27 square feet of beautiful tongue and groove flooring was produced. 

There was no waste, every square inch was usable – small diameter logs have small and sound character features.  I earned over $250 from this one small diameter tree.

The simplest way to process small diameter logs is with a resaw.  Cut straight lengths that you can handle and live saw the log into flitches.  I kiln dry the planks usually with the bark still on, then make flooring and other products. 

In Forestry School, I was taught these small diameter logs were typically used for pulpwood.  Myths of “juvenile wood” abound.  Fortunately, my trees never went to college and really do produce high value products in our business everyday.


Curved Trees
Our forest is about half curved trees.  Sawmills don’t want curved logs and loggers don’t want to deal with leaners, so these trees accumulate in the forest.  They are usually large trees, often with slow growth rates and sometimes with extra character like curly grain.
I make beautiful high-value flooring and furniture from these trees other consider worthless.

The first challenge is to fell these trees safely.  The shallow notch, bore-cut method is essential to personal safety and protecting the butt log from splitting.  It is quite exciting to fell these trees.  Once the stress of the leaning tree is eliminated, some of these logs actually straighten out over the first few days on the ground. 

It is possible to saw straight boards from a curved log, but there is a lot of waste and the direction of the grain is constantly changing along the length of the plank.  A band saw blade has to be really sharp to saw a curved log, or the teeth will be deflected by the shifting grain. 

Now I live saw curved logs to make curved planks.   The log is positioned as flat as possible on the WoodMizer sawmill bed.   Level the top side of the log and cut off consecutive boards, down toward the center.  Roll the log just one time.  Your blade is cutting straight along the grain.  Excellent quartersawn boards are produced near the center of the log. 


The curved flitches are kiln dried in the Solar Cycle Kilns.  The dry flitches are stacked in a pile and cut in half lengthwise with the chain saw to make  3 or 4 or 5 foot long planks that are then ripped into straight flooring blanks.  Center panels for cabinet doors, stair treads, and furniture parts are other high-value uses for the curved flitches. 

Straight grain flooring blanks are ripped from the shorter halves of the curved log

Most hardwood lumber is cut into small pieces for use anyway.   This really simple method earns me a great living from worthless wood.


Undesirable Species
Timber prices vary for different tree species in the industrial marketplace and keep changing.  Right now Walnut is hot, Red Oak is not.  Our goal is to use what our forest naturally gives us each year and make things people need.   Every tree and each species has a high value for us. 

Custom Blended Hardwood Flooring is our major product.  Flooring is pretty simple all the way through, has good value, and uses a lot of wood.  On an annual basis, our sales must move out what we harvest.  Each room we install is unique.  Some customers like darker blends with walnut and cherry while others like a lighter mix with red oak, elm, and maple.  Many choose for the maximum amount of character possible.

This floor is red maple, cherry, white birch, and red elm

We also glue-up wooden counter tops with many different species of wood.  Our Solar Cycle Lumber Kilns and the climate controlled lumber storage room in our barn produce wood that is well equalized in Moisture Content.  There have been no significant problems using mixed species in flooring or glue-ups, and the looks are stunning.

Selling direct to my customers is a key to success.  Trained Architects, Designers, Engineers rarely have shown any interest in our local, natural character wood.  Each floor I install becomes another showroom and my happy customers are voluntary sales staff. 

Custom Blended flooring is a reflection of our natural forest.  It really feels great to make beautiful floors and furniture from our commercially “worthless” trees.  Our forest is like a bank account and I only need to withdraw some of the interest each year, allowing our timber to get better and more natural each years.

Forestry in SW Wisconsin has traditionally been focused on red oak only.  I used to slaughter the other species, and do clear-cut harvests – just to regenerate red oak and the government programs paid us to do it.  Now the markets for red oak have collapsed.  Industrial forestry is not what a forest owner wants, but it is usually all that the profession offers.

Nearly all of the privately owned forest lands have been high-graded over and over for short term greed.  Forest growth in our region of SW Wisconsin is about 25% of the potential in both volume and quality.  Making things worse, globalization and the recession have cut the demand for timber in half and the price paid to a landowner even more.   Today our timberlands around here are being mined and degraded for the best walnut, white oak, cherry and maple and most of the wood is being shipped to the Far East. 

I tried the usual markets and said “There has to be a better way!”  I found it!