Custom Portable Sawmilling on Vancouver Island
By Tony Kryzanowski, Wood-Mizer Contributing Author
Chad Higgins has experienced growth in demand and repeat customers for his Vancouver Island sawmill business since establishing West Coast Custom Timber. Recently, the ability to provide portable sawmilling services has saved his custom sawing business.
Built around a Wood-Mizer LT35 hydraulic portable sawmill, West Coast Custom Timber is headquartered near Victoria, British Columbia. Established in 2016, the sawmill business started by offering portable on-site sawmilling and evolved to provide retail lumber sales from a semi-permanent sawmill location. However, a zoning issue forced the sawmill business site to shut down.
With the benefit of the sawmill's mobility, West Coast Custom Timber simply transitioned back to the road with no shortage of work from clients that include private landowners, developers, and more. "I'm on my third and fourth time around with a lot of customers now which is a good feeling to have when people get you to come back and they are not necessarily searching for the cheapest option," said Chad. "I thought the workload was going to slow down because of the pandemic and in fact, it probably doubled."
As the sawmill business has grown, Chad has added to his sawmilling equipment, purchasing a Wood-Mizer EG200 twin blade sawmill edger to improve overall production efficiency and to capture higher value lumber for his customers particularly from sideboards. Adding the sawmill edger has almost doubled his production volume. Chad has also invested in a skid steer with a purpose-built log grapple to transport logs around the worksite and to load his portable sawmill log deck.
Chad gives credit to his father who worked with him often late at night to complete jobs and provided invaluable customer service when their retail yard was open. Working together was also a great father and son bonding experience. Since the early days, the business has developed with several reliable staff members, that it has gotten to the point where Chad can now concentrate on diversifying his business to include excavation work. It takes his crew only about 15 minutes to set up or take down the sawmill. In terms of portability, Chad says it is as simple as hooking up the sawmill to his truck and hitting the road.
Like many other Wood-Mizer portable sawmill owners, Chad started sawing as a side business on weekends and after work while he continued his full-time job. "I got tired of making money for other people as a heavy equipment operator and always had an attraction to wood and primarily the logging industry. I like the beauty of rough sawn material and you only get that by using this type of sawmill," said Chad. "We didn't really know what it was going to turn into and after about two years of doing it as a side business, it needed to go full time and morphed from there."
Chad started with a chainsaw mill and decided that there had to be an easier way to produce wood products. So he went shopping for a bandsaw mill and discovered the Wood-Mizer LT35 portable sawmill was complemented by excellent support and training from Declan Industries, the Wood-Mizer Dealer in Qualicum Beach, British Columbia. Although Chad has a good aptitude and experience with mechanical equipment, being introduced to the LT35 portable sawmill was the first time Chad had ever seen this style of sawmill. The hands-on tutorial proved invaluable. Chad took his time and did a lot of research into portable sawmills before deciding. "Wood-Mizer stood out as the flagship for technology, quality, as well as support and service," said Chad. "We also had a Wood-Mizer dealer on the island so I can get parts or have them mailed to me. Declan Industries has gone above and beyond to help me when I need it."
The Wood-Mizer Dealer also supplies, sharpens and sets Chad’s 10-degree, 1-1/2" wide sawmill blades. West Coast Custom Timber saws up to 800 board feet per sawmill blade, using four to five sawmill blades per eight-hour day, depending on the quality of the wood. In terms of production where a site has adequate space and the logs have been bucked and delimbed in advance of their arrival, West Coast Custom Timber can produce up to 2,500 to 3,000 board feet in an eight-hour day with two employees using both their Wood-Mizer LT35 hydraulic portable sawmill and EG200 twin blade sawmill edger. "The edger is one of my favorite pieces of machinery just because of the rate that you can process material and how much value you can capture from your off-cut piles," said Chad.
West Coast Custom Timber primarily processes coastal Douglas fir and red cedar, with the occasional Garry oak, arbutus, red alder and big leaf maple. The diameter range is from 8" to 52". Larger logs require pre-processing into smaller components to fit onto the sawmill. The portable sawmill has a 25-horsepower gasoline engine to power the sawmill blade and smaller electric motors for hydraulic bed controls and to move the saw head back and forth. It also features a debarker to extend sawmill blade life and fine-adjust outriggers for simple leveling of the sawmill bed. "The fine-adjust stabilizers are a big benefit on any Wood-Mizer sawmills that are portable," said Chad.
The operator station moves with the sawmill head and features Wood-Mizer's SimpleSet setworks system with two set points, making it easy to adjust from sawing 1" boards to 2" boards and vice versa. The sawmill also has hydraulic controls for the log loader, clamp, adjustable toeboard and log turner systems. In terms of the sawing recipe, Chad asks for a cut list in advance from the customer to establish priorities before sawing but always with a view to manufacture as much quality lumber material from each log as possible. Having the lumber edger to complement the bandsaw mill is an extremely valuable tool in this regard. Chad says they generally produce a ratio of about 40 percent timbers to 60 percent lumber.
Having reverted exclusively to portable on-site custom sawmilling, Chad has made an important adjustment to his payment structure from charging by the board foot to hourly only. Chad’s sawmill business made a lot of money charging on a board foot basis on some jobs but on other jobs, because of the wood quality, the business wasn’t making much money. Hilly ground on the island makes it a challenge to get to some worksites as well as limited workspace can also extend set up time and limit production. It became clear that switching to a straight hourly rate was the best option for the businesses' future. Chad adds that an hourly rate also helps his customers with their budgeting since they have a better idea how much his services will cost in advance. "The money just isn't sustainable with the number of variables on a board foot-type rate schedule,” said Chad. “You need guaranteed figures coming in each day."