How I Got Into This: A History of Sawmilling at WunderWoods
I just had a chance to talk about WunderWoods at the monthly meeting of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild as a featured speaker. It was billed as “The WunderWoods Way”, where I was going to talk about what I do related to milling and drying lumber and whatever else I wanted to talk about. I talked a lot about the milling part, showed a bunch of photos of big logs and finished woodworking projects, and realized when I was done that I had really covered the history of WunderWoods sawmilling. One of my favorite things to read on other websites is a history of the company, and though I don’t really feel old enough to have a “history” page, I decided to put one together for the other two people out there that like to read about history. I have been doing this for a while now, have been through a few sawmills and I thought, if nothing else, that others traveling down a similar path might find my history helpful or even a bit entertaining.
One of the questions I get from almost every new visitor to the shop is, “How did you get into this?” They go on to ask, “Is it a family business? Did your dad own a sawmill or work at a sawmill?” The answer is no, it is not a family business and my dad has never worked at a sawmill. The closest I can come up with is that my Grandpa Wunder, who died when I was pretty young and probably didn’t influence my life direction much, worked in Springfield, OH for several different companies in the lumber and woodworking field.
The inspiration I did get from my family came from my dad and his willingness to work on and fix anything mechanical and from my mom’s dad, Grandpa Moore, that also liked to build and work on things. Overall, I grew up breaking things, fixing them and breaking them again. The best example I can think of, is when I turned sixteen and my mom found an old truck for me to restore. After it was towed to the house, my dad asked, “Do you want to start working on it?” Of course, I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” Then he said, “Well, go ahead and take out every bolt, so we can work on it.” That through me for a loop. After all, it was a machine with a lot of parts and not something that you just completely tear apart. How would we know how it all went back together? In all fairness to the story, my dad worked a lot on cars and had even owned a garage before, so we had a better chance than others of getting it back together, but it was still shocking. It was, however, not as dramatic as I thought because after only a little bit of time working on it, I realized that most of the rusted bolts weren’t going to come out anyway. I would have plenty of time to get to know the truck as I struggled to get at least one bolt out without breaking it. Still, that one conversation stands out in my mind and replays in my head every time I am about to work on something, and it reassures me that it probably won’t be as scary as it first sounds and that there is a good chance that I will get it back together without too many extra bolts. That hands on approach to working on the truck has carried over to almost everything I do and is what keeps me at it on a regular basis.
The answer to, “How did you get into this?” is also a bit murky, but I very vividly remember what I call the beginning of my sawing career. I was reading a woodworking magazine (I think it was Fine Woodworking, even though I haven’t been able to find the original), and I came across an article about a father and son that traveled into the woods with a big chainsaw and cut big slabs to make table tops. At the time big slabs weren’t in style as much as they are today, but I remember being surprised that you could cut your own lumber. If you asked me, I could tell you that lumber came from trees, but I still associated lumber with the lumberyard, not trees. This is where things changed.
I fancied myself as an artist, winning outstanding artist in high school, getting a degree in graphic design and working as an art director for a nine-year stint, near the end of which I read that chainsawing article. Even though I liked to do woodworking when I wasn’t at my real job, I didn’t build much because lumber was expensive. I was buying expensive lumber from the big box store because I didn’t know at the time that there where stores specifically selling hardwoods (I had a lot to learn).
Not long after I read the chainsawing article, my boss at the ad agency offered me a raise. I didn’t take it because I always pictured myself having my own business, and though I liked my job, I didn’t want to make so much money that Chris (my wife) wouldn’t let me quit. He still wanted and tried to give me a raise, so I came up with a great plan. Instead of a raise, he could buy me a chainsaw. He, or any other boss, has never had such an odd request, and he gave me a slight look of bewilderment as he told me he would try to figure out how to make that happen. Well, he made it happen and my milling career started.
I purchased an Alaskan sawmill, which is an attachment that bolts on to the bar of the chainsaw. It basically works like a cheese slicer and controls how deep the chainsaw cut is from the previous cut. The Alaskan works fine and produces flat and straight lumber. However, the drawbacks are that it is physically demanding and very slow. It was so slow that I would plan on milling just one 20” diameter log per day, including travel and cleanup. If things went well I might be able to cut more, but I never planned on it.
