The economics of urban timber: Why wouldn’t you use trees from your site?

When I first started building new green homes in Asheville, the idea of milling trees from the site was extremely appealing. I decided to send all of the sawn logs from trees I was forced to take down to a lot that I owned. When I had a healthy pile of timber, I called up a friend who had a bandsaw mill, and had him saw all of my trees into lumber that I envisioned using on future projects.

Over the next five years, I moved those same piles of wood five times. Every time we moved the piles of wood, we would find that more of my precious lumber had rotted, warped or cracked. Finally, the lumber made it to the kiln to be dried around the same time that I started building my own home. By this point, it was pretty clear that I had taken the least efficient approach to processing my trees. I had mismatched species, non-uniform thicknesses and widths, and warped boards — plus, I had paid to move this same lumber over and over and over again.

When I showed up at the dry kiln, I had the workers unload the worst-looking wood in the whole lot, and it showed on their faces. In the end, I was able to use every last piece in my own home, but I paid dearly for the warm, fuzzy feeling of reusing my trees.

In my line of work, taking down trees is a necessary evil that comes with clearing home sites. I have yet to meet a client who doesn’t like the idea of reusing all of the lumber off their property. Clients especially love the idea if it saves them money. After years of trial and error, I have streamlined the processing of my clients’ trees to the point where I can typically get all their trees back into their house.

Here’s how I make it happen: When we take down trees that show good potential for reuse in a home, we are careful to not let our grader simply knock them over. My sawmill guys have told me that pushing over trees encourages them to split. Instead, we take them down with chainsaws. We usually cut the tree trunks to long, straight lengths. Curves and crotches can be really cool and interesting, but you need to make sure that your local sawmill is willing to maneuver a log around to accommodate a tree’s character.

Next, we call a knuckle-boom driver to come and pick up the logs. A typical fee for a knuckle boom is $200 to $350, depending on how far they have to drive. I used to use a dump truck to move my logs, but it is a lot more convenient to have a driver show up who can load and unload your logs without additional machinery. A single full truckload typically measures out at 3,000 board feet, give or take.

After the logs are delivered to the mill, I call and request a board-footage count by species. I then relay this count to my clients, and we plan how to use their lumber in their home. Common options are stair treads, flooring, trim, built-ins, siding, ceilings, wainscoting and cabinet faces. If the lumber is going to be dried, planed and processed, I assume that I will get a 65-percent yield out of my rough-cut material. If I am using the material rough, as we do with siding, I assume that I will get more like 80 to 90 percent. The cost of milling my trees usually comes in around $350 per 1,000 board feet.

After my lumber is milled, I send it to the kiln to be first air-dried and then kiln-dried. The process usually runs about $250 per 1,000 board feet, and it can happen relatively quickly for soft hardwoods and pine trees. Soft hardwoods include maple, cherry, walnut, poplar and several others. In the summer, I can have my poplar put into the kiln after only a couple weeks of air-drying.

After my lumber had been kiln-dried, (assuming I’m not using it rough-sawn), I send it to the shaper. I rely on them to turn my wood into flooring, trim, siding etc. They are usually willing to store it for a short time while I compile my order. The way that they bill is based on lineal footage, as opposed to square footage. Sending a 6-inch trim board through their shaper takes them the same amount of time as a 12-inch trim board, so they don’t differentiate. On a recent project, I was charged 20 cents per lineal foot for processing hemlock siding. Processing trim, where we also have one side sanded, costs 25 cents per lineal foot (See Figure 1).

The realized savings are obvious for a cherry log. Through a little bit of forethought, and about four phone calls, I can save a client $4.17 per foot on cherry trim. The great thing about the cost of $1.33 per square foot is that it is the same regardless of what wood species you are processing. The savings for a $7-per-square-foot black walnut board are huge. The savings for a $2-per-square-foot poplar board are small, but still there. The satisfaction you get from using your trees is free.

There are some instances in which milling your trees makes sense ethically, but not financially. Partially rotten and split logs are usually more trouble than they are worth. In the city, and around old homesteads, some logs are full of metal from nails, barbed wire and spikes. It is amazing the things you can find 6 inches deep in a tree! If your sawyer hits metal, he will charge you for any damage to his blades.

When our clients hire us, they rely on our ability to balance ecological responsibility with their budget. It is rewarding when the two exist in harmony. By practicing urban forestry, we save money, support local sawmills and reuse a valuable resource.

Hans Doellgast owns Jade Mountain Builders. He and his team of 30 craftsmen have built and remodeled more than 40 green homes in the Asheville area. Doellgast received his degree in environmental education from Warren Wilson College.