The Sawmill Redemption: Backyard loggers draw on history to reshape lumber industry

"People don't want to depend on the bigger businesses, the bigger companies"
Sawmill
The backlot sawmill is making a big comeback. 

Wood cutting tools are essential in rural areas of Eastern Ontario and back in the day one such tool dominated the backroads landscape. 

Now with fluctuating lumber prices and sometimes slow delivery, the backlot sawmill is making a big comeback. 

Just ask woodlot owners in Renfrew County, where business is booming. OBJ spoke to sawmill owner Andrew Warren and Darrell Sennett of Darrell Sawmill’s Sales  about an industry resurgence that can barely keep up with demand.

You can watch a video version of this story on the Ottawa Business Journal's YouTube page.

Let's start with this - what's a backyard sawmill?
Andrew Warren:
We manufacture our own lumber from the mill and we sell it to the public or use it ourselves depending on the project.

How far back back in local history in Renfrew County does the tradition of the backyard sawmill go?
AW: That would be from whenever they started to build sawmills, 200 or 300 years ago. I think every farmer at one point had a sawmill. Then there were less of them, because they're a lot of work. Then times came about that you could get lumber at a store.

So this goes back to the homestead days. Why did they mill their own lumber back then?
AW: Probably because  to travel to a store to get the lumber was a pain and there were lots of trees on the property. So why not saw your own lumber right there?

What kind of wood products do you mill?
AW: We're making cedar lumber, so we're selling lumber for decks and fencing. Sometimes we get into a little bit of spruce lumber and pine lumber, but mostly it's cedar lumber that's our specialty and that's what we tried to stick with.

Are we seeing a resurgence of the backyard sawmill in Renfrew County?
Darrell Sennett:  Definitely. Lumber prices have gotten a lot of people back into the personal sawmill and they're also sawing for other people as well. It's the lumber prices, the lack of the lumber - all of that has really boosted my business.

How many sawmills would you sell in a normal year?
DS: Pre-Covid we probably sold about 50 or 60 and this year I will probably sell 140 mills - twice as many if the manufacturer was able to produce them. The  manufacturer is having trouble getting material - even down to the workforce. They have a lot of skilled trades in the factory and they're just not able to produce the normal numbers of sawmills. I think it was due to Covid, but I think now a lot of people are becoming more self-reliant. They're buying local and it's opened a lot of people's eyes to what we have to do here to support our local industry.

How valuable is it to you to have a backyard sawmill?
AW: Very. I actually just bought my mill last year and thank goodness I did because if I would have waited until this year, I wouldn't have got it. It’s about a year and a half wait now. The main reason why we bought it is we were depending on other people that saw our logs for us and I thought, well maybe we'll get our own mill and it'll speed up the process. We'll have more lumber to sell in the long run.

How do you operate your business?
AW: I'm the only sawmill operator - I have two sons and I trained them to run it when I can't be there. I take orders for lumber over the phone. I tell people right now the demand is so high, it's four to five weeks waiting time  before we can get caught up to that order. 

How much do you produce?
AW :On a good day, by myself if everything is going just right I can produce around anywhere from a 1,000-board-feet to 1,500-board-feet depending on the size of my logs, the length of my logs. There are (large industrial) mills in Renfrew County that are putting out 200,000-board-feet in one shift.

Do you think this is a flash in the pan or or is this revival going to be around for a while?
DS: People are becoming more self-reliant. People don't want to depend on the bigger businesses, the bigger companies. We're always able to save a little bit of money here and there and the backyard producer can certainly operate  a lot cheaper with smaller overhead compared to the big sawmills.

What do you see when you look at a fresh cut, milled piece of ash?
DS: I just like being able to go out there and make something out of nothing. You're making something that's usable. In the case of the ash it's dead standing - you know if you don't use it soon it's gonna be basically no good for anything so. So if you can cut that down and make a piece of furniture at least you put that to good use.