LEXINGTON, Kentucky — David Hollingsworth was retired until he decided to start a small sawmill business with an acquaintance almost half his age. Their company, Branch and Bark Urban Sawmill, sells lumber and live edge slabs and also does custom cutting and drying with the aid of two new iDry vacuum lumber kilns.
Luke Lilley, 39, is a carpenter by trade. He has been a contractor and also is a woodworker. Luke was building a lot of tables with live edge slabs but was having a hard time obtaining slabs. That was the impetus for launching Branch and Bark with David in 2016: he needed his own sawmill out of necessity.
Luke visited sawmills in an effort to develop a good reliable supply of slabs, but it was “really tough,” he said. “It’s hard to run a business around other people’s schedules,” he said.
David, 67, has been retired for about 10 years after working in management. He managed a Kroger grocery store location and also managed a half-way house. He enjoyed retirement for a while, taking care of his home, and then his oldest son finished school.
He was talking to a mutual friend about wanting someone to build a couple of end tables to match a coffee table, and the friend suggested calling Luke, who ended up building them for David.
When Luke later hatched the idea of starting a sawmill, he went to David with the idea. He was very receptive, said Luke. They sat down and crunched some numbers for buying a portable sawmill and figuring the return on their investment. They did some additional research and “decided to pull the trigger,” recalled Luke.
As they researched the feasibility of starting a business, Luke was in touch with a small independent sawmiller who also had a kiln and was drying lumber. “We knew it was on the horizon,” said Luke, to have drying operations.
They purchased a Wood-Mizer LT35 portable sawmill powered by a diesel engine. They chose the optional hydraulic log loading arm kit with loading arms and log turner for hydraulic log handling. Then men drove to Indianappolis to pick it up. When they brought it back, “We hit the road running,” said Luke. Along with the Wood-Mizer they invested in a Cat skid steer to move logs and a trailer to haul or deliver material. And they ordered a kit for a small dehumidification kiln that arrived a few weeks later.
Their business plan was to cut material for Luke’s furniture making enterprise as well as cutting lumber products for retail sale and doing custom sawing. “We have a considerable number of hobbyists who come in, and we have contractors come in,” said David. “It’s a pretty wide variety of customers.”
“It’s just continued to grow,” added David.
They leased a building with a little over 12,000 square feet. When he first saw it, Luke said his mouth hung open and his eyes got real big. “Now it doesn’t look nearly as big,” he said. The previous tenant operated a business there reclaiming wood. “So it was set up,” Luke noted, for working with wood. They had some electrical work done and re-ran some ducts.
Luke works in the shop full-time, running the sawmill and supervising two employees who help build furniture, off-load material from the sawmill, and load and unload lumber from two iDry lumber kilns. David answers the phone, waits on customers, and tries to “keep people off of Luke and the employees so they can get their jobs done,” said David, who some weeks spends six days out of seven at the shop. Robert Hoop is a key employee. An experienced sawyer, he has enabled Luke to step away from sawing full-time to focus more on running the overall business.
About one-third of the company’s revenues come from custom sawing and custom drying, and one-third from woodworking, and one-third from retail sales of hardwood lumber products. The company will sell “one board or 1,000 boards,” said Luke. It sells mainly 4/4, 5/4, and 8/4 lumber.
The company specializes in cutting slabs for countertops, tables and benches, big tables for conference rooms, fireplace mantles, and shelves.
The company also has a Lucas portable sawmill. For large logs, Luke will square up the log on the Lucas mill, then transfer the cant to the Wood-Mizer and resaw it. The shop also is equipped with a Wood-Mizer EG300 edger, a Logosol 5-head moulder-planer, and other woodworking machines. Besides the shop and wood yard, they are in the process of constructing a metal building to store dried lumber.
David and Luke invested in an iDry vacuum kiln that was delivered in January of this year. “We needed the speed of the iDry,” said Luke, because they were so far behind in drying lumber.
They considered other kiln suppliers. “Nothing really impressed us,” said Luke, until they encountered iDry and its president, Jim Parker.
“iDry was in our price range and capability,” said Luke. “It sounded to us tremendous. We looked for a while..It was like a no-brainer.”
“Every time I called iDry, Jim Parker would answer the phone or call back immediately,” said Luke, even after business hours. “Other companies did not respond like that.” Their research also involved viewing the information and videos on the iDry website.
Jim referred the men to a number of iDry customers. “We got their numbers and called eight to ten of them,” said David. “Everybody was very positive about their experience with the company and their experience with the kiln. There were just no negative comments out there.”
“When people call us (about iDry), we got good things to say,” added Luke.