At that point I didn’t really have any source for logs, and I would find them one at a time from homeowners. Still, I found logs on a regular basis and quickly got to the point that I was finding them faster than I could mill them. While I was using the chainsaw mill, I also started drying lumber, first outside and then moving it inside to finish up the process. I was worried that the drying would cause problems since I didn’t know what I was doing, but the lumber that I milled came out great and went into all of the projects that I built from then on.
I began milling wood that I had never used and had never seen for sale, like American elm and silver maple. The elm dried a little crooked (elm always dries a little crooked), but it was beautiful. I am still an elm advocate, even though it can be a bit cantankerous. I had never seen silver maple anywhere and worried non-stop that I must be missing something, and milling and drying a wood that was completely useless or bad for some reason that I would probably only find out later. Turns out that silver maple is one of my current favorites, and I use it for everything from a showy primary wood to a low-class secondary or utilitarian wood.
I continued to cut woods that I knew, like oak, poplar and walnut, and also cut many other new species like osage orange and black locust. Milling just one tree per day and being able to really focus on it helped me to quickly learn how each species of wood milled, smelled, dried and worked.
The Alaskan mill phase didn’t last long (it was so short that I don’t have any photos of it). As soon as I started getting finished lumber for free, I started looking for a faster mill. I wanted to mill every tree in St. Louis and the Alaskan wasn’t going to get the job done. So, I spent my lunch hour at my art director job looking at different sawmills on the internet and sending off for sales literature. I liked the bandmills, but I was looking at lower-cost units that were all manual, and I concluded that they wouldn’t work for me because I didn’t have a way to move logs at the time. While looking at mills in the $5,000 – $10,000 range I came across the Lucas Mill, a crazy new mill from Australia that looked perfect for me, even though it was a little out of my price range.
I was worried when I first found the Lucas because it seemed so new and untested, and I was sure they would go out of business the second I ordered mine, leaving me with no way to buy replacement parts. However, my worries were completely unfounded (and still are today). When the mill showed up, I felt like I overpaid because there wasn’t much to it, but the lacking parts are just a byproduct of good design. The Lucas sawmill is simple to set up and simple to use. It transports easily in a pickup truck, mills accurate lumber at a good pace and can mill big logs where they lay.
I started off with the 6” Lucas because it was the cheapest. The mill came standard with a circle blade that could cut up to 6” x 6” lumber, unless you flipped the saw head around to cut 12” wide. It also had a slab attachment as an option, but slabs were not in style at the time, so I never bought one. I used the Lucas to cut a lot of 6” lumber. It was great on big logs because I could work by myself and knock out 1,000 bf., if I had a big enough tree. If not, I could still mill several logs in a day and get in the 800 bf. range by myself. These numbers are based on milling only and nothing extra, like clean-up and stacking.
After having the Lucas mill for a few years, we moved to a new house in Hazelwood, MO. I picked it out because it had a big, detached shop on a one acre lot. It looked clean from the outside, and I told my wife that if the house didn’t suck on the inside, we were buying it. Well, it didn’t, so we did.
I first set up the Lucas in the 24’ x 40’ pole barn and ran it with the doors open. It worked fine since I was only bringing home little logs that could be moved by hand into the barn. I was still milling all of the larger logs on site because I still had no way to move them. That all changed when I found and purchased my 1977 Chevy C60 flatbed truck with a crane and dump bed, affectionately named “The Creampuff” by my favorite mechanic Roger, at Roger’s Truck Repair. I bought if for $3,000 and have done nothing to make it look better, while still spending plenty of money to keep it running. It basically looks the same as it did when I bought it, just with bigger rust holes and more cab ventilation. I used to think I would make it look better cosmetically, but then I would just feel bad when I dinged it up. Now, I can drop trees on it and it doesn’t bother me too much. I must admit, however, that I have recently dolled up the crane a bit with new paint and hoses. I figure if I ever do get a new truck I will have a crane to put on it, as long as I take care of this one. Plus, I need the crane to work pretty much all of the time, so it is a good place to put my money.
