As manager of our family Tree Farm in southwest Missouri, I take on a variety of tasks. One of the most ironic of my responsibilities is selling timber, then spending some of that money on lumber for outbuildings or woodworking projects. I am also troubled that there is no practical way to salvage dead or blown-down trees, which are typically too isolated for loggers to be interested in them. A small portable sawmill has proven to be a practical solution to these conundrums.
It has also proven to be a valuable asset. A logger in my area might pay $185 per thousand board feet on the stump delivered to the mill, the value roughly doubles to $350 per thousand. Depending on the quality and species, milling roughly re-doubles the value to $700. Sawing lumber as part of a Tree Farm operation opens up new sources of revenue, as well as a source of material for projects ranging from fencing to house flooring. These mills have come a long way since the days of a circle mill powered by an old John Deere tractor. They are more efficient, easier to use, and much safer to operate. In addition to circle mills, chainsaw and bandsaw mills provide practical options.
While I have a chainsaw mill for special cutting jobs (such as walnut crotch wood for its fancy grain), I do nearly all of my cutting with a portable bandsaw mill. To picture one of these machines, think about a woodworking bandsaw on steroids: Turn the blade horizontally, mount it on a track, power it with a 23-horsepower gas engine, and you get the idea.
I have owned several bandsaw mills through the past decade, and currently run a Norwood LumberMate Pro MX34 portable sawmill. This falls into the category of “manual” sawmills. That is, the sawyer (or anyone I can cajole into helping) rolls the log up onto the track by hand with a cant hook or winch, pushes the bandsaw blade through the wood by hand, and turns the log by hand. With a little care, the boards come out remarkably straight and smooth and can be used as they come off the mill for many applications. In most cases, a cant hook and muscle suffice for loading and turning the logs. For larger logs, I use the hand winch for loading and turning them. Since the mill is portable, in 15 minutes I can have the mill hitched to my ’87 Chevy flatbed, ready to tow to a customer’s location.
One of the great things about the portable sawmills is their flexibility. When friends and neighbors found out that I could cut lumber to their specifications, I cut everything from trailer flooring to small special pieces for plaques. Logs still surprise me. I remember cutting into an old walnut log that, on the surface, looked too rotten, even for firewood. The first cut on the sawmill revealed the heartwood was not only sound, but that it was some of the deepest brown I had ever seen in walnut — almost black. This is when it pays to know area craftsmen. I called a customer who makes rustic furniture, and had it sold before I hung up the phone. That is not to say you should leave walnut logs laying around in the woods — but keeping your eyes open to opportunity can make the sawmill experience much more rewarding.
The ability to cut large timber was a factor in my selection of the Norwood mill. Logs more than 30 inches in diameter are not uncommon in the oak/hickory forests of the Ozarks, and when one comes my way, it is great to be the only sawyer in the area who can cut it! While I have yet to push my mill to its 34-inch maximum diameter limit, I have tackled oak, sycamore, and wal- nut logs that other sawyers have turned down as being too large for their mills. Several of these were yard trees that had died or blown over and the owner wanted them sawn and made into furniture for sentimental reasons. I am currently cutting logs that blew down during the May 22, 2011, tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri (about 15 miles north of where I live). Depending on the job, I am cutting these logs at cost, or no charge for people who want something to remember of their lives before they lost their homes in the disaster. It feels good to be able to help in this unique way.
The 2011 National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year Steve & Janet Funk have also found that a small sawmill fits well with their management plan for their Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Tree Farm. “There are hardly any sawmills left around here anymore,” said Steve, who had no previous experience with sawmills. “We had to pay a pretty steep price to get logs hauled to the closest mill. As it turns out, you’ve always got projects. For us it’s mostly fencing material, but I’m always using lumber for small projects and things.”
While Steve has not yet given up his job as an anesthetist, the sawmill figures prominently in his future. “Since I got the sawmill, I’m doing more and more custom work for people,” he said. “And maybe since I’m getting ready to retire, that might be a fun thing to do.”
A small portable sawmill does not necessarily mean small lumber. When I talked to Steve, he was preparing to cut an order of 30 20-foot-long cedar beams. Cutting lumber that is simply unavailable from more conventional sources keeps his mill busy. “If you’ve got a sawmill, you can create your own niche market,” said Steve. “Box stores and lumberyards don’t carry full-thickness boards and they don’t carry beams of odd sizes. There’s no way I can compete against a computerized mill, but the 2-by-4s I do cut are better than anything a scragg mill spits out!”
Steve offered this advice to Tree Farmers thinking about purchasing a
sawmill: “The niche market is really something to investigate for someone thinking about a mill. It’s one thing to run a sawmill. You can saw to your heart’s content, but you’ve got to move the lumber.” He has also found that there is more to sawmilling than dealing with wood and changing markets. “It’s good to be mechanically inclined if you’re running a sawmill. I took a welding course and put together
a log deck that works for me.”
Finally, Steve keeps in mind that the mill is part of the family Tree Farm. With a daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons ages 12 and 14 living on Edgecreek Tree Farm, three generations have the opportunity to work with the mill. The grandsons “take to it like ducks to water,” he said proudly. “There’s not a machine on this whole place that those two boys don’t know how to operate. My daughter and son-in-law help out, as well, and I’m always sawing railing, decks, steps for
them. Stuff that families do.”
I am currently cutting logs that blew down during the May 2011 tornado that devastated Joplin, Missouri. Depending on the job, I am cutting these logs at cost or no charge for people who want something to remember of their lives before they lost their homes in the disaster. It feels good to be able to help in this unique way.
Find more information on portable sawmills at these websites: www.sawmillmag.com, www.woodweb.com, www.forestryforum.com and www.norwoodsawmills.com