By Larry Van Goethem
After getting laid off from four different jobs as a machinist without earning a penny in retirement, Larry Makovsky got fed up and decided to buy himself a job.
For $20,0000, no more than the price of an inexpensive car and far less than that of a cut-to-length logging operation, Makovsky purchased a TimberKing portable sawmill and set himself up as Larry's Custom Sawing Co.
A year later Makovsky has the sawmill almost paid off, he's making money cutting sawlogs into lumber around his hometown of Catawba in Northern Wisconsin, and he's no longer looking for yet another job at some factory whose owners regard him as chattel to be discarded when no longer needed.
It turns out, says Makovsky with a happy grin, that woodlot owners are looking for sawmillers willing to set up in their trees and cut up their logs. Makovsky has found a market for his services; his business card reads:
ONE MAN BAND
Makovsky, 53, born and raised in Catawba, does most of his work in that area but has found himself traveling around the northwoods the past year as landowners near and far have learned they can depend on him to come in and make lumber from timber knocked down by a huge storm last summer.
Makovsky thinks portable sawmills are a good idea for someone wanting to become their own boss, but he hopes not too many take up the trade-not as long as he's got the specialized work for himself anyway. "For the independent logger this is the way to go," he said during a break in a day's milling of a large white pine tree that went down in a wind storm last winter.
For the job, Makovsky settled for taking the lumber, which was good quality-the pine had no punky wood-while the landowner, who just wanted the tree out of his yard, got by without paying Larry's $130 daily sawmill fee.
Makovsky hauls the mill to the woodlots with a 1990 Toyota pickup truck and typically goes on the job alone, but when needed, he calls on his sometime helper, Justin Goebel, or, on weekends, his wife Kathy. He never had trouble getting in or out of a logging site and can set up quickly in any woodlot with a handy road.
Born of Bohemian stock (with several lesser European strains), Makovsky is a powerfully built keg of a man who all but grew up "in the woods" as people say in northern Wisconsin. He was out of loggers who were also born to the work; his father worked a two-man cross cut saw in the woods and ran one of the first two-man power saws.
Like most northwoods kids, he put in his time in the Army, serving in Alaska, but returned home, as so many do, hearing, when away, the chant of spring peepers, the constant sough of wind and the distant traffic on U.S. 8, whose long reach across the states brings far travelers who regard little towns like Catawba the way Paul Simon saw them when he wrote the lines: "Nothing but the dark of night in my little town."
This the vital community where the Makovsky clan is rooted, where the Makovskys live and work-Kathy on the second shift at the Blount factory in nearby Prentice-and where Makovsky sings in the choir at St. Paul the Apostle Church and in another community ecumenical choir.
With his thick shock of hair and stocky build, Makovsky looks like one of the apostles as we might imagine them. His face is a map of the history of the western world. A small town boy and the owner of the usual Northwoods high school education, he majored in logging and has a doctorate in woods lore. Men like Makovsky are generally more honest than they have to be, but they don't go overboard about this, and they do just about everything well but cook and do laundry.
Makovsky actually works his "one man band" only part of the year because he also logs in the winter and is in business with two brothers, constructing log cabins. North Country Log Cabins & Homes, the log cabin company, is a classic regional business, capitalizing on tourism by selling skill and service to urban yuppies, who have so much money they can invest six figures in recreational dwellings.
Every winter Makovsky fells and skids pulpwood and last winter he decked 80 cords, which he peeled (by hand) for the Brokaw mill, something he does every year. He works with a John Deere 620 with a cable jammer and figures, with help he can turn out five cords daily.
Oddly, Makvosky has not been a full-time logger, although, he says, "Logging is in my blood." His main trade as a machinist proved frustrating because northwoods factories always cut back during downturns before he could get seniority or gain retirement points.
"I just got tired of trying to work with companies. You're just a number when you're there. I just decided if I'm ever going to make a go of it myself I was going to have to take the plunge and get into it so I brought this mill," Makovsky said.
He was tempted to go into logging and did work for jobbers for two years but this was during the poor economy back in the seventies. Today his main source of income is the sawmill, supplemented by logging and cabin construction.
But he says he would make out well running the TimberKing full time. "I could make money off this," he said. He enjoys doing several things and not being confined. He doesn't punch a clock and is his own boss. "If my brother needs me I work that in," he said of the sawmill.
Scratch a Wisconsin logger and you find a farm kid who grew up milking cows, haying and cutting pulpwood. "We logged all winter long," Makovsky recalled of his youth. "I just got to love it and that's why I stayed in logging all my life. No matter if I was working in a factory-I'd always work the second shift but I was moonlighting during the day. I never, ever stopped it all my life; it was just something that got into my blood."
With all of the buzz attending the death of small towns and flight to cities, how explain the appeal for its children of the Catawbas of the Lake Superior region? Makovsky could do better in Milwaukee as a machinist. But he chooses, while driving a truck with 145,000 miles on it, to invest a down payment on a sawmill (His wife drives an '89 Nissan).
