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”).