Tips for Using a Portable Sawmill

Editor’s Note: Sandor Nagyszalanczy is the author of the article “Portable Sawmills: Lumber from Local Trees” in the July/August 2013 issue of Woodworker’s Journal. Find out more about that article, plus lots more great content, here.

Salvaging a dead or dying tree, or logs that a power company or homeowner have cut, and milling them into useful lumber is a very satisfying experience (see the video of a portable band saw mill in action on the More on the Web page for the July/August issue). If this idea is in your wheelhouse, there are two ways to proceed: One is to find and hire a good sawyer that has the right experience to do the job for you. Many portable sawmill manufacturers have their own forums and links pages where you can find a reputable sawyer in your area. Some sawyers have their own web pages or are listed in your local phone directory. The other method is to buy or borrow the equipment and do the job yourself. Whether you buy/borrow a sawmill or hire a sawyer, the proper preparation will save you time and money, as well as potentially help produce more useable lumber. Here are some tips I gleaned from veteran sawyer David Boyt, publisher of Sawmill and Woodlot Management magazine, to help you prepare for the job:

  • • Make sure that you can get the mill to the worksite. You might have to trim some trees or bushes to be able to drive your pickup truck or tow vehicle to the site. Plus, if the mill is on a trailer, you’ll need plenty of room to negotiate corners and turn the trailer around. Once there, you’ll need a large, level worksite on which to set up the mill. Ultimately the size of the site depends on the length of the logs you’ll be milling, but a flat spot that’s 30 feet square is a good place to start. You’ll also need a level spot fairly close to the worksite where you can stack the freshly milled boards.
  • • Setting a sawmill’s track rails directly on the ground makes it easier to load logs, but then you’ll have to bend over to pick up every slab, board or edging you cut. Some operators opt to raise the sawmill up (8-14 inches is typical) by setting it on top of either rail ties or beam cutoffs. This can also make it easier to level the sawmill — necessary for proper operation. Make sure and secure the mill’s adjustable feet with lag screws to prevent the bed from shifting during use.
  • • Figure out how you’ll get the logs to the mill from where they’ve been cut or stacked. Ideally, you should transport the logs on a wagon, trailer or, if you have access to it, a front-end loader. One handy device is the LogRite® Buck Arch, a wheeled sulky that can be towed by an ATV or 4-wheel drive vehicle (there’s also a small hand-pulled model). Dragging the logs can be a problem for two reasons: 1. Dirt and grit end up embedded in the log’s bark and will take their toll on the band saw blade (if you’ve hired a sawyer, they may charge you for extra blades). You can clean light dirt off logs with a long-handled barbeque grill brush. 2. Dragged logs tend to leave deep ruts in soft ground, which can make walking around the worksite hazardous.
  • • To save board-handling time, stack your logs so that the longest, best quality stock is cut first. As you work your way down to the smaller, poorer quality logs, you’ll reach a point where it’s too much work for too little lumber (an exception is cutting some of your lower quality logs into blocking and stickers; you’ll need lots of these to properly stack the freshly cut lumber and keep it off the ground). If you’ve hired a sawyer, it’s usually not economical to have them cut any logs shorter than 8 feet and/or less than about 8 inches in diameter (plus some lumber mills have trouble clamping down shorter/smaller logs). The lumber yield just doesn’t add up to the amount of time it takes to cut such logs.
  • Have a cut list—or at least a good idea of what lumber dimensions you want—before you begin, especially if you’ve hired a sawyer. For example, if you ask for 2-in thick lumber, that’s what you get. But if you ask the sawyer for lumber for a 2” thick tabletop, he’ll probably recommend cutting the boards 2-3/8” thick so that after they are dried, you’ll have enough thickness to plane the boards down to 2 inch final thickness. When cutting boards that’ll be used for furniture, a good sawyer will take the time to look for interesting grain patterns and be extra careful to cut clean, flat boards. But if your goal is to produce flooring for a trailer or siding for a shed, it’s more economical for the sawyer to speed through the job. If you plan on using the milled lumber along with commercially purchased lumber, let the sawyer know so that they’ll produce the same dimensions for the sawn boards (e.g. a store bought 2×4 is actually slightly less than 1-1/2” by 3-1/2”).


