The price of lumber has more than doubled during the pandemic. Now people are turning to extreme DIY for building projects. Instead of buying boards, they're buying their own sawmills.



Have you noticed this? The price of lumber has more than doubled over the last year, so consumers with home improvement projects are looking for ways to save. One of those ways is extreme do-it-yourself. We're talking about milling your own lumber.

Emily Schwing reports from Anchorage.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Hans Dow spent the winter building a sawmill from scratch in his garage.

HANS DOW: I was like, well, I want a sawmill. I can make a lot of stuff with it. I also need to learn how to weld.

SCHWING: Dow's sawmill is about half the size of an upright piano. Today, he's cutting dozens of boards to build garden boxes. First, he rolls a nine-foot log into place.

DOW: And then most importantly are earplugs 'cause it's kind of loud.


SCHWING: Then he fires up his mill.


SCHWING: He guides the jagged metal blade through the log.

DOW: It's as simple as that.

SCHWING: Dow spent $3,000 to build his sawmill. He'll save thousands on future projects - a shed, an outdoor bench, maybe a dresser.

But not everyone takes do it yourself to this level.

PHIL HUDSON: What am I doing here?

KATE SEBRING: All right. So I'll go through...

HUDSON: Obviously signing things.

SCHWING: Seventy-one-year-old Phil Hudson is finishing the paperwork to buy a portable sawmill. For years, he's wanted to add on to his house. If he'd bought the lumber he needs last year, he says he'd have paid around $6 a board. This year, that price could be as high as $64 per board.

HUDSON: No, you can't pay these kind of prices (laughter). It's like, go to the grocery store and spend $200 and leave with one bag of groceries.

SEBRING: This is the warranty.

HUDSON: The engine blows up, something like that.

SCHWING: Kate Sebring is the sales representative at the Alaska office for WoodMizer, a company that manufactures portable sawmills. The cheapest mill costs just over $3,000. Prices go up to nearly $60,000.

Do you guys have your own mill, too?

SEBRING: Not anymore...


SEBRING: ...Unfortunately. Sometimes you'll have a customer who just wants a mill so bad, and you don't have anything in stock. And they're like, well, what's that mill right there? Oh, well, that's mine. Can I buy that from you? And this has happened more than once.

SCHWING: Before the pandemic, this WoodMizer office took an order for one sawmill per week. Now Sebring takes deposits for three or four sawmills a day.

JEREMY MOSES: Demand for lumber kind of bounced back even as supply remained constrained.

SCHWING: Jeremy Moses is a lumber market analyst with IBISWorld. He says the pandemic led to shut downs for home builders, furniture manufacturers and large-scale commercial sawmills.

MOSES: But at the same time, a lot of people wanted more space through the pandemic, more space to work from home. People who were kind of stuck at home wanted more furniture. And people buying new homes also bought new furniture.

SCHWING: Even though Moses says the sales of portable sawmills right now are a bright spot, the summer construction season for some people is still dim.

DON MORGAN: Kind of, yeah. We had a lot of trouble with building houses and getting material.

SCHWING: Don Morgan wanted a sawmill so badly he took a two-hour flight to Anchorage from his remote Native village of Aniak. Instead of ordering building supplies months in advance and shipping them to Aniak, he'll just ship a sawmill.

Are you excited, Don?

MORGAN: Can't wait.

SCHWING: Really?


MORGAN: I can't stay still. If I have lumber, I got to build something.

SCHWING: At $10,000, the price is a tough number to swallow for Morgan. But the sawmill is also a long-term investment. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIC45'S "THE LANES DON'T CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.