When people consider buying a portable sawmill, they often overlook the importance of support equipment. While the mill itself is a major investment, you may find it is likely to be less than half your total investment in a complete sawmill operation. The other equipment depends on the kind of cutting you will be doing, but even if you just run the portable sawmill as a hobby, you will need additional equipment to run it effectively. When you budget for a mobile sawmill, or sawmill upgrade, here are some of the things you will need to go along with it. And with Christmas coming up, you can pass this list along to your loved ones or significant others with a wink and please.
The first item on the “shopping list” is a good chainsaw. Even if you’re not a logger, you need a good one. With chainsaws, size really does matter. 55 cc with an 18” bar is an absolute minimum. We’d suggest something in the 70 cc class with a 20” bar is optimal, if you operate your mill as a business. You will be trimming logs to length, cutting off stubs and trimming logs on the bandsaw mill, so the blade needs to be able to get through them. A common task is trimming off the base of a log where it flares out. A saw which is too small, or unreliable, will not only be a source of frustration, but will also slow down your entire sawmill operation; costing you money in the process. Along with the $500-700 you can expect to pay for a professional grade chainsaw, you should budget another $150 for chaps and a proper logger’s helmet. We cannot emphasize the importance of PPE (personal protection equipment) enough when working with sharp blades and heavy logs.
There is also a lot of miscellaneous equipment, which although it seems minor, is absolutely essential.
A good cant hook or a peavey, if you prefer and for instance, is one such piece. Cant hooks are available with wood, fiberglass or aluminum handles. The important thing is the construction of the hook itself. Some grab the wood better than others. The good ones cost a bit more, but are well worth it. In a short time, it will simply become an extension to your arm as you use it to roll, turn, lift and lever logs. It is a good idea to have a couple of hooks on hand, especially if you have a second person working with you at the mill to maneuver bigger logs.
Hatchet or Axe
A hatchet or axe is another important piece of equipment. Sometimes there is just no replacement for basic technology and brute force. I mostly use mine to strip bark if a log is dirty, but it is also a handy striking tool and useful for cutting those annoying small branches off a log.
Plastic tree-felling wedges should always within easy reach around the sawmill. I mostly use them to wedge open the kerf, when I need to back the blade out of a cut, but they also come in handy in many unexpected ways; like scraping off the bottom of your boots when you are working in a cow pasture. You know what they say, “Crap happens!”
Log hooks are handy for turning the really big, heavy logs and even for rolling them. Most functional hooks have a hook on one end and a chain link on the other, so you can easily attach them to a chain or strap. By wrapping a strap around the log and anchoring it with the hook, you can turn big logs by lifting them with a front-end loader (more on front-end loaders later). You can also use the hook to roll a log up a ramp by wrapping the strap around the log several times and pulling the free end of the strap with a tractor or winch.
Tree Straps and Chains
Which brings me to strapping. I have never wished that I had fewer straps, but there have been several times when I could have used more. You should have at least four 2” wide cargo straps available at all times. Straps are lighter and easier to use than chains, but a 15’ logging chain with hooks on both ends is still a good investment. It is easier to make a loop of chain than a loop of straps, because the knot on a strap can tighten up so tight you can’t untie it. Both straps and chains have their places and uses.
Sooner or later, you will get tired of going back to the garage for a wrench or screwdriver—or worse—find yourself without a necessary wrench, while out on a job site. Do yourself a favor and get a basic set of combination wrenches, 1/2” ratchet set, screwdrivers, vice grips and a set of Allen wrenches with a handle. You’ll also need a good knife. I prefer a multi-purpose knife, like a “Leatherman”, which I can keep on my belt. It can come in handy when you can’t untie a particularly tough knot in a strap (hence the need for more backup straps).
Log and Lumber Calculator
Before you start cutting logs, you will want to be able to provide your customers with an approximate price based on the lumber yield of those logs. The old-fashioned way of doing this is to put pencil to paper and estimate the volume of logs/lumber you have based on one of three accepted log rules: Doyle, Scribner or International. However, if you’d prefer to save some time, while improving the accuracy of your calculations (particularly for those who are mathematically challenged), you can download a mobile log calculator app for your mobile phone or tablet, plug in your numbers and quickly see just how much board footage you have. If the technology is available, we say why not use it.
Winches come in a variety of sizes and types. We recommend avoiding the inexpensive “ATV” winch. You will need one good for more than occasional use, ideally with the pulling power to move a 2,000 pound log up a ramp. Used with the log hook, you can turn a log otherwise be impossible to budge. It is also useful for pulling vehicles out of the snow or mud (possibly your own!). A good electric winch might set you back $300, but it can quickly pay for itself in time saved. I also have a chainsaw powered “Lewis” winch. Attached to a 65 cc Husqvarna chainsaw, this is a heavy puller. It is handy, because you don’t need to lug a battery around to use it.
Log Hauling and Mill Towing Vehicle
So what do you have to haul logs, lumber and/or the sawmill from site-to-site? The family SUV with a bumper hitch is generally a poor choice for heavy loads for several reasons. A proper towing vehicle needs a heavy suspension, which will let you maintain control when you’re staring into the lights of an oncoming 18-wheeler on a narrow bridge. It should also have a receiver hitch welded to the frame to make sure your vehicle and trailer don’t part ways unexpectedly (accidents do happen). You should also check about state laws requiring electric brakes. Electric brake controllers are easy to install. It is more than just being legal as you are responsible for the safety of every car passing you on the highway. I have personally found the ideal towing vehicle to be a 4WD ’87 Chevy flatbed. The four-wheel-drive has enabled me to drive out of a number of spots where I would otherwise have suffered the humiliation of being pulled out by a Ford.
Few standard trailers are really well-suited to hauling logs & lumber. Mine was built from a mobile home frame and has a 16’ bed. Any longer would be too cumbersome to maneuver into tight spaces. The wooden deck is above the wheels, so I can use a ramp and roll logs up the side to load them. It also lets me roll logs off the side for unloading. In fact, I can roll logs right off the trailer onto the log deck if I want to. Other important features are tandem 7,000 pound-rated axles with wheel brakes, reinforced cross-bunks, tail lights and multiple attach points for straps or chains. You may not require all of these customizations, but I can tell you they have certainly come in handy from time-to-time.
Finally, how will you handle the logs and lumber destined for your sawmill? Many people start out with winches and muscle, but a ten-foot log, 24” in diameter, weighs nearly 3/4 of a ton! You probably can’t justify an industrial loader, but a tractor with a front-end loader and long forks is a versatile, handy machine. If you keep your eyes open, you may find a good 50 hp, 4-wheel drive tractor for under $12,000. Even an old 8N Ford with a front-end loader is remarkably useful. It won’t lift big logs, but it will move lumber and they can be found used online or elsewhere for under $3,000.
If all this seems a little intimidating, don’t worry. You can start out with the basics; a good chain saw, cant hook or peavey and miscellaneous tools then build up the rest as you go.
Let us know if we’ve missed anything or what your most useful piece of equipment is around the mill. We are always open to learning new ways to be more efficient so we can cut more lumber and make more money.