How much is your log worth? The short answer is probably not as much as you had hoped, but you’re not here for the short answer, so I’ll give you the long one.
First off, you need a bit of background of where I come from on this subject. I mill, sell and work with lumber from mostly suburban settings with lots of yard trees salvaged from tree services and a decent number of logs from wooded settings, usually where a building is about to be erected. This means my log supply can range from barely usable to awesomely perfect and all with lots of wacky and wild in between. I normally pay nothing for my logs and only buy a couple of logs per year, which I just can’t live without. I mostly don’t pay for logs because I mostly don’t have to. There are lots of logs available to me, especially if I am willing to pick them up.
Since I work in an area with a large population (St. Louis and St. Charles, MO), I often get requests from homeowners looking to make money from their logs, especially after hearing age-old stories of walnut logs selling for thousands and thousands of dollars. These consistent requests and a recent article in the Missouri Conservationist magazine (click here to read the article) about Missouri hardwoods prompted me to put into writing what I have repeated probably hundreds of times.
- A log is worth as much as someone is willing to pay. This sounds like a smartass answer, but it isn’t. If you don’t know where to sell your logs or you can’t find someone in your area willing to pay, they aren’t worth much. And, if you can’t get your logs to the buyer they are worth even less. Especially, if you only have one tree, expect no excitement from someone who normally purchases logs. You won’t get a larger purchaser, like a big sawmill, to come out for less than a truckload.
- Your log probably isn’t as great as you think it is. You would be amazed by how many people call me and tell me about a walnut tree in their yard that is at least 40 years old or about the tree which has its first branch at 5′ from the ground. A walnut tree is a baby at 40 years old and is obviously a short, branchy yard tree with not much of a log if there are branches 5′ from the ground. A good tree, one worth really talking about, will have at least 10′ of branchless trunk, if not 14′ or 16′ or more. Just because it is a walnut tree, doesn’t mean it is a good walnut tree.
- Most high-dollar logs are veneer-quality logs. Almost all of the stories of logs selling for high prices are for veneer-quality logs. And, almost all of the logs out there are not veneer-quality logs. Veneer logs look like they came from the “log factory” and are perfect in every way; no signs of knots, straight, round, good color, good growth ring spacing, centered pith, no bird peck, no shake, no metal, fresh, and hopefully, big. I only get a few veneer quality trees out of hundreds per year and they almost never come out of yards. They are usually hidden somewhere in the woods.
- Yard trees have metal in them. This is no myth. Whether you remember doing it or not, there is a good chance your yard tree has metal in it. Metal, like nails, hooks, wires and chains mess up saw blades and make a mess by staining the wood. I expect trees I pick up to have metal in them, and I will work around it, but remember, I don’t pay for trees. Larger operations have no reason to buy logs with metal in them, especially if the next log truck in the gate is full of logs without metal.
- You don’t know what you don’t know. If you are reading this, it is most likely because you don’t sell logs on a regular basis (or, you just want to see if I know what I am talking about). Without doing this consistently, you can’t know enough about your logs to properly sell them. You can’t get it in front of the right people at the right time and present them with something they can’t live without, and you definitely can’t defend your product. You will be at the mercy of the buyer. They will know after the first thing out of your mouth that you do not know what you are doing, and even if they are fair, they will never overpay.
You can tell from most of these points that I am pretty sure you aren’t going to get rich from your single tree or a couple of logs (especially from me) and you shouldn’t expect to. With that point made, you should know that some do have value if you have a place to sell them and you have a way to get them to a buyer. So, if I haven’t completely dissuaded you from selling your logs, below are some pricing examples that you can expect if you were to sell your logs to a larger operation in the midwest:
Average price, based on 20″ diameter inside the bark on the skinny end x 10′ long = 160 bf.
Red oak $.70 per bf. clear saw log = $112, $1.00 per bf. veneer log= $160
White oak $.85 per bf. clear saw log = $136, $1.50 per bf. veneer log= $240
Walnut $1.70 per bf. clear saw log = $272, $3.50 per bf. veneer log= $560
Cherry $.90 per bf. clear saw log = $144, $1.40 per bf. veneer log= $224
Hard Maple $.75 per bf. clear saw log = $120, $1.25 per bf. veneer log= $200
Now, obviously prices will range from mill to mill, based on what wood is available in the area, what is selling well and if the mill specializes in any products or species. The above prices should just serve as a guidepost in determining if bothering to sell your logs is worthwhile. Most of the logs in the pricing example above would not cover the price of trucking on their own, so marketing one log most likely doesn’t make sense, unless you can haul it yourself.
