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New Hampshire Man Starts Fast with Sawmill
Portable Select Sawmill Gets Former Legislator Off to Quick Start in Custom Milling Business
By April Terreri
Date Posted: 6/1/2006
CHESTERFIELD, NH — If you ask McKim Mitchell, 52, how long he’s been in the forest products industry, you will likely get a very hearty belly laugh.Many people in the industry carry on a generational tradition of working in the woods and in sawmills, following in the steps of their father and even grandfather.
Not so in McKim’s case. In fact, he’s been in the industry less than a year following a six-year stint serving in the New Hampshire state House of Representatives.
The Forest Politic
How did McKim wind up with in the portable sawmill business on the shores of the Connecticut River? “It all stems from the fact that I wanted to get my two barns repaired, and the two people with portable sawmills in this area were completely booked up with work,” said McKim, sole proprietor of Mitchell Sawmilling.
He had just finished running in a political campaign for a seat in the New Hampshire state Senate. “I was running against the incumbent state Senate president, which is the second-most powerful person in the state after the governor,” explained McKim. “I lost that bid by fewer than a thousand votes.”
As he wondered what he would do next in his life, he was trying to find someone to mill some timber on his property so he could use the lumber to repair his two barns. These two roads McKim was traveling kind of intersected, providing the answer McKim was seeking.
He realized there was room for another portable sawmill business in the region, and he began researching equipment. He kept in contact with the two other sawmillers, letting them know he planned to buy his own mill. The three agreed to refer customers to each other if they had too much business.
In August 2005 McKim purchased his Select Sawmill Model 3620 portable band sawmill. He decided to gain experience by sawing the lumber for his barns before working for customers. “I charge by the board foot, so I really wanted to learn the mill to be ready for my clients,” he said.
In the spring of this year McKim went to work for his first customer. “Things have just exploded since then, and I have enough work lined up now so that I could easily work seven days a week for the next several months if I wanted to,” he said.
Prior to serving in the state legislature, McKim and a partner operated an award-winning garden design business. “We had studied in England under the renowned garden designer John Brooks,” he explained.
Raised on a dairy farm in Chesterfield, McKim as a young boy was a familiar face around local sawmills, whose circular sawmills intrigued him. “We made many trips to the sawmills to load sawdust for our dairy cattle,” he said.
How did he learn to operate a portable sawmill so quickly? “I worked for a short period of time at a sawmill in Nelson, New Hampshire,” McKim said. “They specialized strictly in oak, so I got some great experience there. The more you do this, the more you learn because it’s a never-ending learning process.”
In discussing his work, McKim exhibited a noticeable and genuine enthusiasm. “I am enjoying this work immensely, and I am getting nothing but rave reviews from all of my clients,” he said.
McKim did extensive research before deciding which sawmill to purchase. “I also talked with my brother, who is a logging contractor with his own business,” he said. “He told me about an ad for the Select Sawmill he saw in one of his trade magazines. I was not aware of this manufacturer, so I researched this mill and compared it to others I was considering. I needed a portable machine that would be extremely rugged and capable of getting into rough areas throughout the region.”
The Select Sawmill Model 3620 impressed McKim. It was unlike the others that already were operating in the region. “This protects the individuals that are already in the portable sawmilling business,” he said. “I wanted to get something that would be able to handle materials that their mills couldn’t handle.”
The Select Sawmill cuts twice as fast — up to 2 feet per second — as other thin-kerf portable sawmills. It has a 4-inch, double-cut swage tooth blade. “It cuts in both directions, which allows it to be a highly productive mill,” said McKim.
The Model 3620 is powered by a John Deere 50 hp diesel engine. It is equipped with 32-inch band wheels and can saw logs up to 36 inches in diameter and 20 feet long.
The mill’s design and construction intrigued McKim. “I liked its capabilities to handle the log sizes it does and the fact that it’s fully hydraulic with a hydraulic loader off to one side and the hydraulic tapers and log turner.”
McKim initially considered the larger Select Sawmill Model 4221. Powered by a John Deere 115 hp turbo-diesel engine, it can cut up to 3 feet per second. The 4221 uses a 6-inch, double-cut blade running on 36-inch band wheels with double-tapered bearings. It can cut logs up to 42 inches in diameter and 22 feet long. McKim plans to upgrade to this larger model within two years.
McKim has been very pleased with the service and support he has received from Select Sawmill. “I told Luc that I wanted to be able to have a portable mill that I could bring to my clients’ sites, and he told me the 3620 would be suitable for my purposes,” he explained.
The larger mill weighs about 10,000 pounds while the model 3620 weighs about 7,000 pounds. McKim planned to transport the mill by towing it with his pick-up truck, which is rated to tow up to 10,000 pounds, and he figured the smaller mill would be better.
McKim, who works in about a 100-mile radius from Chesterfield, also factored in the tough, cold New Hampshire winters. The Select Sawmill is equipped with glow plugs and block heaters to keep the engine warm through the freezing nights. “The tank holding the hydraulic oil for the entire milling system has two electric heaters I can also plug in,” he said. He did not need them this past winter because of the mild winter. “It will be interesting to see how cold it needs to get before I feel it needs to be completely warmed up,” he said.
So far, McKim has been using the sawmill to cut oak, cherry, maple, black birch, pine and hemlock. He is confident that he can work with any species, hardwood or softwood.
On the Job
Once McKim and a customer agree to a contract, he asks for a list of lumber products the customer wants, such as dimension lumber, beams, timbers, or other products. “I produce what they need from the supply of logs they give me,” he said.
His first customer harvested some trees to add more pasture for his sheep. The logger took the best saw logs and left the tops and low-grade logs. McKim sawed this low-grade material on his Select Sawmill machine.
“I went to the pile, measured out the log, and took the log from the source with my tractor to the mill. I stacked several logs at the mill, and then I milled them out.” His tractor is a John Deere 60 hp with a loader, bucket and fork attachments.
“My client wanted to use the wood to build fences for the expanded sheep pasture, and he wanted me to get as much as I possibly could out of that material,” McKim said. “I succeeded, and now he wants me to return in the fall, when he said he’d have some ‘real’ logs for me to mill.”
At the time he was interviewed, McKim was working for another customer, sawing large pine logs to produce wide boards. The customer planned to swap the lumber for other material he wants to build a house. The client has a dry kiln and lumber drying business and also operates a wood-turning shop. “They’ve been impressed with my work and said they will give me all the work I want,” said McKim.
Customers usually supply some assistance, but McKim works largely alone. On his first job, he bucked the logs, moved them to the sawmill, milled the logs, removed the slabs and stacked the lumber.
“On this current project, they load logs onto a landing for me every night, so when I arrive in the morning they are ready to be milled out,” McKim explained. “I don’t have to stick these because they pick up the milled material every night to bring it down to their kiln.”
In business for just a few months, McKim is already considering hiring an employee. When he buys the larger Select Sawmill model 4221, he plans to set it up as a permanent, stationary mill and continue to use the 3620 as a portable mill.
McKim’s newfound career suits him well. “It’s a great break from politics,” he said. However, people still encourage him to run for office again. “I feel that to be a good politician, you can’t become entrenched in the workings of government. You need to really learn what people are dealing with every day. I always wanted to be right in the middle of it all, and now I am right in the middle of everyday life.”
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