Lumbering Along

John Barber

John Barber with his newly installed sawmill

Sawmill and wood shop opens in Philipstown

John Barber, a native of Putnam Valley, earlier this year opened First Cut, a sawmill and woodworking shop, at 3441 Route 9 in Philipstown. 

Is First Cut about your love of wood, or strictly business?
There’s a love of wood, for sure. I’ve been working with wood since I was a child. I was always building things in the garage — boxes, furniture, you name it. 

How long have you been in the wood business?
Nearly 20 years, although I didn’t start First Cut until 2003. I bought this building two years ago and got it up and running about six months ago. 

How many growth rings do you have?
I have 37!

What’s your bread and butter?
I make about 1,000 moldings, from casing, crown and base molding to flooring, paneling and siding — any lineal strip of wood that’s more than a rough board. 

Which hardwood is most valuable?
Domestically, it’s walnut. In the import market, the sky’s the limit with rarities such as ebony or rosewood, and even certain reclaimed items. I have some ipe — Brazilian walnut that’s hard as nails — which I believe came from the Coney Island boardwalk. 

Do you create your lumber from logs?
It’s a mix. We buy from sawmills and wholesalers. We set up a sawmill a week ago and are already sawing customers’ logs and selling slabs and custom beams. We’ll also make hardwood decking for equipment trailers.

Where is your lumber sourced?
A lot is from the Northeast: pine and hemlock from New York and poplar from the East Coast and Canada. I buy a lot of imported wood from Africa. Mahogany is beautiful, abundant and priced well. 

Do you buy local logs?
Not typically. People bring us logs for free. They’re heavy and expensive to transport, so sometimes it’s easier for tree services to drop them here than move them around, store them or turn them into firewood.

What’s your favorite wood to work with?
Poplar, because it makes me money! It’s long, abundant, easy to mill and cheap. It’s also good for painting; most people paint molding these days. 

Are nails much of a problem when sawing?
It’s a costly day when you hit nails or staples or rocks. Bullets are common but aren’t usually a big deal because they are soft lead or copper. We also have found musket balls. 

Are the artist stretcher bars you make a sideline?
It’s more than that; it helps pay my bills! We do 200 stretcher bar shipments a week to print shops across the U.S. and to artists and photographers.

Ever feel sad when sawing 150-year-old logs?
I think about that, but the Northeast species are abundant. We’re not cutting down endangered species or clear cutting. They no longer burn forests to make ash or giant heart pine trees — some of the biggest, most wonderful timber we had — to make tar used on wooden ships. Most logs you see here were trees that had to come down because they endangered a house or were storm-damaged. It’s better than using them for firewood or letting them rot in the woods. I sometimes question the exotic woods that come in, though. We hope they’re Forest Stewardship Council certified. You pay a little more for FSC lumber, but it’s responsibly harvested. 

What’s the oldest wood you’ve milled?
I have some reclaimed chestnut that’s about 300 years old. And someone came in with Asian padouk wood; it’s dark red, absolutely beautiful. It came from a Thai temple many hundreds of years old. We milled it into flooring for a house in New York. We also get heart pine beams up to a couple of hundred years old from old factories, and barn beams, too, but it’s hard to put a date on them. 

Are any of your waste products reusable?
We sell about 50 bags of wood shavings each week, mainly to farms as bedding. There’s a demand for it, especially in the muddier seasons. 

Have plastic and particle board killed the appreciation of quality wood?
Wood is more appreciated now. People have done a 180. We sell a lot of rough-sawn wood with circle saw curves on it — the polar opposite of vinyl siding. People love that rustic look. Wood is usually milled smooth but the knots, color variations and grain are more prized.

Do you have a favorite tree?
The one I’d be upset to see come down is the locust in my parent’s front yard. In second grade I had to grow a tree, starting with a seedling in a milk carton. Now it’s 25 to 30 feet tall.


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