Portable Sawmills and the Environment


As the manager of a family tree farm in southwest Missouri, I find it ironic that the tools I use to improve the health and diversity of our forested land are the very ones that, to many people, symbolize the destruction of forests worldwide. In fact, I have been on the receiving end of many icy glares from people driving by while I am in the process of sawing wood, even though doing so helps improve forest health or recycles a log that would otherwise have gone to the landfill.

Properly managed, small sawmills can be a very “green” way to produce lumber for shelter, furniture, and other needs. Their potential to recycle wasted resources makes them the ultimate recycling system.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, 52 million tons of wood are cut from urban areas, which are either chipped, cut for firewood or hauled off to landfills each year. The sawlogs that could have been milled from this wasted resource amounts to 5 billion board feet of lumber— roughly 1/3 of the annual U.S. hardwood harvest.

portable sawmill business

Big production sawmills cannot deal effectively with salvaged lumber. The trees are often widely scattered and there is no economic way to cut them and bring them to the mill. Urban trees generally lack the straight shape required to make merchantable lumber and the mixture of species is so diverse they would be very difficult to mass market. However, the biggest obstacle to milling urban logs may be what can be inside them (other than wood). Urban lumber is often riddled with nails from tree houses, yard sale signs, as well as more interesting foreign objects, such as chain link fencing, steel fence posts, and even wrenches. Imagine a 6’ diameter circle saw blade turning at a thousand rpms hitting a wrench and having all the teeth fly off like shrapnel. In addition to the safety issue, a $1,200 blade is destroyed before the sawyer has time to blink. It is much safer and more economical for the commercial sawmills to harvest and process lumber from the forest.

Enter the urban sawyer and his trusty portable sawmill.  A growing number of people are setting up their own small sawmill businesses to salvage urban logs. In a sense, this is the ultimate in “dumpster diving”. As I drive, I keep my eyes open for trees, which are being cut by tree service companies, bulldozed for roads and housing, or which have died, but are still standing. In most cases, people like the idea of the wood from a tree that once stood in their yard continuing to serve as furniture or a work of art in their home. That old shady oak tree can remain a part of the family. I have encountered many situations where a landowner wanted to keep some of the wood in order to have something made from it. The area woodworkers who buy wood cut from urban logs are rewarded with a diversity of sizes, shapes and species which would be impossible to find at any lumber yard. As a sawyer, I have the pleasure of being the first to see the inside of the log and often still take time to stop and admire a board with an unusual grain or color.

The financial impact of running a small sawmill is relatively minimal.  For example, my Norwood portable band sawmill uses half the fuel per hour of a Prius and costs about 1/4 as much to purchase.  It is as quiet and safe as a lawn tractor and has provided me with more exercise than membership at a gym ever would. The main byproducts are sawdust and slabs.  Because the mill uses a thin sawmill band blade, it produces very little sawdust, which quickly breaks down in the soil. The slabs generally make good firewood and provide us with all the fuel we need to heat our home in the winter, usually with some left over to sell. If I do happen to strike metal in the wood, it takes about ten minutes to replace the blade and the blade is easy to recycle.

Small sawmills also benefit sustainable rural forestry, which is properly on the minds of many these days. Our certified tree farm in the Missouri Ozarks has been logged off twice in the last eighty years.  The result is that the diversity of species and quality of the trees has diminished. In many places, trees grow so close together their growth is stunted and they should be thinned out on a regular basis. The portable sawmill makes use of the poor quality trees, so it is possible to thin them out to re-establish a more healthy, vigorous, diverse forest with consideration given to watershed protection and wildlife habitat.

Some of the income from the mill has been used for replanting native species, including walnut, shortleaf pine, pecan and burr oak. The portable sawmill is an integral part of our tree farm, both in terms of management and income. While it is hard to set aside an emotional attachment to the land to consider economics, it takes only a glance at the statistics to understand why this is so important.  According to U.S.A. Today, the U.S. lost about 6{ecddf9adde44d27d9b15adaf662c1dc75823d7a27d1c0a3dca6c68c19970fb5c} of its forested land between 2000 and 2005— the highest percentage loss of the seven most heavily forested nations on Earth (including Brazil). Much of this was due to conversion of forests to other financially more attractive uses—including row crops, grazing and infrastructure development. A small sawmill can help the financial viability of privately owned forests, like the one I manage, and keep it in the family so it can continue on for generations to come.

Like any other tools, a chain saw and portable sawmill can either be used destructively or constructively.  These tools can provide the means to recycle an otherwise discarded resource, improve forest health and quality and help keep family forests from being sold to developers. There are several good online forestry and sawmill forums like Norwood Connect where these types of discussions, along with other more general sawmill topics, are ongoing.  Another great forum is www.forestryforum.comSawmill & Woodlot Management magazine is another great online source of information on sawmills and woodlot management.


  1. I was recently accused of murdering some trees I was picking up off the ground that had been cut down by a landscaper and given to me by the owner in exchange for some furniture.

    • That’s unfortunate Doug. I’m sure the landowner was appreciative. Some beautiful stuff can be created from scraps. Here, for instance, is a table and bowl that came from a Walnut root https://plus.google.com/u/0/105265266632264874631/posts/WUggGXdmDVM.

  2. Very eloquent! As one of those folks who are just getting into the portable sawmill business, it’s great to be reminded (and to remind others) of the benefits to the overall good that you have outlined. Thanks for taking the time to put it in writing!

  3. I completely agree with you Jeff, portable sawmill technology could help to preserve the environment, it’s a “green tool”. Modern society can’t limit or stop use of lumber, and situation is exactly the same with any of natural resources. We are paying only very first bills from the Mother Nature: climate change, disasters and ecosystem natural disturbances frequency and amplitude increase, pollution… The only way to improve the situation is to limit or stop wasting our resources.

    I am a forester, I also worked in construction business, and in surveying for oil industry. I know what are you talking about, and what I like the most, this tool could be used in the forested areas with limited road access. Pretty often road quality is really poor, and distance to the highway only or to the closest sawmill is more than hundred kilometers. In the case if you need to get rid of trees after the clear-cut and you also need lumber for the construction at the same site or really close to it, the portable sawmill is the best decision.

    • Thank you for the insightful comment Oleg. It is good to hear there are others who understand the importance of managed sustainability.

  4. Ignorance and emotion make a powerful force. Unfortunately, the ones who make the policies are often either ignorant, or highly influenced by people who don’t have a good grasp of the situation. The best we can do is to set an example and try to communicate to a society– built on and sustained by wastefulness– that we need to change. I’ve gotten my share of dirty looks by clueless people driving by in their SUVs, and just have to shrug it off. Salvaging lumber works, and the portable sawmill makes it possible.


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