Once I got the log truck, I started getting logs, lots of logs, lots of big logs. I moved the mill to the back edge of the yard and began to transform the pole barn into an actual shop with spray foam insulation, lots of electric and finished floors and walls. At the same time, I built a kiln on my side of our two-car garage, which was already full of lumber, figuring it should be full of drying lumber. It was a Nyle dehumidification kiln, which I still own and use today. It comes as a mechanical package minus the kiln structure, so I was able to build the box to fit snuggly in my available space.
As I got deeper and deeper into this milling thing and started driving my log truck to the back yard and began to use the shop for more serious production, my already cranky neighbor got more cranky. He complained to the city about the noise, but later admitted it wasn’t a noise thing, I was just getting a little out of control.
Since I don’t like cranky neighbors, and I agreed that I needed to get the sawmill away from the house, I started shopping for the new future home of WunderWoods. I located it quickly and easily, just a few streets away, on the property of T&L tree service. When I found the place, I couldn’t believe how close it was, how perfect the site was and how many logs were piled up that I didn’t know about. I was flabbergasted by my incredible lack of log hounding abilities.
I started out just renting a spot in the open to run the Lucas sawmill. They have a pretty large property with trucks, equipment sheds and wood in different states from logs to chips and mulch, so I found it easy to fit in. Tim, the owner, was also nice enough to let me use his Bobcat when it wasn’t out on a job. That along with my logging truck really put my milling into full swing. I continued to mill at the tree service while I set up my shop at the house to do woodworking and to store all of the new lumber I was producing with the Lucas, all while still working full time at the ad agency.
I loved the Lucas. I thought it worked great. The only shortfall I found with it was the inability to cut wider than 6” lumber. Even the wider saw kerf (3/8” with the circle saw compared to 1/8” on a bandsaw) didn’t bother me that much, but cutting 24” clear white oak logs into 6” wide boards just started to get stupid after a while. They were perfect 6” wide boards, but they were only 6”, and I knew I could do better.
While I had the Lucas, I started using kiln services from Oak Leaf Wood and Supplies in Moweaqua, IL. The owner, Paul Easley, ran an operation like mine, though he was a few years ahead of me. He had built a nice little business in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, using a Kasco bandsaw mill. Paul also happened to sell the mills that he used, and it didn’t take long for Paul’s infectious love of cutting wood to inspire me to purchase a fancy new Kasco bandsaw mill with power feed and power height adjustment.
After that, the world was my oyster. I could cut any size log to any dimension and pick the best mill for the job. Giant logs went to the Lucas and logs under 30” went to the bandsaw. Or, if I just wanted really straight dimensional lumber, I would send it to the Lucas, no matter the size. Sometimes, I would start on the Lucas and finish on the bandsaw – I had all of the bases covered.
While I was at the tree service the logs kept piling up. The piles grew because I had plenty of storage room and the equipment to move the logs, but my mills weren’t fast enough. I did (and still do) want to mill every log in St. Louis and I knew that there was no way I was going to do that with the mills I had. They both worked alright, but a full day of milling, stacking and cleaning up a little would, on average, yield about 500 bf. If you read the literature on similar bandsaw mills, they will tout higher numbers, but they are based only on milling and nothing more – every now and then, even I have to clean up. On a personal level, 500 bf. is a lot, and doing all of the work to produce that 500 bf. is a lot, but it is nothing compared to the fact that I can haul about 1,000 bf. on my truck in log form and I could probably get a load a day if I pushed for it. There were plenty of days, especially if I was working at a land clearing site, that I would get a few loads a day and still lose logs to the grinder because I couldn’t get them out fast enough.
Knowing that faster mills existed, I became more serious about getting one and spent a lot of time shopping. The fastest mills by far are high-horsepower circular sawmills that just rip through logs. They have a wider saw kerf, which wastes more wood, but I decided it was worth the trade-off because I was already losing lumber that I wasn’t able to process since the milling was so slow. After all, I wasn’t paying for logs, so it really didn’t matter how much I wasted, I just needed to get it cut.