Felling a Tree the Old-Fashioned Way

I had a lot of fun working on a Portable Sawmills article for the forthcoming July/August issue of Woodworker’s Journal. To do the research (I didn’t really know anything about small sawmills), I visited a pair of local sawyers who demonstrated how their marvelous machines work: Just set a log on the mill’s bed, start the motor, and let the horizontally-mounted band saw transform that rough log into a stack of dimensional lumber. But after watching these sawing veterans run through the piles of logs they had at hand, it occurred to me that although I’d been building things out of wood for most of my life, I’d never actually used wood from a tree I’d felled myself. I have cut quite a few small trees on the property in the Santa Cruz mountains where I live with a chainsaw.

Although I can’t imagine milling a log into boards by hand, cutting down a tree with just an axe, a saw and muscle power is definitely on my bucket list. I already have the advantage of having received expert instruction on tree felling: Some years ago, I had a job as the official photographer for the Pacific Northwest Tool Collectors’ 2008 “Best in the West” conference, a gathering of the country’s top tool collectors that happens every two years. Members display their amazing tool collections and present lectures and demonstrations that often feature rare and beautiful antique tools. One of these demonstrations, done at a member’s backyard in Sheldon, Washington, was felling a large Douglas fir tree using traditional tools and methods. The two sawyers who performed the demo (I don’t recall their names) started by chopping out a large notch, known as the undercut, on the side of the tree facing the direction in which they wanted the tree to fall. They both wielded double-bit axes (sharp enough for a close shave) while they balanced on wood springboards stuck into slots chopped into the sides of the stump. As they alternated their strikes like a well-oiled two-cylinder engine (bang-bang…bang-bang), it was amazing how quickly they created a sizable notch in the tree trunk. Just shy of finishing the notch, one sawyer showed us how to use an axe as a “gun stick” or felling gauge: He placed the head of the axe flat against the back of the cut notch, then looked down the handle, which indicated the direction in which the tree would fall.

With the notch cut a little more than 1/3 of the way through the trunk, the sawyers swapped their axes for a two-man crosscut saw, which they used to make the back cut that actually brought the tree down. As they expertly pulled the tool back and forth in rhythm, the saw’s frighteningly sharp teeth cut through the wood like it was soft butter. One sawyer occasionally poured a little kerosene on the saw to keep it lubricated and prevent sap from building up. They quickly reached a point at which it required only a last, light saw stroke to sever enough fibers to bring the big Doug fir down. Impressively, the tree fell exactly where they said it would. The entire cutting process took only about 15 minutes and seemed to take less brute strength than I had imagined. The lesson I came away with is that the secret to safely felling a tree is careful planning, using razor-sharp tools, and performing each chop and slice with thoughtfulness and precision. Come to think of it, this same “secret” applies to just about every other woodworking operation I can think of, whether it’s done the old-fashioned way or by using some newfangled machine.

Exercising Your Joints

I got an email from a friend this morning asking me what I thought about Festool’s Domino joinery system. I told him I thought it was an incredibly ingenious solution for rapidly cutting mortises and that the machine itself is a marvelous (albeit expensive) tool. When I reread his email before sending my reply, it was interesting to find out that he wanted to buy the Domino specifically because he had to make a dozen or so mortise-and-tenon (M&T) joints for an upcoming project. I asked if he planned to do a lot more M&T work in the future and he said he suspected as much, but wasn’t sure.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by my friend’s readiness to buy such an expensive tool, possibly for a single use. After all, if you have a task to do on your computer, iPad, smartphone or other electronic time muncher, you simply buy the right software, application or peripheral device, right? I suppose it follows that when a modern woodworker needs to cut a particular joint, they buy the machine or device that’s designed specifically for that purpose.

