Are portable sawmills worth it?

sawmill & woodlot magazine

Originally published in Independent Sawmill & Woodlot Management Magazine, April 2016

Written by Dave Boyt

The trick in operating a successful small sawmill business is to find a niche and mill specialty lumber at a premium price. Jesse Kemp of Kemp Fine Woodworking has found such a niche cutting wide slabs as part of his woodworking/sawmill business in Springfield, Missouri. “I did my first paying woodworking job when I was 12”, Jesse recalled during a recent interview. “My dad took me to a mill, and I bought enough to make a plant stand. Now I’m 35, I’ve realized the dream of milling these logs myself.”

After working in a commercial cabinet shop for a couple of years, Jesse decided to strike out on his own. He now builds doors and furniture. “A little bit of everything from Federal to contemporary styles,” as he describes it. But Jesse’s specialty is slab furniture—tables, headboards, bookcases, and heavy shelving. “I enjoy building them, and people really like the look of the live edge that shows the way the tree was formed,” he said. Initially, Jesse purchased his slabs from sawmills, but discovered that they simply could not produce the material he wanted. “Nobody could slab up a 6-foot-diameter log, or even a 4-foot-diameter log,” he recalled. The solution was to set up his own sawmill.

“I did a lot of research before buying the mill,” Jesse noted. “Slabs are commanding a premium right now, but no one around here is cutting them.” Encouraged by what he learned, he decided that the Peterson dedicated wide slabber would fit his needs. “I looked at a local Peterson swingblade mill, and saw the quality of construction, welds, overall design,” Jesse said. “Other [Peterson] customers all had good things to say about their mills and about Peterson’s support for them. It has a solid, stable frame, and seems to be well designed.”

Although Peterson offers a training program for new sawmill owners, Jesse had to wing it at first, since he had customers lined up before he even had it assembled. With his familiarity with woodworking equipment, Jesse says he found the Peterson slabber to be a simple machine. After cutting a few of his own logs to get a feel for the sawmill, he was ready to saw for hire.

slabber mill

“It started making money almost as soon as it was out of the box,” he said. “I put 40 or 50 hours on the mill before I got the training. I had a lot of questions, and the Peterson staff members were very helpful.” By the time Nathan Waterfield arrived to provide the training, Jesse was already familiar with the basics. “It worked out great, because I had enough experience to know what questions to ask,” Jesse said.

“It started making money almost as soon as it was out of the box”


Jesse soon encountered logs that challenged the mill’s 6-foot-diameter capacity. “I’ve cut a honey locust with a fork that was right at 72 inches—and hard as a rock,” he told me. The mill has a cutting thickness of 12 inches and rides on a 20-foot-long track. With a 27-hp Kohler engine driving a 0.404 “hyperskip” chain, the mill took it all in stride. “With this, I can handle the big logs that nobody around here is doing,” he said. Ironically, some of his best customers are band saw mill operators who need to cut wider slabs than their mills allow. “It is a big investment,” he noted, “but in this area, no one else does this as a service to the general public.”

milling walnut logs

On the day of my visit, Jesse had several large walnut logs to mill. Using a small forklift, he pushed the log in place on an asphalt parking lot, and set up the mill’s track around the log. He then rolled the engine and cutterhead out of the shop on a dolly, and in 15 minutes had the slabber assembled and ready to cut. For most mills, a 3,000-pound log would be cumbersome and require heavy equipment, but the Peterson slabber requires no log handling. Jesse simply took off one 3″ slab after another, moving each onto a stack with his forklift.

Jesse took his time with each cut. The 3/8″ thick kerf and wide slabs make for slow going. As the cut progressed, Jesse drove in plastic wedges to keep the kerf open. The widest cuts from the middle of the log took nearly six minutes, but all that was forgotten when he pulled a stunning three inch thick, five foot wide by eight feet long slab off the mill. The cut was perfectly straight, much smoother than one would expect from a chain saw mill. After he had cut four slabs from the log, Jesse stopped to put on a fresh chain.

“Chains are definitely the most time intensive part of maintenance,” he told me. “You spend a lot of time sharpening them.” Within 5 minutes, Jesse had the new chain mounted and was cutting the next slab. Overall, it took about an hour and a half to slab up the log, including offbearing, and two blade changes.

Jesse’s main source of lumber is from inside the city of Springfield. “I’m very interested in the urban timber movement,” he explained. “I have gotten quite a few logs from tree trimmers that I have turned into slabs.” He noted that some of his clients specifically ask for an urban lumber source for their projects. “It’s a growing trend, and people are interested in local sources and in reusing some-thing as beautiful as a tree,” he continued. “You hate to see a tree go down, but you’d rather see it go for something more than firewood or mulch or going into a landfill.”

