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.

From Oak Trees … to Lumber … to Projects

A couple of weeks ago, in Woodworker’s Journal eZine Issue 310, Woodworker’s Journal editor in chief Rob Johnstone wrote in his introductory editorial about a friend who’d questioned him on the viability of cutting his own lumber for a project. Rob asked eZine readers if any of them had ever chopped a tree down, turned it into lumber and built a project. Many of them had — including Herb Brodie, who shares his story here.

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Tree Planting Goal Met

You may remember that, about a month ago, Chris Marshall brought you news of Rockler Woodworking and Hardware’s goal to support the planting of 20,000 hardwood trees through donating the price Pretty Treesof a tree to the Hardwood Forestry Fund for every purchase made during the April timeframe leading up to Earth Day.

We’re happy to report that the initiative was successful — in fact, they reached the 20,000 tree goal even earlier than they’d hoped. Rockler’s marketing vice president, Scott Ekman, commented that, “The event has been hugely successful and has received overwhelming customer support.” The 2012 initiative had doubled the goal of new trees planted from the same program last year, raising it from 10,000 in 2011 to 20,000 in 2012.

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Your April Rockler Purchases Will Help Plant Trees

Here’s a cool thing Rockler Woodworking and Hardware is doing for Earth Day this year, but if you haven’t made a Rockler purchase lately, you might not be aware of it.

From now through April 22—Earth Day—Rockler will make a donation to the Hardwood Forestry Fund for every online, catalog and retail purchase made. The company’s goal is to double the number of new trees planted last year on its behalf to 20,000 this year.

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A Popular Hardwood for Interior Parts

I mentioned yellow poplar last month in my post about the Southern yellow pines, so I thought it would be appropriate to follow up on that.  Yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera), or tulip poplar for most of us Southerners, is one of two trees in the genus Liriodendron.  The other is a native of China.  Neither are true poplars. True poplars are in the willow family of trees, which also contain the genus Populus (cottonwoods), and which is Latin for “people” and was also the Latin name for “tree.”  (I could get confused, too, if I didn’t write all this stuff down.)

Deep breath; I’m almost through.

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A Nutty Way of Telling Red from White Oak

A common autumnal sight is a squirrel, busily scurrying to bury his winter food supply of nuts. Have you ever thought about how much these furry little beasts have in common with woodworkers?

For one, both share a fine appreciation for oak.

istockphoto.com

Squirrels, however, may be even more discerning than woodworkers in distinguishing between the red oak and the white oak of this species. You may recall that forester Tim Knight, in his post on this blog entitled Red Oak White Oak: Telling the Difference, mentioned the different sprouting times of red and white oak acorns. What Tim didn’t mention is the “squirrel factor.”

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It’s Not Cedar

Cedar is used in many different projects in woodworking. There are humidors and cigar boxes made of Spanish cedar, closets and blanket chests lined with Eastern red cedar, and even your carpenter’s pencil is more likely than not made of incense cedar. There is one small problem, however; none of these commercial woods are, in fact, cedar.

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Red Oak, White Oak: Telling the Difference

As a forester, I field plenty of questions from friends and acquaintances about trees in general. However, by far the most common question is “how can I tell the difference between red oaks and white oaks?” Well, here’s how.

Oaks are in the beech family and in the genus Quercus which is the very literal Latin word for “oak tree.” The oaks are identified as belonging to one of three different subdivisions: the white, red, and intermediates. Only the red and white oak groups are found in North America. I don’t know the real reason white oaks are named such except that the namesake of the group Quercus alba (alba means “white” in Latin) has a white bark. However, the underside of the leaf is whitish as well. In addition, the namesake red oak Quercus rubra (yep, rubra means “red” in Latin) has a reddish wood, a red/orange inner bark, and its leaves turn a brilliant to rusty red in the fall. So, you see the problem?

Oak Tree Trunk

An interesting fact about oaks is that from the time red oaks bloom, to the drop of the acorn, is two years. If those acorns aren’t eaten by squirrels, deer, raccoons, turkeys, wild hogs, and any of the other numerous species that eat oak acorns, when they drop to the ground, then they will sprout the following spring. The white oaks, on the other hand, bloom in the spring, grow acorns, and drop them in the fall of the same year. When those acorns drop to the ground, they immediately begin the sprouting process and try to establish a beginning root system before winter sets in.

There are some major differences between the two groups and some more subtle ones. Although the wood can sometimes prove difficult to distinguish, especially if it was flatsawn, bark, leaves, and acorns are very useful in telling the difference between live trees of the two groups.

Aside from the obvious whitish bark of the White Oak and Swamp Chestnut Oak (both white oaks) and the darker bark of the Northern Red Oak, Cherrybark Oak, and Blackjack Oak (all red oaks), the leaves are the telltale indicator between the two groups. Look closely at the two oak leaves in this picture.

2 Oak Leaves

You have to look closely to find the one sign that quickly distinguishes the red oaks from the white. At the tip of a red oak leaf or the lobes of the leaf, you’ll find a spine or bristle.

Red Oak Bristle

They may be almost microscopic, or very visible; however, you will never find them on a white oak leaf. So, as simple as it sounds, THAT’s how you tell the difference between a red oak tree and a white oak tree.

 

Next time we will attempt to find the difference between the wood of the two oak groups. See you then!

Making Sawdust: The Weird Way

It all started with a cry for help.

Early last year, I read an interesting entry on a foresters’ forum. A reader explained that she was given a wooden chainsaw-carved bear by her father. A few days after she received, it she noticed that it was growing “hair.” Lauren wrote, “I noticed some things growing out of the sides of the bear that look like little white strings, about 2 inches long. I got a broom and brushed them off, and within 2 hours of me brushing them off, they had already started to grow back!” She had no idea what was happening with her new gift, and most of the good folks who replied didn’t either. Most of them guessed it was fungus of some sort. They were close, but it was far too early to call it a fungus. Confused yet? Continue reading