The other reason I was excited about a circular mill was the ability to cut straighter lumber. Band saws, especially ones with narrow blades like those found on portable mills, notoriously cut wavy lumber once they start to get dull, and if you cut low-grade hardwood logs with lots of knots there is virtually no way to cut quickly without producing some wavy boards in the process. On bigger and tougher logs it isn’t uncommon to need to put on a new band saw blade after just one log to keep things straight. I had seen plenty of videos, especially from Hurdle, that showed their circular mills chewing through those same pain-in-the-ass logs in just a couple of minutes and not even breaking a sweat.
I specifically was attracted to industrial mills and mill manufacturers like Hurdle, Cleerman and Corley. All of these manufacturers make mills found at large producers. New models were way out of my budget, so I turned to looking for used mills. I said looking, but I was mostly dreaming. I had no real reason to push for another sawmill except for my own hunger to process more logs.
I finally got the push I needed to buy a circular mill when I met a customer that was looking for a supplier of grading stakes. He was having trouble securing the stakes consistently and at a reasonable price and he said that he would take all I could produce. I teamed up with Tim from T&L Tree Service to make the stakes. I produced the rough lumber and Tim had his employees do the secondary processing of cutting the points, resawing and packaging.
As part of our partnership, Tim agreed to help me set up a circular mill on his property, which we did after I sold my Lucas and Kasco mills. I looked at several automatic circular mills, which are more expensive and operated with the sawyer just pushing buttons to make everything happen, all from the comfort of an air-conditioned cab. The automatic mills I found in my budget where in pretty bad shape, so I settled for an older handset mill that was better cared for and less expensive. A handset mill cuts the same, but the carriage is more mechanical with a lever to advance the log for the next cut.
The mill I found was a Corley from the 1950’s, however the carriage was upgraded in the 1970’s to include air dogs (they hold the log) and tapers (they adjust the log on the ends). Those upgrades really sped up the mill and made it sound super cool. It reminded me of a roller coaster getting ready to launch with puffs of air and loud, clunky clanks as everything engaged. The rest of the mill was 100% antique, but it worked great. Even the prehistoric log turner and the carriage drive, both of which worked with friction feed, were super smooth and a pleasure to operate.
The plan was to take all of the low-grade logs from the tree service, especially pin oaks, cottonwood and sweetgum and make them into stakes. I wasn’t milling those into lumber, so it seemed like a great outlet for the logs that needed to be disposed of anyway.
After about a year of building the barn and setting up the mill, we jumped into it and started cutting lots of stakes. Even with the circular mill I had trouble keeping up because I was cutting logs that were knotty and had a hard time producing clean stakes. I originally thought that we could produce the stakes, many of which are short, between the knots. But, it became clear that to produce efficiently we really needed clear logs, which is where things began to fall apart. It wasn’t part of the plan to pay for high-grade logs for stakes. High-grade logs should go into high-grade lumber and low-grade logs should go into stakes, at least as far as I am concerned. We stuck with it for a while, but we never made it very profitable. Besides the log issues, it also ended up being more work than we imagined on the back end to process the stakes. Tim put a lot of manpower on it to give it a fair shot, but at the end of the day it was too much work for the money, and we decided to move on.
I kept running the Corley for my own needs after we shut down the stake production, mostly working by myself. From time to time, I would employ some extra help to tail for me (pull boards off of the mill), but I didn’t pay that much and tailing is hard labor. Every one that offered to tail just because they thought the mill was cool and wanted to see it run, only tailed once, and many times even the people I was paying only tailed once. There were a few hot days when I came close to killing the guys tailing for me because I was working them too hard. No one on the back side of the mill was as excited as me to be there, so I started working more and more by myself.
The mill could be run with only one person, but not as quickly. Cut a few boards, walk around and unload, cut a few boards, walk around and unload is how it went. Even running the mill inefficiently by myself was still faster than the bandsaw, so I stuck with it. The Corley mill was fun to use and I thought it was quite cool, but the more I used it the more I realized just how potentially lethal it was. It wasn’t the type of tool that was just going to remove a finger, it would cut you in half and not care. And, since I had a handset mill, which put me working even closer to the blade, I began to feel like my time on earth might be more limited by using the Corley.