However, you can see that if a landowner were to have a large number of trees, the money could start to add up. $112 for a red oak log doesn’t sound like much, but it starts to sound like something when there is a semi truckload of $112 logs. This is what most large timber sales are based on; a large number of logs sold at a fair price and not necessarily getting rich on one tree.
Usually, the phone calls I answer are about a single “big” walnut tree which will cost a homeowner lots of money to remove because it is large and right up against the house. They see a big log worth big money. However, the removal costs also jump up with the increase in tree size, negating any benefit of a larger tree. Their hope is that I will be excited enough about their tree to cut it down (safely, I presume) in trade for the wood, but the math doesn’t work out. A tree which costs $3,000 to remove probably won’t have $3,000 worth of logs in it, no matter if it is walnut or not.
Remember, the bottom line is that logs do have some value, but if you can’t do all of the work like cutting, hauling and selling yourself there is almost no way to make money on a single tree. Unless, of course, you just happen to have a tree like the ones below that I couldn’t live without.
On a regular basis, probably at least once a week, someone contacts me looking to have a pin oak milled into lumber. They are excited because they finally got their hands on a truly giant specimen of a tree, and even though it is just a red oak, they are excited to get to work with a hardwood at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of not-so-good news and try to get them to reconsider.
As I mentioned, pin oak is in the red oak family, but that is about the only relationship it has to any decent red oak lumber. Pin oak is not milled and sold commercially under the name red oak, and as far as I know, is only used for low-grade products like pallets and blocking, where the only requirement is that it be made of wood that will stay together. And funny enough, pin oak often falls short of even that low requirement.
The problem is that many pin oak trees suffer from ring shake, which is where the rings of the tree peel apart like an onion, making that section of lumber nearly unusable. The beauty of ring shake is that it can’t be seen from the outside of the log and it won’t always be visible even early in the milling process. Sometimes, it won’t be until the lumber has been fully processed and dried for it to start falling apart. Needless to say this is frustrating, especially if you are counting on that lumber for a project and then end up with no wood to work. Even if the ring shake isn’t bad enough to make the lumber actually break, it very often leaves at least one fancy break line somewhere in a board where you would rather not have it. Again, super frustrating.
So, let’s say you find a pin oak that is solid, with no ring shake, then it is all clear sailing, right? Far from it. You may have lumber, but you probably don’t have great lumber. One of the main attractions for pin oak is the giant size and the promise of a never-ending bunk of lumber comprised of super-wide boards. This, you may indeed have, but it comes at a cost. The cost is that all of the super-wide lumber will have super-wide growth rings, rings that may be up to 1/2″ or more in width. Because the tree grows so fast, putting on up to 1″ in diameter per year, the logs get big in a hurry too. It isn’t uncommon for a 36″ diameter log to have only started growing 45 years ago. It was planted because the trees grow to a large, stately appearance quickly, and that means big, wide growth rings.
Big growth rings mean a coarse textured wood, no matter how you cut it. Whether flatsawn or quartersawn, red oak is already known for its open, in-your-face, grain, and pin oak is ten times worse. Imagine an 8″ wide flat sawn board that may only show a couple of annual rings on the face. It looks more like the cheapest of spiral cut plywood for sheathing the side of your house, instead of quality hardwood lumber for building fine furniture. That same 8″ wide board, if quartersawn, will probably show about 20-25 rings, where a high quality white oak board will show 60-80 rings. The difference is night and day, with the higher growth ring count looking much more refined and not so clunky.
Even if the wood stayed together and for some reason the growth rings weren’t so wide, pin oak would still be far from a great hardwood. The lumber typically also sports bad color, bad smell (commonly referred to as “piss” oak by local tree guys), and many more knots than are outwardly apparent. Since the trees are usually open grown and well pruned, the always straight, always perfectly upright trunks appear to contain up to 30′-40′ of clear lumber. The truth is that the trunks typically contain only 8′ of clear lumber near the ground, with the remainder being full of knots from previously trimmed branches.
Overall, I have nothing good to say about pin oaks, except that they grow big, tall and straight. And, while it may be possible to mill pin oak lumber that meets some minimum requirements (like staying together), the best pin oak is still easily surpassed in quality by almost any other reputable wood. Just know, if you are thinking about paying someone to mill a pin oak tree for you, that I wouldn’t even mill a pin oak if it magically fell on my sawmill. I would take the extra time to get it out of the way, so I could mill something better. It’s just not worth it. Move on.
