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Dead Head Logging and Wood-Mizer

Dead Head Logging uses Wood-Mizer equipment to get the most out of a limited resource that dates back to the 1700s. The company uses heart pine and cypress that’s been buried in Florida’s river bottoms to cut a variety of interior trim, furniture and other specialty products.

By Carolee Anita Boyles
Date Posted: 9/1/2012

                Some businesses are just “meant to be.” John Claytor always knew that the old logs he pulled up from Florida’s riverbeds would be good for something, but it took Wood-Mizer equipment for him to make the most of them.

                “I started diving in 1965, when I was a junior in high school,” Claytor said. “I started diving in the local rivers, looking for arrowheads and bottles and fossils and such.”

                Everywhere he dived, Claytor saw old logs lying on the bottom of the rivers. Back in the late 19th century, early loggers cut heart pine and cypress logs, some of them a hundred years old or more. The loggers rafted them together and floated them down the rivers to sawmills. State of Florida experts estimate that as many as ten percent of the logs sank during transit, ending up on the river bottoms. They were preserved there by the cool water and the lack of oxygen.

                “I kept thinking it would be neat to figure out how to get the logs out of the rivers and do something with them,” Claytor said. “People had been pulling them out of the rivers for a long time on a small scale. They would use a tractor, and pull out a few to build a barn or build a shed. But they weren’t looking at the big picture; I don’t think anyone saw the big picture. What bugged me was why all the logs were still there, and what you could do with them.”

                In the early 1970s, Claytor bought an old Frick circular sawmill with a Caterpillar power plant.

                “It was a piece of junk, but I had a lot of energy back then and I made it work,” he said. “I’d drag out one log at a time and started trying to learn how to saw them and make boards out of them. I was working to support my family, so this was something I just did in my spare time. I kept piddling with it, because it was something that just kept aggravating me. I started stockpiling logs and thinking about what kind of equipment it would take to get more of them out of the rivers.”

                Claytor wasn’t satisfied with the way he was cutting logs, so he kept looking for ways to improve his skills.

                “I’m entirely self-taught,” he said. “I would find an old-timer and ask him if he had any information on working with the logs. I kept doing that, and kept trying to learn.”

                In the early 1990s, Claytor tried a Timber King mill to cut the logs.

                “That gave me a chance to get my feet wet with a band saw mill, and see how it compares to working with a circle mill,” he said. Eventually Claytor was able to cut enough lumber to build the house he still lives in.

                Claytor still had many logs left, however.

                “It was like an addiction,” he said. “I had to keep working with them, but I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. I couldn’t build another house with them! But I had the motivation to do something with them.”

                In the early days of dead head logging, Claytor said, the State of Florida hadn’t yet put in place any rules about the practice. After briefly banning it, the state began issuing permits to individuals to “mine” logs in the rivers, opening the door to large scale removal of the logs from the rivers.

                “By then I was a halfway decent carpenter, and I was helping a friend of mine build houses,” Claytor said. “As soon as I heard that the state was issuing permits, I went to my friend and told him he had me for two more weeks and then I was gone.” He went through all the requirements to apply for a permit, paid his $5500 for a one-year permit, and started taking logs out of the rivers.

                “Two weeks from the day I first heard about the program, I had the permit and I was pulling logs,” Claytor said.

                For the first couple of years, Claytor lived off his savings while he pulled every log he could out of the river where his permit allowed him to work.

                “I had a mountain of logs,” he said. “In the first year, I probably pulled out 1000 logs. Everybody around here was google-eyed, wondering where I was getting all these logs. But over the years I had done my homework, and I knew where they all were.”

                One day Claytor found a note pinned to his log pile.

                “If you want to sell some of your logs, give me a call,” it read, and it was signed by George Goodwin, the owner of Goodwin Heart Pine in Micanopy, Florida.

                “I didn’t really want to sell any of my logs, but I called him,” Claytor said. “They were paying about a dollar and a half a board foot for logs at that time. I told him no, I thought I’d keep the logs I had at that point. But eventually I ran out of money and I had to sell him a few logs.”

                That sale led to a fortuitous meeting at Goodwin Heart Pine, when Claytor was introduced to a Mr. Rudd.

                “He was the nicest old man you could possibly meet,” Claytor said. “I admired his saw work. Even though I’d been cutting logs for 15 years, I saw right away that he knew way more than I did. So I asked him if I could go and watch him and see if I could learn something. “

                During the conversation, Mr. Rudd mentioned that he had an old Wood-Mizer manual sawmill that he used to cut his boards.

                “I didn’t think anything about it at the time,” Claytor said. “But I kept going up there and helping him and his son Ron with the sawing. Ron had acquired an LT-40 manual Wood-Mizer, and I kept saying ‘Man, this thing is just way better than what I have!’”

                Eventually the relationship with the Rudds progressed into Dead Head Logging. After cutting dimensional lumber and interior trim such as paneling for a couple of years, John’s creative urge started getting the better of him. As he progressed toward doing more specialty wood products, the Rudds were able to cut logs to meet his needs and get the most out of the wood.