But has modern woodworking really come to this? I remember when I was a teenager just getting interested in furniture making, I read a story about a church on an island in Lake Onega, Russia. It is said to have been built by an anonymous master craftsman using nothing but a simple axe. The story goes that after he finished building this amazing structure, he looked at his hand holding his axe and, unwilling to consider that this same axe might create such beauty elsewhere, flung the axe into the lake! Although the story is almost certainly apocryphal, I found its tale of doing great work with simple tools inspiring.

Making something with only the tools you have on hand is not only challenging, but it can help you to become a better woodworker. This certainly has been my experience. Way back before there were fancy mortising machines, we learned to chop decent mortises with a basic chisel and mallet. I remember drooling over the cool dovetail routing system that the Canadian company Leigh introduced some decades back. As a fledgling furniture maker, I was perpetually broke, so I had to cut all my dovetails by hand. It took a lot of practice, but let me create dovetails in sizes and proportions that fit the furniture I was building — not just the capabilities of the jig.

Speaking of which, lack of money and special tools also led me to design and build many of my own jigs and fixtures. For example, I had a commission to build a sleek mahogany frame for a daybed. I wanted the piece to feature box joints in all four corners. But since the members were way too long to cut on the table saw (using a dado blade), I created a router jig to guide all the joint cuts. The jig worked so well that I ended up using it on dozens of other projects, eventually making miles of tight-fitting joints before the jig wore out.

Such circumstances not only helped me develop better hand-eye coordination, but cultivated my concentration and patience as well. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have acquired the majority of my woodworking skills if I could have just gone out and bought a new tool or ready-made jig every time I needed it. And as an added bonus, you get a lot more physical exercise sawing, chiseling, drilling and planing your joinery into existence than you do simply pushing a router around. That’s a lot more important nowadays, as I’m not as skinny (or as poor) as I used to be!

Dreams of Springtime and Shop Improvement

When it comes to weather, we’ve had a true embarrassment of riches here in California this winter. Although the beginning of this year has been the driest in recent memory, it’s hard to argue with sunny days and shirtsleeve weather at a time when folks in other parts of the country are freezing and getting snow shovel blisters.

WJBlog_S_Nagy_ShopCabinetThis unseasonal weather makes me think that, just as it’s said that a young man’s thoughts turn to love in the spring, many a late-middle-aged man’s fancies turn to … shop improvements! I suspect this is true, because I’ve recently been barraged by emails and phone calls from friends on the West Coast who need advice about their workshops: “Which table saw and planer should I buy?” “I’m thinking of installing a new dust collection system, but I’ve no idea where to start.” “Have any ideas for easy-access storage for portable power tools?”

I had already been thinking about shop improvement quite a bit in recent months, as I’d been working on a modernized form of my book Setting Up Shop, which The Taunton Press has just published in a new “book-azine” form. Because I’d recently pondered all kinds of woodshop matters, I was quick to respond to all my friend’s queries. But even though I approached each question thoughtfully, analyzing the pros and cons of all possible solutions, I was struck with how long and involved some of my responses were. OK, I thought maybe I’m overcomplicating things. After all, I have a background in epistemology (the science of how we know things) and aesthetic philosophy, so I tend to see things less in black and white, right and wrong, and more in degrees of rightness and shades of gray. Philosophical discourse is one thing, but shouldn’t the answers to most woodworking questions be fairly straightforward?

I harkened back to my first job as an assistant editor for another woodworking magazine (its name rhymes with “lime hood jerking”). I used to geWJBlog_S_Nagy_ShopDustt phone calls from readers that went something like this: “I’m building a dining table for my family, and I was wondering what kind of wood to use?” Assuming the caller had a thirst for my insights, I’d launch into a full-blown lecture on the types of woods available in their region and the various physical and aesthetic traits of those species. One time, a caller stopped me in mid-dissertation and asserted: “yeah, that’s all well and good, but which kind of wood should I make my table out of?” Not only didn’t he want a lecture on wood science, but I don’t think he wanted to strain his grey matter in order to come to his own conclusions. Maybe he didn’t have the time to process the information. Or maybe he thought that the answer he’d come up with on his own might not be as good as the one that the “professional” on the telephone could provide. A simple answer was what he wanted, and so I gave it to him: “Walnut. Make the table out of walnut,” I told him, then thanked him for calling and hung up.

