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Mill Owner a Believer in Thin-Kerf Bands: Alabama Man Finds Place in Low-Grade Hardwood Business with Two Bandmills from Cook’s

Sharon Wood Products – Alabama Man Relies on Cook’s Saw Mfg. Bandmills

By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 1/1/2009

NICHOLSVILLE, Alabama – Scott Irvin’s father ran a little sawmill in rural southwest Alabama. Over the years, he pieced and patched the equipment to keep it running and the little business going.

            Scott had a pretty good job as a maintenance planner for a paper mill, but when he looked around that old sawmill, he saw the future. The future was in thin-kerf bandmills — a pair of sawmills from Cook’s Sawmill Manufacturing. Scott, 39, has operated the hardwood sawmill business now for six years.

            Nicholsville is in the southwest part of the state and about 112 miles almost due north of Mobile.

            Scott’s father, Jack, worked briefly in excavation work and then returned to sawmilling. “He would run it when he could make a living at it, and when he couldn’t, he’d go do something else,” Scott recalled.

            Jack eventually turned the sawmill over to Scott’s older brother, Larry. Scott knew he could use a thin-kerf bandmill to manufacture lumber out of low-grade logs his brother chose not to process, and he bought a Cook’s sawmill to get started. He hired a couple of men to work for him and trained them to run the mill.

            About that time the old sawmill caught fire and burned. Scott bought what was left from his brother and kept operating and running the Cook’s sawmill. He continued with his full-time job at the paper mill, doing both for about two years.

            “I could see a lot of promise in the sawmill, but not the paper mill,” he said.

            Three years ago he invested in a second Cook’s sawmill. He hired a couple more men and began working in his sawmill business full-time. He had worked in the paper industry about 17 years.

            “I could always see the pluses” in thin-kerf bandmills compared to the old circle saw mills his father operated, said Scott, whose father died about six years ago at age 75.

            Scott cuts a mixture of hardwood industrial lumber products. He makes pre-cut pallet stock, low-grade lumber, railties and material for crane mats or board road.

            Until 1990, his father cut strictly railties and low-grade lumber, but in that year he switched to making pre-cut pallet stock. Larry followed the same path, making pre-cut material for pallet manufacturers.

            “I just took right up with the pallet stock,” said Scott. “I already had my father’s old contacts.” The business evolved into also making low-grade lumber. “And then we went into the board road, and about a year ago we got into cross ties.” Scott cuts material for board road but does not assemble the mats; he supplies the material to another company that builds mats.

            Scott cuts about 30-35,000 board feet per week. In the past year, his business was about 50-50 railties and pallet stock. “The cross tie market is paying very well,” he noted, “so we’re cutting a lot of ties.” For the pallet market, he cuts mainly blank stringers.

            The business employs him, his wife, Sharon, and the four men, all working full-time. Sharon takes care of all the administrative aspects of running the business, such as billing, dealing with vendors, and other tasks.

            “She keeps it going,” said Scott, who named the business for her – Sharon Wood Products. The couple has two daughters, Jordan, 15, and Sara, 9.

            When he began thinking about investing in a thin-kerf bandmill, Scott considered a lot of manufacturers. “I looked at every mill you could look at,” he said. He looked at manufacturers’ Web sites, read magazine articles, and went to see some in operation.

            One aspect of the Cook’s sawmills that attracted him was that they are “built heavy-duty for the price,” he said. The Cook’s sawmill is heavy-built and is equipped with a chain-type log turner, he noted.

            “We deal with a lot of big logs,” said Scott, “20 inches and up. Most of our logs are big logs, and it takes a stout mill to take care of them.” The Cook’s sawmill “stands up really well to what we do.”

            “The way my operation is set up, I need to minimize labor,” Scott added. “I knew I needed a drag-back feature…One thing I liked about the Cook’s mill is the four post design on the saw head.” The saw head is driven from both sides. “That helps your drag-back because it is pulling equally from both sides, and you have a strong framework there.”

            He bought his first Cook’s sawmill, a model AC-36, and began using it to cut short cants for dunnage and later pallet stock.

            Scott added the second mill because he wanted to increase production. He figured he could double his production with the second sawmill. By leaving the paper company, however, and working for himself, with the second sawmill he was able to triple his production.

            The second Cook’s sawmill is also a model AC-36, but Scott ordered a larger motor, computer setworks and a longer bed – 20 feet instead of 12 feet. Both mills are electric powered; the first one has a 25 hp motor and the second one has a 40 hp motor. The sawmills are set up in separate buildings, two open-wall pole barn sheds.

