A Cut Above

When we think about life in the country, we often envision scenes of rolling fields, pristine wooded glades or orchards laden with bounty. But there’s more to country living. For despite the beauty that surrounds them and the land that sustains them, country folks need to earn a living. Some might farm – one or two might sell locally grown vegetables at a roadside stand, or they could operate a rural manufacturing facility. Yep, you heard correctly, some rural denizens harvest raw materials and produce finished goods from them: at a country sawmill, like Sanzotta Logging & Lumber, near Red Creek.

During a recent visit to the mill where I purchased a pickup load of sawdust bedding, I spoke with mill yard foreman Steve Brown about what it’s like to transform massive logs into the various products they sell. After we loaded my sawdust, Steve took me around the place for a good look at the entire operation. It was a real education. Steve also introduced me to his “assistant” Harley, his dog who had been “working” at the mill for about six months and was fast becoming a valuable addition to the crew. An individual of few words, Harley prefers letting his actions bespeak of his intentions.

By Steve’s reckoning, he cuts an average of 1,500 board feet of sawn lumber per day. That may not sound like much, but as the mill is open at least six days a week (sometimes seven), that translates into a yearly production of 475,000 board feet. If you’re unfamiliar with the board foot measurement, it equates to a piece of wood 12 inches x 12 inches by
1-inch thick, so their annual production could be thought of as a single 12-inch plank roughly 90 miles long!

Most of the planks and beams the mill cuts are 10- to 12-footers, though occasionally they cut longer stock if a customer requests it, the longest being 27 feet. That’s big, and in truth, it would be out of the ordinary for most customers to require lumber of that length. However, some of their accounts are post-and-beam builders or Amish farmers who frequently require big beams for the sills and structural framing used in traditional wooden barns or custom built homes. According to Steve, the mill’s latest order of large planks was for 30 red oak 4 x 16s; for use as bed planks on a heavy equipment trailer. And while it’s fun to throw around some gee-whiz numbers, the bulk of the mill’s production consists of 1- to 2-inch-thick rough sawn planks.

Rough sawn wood is just as the name implies: green timber that isn’t kiln dried or run through a planer to remove the raised grain. It’s used primarily as planking for outbuildings and horse stalls – really anyplace where functionality trumps aesthetics. While the mill cuts a small percentage of hardwood logs, most of their output is produced from eastern white hemlock. Hemlock is a traditional building material and has several extremely useful properties. It is relatively knot free, dries quickly, and provided it doesn’t make ground contact, is nearly impervious to the effects of wind and weather. Most wooden barns with their batten and board exteriors are planked with hemlock. If left unpainted or untreated, hemlock gradually lightens to a silvery-gray color and will withstand exposure to the elements for nearly a century before finally rotting.

Additionally, after hemlock planks cure, their superior insulating characteristics make them ideal for stall construction in an otherwise unheated barn.

What happens to the “leftovers”?
At a mill like the one Steve runs, no part of a log is wasted. The outer slab wood (the round part) is bundled and sold by the pickup load. Folks cut it up to burn in their wood-fired furnaces and stoves. Smaller chunks of slab wood are chipped and sold to another local processor who converts them into wood pellets. Log ends and top logs are split into firewood and sold by the truckload. Smaller diameter logs, particularly soft maple and white ash, are cut into billets 4 inches thick. When they accumulate a sufficient quantity, Steve and his crew cut these into the slats and rails used to make apple and onion boxes. Other pieces of scrap are used to fuel the outdoor wood furnace that heats their small office building. Lastly the sawdust, which was my original motivation for visiting, is sold for stall bedding.

It’s too bad we all can’t practice this level of efficiency. As an example, if we plant sweet corn and a stalk yields but two ears, we don’t eat the rest. But trees are different. Unlike a stalk of corn which grows to maturity in about three-and-a-half months, a 20-inch oak log was on the stump for over 60 years before it was cut. And even if Steve planted a sapling to replace it, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to harvest it. Think about it this way: the white oak log in the photo was but a humble acorn around the time World War II ended. So what happens to the leftovers? There are none.

The Numbers
Many of us have seen a pile of landed logs stacked by the roadside. Most likely, they’re headed for a sawmill. However, many folks are unfamiliar with the meaning of those letters and numbers painted on the ends. So let’s use the white oak log in the photo on page 54 to help break the code. Painted on the end are the numbers 2019; (I tried rolling it right side up, but at roughly 1,000 pounds, it staunchly resisted those efforts). This means the log is 20 feet in length and at its smallest end measures 19 inches in diameter. The number 4 written below was a bit confusing to me though. The United States Forest Service, or USFS, has established a hardwood log grading system, numbering one through three.

When I questioned Steve about this apparent inconsistency, he explained that the log in question was part of a custom order for posts and beams eventually destined for Long Island Sound, where they would be used to construct a massive beachside pergola. The mill estimated they would need a dozen large logs to fill the order. However, as they would be arriving over the course of about two weeks, the felling crew decided to number them one through 12 so Steve would be able to track their arrival. It was nothing more sinister than that.

Seconds Count, Too
In an effort to wring every bit of value out of a piece of timber, the mill also sells “seconds.” Sometimes a log contains hidden flaws, which aren’t revealed until the saw has done its work. When this happens, Steve lays those planks aside. Despite their flaws, they’re far from useless.

When I decided to plank the interior walls of my pole barn-turned-stable, I paid a visit to Sanzotta’s to see what kind of a deal I could swing on some second-quality, 10-foot hemlock planks. I lucked out. Steve had a large pile of just what I was seeking. The ends were severely cracked, but no matter. I took them home, trimmed a few inches off each and they worked nicely. I saved some money and Steve kept two dozen planks from falling under the hammers of the chipper. I didn’t end up with any waste either. I dried the broken scrap, and the following spring used them to help fuel my evaporator when I made maple syrup. Unlike fossil fuels, burning wood is carbon neutral. The carbon dioxide released as the wood burns is the same that the tree removed from the air while it was growing.

Thus far, I’ve focused primarily on the logs and the finished products the mill turns out. But obviously, the star attraction of any sawmill is the saw. Steve employs a large horizontally mounted band saw to do his work. The unit automatically moves forward and, after each pass is completed, automatically returns. Then the band/blade is lowered to a predetermined depth, and the process is repeated. Once the outer slab wood has been removed and a flat surface established, hydraulic arms rotate the log until the flat side is facing downward and the process is repeated. After the log has been squared up, Steve can get down to cutting whatever planks or beams are called for in an order.

If your future travels will take you anywhere near Red Creek, you might want to pay a visit to Sanzotta Logging & Lumber. It’s located on Legas Road, near NY Route 370W. If you call them at 315-754-6481, they’ll be glad to give you precise directions. When you arrive, you can discuss your lumber needs with Harley, as he usually has plenty of time on his hands – rather, paws – or you can always talk to Steve.

The country sawmill is not as commonplace as it once was. During the 19th century when much of the eastern United States was heavily forested and the land was being cleared for farming, small sawmills were ubiquitous. Trees were plentiful but transporting them to a mill site was difficult. So mills were built where the logs were found and the lumber produced was used to build the houses, barns and outbuildings a new farmstead would require. These days, with modern equipment and machinery replacing the two-man buck saws and draft horse teams that hauled the timber; the number of mills needed to supply the public with rough sawn wood has dropped. But country sawmills will never completely disappear. And collectively, they represent a real-life link to our pioneer past.


by Rich Finzer