Maine Sawmills

Filling a Niche for Locally-Sourced Wood

Wendy Patterson of Maschino Lumber, speaks to participants in a recent tour. Maschino Lumber is a fourth-generation, family-owned mill that sells hemlock, white pine and spruce for dimensional lumber, boards and siding in New Gloucester.  Photo: Phoebe Parker

Wendy Patterson of Maschino Lumber, speaks to participants in a recent tour. Maschino Lumber is a fourth-generation, family-owned mill that sells hemlock, white pine and spruce for dimensional lumber, boards and siding in New Gloucester. Photo: Phoebe Parker

By Lee Burnett

A new cohort of builders is turning to locally-milled wood for its character and for its benefit to local jobs and to reducing carbon footprints.

One community of such builders revolves around Bickford Lumber in Lisbon Falls, a one-man sawmill that’s been producing lumber since 1950. Bickford saws hemlock and Eastern white pine logs into timbers, boards and siding patterns. It once milled a quarter million board feet of lumber a year. Nowadays it fills custom orders for timber framers, finish carpenters, high-performance builders and home owners. It also sells sawdust, chips and bark mulch.

Bickford Lumber is a decidedly old-fashioned place. It started operating in a single shed behind the Bickford home on Route 125 and has since grown into a small campus of three unheated, weather-beaten, sun-burned buildings. It’s truly a creation of 78-year-old Bruce Bickford. He occasionally brings in help, but generally does everything himself, from moving logs to running the saw, maintaining the machinery, sharpening blades and stacking boards.

Bruce Bickford operates a one-man sawmill in Lisbon Falls that has been producing lumber since the 1950s. He fills custom orders for timber framers, finish carpenters, high-performance builders and home owners.  Photo: Phoebe Parker

Bruce Bickford operates a one-man sawmill in Lisbon Falls that has been producing lumber since the 1950s. He fills custom orders for timber framers, finish carpenters, high-performance builders and home owners. Photo: Phoebe Parker

Bickford grew up working in the mill that was started by his father Carl, then left for a while as a young man. “I worked civil service – oceanography – but I didn’t like it. We weren’t producing anything.” He came home and took over the mill in the mid-1970s. A tour of his mill takes little time. The entire operation can be seen from the computerized control room where Bickford sits. I notice a wicked-looking circular blade packed for shipping. It’s being sent out for tensioning – or stiffening – one of the few tasks he doesn’t do himself.

I asked Bickford what the satisfaction is in operating a small saw mill.

“I don’t know, I just like it,” he said in his classically terse style.

Despite its aged character, a young vibe pervades Bickford Lumber. I discovered that on a visit one frigid January morning. I was greeted in the yard not only by the patriarch himself but by four young timber framers who seemed particularly proud to be associated with Bickford.

“We like working together,” said Kelly Mann.

“We love each other. I use the ‘L’ word,” said Ariel Burns. They drew a smile from Bickford.

Also greeting me were Ken Voorhees and Mark Casad who, along with Mann and Burns, are in business together as Maine Heritage Timber Frames, which rents space from Bickford. The timber framers seem eager to make up for Bickford’s reticence, pointing out aspects of the operation that a newcomer might not notice. On the finish rack, Ken swept his gloved hand across the top faces of some recently milled timbers. The faces were dead even and bore few arcing scratches from the blade, proof of quality. “Notice how smooth?” he asked.

Sourcing wood locally is more a state of mind than a rigid practice. It happens automatically in some cases. Anyone who buys pine boards or two-by-fours in Maine – even from a big box store – is probably buying wood grown in Maine or nearby. Particle-board sheathing, such as Advantech™ and Zip System™, probably comes from a Huber Engineered Woods mill in Easton, ME. But a lot of wood products sold in Maine come from all over the world. That includes finger-jointed pine used in trim, some kinds of plywood, pressure-treated dimensional lumber used in deck framing, some cedar clapboards and most hardwood flooring.

Those pushing the envelope on local sourcing tend to be timber framers – because they need longer beams and absolutely square timbers generally available from custom mills – and also high-performance builders. Emerald Builders of Bowdoinham, which advertises itself as “Maine net-zero and passive homes,” and Bungalow in a Box of Woolwich, which produces super energy-efficient, panelized kit homes, are among the builders who source from Bickford.

