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.

Rethinking the Simple 2×4

Outfeed TableOne of the luxuries of being a woodworking magazine editor is that I get my hands on “good” wood on a pretty regular basis. Clear, straight cherry and maple are often “on deck” for projects in our magazine. Recently, I built a couple of Arts & Crafts bookcases from some nice quartersawn white oak for our first “Small Shop Journal” project (February 2013 print issue). And, without spilling the beans prematurely, I just finished a project that I built from some extraordinary ribbon stripe mahogany for our June issue. It was too wide to fit my jointer … what a problem to have, right?!

Last fall, when I needed a few 2x4s for a home improvement project I was working on, I went to Lowe’s to pick them up. There, at the top of the pile, were a few of the clearest, straightest 2x4s I’ve ever seen. Some were even quartersawn — and for a woodworker that’s pretty mind-blowing when you consider how absolutely green, checked and awful so much of the construction lumber seems to be these days. It’s a wonder it even passes inspection on the way to market. Continue reading

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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The Cheap, Good Wood

Longleaf Pine Forest

USDA Forest Service Archive, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

I know. The words cheap and good usually aren’t used together when the subject is wood for woodworking. But in the case of the Southern yellow pines, this wording is well-suited.

Southern yellow pine is a catchall phrase for all of the Southern pines. They include loblolly, shortleaf, slash, longleaf and Virginia, as well as some other minor species. They are commonly known as “softwoods” and are mostly sold as dimensional lumber for construction.

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How Much Lumber is in a Log?

cut logForesters use a number of mathematical formulas to estimate the board feet of lumber in a cut log. Using one of these formulas, known as “log rules,” you, too, can estimate the amount of sawn lumber a log will produce. This can be useful, say, if you may want to estimate what you will owe the portable sawmill owner for sawing it up for you (since he probably will charge you per board foot). The estimate will get you close so that the final bill will not be a complete surprise.

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Tips on Lumber Thickness

The best way to kick off your projects on the right foot is to start with stock that’s flat, square and of consistent thickness. That, of course, involves a round of surfacing at the jointer and planer with wood that’s thicker than you need. Our field editor discusses how to buy smart the next time you’re stocking the lumber rack for an upcoming project.

A(nother) Quick Look at the New April Issue

In addition to Chris Marshall’s preview of our April 2011 issue, Editor in Chief Rob Johnstone put this video together for those of you that would rather listen & watch than read.

Don’t have the issue yet? Click here to buy!

Matt Becker
Internet Production Coordinator

A Quick Look at the New April Issue

Punxsutawney Phil might be taunting us with the promise of an early spring, but winter here in Ohio (where I live) still holds us in an icy grip. Still, like the postal carriers vow, neither snow nor sleet will keep us here at the magazine from bringing you new projects, tools and techniques in your April issue. And, in just a few days, those diligent mail carriers will be bringing a copy to you. But, why wait? Here’s a quick rundown of what’s coming your way.

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