(The following article was excerpted from TimberLine Magazine, January 2002)
DAVISBURG, Mich. Five years ago, Barry Byrne found a way to combine his vocation with his avocation. That is when Barry and his son, Aaron Byrne, started Byrne Custom Lumber.
"We got an inkling one day," said Barry, that it "would be kind of fun" to harvest some timber they owned and turn the wood into a finished product.
"I buy and sell property," explained Barry, although it has become more and more difficult to sell as fast he once did, he quickly added. A real estate broker for 30 years, now he has the opportunity to use some of the nice hardwood trees on property that he has accumulated.
Thanks to his vocation, Barry has timberland holdings that range from northern Michigan near the Canadian border to southern Missouri.
Since Aaron began to make hardwood moulding, interior components like fireplace mantels and also furniture, the younger woodworker sees the potential that certain trees have for his craft. Moreover, even when trees are too small to cut, Aaron has some of them identified as keepers for future lumber needs.
"My son and I are both woodworkers," said Barry. Father taught the son, but Barry said that over the years, "my son got better at the craft." In fact, he got so that he decided to earn a living by doing custom work. The fact that Barry had timberland to comb for raw material made the prospect of full-time woodworking a bright one.
It is just especially gratifying for a woodworker to "hand pick trees" explained Barry. To be sure, when Barry talked with TimberLine, he was sitting at a computer desk he had made from a tree he could recall in its living form.
Getting Byrne Custom Lumber going meant choosing a portable sawmill that would be a good fit for the goal of Barry and Aaron: producing high quality lumber. Barry liked the combination of heavy duty construction and portability he saw in a TimberKing B-20 mill, and that was the machine he selected.
But he took a deliberate approach to deciding on the TimberKing, beginning with making comparisons. After being attracted by the specifications on the B-20, Barry wanted to see the machine in action. He drove four hours to western Michigan, where an individual was using the portable band sawmill to saw material for sheds and barns. The trip sold him on the machine.
Barry likes his TimberKing B-20. He emphasized that he and Aaron are using it in a very special way. "We are much more selective" about what they cut than are many other users, he explained. Not only do they look for certain trees, sometimes selecting only one per acre, they quarter-saw 30-40% of their wood.
Working together, Barry and Aaron can cut about 500 board feet of quarter-sawn white oak per day although production capacity of the TimberKing B-20 is much higher, Barry indicated. Running at full production capacity, another operator could saw twice as much lumber in the same time, he said. The TimberKing B-20 is particularly fast in softwoods, he noted.
White oak is a favorite species of Barry and Aaron. Others are cherry, walnut, hard maple and red oak, which, along with white oak, account for 90% of the wood that feeds the business at Byrne Custom Lumber.
Although Aaron uses much of the lumber produced on the TimberKing, some is sold. "After drying," said Barry, "I can get $5 per board foot for quarter-sawn white oak."
TimberKing makes three portable sawmill models. The B-20 is the most automated.
TimberKing's customers use the machines for a number of different purposes, said Will Johnson, president. "It really runs the gamut," he said.
"The Byrnes are making a high-end wood product," said Will. "That's one niche for the machine -- value-added." In addition to being deployed for custom cutting, the machine is used by builders of log homes and to saw wood for pallets or to produce lumber for farming applications.
TimberKing introduced the B-20 in the late 1980s and has updated and modified it since. The company's other models are the 1220 and the 1600. "The 1220 is what we call a weekend warrior," said Will. "It will make a beautiful board, but it is fully manual." In the summer of 2001, the company introduced the model 1600 for "medium-sized jobs" or for someone that "does not have the physical ability to move logs." The 1600 has several labor saving hydraulic features, noted Will, "but it doesn't have all of them," which keeps its price down.
TimberKing has its roots as a business in the Belsaw Company, according to Will, which got started in 1929. TimberKing was one of the companies formed as a result of mergers and acquisitions.
TimberKing uses 1 1/4-inch ACME threaded rods to hold the cutting head in place. They take away the worry about the phenomenon of head stray and allow for fine adjustments to sawing tolerances.
The father and son team at Byrne Custom Lumber spends about six days of each month cutting, moving the portable mill with a truck. TimberKing offers a transportation package on its mill that includes electric brakes, highway tires, tail lights, a 4000-pound axle, safety chains and fenders.
Barry, a Michigan native, did not take any formal training to learn woodworking. He simply pursued an interest that eventually developed into a business. Although Barry taught Aaron the craft, he stresses repeatedly that Aaron soon surpassed him as a woodworker.
Barry and Aaron share a keen sense of stewardship of resources. Barry joked, "Aaron and I are tree huggers because that's how we measure things." Father and son believe forests are a natural resource that should be used and replenished at the same time, not preserved and unmanaged.
In southern Missouri, for example, there are many huge, old oaks. But the "quality, optimum peak" for the wood is when the trees are 18-inches to 20-inches in diameter, Barry noted. Bigger trees are no longer "green straight through," and are better suited for habitat for wildlife. Some trees that have enormous diameters are deceptive; they may be hollow and dry inside essentially dead.
Aaron likes to work with white oak and also uses a great deal of red oak and maple. He makes beds, dressers, coffee tables and picture frames in addition to moulding. In December, Aaron was putting the finishing touches on a Web site that will showcase his furniture. The custom orders he takes keep him extremely busy.
Originally, Barry and Aaron planned to mill lumber for the furniture that Aaron makes. But they also supply lumber to other people who make moulding and specialty components, such as fireplace mantles. "We don't do any construction (framing) stuff," said Barry. "It's the same amount of work for Aaron and me to cut construction materials as it is to cut white oak and sell it for $5 per board foot." Nevertheless, the TimberKing B-20 would be a good portable sawmill for making framing lumber, he noted.
Barry still looks at woodworking as his hobby. He is not certain precisely when his interest began, although he knows it was very early. "I always felt I could do something better than what I bought," he said. And he has long relished "making furniture and childrenís things."
He is exceedingly proud of Aaronís accomplishments. "He used what I knew and improved on it."
The father and son complement each other when they inspect a tract of land. "I look at it for buying and selling," said Barry." Aaron looks and asks, "Is there something we can use?"
They do all their own maintenance on the TimberKing B-20. "I took it to TimberKing once in four years," said Barry. That was for a thorough check-up and service, which he recalls as fast and smooth.
Barry likes the service he gets from TimberKing. "They're great on that," he said.
Most of Byrne Custom Lumber's orders come from referrals. In certain locations, especially in Missouri, Barry and Aaron cut a fair amount of timber for specific customers. Classified ads are used to market and sell some lumber. The Detroit area is a good location for reaching both urban and suburban networks of buyers, they have found.