116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SOLON — When a cherry tree fell on an Iowa City house during the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho, Paul Koffron got the call.
Koffron, 65, owner of Koffron Hardwoods & Cabinets in Tiffin, used his portable sawmill to cut the fallen tree into boards the homeowner later had made into a dining room table, Koffron said.
“So many people don’t know what to do with a log,” he said. Oftentimes, the log ends up being cut into firewood or hauled to the landfill to be put through the wood chipper.
After the derecho, thousands of downed trees in Cedar Rapids were turned into mulch because it was the fastest way to get debris off the streets. But included in that cleanup were quality hardwoods that would have made beautiful boards for furniture, art or housing materials, said Aron Flickinger, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forestry Program specialist.
The Iowa DNR hosted a small sawmill business workshop Thursday near Solon. About 20 people came to the workshop, which was paid for with a grant from the U.S. Forest Service and featured instruction by Harry Watt, a specialist in value-added wood products with North Carolina State University Wood Products Extension.
The workshop covered selecting and sourcing logs, sawing with band and chain sawmills, air drying, kiln drying, sterilizing wood to kill bugs and marketing finished boards, among other topics. Participants also saw a demonstration of cutting a straight log and a curved log on a portable sawmill.
“I expect to learn more about the kiln drying aspect,” said Scott Webb, 57, of Cresco. “I need convincing it’s something we want to be doing.”
Webb, who operates Webb’s Sawmill with his wife, does custom wood milling with a Lucas mill and a band saw.
Portable sawmills typically have a 20- to 30-foot long bed for the logs and a saw blade suspended on a track to guide over the top of the log to make cuts. Mills can cost from $3,000 to $50,000 depending on the size and features, including hydraulics for moving heavy logs, Flickinger said.
Flickinger said custom millers can earn $50 to $85 an hour. Some may take the mill on site to cut logs, but most prefer having the logs brought to them.
Custom milling is physically taxing work and takes some business skills and enterprise to maximize profits, Webb said. said. But he also doesn’t have to answer to a boss and enjoys working — sometimes even on Sundays.
“For the right person, it’s an outstanding job,” he said.
Koffron and his wife, Pat Koffron, have been trying to spread the word about turning fallen residential trees, or urban wood, into boards for reuse. He’s working with the Iowa DNR to sell some urban lumber to Habitat for Humanity for use in some of its homes, Flickinger said.
Urban wood has challenges, including the potential for metal parts from bird feeders, signs or clotheslines clipped to trees. The Koffrons use a metal detector on logs to try to catch metal before it ruins a blade.
“Many times, the tree is worth it,” he said of a damaged blade, which costs less than $100 to replace.
The hardest part of the job is cleaning up the sawdust, Koffron said. They use the sawdust from their mill in a wood-burning boiler that heats the house.
The Iowa DNR wants to put together a list of Iowa sawmill owners so they can make that information available to Iowans who want to hire their services, he said. Its website about utilizing urban wood already has some basic information about the process.
The workshop was held at the Schwab/Burford property, 132 acres purchased by Johnson County for $3 million in 2019. The land includes 74 acres of woods, four round barns, a railroad museum and a sawmill that former owner Dick Schwab used to cut boards to be used for the roofs of the round barns on the property, Flickinger said.
“It’s ideal for this workshop,” he said of the property. “The whole story of how it was built from the trees on the property.”
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