The work is hot, physically demanding and sometimes dangerous. But John Frank Deese can’t think of much he loves more than the smell of fresh-cut lumber and the roar of a sawmill ripping through trees destined for a second life.
“A friend of mine bought a sawmill when he was building his barn, and I was helping him with it. I just fell in love with it right away,” said 33-year-old Deese, who lives in town of Grady in south Montgomery County.
Deese bought his first sawmill five years ago when his passion was still a hobby. Since then, the strapping outdoorsman has sawn almost a million board feet of lumber used for flooring, fencing, furniture and more. He recently bought a larger, diesel-powered portable sawmill to accommodate a growing clientele.
“I had so many customers, it was just more work than I could keep up,” he said. “There’s a lot of hard work even with the larger mill, but production is faster. I can cut more accurate lumber because this sawmill has a computer program to preset cuts.”
Easier? Maybe. But still physically demanding.
On a recent chilly afternoon, Deese maneuvered a 3,000-pound black walnut log onto the sawmill platform using a cant hook. The curved hook on the end of the stick gripped the bark as Deese shifted his weight forward to roll the log. It took several minutes to get it into position, but once the log was in place, a computerized program and the watchful eye of Deese began peeling back the layers to reveal treasures beneath.
“Black walnut is one of my favorites,” he said, brushing sawdust from the log, revealing unique streaks of light and dark wood. “You really never know what it’s going to look like until you get into it, and it’s almost always something beautiful.”
The thick black walnut slabs easily weighed 200 pounds each and required an extra set of hands to lift from the mill. Customer Zack Mathews said he intends to make a coffee table and end tables for a house he’s building where the tree once stood.
Deese’s sawmill customers vary from those with a few pine logs they want sawn into board and batten to big hardwood logs used for furniture.
Satisfied customers like Mathews are another rewarding part of the job, Deese said. Seeing someone appreciate the wood from a tree for its sentimental value is hard to describe, he said.
“Using wood that’s special regenerates a memory for them every time they see it,” Deese said.
For customers Tim and Karen Duncan, that memory is part of their everyday life. When they acquired Karen’s grandfather’s house near Grady, adding on to the 100-year-old house presented unique challenges. The couple wanted an addition that blended easily with the original structure, including plank floors.
“To make room for the addition, we had to cut down several pine trees near the house that were planted by her grandfather,” Tim said. “We used the trees to make the flooring for the addition. We also had a pecan tree from the yard that John Frank made into a fireplace mantel for the family room. It’s about eight inches thick, a foot wide and probably 10 feet long. It’s a beautiful piece. I can’t say enough good things about the work John Frank does.”
Sawmilling is a busy part-time job for Deese, who has a wildlife biology degree from Auburn University. He works full time as a wildlife biologist for The Whitetail Institute, helping landowners and hunters with food plots and other deer nutrition products.
Deese also is a private wildlife management consultant for several hunting clubs and private landowners, and he has a 5-year-old son, John Parker Deese.
Investing in a larger portable sawmill is part of Deese's long-range plans. Eventually, he’d like to own the wood he cuts with hopes of selling unique, custom pieces for furniture or home décor.
“I want to sell rough-cut lumber and kiln-dried specialty pieces for fireplace mantels, flooring and tongue-and-groove lumber,” Deese said. “I’m still learning every day, and every time I do it, I learn something new.”
See Simply Southern episode 408 featuring Deese Sawmill at SimplySouthernTV.net. Contact Deese at (334) 322-1143or P.O. Box 21, Grady, AL 36069. Email him at email@example.com or follow Deese Custom Sawmilling on Facebook and Instagram.