There was one time specifically, that I was milling 2″ x 12″ x 12′ white oak for dump truck sides and I made a slight, but potentially deadly error. I was working by myself, cutting a few boards and then walking around to unload, and getting in a nice rhythm. Usually, I would cut a board, then it would drop down and fall over away from the blade. This time, I made the cut, the board dropped down and looked like it was going to fall over, so I backed the carriage up. However, the board stayed standing up and then the back end started to pivot around towards the blade. Normally, if I was doing things correctly, this wouldn’t happen because I would leave the carriage in place until the board was removed or fell over, while the log on the carriage kept the board from swinging around on to the back of the blade.
I had just enough time, once I realized what was about to happen, to throttle the engine down and jump out of the way. The back of the blade grabbed that white oak board and hurled it right where my head was just seconds before. The 100-pound board blasted through a metal safety shield and lodged itself against the end of the building 30 feet away. I wasn’t hurt, but that is not the type of thing that you want flying at you – ever. After that incident and realizing that a faster mill didn’t necessarily translate to more lumber when working by myself, coupled with rising rent and a need to reduce overhead, I sold the Corley and moved out of T&L tree service.
A friend, whose family owns many parcels of land about 5 miles away in Florissant, offered to let me rent an open space with a couple of old buildings hidden in the woods for a fair price (free at first), so I took him up on it, planning to use the property the same way I did when I started at T&L. I bought a used Timberking 1220 bandsaw mill on eBay and started using it outside. Even though it wasn’t too expensive, I split the cost of the mill with a friend of mine that used the mill on the weekend when I wasn’t there.
It was a nice little setup. Things were simplified. I still had my woodworking shop behind my house, and now I had, what felt like my own little place in the country. There wasn’t anywhere inside or covered to run the mill, so we set it up outside. That left me running the mill only when the weather was decent, but since I do an equal amount of milling and woodworking it wasn’t much of an inconvenience. I just stayed home and worked in the shop if the weather wasn’t cooperating.
After a few years and the birth of my daughter Mira, we decided to move back to St. Charles, where both my wife and I grew up. I wasn’t eager to move from my big yard and shop at my house in Hazelwood, but I did have nine acres and a couple of old building to work with in Florissant, and since I like improving things, I thought it sounded like a fun new adventure. My plan was to fix up the old buildings and then consolidate my shop and sawmill. It wasn’t as convenient as having the shop at my house, but it did make sense to have everything in one spot.
The building that I was using as my shop was basically a four bay garage and I kept my lumber and kiln in a cobbled together pole barn that was within 75 feet. The shop building was in poor shape with a fading foundation. I often thought about improving the structure, but the foundation was so bad and everything was so crooked that I was only able to summon enough excitement to reshingle the roof. It pained me to spend even a little bit of money on a roof that was so unstraight, but I had to do it to keep my tools dry.
I don’t need much to be content, and since my shop was hidden from view and I had almost no visitors, the condition of the buildings wasn’t a big deal. I imagined that I would improve things as necessary and maybe even put up a new building if things worked out and I stayed for a while. This work-on-it-as-you-go plan quickly changed into a better-do-something-now plan, when the shop building burned down on the night of November 20, 2011. (Click here to read the long version of the fire story and how it happened).
In the fire, I lost all of my tools except the one bucket of on-site tools that I usually keep in my truck and a chop saw, which just happened to be in my truck from an earlier install job. The fire also burned up my sawmill and a lot of lumber that was on sticks around the outside of the shop. The fire was stopped by the fire department before it moved to the other barn with my dry lumber and kiln.
After the fire, I didn’t have any electrical service at the burned shop, so I couldn’t just start rebuilding right away. And, since I don’t own the property that burned I was leery to sink money into a project that someone else would officially own. It was one thing to slowly improve what was there knowing it wasn’t mine, it was another to build a new building from scratch for a landowner that didn’t want to sign a lease.
While I started my search for a new shop space, I took over our three car garage at home, bought a few homeowner caliber tools and got back to work. Luckily, I didn’t have any major projects half-built at the time, so I didn’t lose any in the fire. My next project, which was the first to be built in the garage, was a large set of kitchen cabinets. Though it was a big project, it was a perfect one to build with only a few tools and a table saw.
