Three steps to a successful buy – Portable Sawmill Buying Guide

A portable sawmill is an investment that can pay off in years of profit and enjoyment – if you have made an informed buying decision. Too many operators buy without forethought and planning, often making a purchase with very little information in hand, or even on a whim. The end result can be a piece of equipment that doesn’t truly fit the current needs of the operation – and may even limit its future success.

I’ve found that those sawmill shoppers who consistently make good purchases always do the same very simple things: They plan until they have a clear idea of the kind of sawmill they need; they shop to ensure that they are getting a good deal; and they thoroughly check out the equipment before they finalize the purchase.

When you’re planning to buy a sawmill – whether you’re considering new or used equipment – you should take the same crucial steps to ensure that you make the right purchase the first time. Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

Planning your purchase

Until a few years ago, most portable-sawmill buyers had no information source other than the manufacturers and a few ads. Now, with the Internet, industry publications and the ever-increasing number of portable sawmills in the field, you can find an abundance of information. To put this information to good use, however, you need to do your homework ahead of time.
Before you even begin shopping for a particular make and model of mill, first determine what type of mill you really need by looking at how you plan to use it. Those operators who make the best buys have a very clear understanding of what type of sawmill they need (including accessories and options), what they can expect to pay for a new sawmill that fits their criteria, and a realistic purchasing budget.

Some important questions you should ask yourself before making a purchasing decision include:

  • How much production do you need? Is production even important to you?
  • If you’re sawing commercially, what daily production will you need to saw in order to meet your financial goals? This means knowing who your buyers will be, what you can expect to sell your lumber for, and what your overhead costs will be.
  • Do you need a circular sawmill for speed, or a band sawmill for the narrower kerf? Will an inexpensive chainsaw sawmill work for you?
  • What log diameter and length does the mill need to be capable of handling? This involves knowing where your logs will be coming from and what species you’ll be sawing.
  • Do you need hydraulic log handling?
  • Do you need automatic feed?
  • Can you get by with a completely manual mill?
  • What accessories do you need, and how much will they cost? This will affect your total budget.

If you plan to buy a sawmill for a specific purpose (such as building a home), and then resell the mill when you’re through, the resale value is also an important consideration. Spend some time checking mill prices to determine which make of mill not only meets your sawing and budget needs, but also will best allow you to recover your investment.

Price vs Production

It’s important to find the right balance between price of the sawmill and the amount of work you’re producing. “Under-buying,” or spending as little as possible, may look good for your pocketbook, but it can present problems when things begin to get busy. If work has to be turned away or your business can’t grow because your mill can’t meet higher production demands, then you haven’t invested enough in equipment.

Nor, however, do you want to over-buy. If you have a great idea for growing your business but don’t plan for naturally occurring and inevitable downturns in the market, you can be hurt just as much by buying a mill that’s more than what you truly need.

Of course, your choice of sawmill isn’t the only factor that will affect your production and profitability. Your labor situation, the other equipment you will be integrating into your operation, your materials-handling systems, and your local markets will all come into play. But making sure that your mill can reliably output the volume you need with the labour and accessories you have available is important.

Once you’ve roughed out the production level you’ll need to meet your financial goals, these general guidelines can help you put a price on your production needs:

  • Two people can saw an average of 1,000 board feet per day for every US$10,000 they spend on a new sawmill;
  • One person can saw an average of 1,000 board feet daily for every US$20,000 he or she spends on a new sawmill.

Naturally, some people will saw more, and some less – but these numbers take into consideration the unavoidable realities of sawing, such as bad weather days, marketing, logs not at the sawing site as promised, and so on.

Buying Used

Deciding whether to buy new or buy used involves several factors. Those operators who have done their homework are very satisfied with their purchase of a used portable sawmill. However, used sawmills are almost always sold ‘as is’ – the manufacturer’s warranty rarely applies. Hence, a new mill may be a better bet if you want the safety net that comes with buying new from the manufacturer.
When you’re looking at used mills, you’ll generally find they come with other equipment that they previous owner is ‘throwing in’ as part of the deal: trailer package, blade sharpener and setter, track extension, debarker and so on. If this is the case, you should determine the comparable cost of a new mill with the same accessories, then see if the used mill you’re considering remains a good deal.

Another used-mill factor is the number of operating hours it has on it. If you’re comparing operating hours between units, be sure you’re also comparing engines with similar horsepower. And keep in mind that you also should take maintenance into account – a well-maintained sawmill with more hours on it may be a better buy than a machine that has fewer hours but has been grossly neglected.

Kicking the Tires

Here are a few actions you can take to make shopping for a used mill easier:

  • Before you drive a long distance to see the sawmill in question, ask if you can get photos; at least make sure both you and the owner have the same idea of what is meant by ‘good condition.’ Ask specific questions to make sure you get a clear understanding about the operating condition of the mill.
  • Once you get there, check out the condition of other equipment on the current owner’s property. Poorly maintained equipment may be an indication that the mill you’re considering has not been maintained well.
  • Have the owner saw some boards and check them for sawing accuracy or sawing deviation. Pay attention to the overall condition and performance of the sawmill during operation.
  • Check out the moving parts of the sawmill to see if anything needs to be replaced, and check the rails to make sure they are not overly worn. If it looks like repairs are needed, determine how much these will costs and factor this amount into your offering price.
  • Look carefully for any evidence of damage to the sawmill. Most sellers are honest and forthcoming about the condition of their equipment, but the final judgment as to the equipment’s condition is yours.
  • Look for personalized additions to the mill. Some people build creative and useful additions to their mills to increase production and efficiency – such as additional or larger fuel tanks, special lights for night sawing, custom lubrication systems, tool holders, etc. Some additions, however, aren’t so useful. Make sure that any additions that the previous owner has made will help – not hinder – your sawing production.

Step by step

There are dozens of manufacturers offering many different configurations of portable mills. The secret to making the right choice is taking it step by step. Thorough planning, patient shopping and careful checking when Sawmill Buying ensures you’ll be able to make a purchase that’s right for you.

© 2002 by Sawmill Publishing LLC
Reprinted with permission

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