Operating a portable sawmill opens up a world of possibilities, both as a source of building material and as a source of income. When working weekends or in your spare time, those aching muscles are just part of a good day’s work. But as your confidence grows and you take on more challenging jobs, you will no doubt push your sawmill—and yourself—to the limit. You will be thinking “There’s got to be an easier way to do this!” Short of bionic implants, there isn’t much you can do to upgrade your physical abilities. The sawmill, on the other hand, may be fitted with a variety of production-boosting, energy-saving upgrades.
The first challenge for any sawyer is getting logs, particularly larger logs, up onto the sawmill. For a stationary mill, it is hard to beat a permanent log deck. For portable mills, a loading ramp and winch will work well. A technique known as “parbuckling” involves wrapping a cable over the log and back to the sawmill frame. The winch and the end of the winch line attach to an anchor point on the frame of the mill. As the winch pulls in the cable, the log will roll right up the ramp. It takes surprisingly little force, since the setup acts like a compound pulley. A boat winch will work fine, but an electric winch takes a lot of the effort out of the process. Once on the mill, the same winch can be used to turn the log, if it is too heavy to turn with a cant hook. Just hook the winch line over the log, crank the winch and it will roll right over.
If every log you cut is perfectly straight and the same length, you can probably get by with the clamps and log stops that came with the mill. However, this is seldom the case in real life. If the sawmill has an option for an extra pair of log stops and clamps, you will likely find them indispensable—especially for specialty milling, like crotches and other odd pieces. If the clamps and log stops can be easily moved along the track, the mill will handle just about any log you put on it.
Another add-on, which makes sawing more efficient, is a set of toe rollers. These serve two functions. First, they level tapered logs on the mill helping you get the best possible yield out of the log. Second, toe rollers allow you to position the log (or cant) lengthwise on the mill for clamping and milling. In a pinch, you can make do with a car jack to level the log, but the rollers are more stable and much easier to use.
Rollers are also very useful in moving boards from one point to another on the mill with minimal effort. Stationary mills often have a system of rollers to move wood to the slab pile, edger or finished lumber pile. Even portable sawmills can benefit from retractable rollers on the bed of the mill to make off-loading as easy as possible.
How much power does your mill have? Larger engines naturally cost more, but usually pay for themselves quickly. If your mill doesn’t already have the largest engine option, consider purchasing it; particularly as your workload increases. The difference in production with a larger engine is surprising. I have personally never heard a sawyer complain his sawmill had too much power!
There are some ingenious techniques for cutting logs longer than the mill bed. However, this can be time consuming and requires equipment capable of lifting and repositioning the logs. After doing it once or twice, the sensibility of purchasing track extensions sinks in. Generally these are available from the portable sawmill manufacturer. Many sell permanent track extensions, which bolt onto the log deck, or shorter detachable extensions to quickly pin onto the end of the track as needed. Some bandmills will allow customers to add enough track to mill beams up to 40 feet long! As long as you have enough level land and tall enough trees, you can mill any length log you need!
A trailer upgrade is useful if you plan to move the mill to the customer or into the forest where your trees are to be harvested. While some people build their sawmill onto a trailer frame, factory upgrades are designed to handle the job and is usually much faster and easier to break down for towing and set-up for milling. If you go with this option, check with the manufacturer to be sure it is DOT legal—it will need highway wheels and axles, fenders, lights, a safety chain and a secure means to lock down the head to the track.
Straining to load and turn big logs will soon start you wondering how you might harness the power of your portable sawmill’s engine to save your aching muscles. Only a few full-sized sawmills offer the option to upgrade a manual mill to hydraulics, but if your budget dictates a low cost mill now and you anticipate adding power-assist options in the future, this is an important consideration when selecting a sawmill. Most power assist is in the form of hydraulic log handling. The two big back-savers are log loaders and log turners. Log loaders are a pair of hydraulic arms, which lift the log onto the log deck and they reduce a five-minute job to mere seconds. They should have outriggers so the log deck doesn’t tip when loading a heavy log and be able to lift the maximum size log the mill can handle. After using a cant hook to manually turn logs, hydraulic log turners almost feel like cheating. Sawmilling shouldn’t be that easy! Well-designed professional log turners use a chain, which allows the sawyer to rotate the log in either direction for precise positioning of the log and double as a clamp when making the initial slabbing cuts.
A power sawhead lift is electric on most mills. The push of an “up” or “down” button saves a lot of hand cranking and lets the sawyer focus on the correct measurement.
Power feed, on the other hand, can be a mixed blessing. It allows the sawyer to stay in one place, as opposed to walking with the mill, but it is not as responsive to sawing conditions, such as knots and width of cut, as a manual feed. A big labor saver connected to the power feed is the “board dragback” feature, which slides the boards back to the sawyer for offloading. Although not as high on my priority list as log handling, I would opt for power feed, especially if I could disable it and feed the mill through the log by hand, if desired.
Most hydraulic sawmills include hydraulic positioning of the clamps and log stops. Raising and lowering the toeboards with hydraulics is another time saver. The sawyer can stay at the station and focus on milling without the distraction of stopping to level and clamp the log by hand. With full hydraulics, power feed and sawhead height control, the sawyer saves time and energy—and can double his production for less than the cost of a second mill.
How can you determine which upgrades are the most cost effective for your situation? One way to find out is to create a list of various sawmilling tasks, then have someone with a stopwatch time each task. Add up the times for milling 1,000 board feet of lumber and you will have a pretty good idea of just how and where you spend the bulk of your time. We’ve attached a sawmill task analysis cheat sheet here your can use for reference. You may be surprised at how little time is actually spent with the sawmill blade in the wood! Upgrades make the sawmill work the way you work and help you adapt to market changes. For example, if your business grows from weekend cutting for woodworkers to full production of railroad ties and flooring, you can add hydraulic log loading and turning to keep up with the demand. A single order for beams may more than pay for track extensions, extra clamps and stops and power feed so you don’t have to walk the distance of the beam with each cut you make.
Don’t be afraid to invest in your mill to make it work optimally for you. When considering purchasing a portable sawmill, be sure to find out what options and upgrades are available at the outset. With careful forethought, your sawmill investment will give you years of pleasant and profitable lumber production.