Makovsky thinks woods boys stay home because they enjoy hunting and fishing. "I think just being in the woods and loving the woods, you just have to find a job that you incorporate into that," he said. This work horse takes time off in summer to fish pike and walleye and enjoys bow hunting for deer. He stopped gun hunting long ago, when the thrill wore off as it became less challenging.
Makovsky is able to mill up to 2000 board feet of lumber with his TimberKing-but that's with a helper and when things are going well. He's satisfied with 1500 ft of daily production and often might settle for less.
"I like it," he said of the TimberKing. "It's holding up real well." He looked around at other brands at trade shows before choosing the TimberKing, which can handle a 20 foot log on a 28 foot frame. Used only last fall and again this spring, with the summer off for log home construction, the mill has sawed about 320,000 bd ft. since its purchase last May.
Makovsky prefers the TimberKing because the saw carriage is mounted on four posts and, rather than having to move withit, he can control the cut from one end of the frame where a system of hydraulic controls, running off a separate five horse Briggs and Stratton engine, helps him turn the trunk as he's cutting. Added stability permits more accuracy in the lumber, he said, adding: "I haven't had any complaints. Usually people are pretty satisfied."
The saw runs off a 25 horse Kohler engine and it comes with a small computer, which was a major selling point for Makovsky. The little brain box was supposed to do the math on logs as Makovsky adjusted controls. But he got used to doing the numbers in his head-and quicker than the computer-so he calculates his own cuts with the aid of a sheet of sizes posted on the saw carriage easily seen from his control point.
"I've been a machinist all my life," he explained. "I always had numbers in my head. It just seemed faster to do it in my head."
He uses Kentucky windage to trim the sawbolt. "I can usually eye down that to see if the log is level. Then I shoot down that. Once I turn it around I can get an eyeshot as to what I'm going to get out of that log before I start cutting."
The largest log he's cut was a 16 foot long white pine with a 36-inch diameter. He had to take a thick slab off the top, then do a resaw on that before tackling the main log because his saw blade goes to 28 inches.
The TimberKing has hydraulic arms that bend down so Makovsky can roll wood onto them. Then he lifts them with the hydraulic system, which features arms that shift the log to drop it into place. This is no Cleereman, however, and he often has to use a pickaroo or canthook to roll and shift the logs. Makovsky haunts garage sales shopping for used canthooks, which he collects, because new ones cost $35. "Those are the two handiest tools there are," he says.
The woodlot owner is expected to have the sawlogs decked so that Makovsky can load them onto the hydraulic arms that raise them to the mill.
While some portable sawmill owners charge for broken blades, Makovsky, who pays about $220 for a dozen 12-foot saw blades for the band saw, doesn't charge for broken blades, saying, "You're supposed to be alert enough to catch that."
While the log is on the ground, he uses a hand metal detector to check for nails or bullets. The day we were with him, Makovsky checked a two-foot diameter saw bolt after it was on the carriage, instead of checking it on the ground so that the metal frame wouldn't confuse the detector, and ended up damaging two blades. He said it was his fault because he thought the telltale metal readings were the metal guide posts right by the logs; they weren't.
One blade didn't bite into a nail until it was about 50 years into the trunk while the other blade hit an embedded bullet. For the cabin construction part of the operation, Makovsky often purchases a truck load of Lake Superior pine logs harvested by a salvage operation and rejected by a large metal detector at the large Biewer sawmill at Prentice.
For about $250, including trucking costs, Makovsky gets Biewer's green stained century old pine logs from the bottom of Lake Superior, checks them with his handy detector, cuts out the nails with a chain saw, and is able to use the logs for lumber or log siding. The portable sawmill is handy to saw the logs into D logs for the cabins, allowing even siding inside, or into lumber for construction or specialty jobs.
This is not a one person operation. "Usually I ask the guy I'm sawing for to give me a hand," he said. "It works very well. They're glad to help and besides, they usually want to watch what's going on anyway, so I just point them in the right direction." On the other hand, he sometimes has to work alone, which means he stops on each pass to sort the sawed lumber.
Makovsky allows an eighth of an inch for the blade and maintains a seven eighths pitch between points for aspen and pine. He goes to five eighth or three quarter inch for hardwoods.
His shop is equipped with a grinder and tooth filer because the blades take a beating. "I usually spend a couple of hours in the shop sharpening my blades for the next day," he said.
Like other honest craftsmen, Makovsky has discovered that economist Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is there. His customers are happy with his work and he gets many repeat calls. One customer said he was using lumber milled by Makovsky to build an outhouse and shed. He's getting the kind of repeat calls that keep businesses going.
MaKovsky gets especially busy in the summer as the log home business heats up and he uses the TimberKing to mill logs for the homes. "I'm going to be a busy guy this summer," he said. "I figure in another 25 years I'll have to slow down.
He certainly won't retire. The working stiffs in this country pay their bills, leave their customers with some blood to keep their heart pumping after a transaction and let greed consume the rest of the world while they fulfill themselves as they see fit.
Henry David Thoreau would nod his head in assent. So would any logger.