Urban Sawmilling in Hawaii
By Chase Warner, Wood-Mizer Contributing Author
Kamuela Hardwoods started in Hawaii as a collaboration between an ISA Certified Arborist, Josh Greenspan, and a sustainable building consultant, Alex Woodbury. Together they teamed up to save logs from the landfills and create lumber for themselves and others. “We started this business to take an underutilized resource that was being wasted and turn it something that could be used in the community," said Alex. It started as a hobby with an Alaskan mill in Josh’s backyard, and almost a decade later it has become a much larger operation which includes Wood- Mizer LT70SUPER and WM1000 sawmills, EG200 edger, and BMS250 with BMT250 blade sharpening and setting equipment.
Alex jokes that when first meeting Josh, he found him 100 feet up in a neighbor’s eucalyptus tree and they got to talking about tree work, woodwork and milling. The conversation started a friendship that ultimately forged a business relationship, and the two are salvaging one urban tree at a time. “Up until recently, as much as 33% of our waste stream produced by our small island population of under 200,000 people was in the form of green waste, and in that green waste was an untold number of millable urban trees,” said Alex. “For almost a decade we’ve been diverting some of that waste and producing beautiful sustainable lumber with it.”
Working as a strictly salvage sawmill provides them the opportunity to come across many hard and soft wood species which are lesser known to woodworkers and builders. Many of the species are an abundant and sustainable material choice in Hawaii, and Kamuela Hardwoods takes pride in helping to expand the number of species woodworkers use in their projects. “Our slogans are respect your elders and know your roots. It’s an homage to these trees. Most of what we’re in taking on a daily basis are decades old, sometimes they are centuries old. Day in and day out, every tree we cut, every log we saw, we’re paying respect to that tree, that elder,” said Alex.
Hawaii is geographically isolated with its predominant industry being tourism followed by development. Most building materials on the islands are imported from overseas. This environmentally taxing method is part of what drives this unique sawmill business to provide a diverse list of locally milled products from specialty slabs for restaurant bar tops and dining tables to utility grade building material, flooring, trim and molding, fence posts, statement beams, down to turning stock and instrument sets for Hawaii’s traditional ukulele crafters. Kamuela Hardwoods also has the unique ability to provide a whole host of “rainforest hardwood” species that were planted locally rather than cut out of rain forests half a world away.
“Back when it was a hobby we used an Alaskan chainsaw mill, but it produced massive waste, a hard pill to swallow on a valuable saw log,” said Josh and Alex. “It was also dangerous and required inefficient use of our labor. Parts were hard to come by and there was costly down time for repair and maintenance.”
When it came time for an upgrade, the team chose Wood-Mizer sawmill equipment. With the addition of a Wood-Mizer LT15 sawmill, production went way up and with the thin-kerf blades, waste went way down. They began producing more material than could be used by them alone, and started to sell locally. At first they sold to a “friends and family” customer base, but it grew exponentially. The lumber sales paid for the mill in no time. After a few years on the LT15 they had developed a large enough market that they were having trouble keeping up with demand and decided to ramp up to a fully hydraulic Wood-Mizer LT70 Super Wide portable sawmill. It was quite a leap they say, but a complete game changer. Orders that previously took days or weeks were now filled within hours. “The best equipment for the job is the key to our success, and that equipment has Wood-Mizer written all over it,” said Josh. Looking out across their Wood-Mizer mills, and a sea of almost a half a million board feet of milled product, the two constantly talk about how their “hobby” got a little out of control.
Josh and Alex are also passionate woodworkers, and their milling is influenced by their passion for the trade. Josh is an avid and prolific bowl turner and he relishes the ease and speed at which he can break down logs on his Wood-Mizer into bowl blanks for turning side grain bowls. He’s currently working on a few massive 36” bowls. In addition, Alex recently completed a small residential project for himself that is full of the fruits of their labor. “It’s our showcase, the cabinetry, interior and exterior trim, structural posts, decking T&G ceiling material, stair treads, flooring, we milled it all,” said Alex. “Some of the material even came off of my property.”
The production increase resulting from their LT70 Super Wide sawmill enabled them to add more sawmill equipment to further grow the business. Alex and Josh installed a Wood-Mizer WM1000 sawmill with a capacity of 67” along with an Wood- Mizer EG200 twin-blade edger in order to expand their custom milling services. “We’re dealing with tropical urban canopy trees with massive base logs and limbs,” said Josh. “Having the pair of big mills allows us to break down base logs with the WM1000 and mill up the rest on the LT70. With both running at the same time there is very little wasted material.”
Kamuela Hardwoods regularly mills more than 40 different species of trees ranging from softwoods to some of the hardest and most dense tropical woods in the world. “The durable and tough Wood-Mizer Bi-Metal blades are critical for the cutting of urban trees, as metal is often encountered in the logs,” said Alex. “For extremely hard tropical hardwoods, the RazorTip blades work best.” After years of using Wood-Mizer’s ReSharp blade sharpening service, they decided to add an automated Wood-Mizer BMS250 blade sharpener and BMT250 tooth setter to maintain their own blades. “Frankly being in Hawaii, the shipping was killing us, so we took it on in house and the sharpeners are awesome,” said Alex.
The Kamuela Hardwoods team is made up of family and friends with three full time employees and three part time employees currently running the operation. “Our friends and neighbors are all so stoked, and everyone has been super supportive of the whole concept since day one,” said Josh. Several local interior designers, builders and architects frequent the mill with their respective clients to find the perfect material for their projects.
The growth has been fast, and the WM1000 and LT70 mills have provided a leap in production. The next step for this team is a larger warehouse for showcasing the products, and a few self-loading trucks to streamline the procurement process. According to the Kamuela team, the most rewarding aspect of their sawmill business is the ability to produce a sustainable local product in Hawaii, an isolated and shipping dependent place. By reducing the amount of rainforest hardwoods being shipped in from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, Kamuela Hardwoods is providing islanders with a high quality sustainable local alternative. “We’ve had a lot of help along the way and we want to thank everyone who has encouraged and helped us along this journey," said Alex and Josh.