                “We started making some pretty neat things,” Claytor said. “We were doing big tables that were bigger and thicker than anyone else was doing. And we started doing the natural edge stuff way back before anyone else did.”

                Before long they started doing end grain sawing.

                “We built our own jigs and started cutting the logs that way before anyone else down here in this part of the country did,” Claytor said. “We would cut it, dry it, get it sanded and install it as flooring way before anybody else down here did.”

                To further facilitate what they were doing, Claytor and the Rudds added more Wood-Mizer equipment to their arsenal.

                “We added a Wood-Mizer Super LT-40 hydraulic mill and an edger,” Claytor said. “We found out real quick that the Super LT-40 will work three or four people to death. It’s the fastest sawing sawmill I’ve ever seen in my life.” They continue to use the older manual LT-40 for specialty cuts because it’s slower and somewhat more versatile, Claytor said, and use the newer hydraulic LT-40 for more routine work.

                “You can saw two or three thousand feet of wood a day with that mill with no problem,” Claytor said. “We use it for large orders and production work, and use the LT-40 manual for detailed custom work. My hat is off to Wood-Mizer; I think that’s one of the finest machines that’s ever been made.”

                Along the way, Dead Head Logging has added other equipment as well.

                “We got Wood-Mizer’s 25 horsepower edger,” Claytor said. “That tool is super good. If you’re using the Super LT-40 and don’t have the edger you’re out of your mind. You can saw so much wood with the LT-40 and then at the end of the day in an hour or two run it through the edger. Your material will be sized and with minimal loss of material. Anybody who’s going to get one of the Super mills absolutely needs an edger. It will make back what you paid for it in no time.”              

                At the moment, one project for Dead Head Logging is cutting and installing a number of items at the latest phase of The Villages, an active retirement community north of Orlando.

                “They’re building the third town, which is called Brownwood,” Claytor said. “We have a contract to do the four entryways into the town square. The main gate entry is 75 feet wide, so the beams are that long. The posts that hold them up are heart pine logs from the Suwannee River. We’ve also built windmills and water towers and old-timey fruit stands. We built the billboards for them and the benches in the square, and the huge log cabin that’s in the square that’s a stage.”

                Dead Head Logging also has started a furniture line called Waterwood Originals.

                “We just got the furniture line kicked off this spring,” Claytorsaid. “We started working on the furniture two or three years ago, when we could tell the housing market was getting bad. So we moved away from doing dimensional lumber toward furniture. We wanted to come up with something nobody else was doing; I don’t like copying what anyone else is doing.”

                Claytor said Waterwood Originals will never be found in big box stores.

                “Right now we have one person set up in Fort Lauderdale who has some of our inventory,” he said. “And I’m going to find two or three more places around the state where I can put more product. I’m having to start out small, but I think once people see what we’re doing it will take off. We’re going to specialize in creative stuff that other people either don’t want to do or don’t have the time to do it. Every single piece is one of a kind. Every piece is documented: what river it came from and the species of wood, and it’s all branded and numbered and it comes with a certificate that tells the customer it’s 100% real. The furniture will be a keepsake that people can hand down from generation to generation.”

                This doesn’t mean that Dead Head Logging is abandoning its roots in dimensional lumber.

                “There always will be buildings that need to be restored with period-correct materials,” Claytor said. “So our door will always be open for that and make it available to boat builders and people who do restorations of any kind. That will always be a part of our business.”

                Claytor attributes part of the company’s success to the foresight he and the Rudds had to stockpile a large number of logs so they have plenty of wood to work with.

                “We saved it without having a clue what we were going to do with it,” he said. “We just had faith that something was going to come of it. And its time has definitely come around.”

                The company today consists of John, his son Claytor Jr, and Ron Rudd.

                “My son is the computer guru,” Claytor said. “Without him and my wife, nothing gets done on the computer. He’s also gotten a t-shirt line going, along with hats. My son does all that, plus the advertising and the brochures, and he handles all the phone calls that come in for marketing.”

                At almost 64, Claytor still dives and he still brings up logs.

                “There are logs still left out there, and I’m going to do everything possible to keep getting them,” he said. “When this wood is gone, it’s gone. It’s not replaceable.”

                In the early days, Claytor said, he just used either a tractor or a truck to pull logs out of the rivers. Today, he uses much more sophisticated equipment.

                “When the state first started issuing permits, everyone was leery of investing a lot in equipment to do this,” he said. “I now have probably $250,000 worth of equipment that I use on a daily basis to pull these logs out of the river. I have five boats, a barge, a front end loader, a one-ton dually, a gooseneck trailer, sawmills, edgers, and every tool known to man to work on these logs. So it went from a little bitty thing to having a quarter million dollars in equipment to do it.”

                Claytor said Dead Head Logging will build just about anything anyone can imagine.

                “If you can dream it up, we can do it,” he said. “We’re not scared to try anything, so if someone has a crazy idea, we’ll try to do it. We’re offering a product that you just can’t go to the store and get.”


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