Portable Sawmill Cuts Time and Costs

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This old Ford tractor and log arch have pulled hundreds of logs out of the author’s woodlot.

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.

Chainsaw mills are slower than band mills, but can handle odd pieces that would be difficult to mill any other way.

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.

 

Tree Farmer Steve Funk uses his electric bandsaw to cut some 16-foot fir 2x4s for a customer.

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.”

The portable sawmill is easy to move and set up where the logs are; this one is powered by a 23-horsepower V-twin Briggs and Stratton engine.

 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 

A properly adjusted band sawmill cuts tough wood such as this post oak straight and smooth.

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

 

The author removes a board from his band mill.
The sawdust is flying from the author’s Norwood LumberMate Pro MX34 sawmill.

 

 

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