Reggie Lebel, owner of Emerald Builders, said sourcing wood locally is an important part of the company’s mission. It grew out of his interest in high-performance, low-carbon construction. “We started in 2006 with an emphasis on green building. We were members of the US Green Building Council Maine Chapter,” he said. The emphasis on energy-efficient construction led to timber frame and hybrid timber frame construction, which feature thicker walls. It takes some planning to source locally because of the lead time for custom orders. “We do it for the local economy, keeping the materials local,” said Lebel. And, he adds, “I just like going to the sawmill, too.”

The team at Maine Heritage Timber Frames. From left to right: Kelly Mann, Ariel Burns, Ken Vorhees, and Mark Casad.  Photo courtesy of Maine Heritage Timber Frames

The team at Maine Heritage Timber Frames. From left to right: Kelly Mann, Ariel Burns, Ken Vorhees, and Mark Casad. Photo courtesy of Maine Heritage Timber Frames

I was especially curious about Lebel’s interest in hemlock. Hemlock is one of Maine’s underutilized wood species and has a fan base among builders who like to source locally. But hemlock is not known as a stable wood, and I was interested in how a high-performance builder works with it in super-efficient construction. “You just have to use it in the right places,” said Lebel. It is well suited, for example, for use outside the “air and moisture boundary,” such as in the frame and roof decking of a porch.

The relationships being knit around Bickford are more than transactional. “We do think of us as a community,” said Bickford.

“He’s a part of Maine that’s very precious,” Raoul Hennin, owner of Bungalow in a Box, said in a telephone interview. He appreciates Bickford’s idiosyncracies, from his knowledge of obscure machine shops to his own specialized siding patterns. “He does make the best tongue-and-groove in the state. Just a little bit better, a little beefier,” said Hennin.

“I think the secret ingredient of success at Bickford Lumber is Bruce’s personal reverence and affinity for wood. If you visit in the summer, he is usually chewing on a splinter of hemlock as he operates the mill and stickers layer upon layer of boards to air dry,” Hennin continued.

But relationships are secondary to local wood’s value to the end customer. One homeowner who appreciates the source of wood in her home is Patricia Festino of Chebeague Island, who designed two of her homes. She appreciates the lower carbon footprint of local wood and its “much warmer” feeling. “I’m just used to wood,” she said. She is not a stickler for local sourcing, but she takes pride in knowing where it comes from: cedar shingles (Hammond Lumber); hemlock timbers, pine flooring and roof decking (Bickford); wood cabinets (big box store) and birch flooring (Lumber Liquidators). When I played the devil’s advocate and asked why she doesn’t just seek out the least expensive materials, she had a quick retort.

“I think it’s really about integrity. I would feel I was letting myself down. I think you do the very best you can,” she said. And that’s aligned with Bickford’s approach. “Someday, I’m going up there to shake his hand. He’s been wonderful,” she said.

Festino’s hybrid approach to local sourcing may be a growing phenomenon, said Sean Mahoney, wood utilization and marketing forester for the state of Massachusetts.

“The fun thing I’ve been noticing is the cross-over folks – the traditional stick-built builders who are dabbling in local wood. They blend styles a bit,” he said. He’s seen exposed beams used as ridge poles in ranch houses and other houses that showcase a piece of local wood joinery – low-cost efforts he applauds. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of money,” he said. “It’s amazing all the interest in local wood ... It would be great if everyone could do it.”

A timber frame home in Woolwich built by Maine Heritage Timber Frames. Most of the wood was sourced from the property and milled onsite. The remaining pieces were milled by Bickford Lumber.  Photo courtesy of Maine Heritage Timber Frames

A timber frame home in Woolwich built by Maine Heritage Timber Frames. Most of the wood was sourced from the property and milled onsite. The remaining pieces were milled by Bickford Lumber. Photo courtesy of Maine Heritage Timber Frames

Local wood may provide small mills a marketing advantage. Two examples in Vermont come to mind, said Dave Redmond, director of wood products initiatives at the Northern Forest Center. He cites Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford, VT, a family-owned sawmill that sources entirely from Vermont forests with an increasing emphasis on wood grown under the sustainably audit standards of the Forest Stewardship Council. He also mentions Goodridge Lumber in Albany, VT, a family-owned sawmill promoting “locally harvested white cedar.”