“It was Jim Parker,” added Luke. “He was on top of it. He had an answer for every question. The customer service…that’s what kind of helped us seal the deal.”
“It’s still unbelievable that I’m drying lumber right now and it’s not stressing me out.”
The men decided to add more drying capacity and invested in a second iDry lumber kiln in May. “Got it on Wednesday and were drying wood Friday evening,” said Luke. The first unit is heated with gas; they switched to electricity for the newest unit. The kilns are set up inside the company’s building.
iDry, a Vermont-based company, specializes in lumber dry kilns that use vacuum technology. The vacuum lowers the temperature at which water evaporates. Drying the lumber at a lower temperature enables a faster drying cycle without harming the wood. Faster drying operations increases throughput, inventory turnover, and cash flow. At the same time, the process produces excellent lumber with very little degrade, increasing yield.
iDry markets to small lumber producers — notably operators of small portable sawmills. The company offers three models ranging in capacity from 2,000 to 6,000 board feet.
“I had an idea the market was there,” said Jim. Wood-Mizer and other companies have sold thousands of small portable sawmills, he noted. As it turns out, there are a sizeable number of those sawmill owners who also want the capability to dry their own lumber production.
“Live slabs have driven demand for a lot of these little dryers,” added Jim.
iDRY kilns dry lumber at energy cost of only pennies per board foot; operating the kiln costs about $100 per week for electricity. Most customers choose a standard electrically heated kiln in lieu of using a boiler to heat water. The optional rubber bladder press helps keep the lumber flatter and straighter.
The iDry touch screen control system makes it easy to operate the kiln and dry lumber properly without any prior knowledge or experience.
The iDry kilns produce excellent dried lumber, said Luke. “My lumber is unbeatable. It’s the best around.”
“Each cycle, we get better and better,” he added.
The lumber “goes in like a deck of cards and goes out like a deck of cards,” said Luke. Instead of using an optional rubber bladder to compress the lumber, which is separated with stickers, they strap it down with dunnage. The material must be properly stacked, he added.
Now, they can dry lumber and do custom drying much faster, noted Luke. “It’s changed the game for us.” It takes about two or three weeks to dry a typical load, he estimated.
“We dry some really big slabs,” said Luke.
Word-of-mouth referrals have helped market the business. Luke’s partner, Karen LaFlair, also has marketed and promoted the business on Facebook and Instagram.
“We get a good response from those,” said Luke. “We’re always getting messages and questions. Probably too many. We wish they would just come in if they’re local.” Marketing on social media definitely has generated business, he added.
“We’re selling a lot of lumber, which was part of our original plan,” said David.
The Facebook page drew interest from tree service contractors, and Karen reached out to more of them. The company has developed relationships with tree service contractors, allowing them to dispose of material at their yard for a small tipping fee that is priced below landfill tipping fees to make it attractive. It is enough incentive to provide a steady supply of wood material that can be cut into slabs and lumber. “We scratch your back, you scratch ours,” said Luke.
About 60-70 percent of the logs they receive come from the tree service contractors, and the remainder mainly is walnut logs purchased from logging contractors because demand for walnut lumber is so good. They also buy some cants to supplement their wood supply.
Lexington is located on the edge or outskirts of the Appalachian hardwoods region, noted Luke. Accordingly, the company gets a lot of red oak, pin oak, white oak, different species of maple, and walnut.
The environmental benefits of using the wood are a plus, noted Luke, and they appeal to them as well as the tree service contractors. “We’re trying to keep from going in a landfill or being burned,” he said. The company also is a distributor of EcoPoxy, a brand of natural, bio-based epoxies.
Scrap wood is given away to a few friends for firewood, and wood shavings are sold to a few outlets. Sawdust is supplied to the University of Kentucky, which uses it in a water purification system.
The company does custom sawing for the University of Kentucky. Any tree that falls or is taken down on the campus of the university or its medical center or rental properties, Branch and Bark Urban Sawmill gets the wood. Some even gets made into lumber or furniture or some other product that goes back to the university to be used in a building.
University officials like the sustainability concept of wood from downed or harvested trees finding continued life as a building product or furniture that is used on campus, according to Luke.
“It’s awesome having the University of Kentucky acknowledge you as a business partner,” said Luke. “It’s a great honor.”
The company is a member of the Building Industry Association of Central Kentucky and the Kentucky Forest Industries Association.
David and Luke are members of Trinity Hill Church. David teaches rifle marksmanship and has done big game hunting in Alaska, Montana, and Africa, among other places. Luke enjoys hiking and camping. “I like to watch sawmill videos,” he added.
“I absolutely love what we do,” said Luke. “There are gives and takes in a business…and some sleepless nights. But we offer a great service and a great product.”