Big Red Sawmill Finds Firewood Niche in Nebraska

Tue February 05, 2008 - West Edition
Greg Ehm



What started as a profitable lawn care company has blossomed into a successful sawmilling business for Brian Schwaninger. While he enjoyed the lawn care business, Schwaninger was looking for something different that didn’t compete with so many other businesses in the area.

“There isn’t a lot of competition in sawmilling, but there is plenty of demand for the services it provides,” said Schwaninger, owner of Big Red Sawmill and Firewood Inc., in Palmyra, Neb. “I found a niche in sawmilling because there aren’t many other sawmills around.”

The sawmilling business started for Schwaninger in 1998 just two years after he started his lawn care business. In 2001, he purchased a firewood processor and began to split logs for firewood in mass quantities. One year later he sold his lawn care business and turned the sawmill and firewood processing into a full-time business. He found that the sawmill provided a good way to keep his staff on board year-round rather than having employees work only in the spring and summer, and then laying them off in the winter as with the lawn care business.

Restaurants Demand for Firewood

Schwaninger said that one-third of his business revolves around the sawmill and the remainder comes from the firewood processor, which can produce 3 to 5 cords of firewood per hour. The processor features a 60-in.-circle saw blade (152.4 cm) that can simultaneously cut and split firewood into 12 pieces in roughly seven seconds.

“We go through approximately 1,200 cords a year. I take several loads of firewood to Colorado each year and sell it to customers who use it for resale,” he said.

In the beginning, Schwaninger placed yellow-page ads to generate interest and sales. He soon found that word-of-mouth was the best way to build his customer base, as his current customers began to refer their friends, family and colleagues. By 2004, Schwaninger had built a fairly large customer base of restaurant managers who depended on him for wood to use in open- flame fires for cooking.

“Most restaurants around here use hickory wood, and there isn’t a very big supply of hickory in this area, so restaurant owners would have to travel out of state for it,” he said. “We are able to consistently provide the quantity of firewood that is needed in a timely manner. We now supply most of the restaurants in Lincoln with smoking firewood.”

Niche Markets

Along with selling firewood, Schwaninger had ventured into other niche markets including trailer boards, kiln-dried lumber, and wood pellets.

Schwaninger also found success in selling trailer boards, which are most often used by construction companies for their equipment trailers. He became the source for the trailer boards, and helped customers eliminate the middle man — from the supplier to the lumberyard.

“Construction companies often call me when they have broken boards on their equipment trailers, because I have oak, and it’s hard to find thick oak planks in a lumberyard,” he said. “They give me the specific dimensions for the boards, and I’ll custom cut the planks for them.”

To produce kiln-dried lumber, boards are dried using the kiln to reduce the moisture of the board down to a dry 6 to 8 percent moisture.

“No one in the area has a custom kiln to dry lumber,” he said. “I converted a shed that I had on-site into a board kiln for drying lumber and a bin-kiln to dry mulch.”

By entering the wood pellet market and making quarter-inch wood pellets for smoking grills and wood pellet stoves, Schwaninger also became the area’s exclusive supplier of wood pellets. However, in order to produce the pellets, he needed a machine to break down the wood product into mulch.

The Right Machine for the Job

After looking at several different wood processing machines, Schwaninger realized that he needed something that was stable and that would contain the debris in one area. After talking to some tree-care contractors in the area he found a contractor who was using a Vermeer HG200 horizontal grinder on demo.

The HG200 can process brush and size the end-product in one pass — producing mulch that can be used for general ground cover, landscape mulch, compost, or animal bedding. The machine is compact, which makes towing and transportation to job site easier. After materials have been processed, a side-discharge conveyor belt allows operators to load materials into a dumpster or a 1-ton (0.9 t) truck.

“After seeing the machine on demo, I wanted to see how much firewood waste it would process so I decided to demo it on my lot. I was so pleased with its performance that I ended up purchasing it,” he said.

The machine’s portability was a main factor in Schwaninger’s purchasing decision.

“I have multiple sites on my lot where I need to move the unit to,” he said. “I need to be able to bring the machine to the product rather than bring the product to the machine. All I have to do is put a hitch on my skid loader and move the HG200 wherever I want it on my lot.”

With the HG200 unit, Schwaninger grinded the firewood waste to create mulch and process it into wood pellets to sell, rather than burning it in his yard. To create the wood pellets, the firewood or firewood waste was broken down into mulch with the HG200. The mulch was dried using the kiln, then processed through a secondary grinder to turn the dried mulch into a powder. A pellet machine then processed the powder that created the quarter-inch wood pellets.

“There is also a market for cedar wood, and now I have something to break down my cedar firewood into a high-value cedar mulch,” he said.

Machine Lives Up to Expectations

Schwaninger said he was pleased with the performance of the HG200 and indicated that it has lived up to his expectations.

“It is one of the most reliable machines that I have ever run. I was pleasantly surprised with what the machine could do, especially when it came to firewood waste,” he said. “I would consider purchasing an additional machine if the opportunity presented itself.”

Schwaninger also found success with his local Vermeer dealer.

“My employees are constantly saying how great the Vermeer dealership is. They have provided exceptional customer service, and continue to provide follow-up courtesy calls and visits to ensure satisfaction after the sale.”

Grey Ehm is a technical writer.