“They’ve found a niche and doing their thing and doing it successfully,” said Redmond.

Bickford Lumber’s future is not clear. Bruce works because it’s in his blood. “I’ve got to do something,” he says. At some point, he plans to retire. He hopes to hand off the business, although those details have not been worked out.

“It’s a pretty special operation,” said Mark Cassad. “I’d love to keep it going. Something like this is unique, keeping it going is important. I’d be proud to be part of it.”

“Well spoken,” said Bruce.


Small and family-owned sawmills in Maine

This is a partial list; it does not include sawmills oriented to regional and national markets, such as mills that produce plywood, particle board, pine boards and dimensional lumber. For more information, visit the online Maine Wood Guide at localwoodworks.org.

Beams and timbers

  • Bickford Lumber Company, Lisbon Falls

  • Bradeen Wood Products, Stacyville

  • Dewey’s Lumber, Liberty

  • Dimension Lumber, Livermore Falls

  • Donald Smiley Jr., Farmington

  • Eastern Maine Mill Works, Steuben

  • Gallan’s Custom Sawing, South Paris

  • Gilpatrick & Sons, Richmond

  • Hammond Lumber Company, Belgrade

  • Hopkins Sawmill, Hodgdon

  • Katahdin Forest Products, Oakfield

  • Lowell Lumber Company, Buckfield

  • Maschino Lumber Company, New Gloucester

  • Michael Holt, Canaan

  • N.C. Hunt, Inc., Jefferson

  • North Leeds Building Supply, Leeds

  • Oxford Timber, Inc., Oxford

  • Parent Lumber Company, Mechanic Falls

  • Parker Lumber Company, Bradford

  • Rough and Ready Lumber, Ashland

  • Tardif Sawmill, Fort Kent

  • The Red Mill, South Casco

  • Tukey Brothers, Inc., Belgrade

  • Tweedie Lumber, Thorndike

  • White House Lumber, Waldoboro

  • Yate’s Sawmill, Lubec

  • Yoder’s Custom Sawing, Corinna

Cedar

  • Dewey’s Lumber and Cedar Mill, Liberty

  • Frost Cedar Products, Embden

  • Houghton Cedar Products, Lee

  • J & J Cedar Mill, Bridgewater

  • Tardif Sawmill, Fort Kent

  • Tweedie Lumber, Thorndike

Flooring

  • AE Sampson and Son, Warren

  • David Andrews, Atkinson

  • E D Bessey Lumber Products, Hinckley

  • Maine Traditions (Kennebec Lumber), Solon

  • Michael Holt, canaan

  • Wood Mill of Maine (pine), Mercer

  • Yoders Custom Sawing, Corinna

Hardwood

  • America’s Wood Company, Washington

  • Atlantic Hardwoods, Portland

  • Day’s Hardwood, Freeport

  • E D Bessey Lumber Products, Hinckley

  • Fat Andy’s Hardwoods, North Yarmouth

  • G.W. Martin & Co., Montville

  • Kennebec Lumber, Solon

  • Lumbra Hardwoods, Milo

  • Maine Woods Company, Portage

  • Rare Woods USA, Mexico

  • Seacoast Hardwood, Sanford

  • Sebasticook Lumber, St. Albans

Reclaimed and salvaged wood

  • Barnboards and More, Gardiner

  • Down & Back Wood Salvage, Cape Elizabeth

  • Hammond Lumber Company, Belgrade

  • Hopkins Sawmill, Hodgdon

  • Longleaf Lumber, Berwick

  • Maine Heritage Timber, Millinocket

  • Rousseau Reclaimed, South Portland

Shingles and clapboards

  • Cobscook Lumber, Pembroke

  • Coles Cedar, Prentiss

  • Cook’s Shingles, Laths & Stakes, Newport

  • Dimension Lumber, Livermore

  • Frost Cedar Products, Embden

  • Hammond Lumber Company, Belgrade

  • Katahdin Clapboard Company, Patten

  • Longfellows Cedar Shingles, Windsor

  • Nelson’s Lumber, Anson

  • Tweedie Lumber, Thorndike

GHM-S19-digital edition.jpg

This article first appeared in the spring & summer 2019 issue of Green & Healthy Maine Homes magazine.
Subscribe today!