Before I buy wood, I take a ride through the country. And though I live in a beautiful part of the world, the ride I take has nothing to do with scenery. I am headed to my local sawmill.
There are thousands of mills in the country — even largely treeless Nebraska has sixteen — and they are by far the best places to buy wood, in my opinion. Mills are less expensive, the quality is better, and you’re face-to-face with the people who cut the log, people who get to know you and who have a reputation to maintain. The stuff they sell has got to be good.
Take walnut. The walnut you buy from a big producer has been steamed so that the color bleeds into the sapwood, making the lighter sapwood look — at least a little bit — like heartwood. But the color comes at the expense of the heartwood, leaving the entire board a muddy brown. The walnut you buy at a local mill never sees a steamer, and generally it is a rich, deep brown.
Take variety. At local mills, you’ll find native hardwoods in countless lengths and thicknesses. Cherry. Walnut. Bird’s-eye maple. Quartersawn red and white oak. Birch. Poplar boards 20″ wide. Thick, wide slices — called flitches — cut from the top to the bottom of a log for use as tables, countertops and freeform furniture.
Take the boards. Take any board you like. Roam through the piles and cherry pick the boards for figure, length and width. As long as you’re neat about it, most mills don’t mind you going through the piles for the boards that best meet your needs. Try that at a lumberyard.
When you’re looking for a mill, there are basically three types you can choose from: Huge operations, local operations that cut and kiln dry their own wood, and mills that sell green lumber. It’s the latter two you want to deal with. The ones I know best are the Pennsylvania mills I buy from: Bailey Wood Products and Heacock Lumber.
Bailey sits in the mountains and farmland above Kempton, Pennsylvania, a town of about three thousand. The Appalachian Trail runs along the ridge behind the mill. Hawk Mountain, named for the huge migration of hawks that passes over it, is nearby. Heacock is about an hour’s drive north of Philadelphia. The suburbs are closing in to the south, but the mill still sits amongst the stone barns and farmhouses built by the Pennsylvania Germans some 200 years ago. When the Americans smuggled the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia to keep the British from turning it into cannon balls during the Revolution, the bell traveled up a nearby road.
Both mills are family-run operations. Jeff Schucker, who runs the Bailey mill, started working there in fourth grade, pushing a broom in what was then his grandfather’s mill. Duval Denlinger started at Heacock shortly after college, and he co-owns the mill with his father-in-law, Duane Hunsberger, whose family bought the mill in 1974.
In the early years — Heacock began in 1919 and Bailey in 1928 — both mills were portable, traveling from farm to farm and woodlot to woodlot, cutting lumber for farmers. In the thirties, the Heacocks replaced the steam engine that powered the saw, using a tractor instead. The Bailey mill was powered by a car motor.
“The first transaction took place in the field right across from the office,” Schucker (which rhymes with sugar) says. “My great-uncle and great-grandfather got some oak logs out of the farm lot, dragged the logs out of the woods with horses, and hauled them to the roadside by wagon.” The logs, part of the oak forest that runs through the southern two-thirds of Pennsylvania, were destined to be firewood until a Model T sputtered up the dirt road. Three timber buyers, looking for support beams for the coal mines to the north, hopped out and offered to buy the logs. Bailey Lumber Company, the forerunner of Bailey Wood Products, was born.