I hate to think that people contact me for advice because they’d rather have me doing their thinking for them. I’ve always been a big fan of learning by doing your own problem solving. But everything in life is more complicated than it used to be (think of telephones, automobiles, even toothbrushes), and shop tools, hardware and processes are no different. So why not, on occasion, offer simple answers and/or opinions in lieu of delving into all the complex details of a topic like dust control or shop storage? I know I won’t be able to solve all of my friends’ shop improvement dilemmas, but the next time one of them calls or writes, I’m sure to ask “do you want the long answer or the short one?”

Sandor Nagyszalanczy, Contributing Editor

Interesting Woodwork is Wherever You Find It

Isn’t it funny that two people can walk through the same town or landscape and find interest in completely different things? On a recent visit to Northern Italy as part of an editorial tour put together by Freud Tools (more on that in a later installment), I found myself strolling along the narrow lanes of Venice, surrounded by flocks of international tourists. Judging by the darting gazes and photos being snapped at warp speed, many of those visitors were taken by a great many of Venice’s charms: buildings brimming with amazing architectural history, ubiquitous canals rippled by gondolas and speedboats, etc.. Some tourists simply stood agape, staring at extravagant shop window displays or hunger-inducing restaurant menus. Many folks just wandered, soaking up the amazing scenery on a glorious day.

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Memories of George

I was reorganizing some paperwork the other day, when I ran across a file that contained letters, manuscripts and notes from master wood finisher George Frank. I worked with George when I was an editor at Fine Woodworking magazine. I was originally assigned to work with George because he and I were both Hungarians and so could converse in our native tongue. Over the years, George became not only a treasured colleague of mine, but I also kind of became his adoped grandson; he had no male children of his own. George passed away nearly 15 years ago, at the ripe old age of 94.

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Designing a Multipurpose Shelf Unit

Like the proverbial shoemaker’s children that are perpetually barefoot, my own home doesn’t have a whole lot of furniture that I built myself. I save most of my woodworking energy for building projects for the Woodworker’s Journal or when I do “pro bono work” for the Shakespearean theater company that my wife works for (the latter has consisted of mostly creating large, freestanding poster displays and a collection box).

But every once in a while, a project comes along that I have difficulty saying no to. In this case, I was recently contacted by a prominent local business owner who lives in a gorgeous house only a half a block from one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline that California has to offer. He asked me if I would consider building him a large L-shaped shelf unit that would wrap around a partially curved wall in his home office/man cave.

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Sharpening my Tools

I’ve never been particularly adept at sharpening my edge tools (chisels, plane irons, etc.). It’s not that I couldn’t get them sharp enough to work, it’s just that I’ve always experienced inconsistent results. One time, I’d get a blade so sharp, it simply glided through hard oak and maple. The next time I sharpened that blade, I’d be lucky if it didn’t tear its way through soft pine. Freehand sharpening always seemed like something that would take decades to get right (an opinion no doubt influenced by the fact that the best tool sharpener I know has made nearly 95 trips around the sun). The trick seems to be locking your wrists and fingers as you pass the tool over the stone, to keep the honing bevel at the same angle during every pass. Fail this, and you end up with a rounded bevel face and an edge that’s none too sharp. Yes, hollow grinding helps, as the tip and heel of the bevel are easier to keep flat on the stone. But unless the tool has a wide bevel, like a big chisel or heavy plane iron, even hollow grinding is no guarantee.

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The Sound of a Tree

All my friends know that I’ve been a “ukulele nut” for most of my life. A girlfriend in college gave me my first real uke, a mahogany Martin Style 0 that she bought at a thrift store for the whopping sum of one dollar. For years, I carried that uke everywhere, strumming it on backpacking trips in the Sierras, at parties (much to the chagrin of revelers that found the sound only a little less pleasant than an accordion/banjo duet), and when my friends sang on the streets of downtown Santa Cruz for spare change.

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