Why are live edge slabs "so expensive"?
I get asked this question a lot and wanted to document a few reasons why live edge slabs cost what they do. Let's review the steps required to properly prepare a live edge slab for a woodworking:
- Source the log
- Mill the log into slabs
- Dry the slabs
- Surface the slabs
Sourcing the log
Sawyers can source sawlogs for their mills from a number of sources. Logs can be purchased from specialty timber harversters or can be harvested directly by the sawyer from local property owners. Many times, sawyers get "urban logs" for free by partnering with local tree service companies. These partnerships save the tree service companies disposal costs and can save the sawyer some timber expense as well.
However even if the logs are free, there are still some serious costs involved, including:
- Transportation: good sawlogs are heavy and it requires large trucks/trailers to haul them to the sawyer's yard; it also requires lots of fuel and driving time
- Material handling: handling sawlogs requires large lifting equipment (forklifts, loaders, etc.) to safely and efficiently offload them from the transport and store them in the sawyer's yard
- Time: it takes a lot of time talking to people and visiting them to find good logs and sort through the junk; it also takes time driving around to get the logs, load them, offload them, and move them around the sawyer's yard
- Storage: sawyers need to store sawlogs (and the associated equipment) in their yard and this land costs money no matter which way you cut it
- Maintenance: vehicles, trailers, material handling equipment, chainsaws, and other specialty equipment all require regular maintenance which costs money for time and parts
Milling the log into slabs
Running the sawmill is the fun part but doesn't account for a majority of the cost (most people are surprised to learn this). Keep reading to learn why.
Major cost factors for running the sawmill are:
- Sawmill costs: professional sawmills can cost anywhere from $10,000 on the low end to $70,000+ at the high end
- Sawyer's time: it requires an experienced operator to run the sawmill smoothly and make educated decisions about how to optimize the cuts to produce the best slabs with good yield
- Fuel: this is a relatively small cost, but powering the sawmill requires gasoline, diesel, or electricity, which are not free
- Material handling: it requires large machines (forklifts, loaders, etc.) to safely and efficiently load sawlogs onto the sawmill and offload the resulting slabs; note that larger logs and slabs require significantly more expensive machinery
- Maintenance: sawmill chains and blades require regular sharpening and replacement to produce high-quality cuts; the sawmill power system also requires regular maintenance to keep it running
If you have your own logs and would like them milled we offer onsite portable sawmilling service for regional customers. We can mill up to 76" wide slabs on your property where your logs sit. Please see here for more information.
Drying the slabs
Drying the slabs is generally the largest cost for producing high-quality slabs. If you don't dry your slabs properly and build with green wood then your newly finished project is much more likely to warp or crack as it dries. Drying is a science (and an art), and there are dedicated professionals that do nothing but drying. Please refer to this manual to learn more about different facets of the drying process.
Major drying costs include:
- Time: best results are produced when live edge slabs air dry for several years before kiln drying (to below 20% moisture content at least) and this costs money to cover the upfront costs which accrues over time, e.g., interest rates
- Space: storing drying slabs for an extended period of time in a proper drying environment requires land, which costs money in rent, property taxes, mortgage, etc.
- Kiln equipment: professional kilns cost anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars and it requires significant energy to power them
- Monitoring: drying slabs requires regular monitoring and moisture meter readings to ensure proper drying rate
- Risk and yield loss: all slabs warp and twist as they dry and moisture leaves the slabs; this can be mitigated through good drying techniques but some yield loss is inevitable and professional sawyers need to factor this into their pricing
- Material handling: stacking slabs into boules, re-arranging the yard, loading and unloading kilns requires heavy lifting equipment as above
We offer professional air drying service for regional customers (located in a rural, arid, high wind area of Los Angeles county). This service includes proper storage and monthly moisture content readings. Please see here for more information.
Surfacing the slabs
When slabs dry they inevitably warp and crack, and they need to be surfaced (flattened and sanded) prior to further processing as a result. Major costs include:
Equipment: DIYers can make their own router jig but flattening this way is slow, tedious, and error-prone; in contrast professional flattening mills or CNC machines cost around $15,000 to $30,000 but can flatten slabs precisely and many times faster
Time: similar to sawmilling, surfacing requires some experience and time to operate; note the tradeoff here against equipment cost — surfacing operation time is significantly lower with better equipment and higher with cheaper equipment or jigs
Material handling: loading slabs onto a flattening mill and flipping them over is a delicate process and large slabs may require a forklift and an experienced operator
Maintenance: surfacing machines require regular sharpening and maintenance similar to above
We offer professional surfacing service for customers who already have dried slabs and would like them flattened. Please see here for more information.
Hopefully you now have a better sense for the major cost factors behind live edge slabs. It requires a lot of time, machinery, experience, and a little bit of luck to produce high-quality live edge slabs that are ready for woodworking.
Looking to save some money? My recommendation is to source your own logs, hire a sawyer to mill them into slabs, dry the slabs yourself, wait 1-3 years, then build a router jig to surface the slabs yourself. You will need land and potentially some heavy lifting equipment depending on the size of your slabs.
Need a slab now? If you want slabs now you'll need to find a sawmill that has done all of this work already. Just note that all of this work and associated costs needs to be factored into the price for the sawyer to cover their costs and stay in business.