“The slabs bring a premium. I might look at $7,000 just for one large walnut slab”

In the short time he has had the mill, Jesse has stockpiled a good number of logs from tree trimmers, and says it looks like he will have a consistent supply of logs for his business. The portability of the mill is a big advantage for Jesse. “If someone has a huge tree in their lot, I can set up the mill around it and slab it up right there,” he said. “As long as I can get it through a garden gate, I can set it up and mill,” he said.

Organization is important to Jesse. For example, he keeps each chain in a plastic container and tracks the number of times it has been sharpened. “You figure out what makes money and what doesn’t,” he says. “I track the hours I run the mill, maintenance, things like that.”

Jesse also tracks how long it takes to mill logs of different sizes and species so that he can give people an estimate of how long it will take to do a job, and predict how many chains, how much fuel, and how much bar oil it will take.

Jesse works with all species of wood, but favors walnut. “I’m in the middle of walnut country, so I have access to a lot of it,” he noted. “The slabs bring a premium. I might look at $7,000 just for one large walnut slab.” Getting that price will require Jesse to refine his product. “I sell some slabs green, but I hope to have a dry kiln running this spring.”

portable log slabber

Properly kiln-drying massive 3-inch-thick slabs takes up to four months, but Jesse is convinced that the extra value of the slabs will easily pay for the kiln. “I plan to stockpile some for my own use and to sell to other people. I like the idea of being able to go from the tree to a kiln-dry slab.” He is also considering a Peterson planer head for the wide slabs, as well as a swing mill attachment so that he can cut dimension lumber, both for his own business and for clients who want to buy reclaimed urban lumber.

buy wide slabber portable

28 comments shared

  1. Anthony Hawk says:

    I have about 60,75′ poplars for sale.
    Live in Alabama, Huntsville .
    256 694 3939

    • Liam Dijk says:

      Hi Anthony, thank you for your message. We have a number of Peterson owners within 100miles of Huntsville. We will pass your details on should they be interested in your logs.

  2. Dustin. Lemon says:

    I grew up working with and for my dad a tradesman and cabinet shop owner I’ve worked with wood my whole careers.. I know have a small mill but try to do big things with it ….I am impressed with that mill and want one ….how much

  3. Bruce ellingson says:

    looking for info on your sawmill

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Bruce, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  4. Ed stielstra says:

    Do you have a unit operating in west Michigan?

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your inquiry Ed. Robert Revnell is located in Traverse City and available to give a sawmill demo. You can contact him on 231-929-1595. For more details check out our Owners Network. Cheers, Maurice

  5. Mwesigye Deus says:

    Hello! Help and give me it’s full information about buying it . Thanks

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Mwesigye, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  6. Gama Gift says:

    Please send a quote

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Gama, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  7. Jeromy Beasley says:

    Please send quotes

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Jerome, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  8. Skyler Shearer says:

    Need some quotes please and if pick up in north carilina is abible and if not how long is delivery

  9. I’m looking to buy one of these mills

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Steve, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  10. Terry Brattain says:

    Please send me a quote on this saw mill

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Terry, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  11. Chad Sterba says:

    Would like some prices on your mill

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your enquiry Chad, one of our sawmill consultants will get in touch with you soon.

  12. Darin.I says:

    Very interested in the slabber. How much does it cost in Canadian dollars?

    Thanks Darin

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Hi Darin, Thanks for your enquiry. One of our sales guys will get in touch with you shortly to answer your queries. Regards, Maurice

  13. Mike Chapman says:

    I would like a price for this mill as well as parts and their prices please. I am very interested in buying one asap. Thank you
    Mike Chapman
    Blue Ridge Wood Works and Mill.

    • Hi Mike! I apologise for my delayed reply. The notification for your message did not come through. I have sent your enquiry to our mill specialists who will be in touch in the next day or so to help with your mill research. Cheers, Layla

  14. Sili Lomalagi says:


    Do also quote me one peterson slabber mill please. I also wonder if name of companies I can buy folklift from as well as machines to dress or process sawn timber please. Finally, I wish to know if there are suppliers of kiln and diry machines and pricess.


    Sili Lomalagi

  15. David Boyt says:

    Glad you could use the article! Jesse is great to work with and that mill chewed its way through some really “ugly” black oak burls.

    Best regards,


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