If you have driven down Highway 40 in St. Louis recently, you may have noticed a new structure being erected next to the St. Louis Science Center where the “temporary” Exploradome once stood. After 16 years in service, the inflated building was past its prime and too expensive to operate, so it was replaced with a new, permanent agriculture exhibit called Grow.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the new building that features massive bent laminated beams which create a beautiful swoosh of a roof. Just outside the entrance of the new building is a vermiculture display that I built for the exhibit. While it pales in comparison to the woodwork that went into making the building, I like to think it makes a nice little earth-friendly welcome mat for visitors.
The vermiculture unit, designed by Mark Cooley, uses worms to make compost. Built out of locally salvaged Eastern Red Cedar, the two-compartment structure is set up to have green waste loaded in the top and compost extracted from the bottom after the worms have done their job eating the contents. The two compartments, which are side by side, are divided by a wire mesh that allows the worms to move between compartments. This particular unit has glass panels to allow for viewing of the interior from the front of the display, though the glass is not required for use.
This project was a bit out of the norm for me since it was more carpentry than fine woodworking, but it was a fun change to build something that wasn’t so fussy. I had the most fun when I was able to find some logs in my shop already standing against the wall for the project. They were left over from another project, and I was able to just carry them to the sawmill and cut the parts I needed. I chuckled to myself while I was doing it because I have never just hand carried logs to the sawmill that were standing in the shop like sticks of lumber. It was only possible because cedar is lightweight and the logs were small, but I still had more than enough to make this project.
Cedar mills like butter on the sawmill, even when dry, and since it was going outside I didn’t need to do any extra drying. I was able to mill it, plane it and assemble it right away, which made it feel more like I was building a fort or a treehouse, especially since I never get to knock something out like that. It reminded me a lot of the Mermaid Lagoon sign I made for Mira a few years ago, since both went together expeditiously. There were a few critical measurements to maintain, like the size of the footprint, but everything else was somewhat negotiable as long as it looked and worked like Mark Cooley’s design.
The vermiculture unit is nestled in the Grow exhibit along a mulch path surrounded by plantings that are arranged like a garden or small farm field. Nearby are live chickens, two new tractors, a greenhouse and a dairy demonstration area. Inside the building are electronic, hands-on displays that focus more on the places that generate food, from the species of plants to different farm settings. Outside, on the North side of the building, are a couple of displays that focus on water, with a chance for the kids to interact with displays that are both hands-on and hands-wet.
The St. Louis Science Center and the new Grow exhibit are free to all visitors. It opens Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The Science Center closes at 5:30 p.m. during peak summer hours (May 28-Sep. 5, 2016) and at 4:30 p.m. during off-peak hours.
This week I picked up a sycamore log at Grant’s Farm for a local woodworker. He has been commissioned to build a round table from the tree that has stood on the property since the time of Ulysses S. Grant.
Because the log was too heavy to load in one piece and was going to be cut into round slices anyway, I cut it in half to make it easier to handle. The log is a minimum of 60″ in diameter on the skinny end, and should make a few nice table tops.
I jokingly complained to my wife that I drove all the way to Grant’s Farm only to pick up two 3′ long logs – that, by the way, filled up the truck.
This summer we took an overnight camping trip to Hannibal, MO to visit Mark Twain cave, Casano’s pizza and a Liberty Tree. We picked the cave because it is within a two-hour drive of St. Louis and it’s open for visitors, we picked Casano’s pizza for the same reasons (plus we like it), and we picked the Liberty Tree mostly because we had to walk around it to get to the cave.
On the way past the tree, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s a pretty big Burr oak.” Apparently, I was right because there is a plaque in front of the tree (looks like someone else thought it was noteworthy too).
The plaque reads, “As part of our Nations Bicentennial, the Missouri Department of Conservation recognized certain trees throughout Missouri as Liberty Trees. This Burr Oak started as a seedling in 1721 and is included in Famous and Historic Trees of the United States by the Department of Agriculture.”
I don’t know if this tree got special consideration because of its ties to Mark Twain, its age, or both, but either way, it is still an impressive tree. Just look at how small my head is next to the tree (Mira’s head is naturally smaller and is not affected by adjacent trees).
If you decide to look for this tree, you won’t have to look very hard. It is right in front of, and looms over, the building that serves as the entrance to Mark Twain cave. And, in case you are wondering, the cave is worth visiting. A 45-minute walking tour gives a detailed history of the cave, its visitors and, of course, Samuel Clemens.