I looked at a lot of options for shop space. Most of them were what I would call incredibly overpriced. The going rate was $1,200 per month for about 1,000 sq. ft. Now, keep in mind that at my house in Hazelwood I had a 1,000 sq. ft. shop for free. Granted, it was rolled in to my house payment, but it felt very free and way less than $1,200 per month. Plus, once I got looking, 1000 sq. ft. felt small. I could make it work, but I would be tucked in some strip industrial center with neighbors on both sides and no room to breathe or make sawdust. It just didn’t feel right, so I didn’t rent anything for a while.
During the year or so that we had lived in the new house, I drove past a large building everyday that looked perfect for me in my rule-the-world scenario, where I am the proud owner of a giant industrial shop. It was very big, appeared to be very well kept, and most notably, had been very vacant for as long as I was paying attention. This was during the great recession and companies were going out of business, not looking to expand, so it stayed vacant. I drove by all of the time, never even considering it as a space for the new shop because of the size, until one day, for no special reason, I decided to stop by and write down the phone number on the “For Rent” sign. I called the number, and since it was my lucky day, the owner, who was already there for another reason, showed me around.
I didn’t realize it, but the building, which features plenty of additions, was broken into several smaller areas. In total, the building is 75,000 sq. ft., but there was one spot in the back which was the smallest at about 5,500 sq. ft. Now that I have been in the building for a few years it is obvious that it was the least desirable of the available spaces, but at the time, all I could see was that I almost couldn’t see the other end of the shop, about 200′ away. It seemed to be never-ending, and all I could imagine was having lots of room to put lots of wood (and a few tools).
The rent was higher than I had budgeted, but I was getting lots more room with the deal, which I considered room to grow. The other benefits that made it worth the extra rent was that it was close to my house, it had three-phase power, and it had good access to the highway. My other property was not close to home, it only had single-phase power, and it was miles away from the highway (customers often complained about the long drive).
After a month or so back and forth with lease papers, I started moving in to the new shop in January 2012, a couple of months after the fire. The fact that the recession hit other woodworking shops hard benefited me with plenty of tools available locally at good prices. I was able to outfit the new shop with almost all of the necessary big tools from one going-out-of-business sale for around $5,000.
It was at that same sale that I picked up my first set of factory carts, which started a period of cart restorations to sell as coffee tables. I was still doing custom woodworking, but the carts really started to take over for a while. Currently, I am pretty much done making carts into coffee tables, mostly because I think the trend is fading, and I don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of carts that I can’t use.
After I settled in and got the woodworking side of the business going in the new shop, I rebuilt the Timberking sawmill that was damaged in the fire. I converted it to three-phase power from a gas engine and moved it inside, so I could mill with a roof over my head. Around that same time, a friend of mine that owns an 8″ Lucas mill with a slabbing attachment started letting me use his mill. He never uses it, but he doesn’t want to sell it, so I am it’s current guardian. That works out fine for me because the current trend is towards large pieces of natural-edged wood, which is right in the Lucas mills wheelhouse.
It seems like almost everyone has discovered the natural beauty of wood and wants some of it in their house or office. I am still doing other custom jobs, including the occasional wine cellar and other built-ins or furniture, but more than half of my business now is custom wood for tops, usually on a metal base. There is also a calling for the same type of rustic look in mantels, shelving and seating.
To fill the need for more natural looking wood, I am cutting lots of big logs into slabs with the Lucas mill and leaving edges on everything, even the smaller slabs from the Timberking bandsaw mill. Almost all of the wood is in the 2″-3″ thick range, assuming that it will become some type of top. The crazy thing is that I remember not too long ago when even my very best looking slabs would spend a long, long time waiting for a buyer, and now they are selling as quick as I can process them. As of yet, I don’t see this trend slowing down, so I am going to stick with cutting natural-edged wood, while at the same time keeping my eyes open for the next trend. The good news is that even if I cut all of my logs into slabs, I will still have a lot of 8/4 thick lumber, and I have always been able to sell that.
Currently, I am doing most of my work and selling lumber and slabs out of the shop in St. Charles, although I still rent the property in Florissant to store logs and to house my original kiln. I like having the option to use the extra space if and when I need it, and sometimes it is nice to work outside and feel like I am in the country. I imagine that I will continue to rent both spaces for the foreseeable future, mostly to make sure that I always have somewhere to store and mill logs. After all, I still want to cut every log in St. Louis.