            Scott buys mixed hardwood logs down to 12 inches in diameter and a minimum of 8 feet long. “Anything that loses its leaves in the winter, I’ll take it,” he said. He buys logs from log concentration yards and “right out of the woods” from loggers. When he talked to TimberLine, he had about a four months’ supply of logs. At the time, though, he only had orders for railties – no orders for pallet stock, low-grade lumber or board road.

            Scott has a collection of old equipment that was used by his father and brother. Virtually all of it was home-made from salvage material over the years. “My dad never threw anything away,” he said. “If it came here, it stayed here.” He has a collection of old gang saws (two), a cut-off saw, conveyors, a forklift, loaders and other miscellaneous equipment, much of it 25 years or older.

            Operating old equipment requires a lot of maintenance, Scott conceded, but he does it himself. “I can’t afford a lot of new equipment and bank payments, and I can’t hire people to do all the service work.”

            He had some practical advice for anyone considering the sawmill business. “you better know how to do mechanical work, and you better know how to weld.” He has been able to call on his experiencing working as a maintenance planner in the paper industry and also for his father. “I put it all to use building these mills,” he said.

            Scott and his crew cut all low-grade lumber random length. They square up a log on a Cook sawmill, then slice material to the right thickness. When it comes off the sawmill, the material is fed to one of the gang saws. He cuts to whatever the order calls for – for example, 5/4, 4/4, 2-inch material. “We package it up untrimmed,” said Scott.

            With the cut-off saw, Scott and his crew take short end pieces and other downfall material that will not make a full board or pallet stringer, and they trim it back to get a short stringer or other short board out of it.

            Scott sells pallet cut stock to pallet manufacturing companies within about 200 miles. Customers for railties are further away – up to 600 miles.

            A lot of sales are done through brokers, particularly pallet stock. Most customers handle their own trucking, and Scott will use contract truckers for deliveries to other customers.

            Waste material from the sawmill operations is stored on the premises, and Scott supplies it to another business equipped with a Bandit grinder. The wood grindings are sold to paper mills for boiler fuel. Scrap logs are cut and split to sell for firewood.

            Not only has he been pleased with the performance of his two Cook’s sawmills, Scott also has been very satisfied with Cook’s technical service and support, and the supplier’s responsiveness.

            “Whenever I need help, they’re just a phone call away,” he said. “They’ll get on the phone and stay on the phone and help you.”

            Speaking of Tim Cook, the owner of Cook’s Saw Manufacturing, Scott added, “He’ll call you back and stay with you until he helps you.”

            “A lot of the things he tells me work out. He knows what he’s doing. Him, his brother, Stephen – even the ladies in the office. They are the most helpful. They will bend over backwards to keep you running and making money.”

            “It’s hard to find people in business that will do what they say, but the folks at Cook’s Sawmill will do what they say and plus. They’ll go the extra mile for you.”

            Scott buys Simonds Red Streak saw blades through Cook’s, which is a Simonds dealer. He has experimented with different saw blades as much as he researched portable sawmills. “I have tried all kinds and always come back to the…Simonds Red Streak,” said Scott.

            He also praised the Cook’s Supersharp blade. “It is an excellent blade,” he said, and if he was cutting clear, higher grade logs and debarking them first, the Supersharp would be his choice. However, the logs he buys frequently have nails or other metal in them, and it is more cost effective to use the Simonds Red Streak. He uses 0.042-inch kerf, 1-1/4-inch blades; the sawmills run a 16-foot, 10-inch band blade.

            Until recently Scott and his crew had been working 50 hours per week – five 10-hour days. “Pallet orders started slowing down a month ago,” he said. “This week they dried up,” so Scott turned to cutting railties full-time.

            That will not last long, however. “I have plenty of tie orders,” he said, but no market for the side boards coming off the log; without orders for material that can be cut from the side boards, he will have to halt production soon. He planned to shut down for two weeks at Christmas. “I don’t look for anything to happen for two or three months,” he added.

            Scott praised his employees. “The men who work for me are talented and hard-working,” he said, “and I couldn’t keep running if it weren’t for them.”

            “I wouldn’t say that we do anything better than anybody else,” said Scott, “but we do everything ourselves…I’ve got five guys including me who know their job and can work at least one or two other jobs here…So we do everything ourselves. We don’t outsource anything. We’re extremely flexible. I don’t think anybody can make it in any business without being extremely flexible.”

            As far as sales tactics and marketing, Scott said, “They’re constantly changing because, since I’ve been dealing with it, the market’s constantly changing.”

            “We’re extremely low-budget because there’s just not that much profit in this business. The bottom line is always close. The only way to make it…is to pinch every penny. There’s no extras. There’s no frills.”



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