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Portable Sawmill on a Tree Farm

This article originally appeared in the Kansas Forest Service, Kansas Canopy magazine from Kansas State University - Fall 2012 Issue #44

Tree farming has been such a large part of my life for the last 30 years that sometimes I forget not everyone understands what it is and what it involves.

handling a logIf you tell someone you’re a soybean or corn farmer, they nod respectfully. Tell them you’re into beef cattle, and you’ll likely find yourself in a lively discussion regarding the merits of one breed or another — or at least a debate as to whether Ford or Chevy builds better trucks.

But when I tell someone I’m a tree farmer, I usually get a blank look and a comment to the effect, “That’s got to be the easiest job in the world.” I might as well tell them that I work for the highway department watching center stripe paint dry!

While it is true that you won’t find me out in a blizzard trying to deliver hay to a snowbound herd of cows, or desperately working to get a field of hay baled and in the barn before a thunderstorm rolls through, I don’t spend much time with my feet propped up reading magazines, either.

Tree farming can be as intensive or as hands-off as an individual chooses. With a full-time job, I am less involved than I’d like, but I do manage to do some planting, pruning, thinning, and even some salvage harvests. One of my more pleasant and productive tasks is running a small portable sawmill.

The idea of selling hardwood logs for $0.18 per board foot on the stump, then paying $0.70 per board foot for pine 2x10 at a big box store never did appeal to me. Likewise, I don’t like the idea of leaving usable logs in the woods or cutting them up for firewood because they are an undesirable species, too widely scattered, or otherwise of no value to timber harvesters.

With my sawmill, any log that I can bring in from the woods goes for its best use, depending on size, species, and defects. For example, our 16-foot flatbed trailer gets a lot of hard use. Pine boards from the lumberyard just don’t stand up, and they’re a little thinner than I’d like. With the sawmill, I was able to cull out some post oak trees, mill the logs to lumber exactly 17⁄8" thick, and install trailer flooring that will probably outlast me!

sawing logs on a portable sawmill

Unlike the older circle mills most people are familiar with, small band saw mills move the blade on a track through the log. The blade is well guarded, the engines range from 16 to 25 horsepower, and one or two people can easily operate them.

Over the past dozen years, I have owned a chainsaw mill and several bandsaw mills. Presently, I operate a Norwood MX34 band saw mill. This is a manual sawmill. All the engine does is power the blade. Log handling (loading logs on the mill bed, turning the logs, clamping) and pushing the blade through the wood are all done with muscle power. With the help of a hand winch, a good cant hook, and a little practice, it is much easier than you might think.

The 23-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine automatically throttles down and the blade brake engages when not cutting wood. Besides the safety factor, this feature helps bring fuel consumption down to around 5 gallons for a good day’s work. By a good day’s work, I mean about a 1,200 board feet, if the logs are all arranged and ready to go.

If I decide to go portable with the mill, I can add a trailer package that lets me tow the 1,800-pound machine behind my truck. Norwood also offers track extensions for cutting long timbers.

Let’s do a little math to see how running a small mill comes out. Assuming you already have the other equipment you need, I’ll base the figures on cost per 1,000 board feet:

Labor: 8 hrs @ $25/hr  $200.00
Logs1 $180.00
Harvest/transport $50.00
Fuel: 4.5 gallons @ $3.50 per gallon          $15.75
2 blades resharpened @ $8 ea.$16.00
5 blade replaced2 @$30 ea.$15.00
Maintenance  $2.00
Repairs      $5.00
Amortization3$1.70
Taxes/insurance      $2.00
Total  Total  

1 Assuming logs could have been sold on the stump.

2 Blades can be resharpened three or four times before they need to be replaced.

3 Assuming an initial investment of $8,500 amortized over 5 years and a production rate of 100,000 board feet per year

drumming up sawmilling businessIn other words, the cost comes to less than $0.50 per board foot. Compared to that 2x10 from the lumber yard, sawing the lumber would generate a net profit of $0.20per board foot, or $240 per day.

What if the logs were free? What if you set your best lumber aside to sell for $1.40 per board foot? What if you’re selling cherry or walnut for $2.20 per board foot? What if you kiln dry and plane the lumber to double its value?

What started as a practical way to cut lumber for my own projects has become a part-time business. Local farmers have hired me to mill lumber for barn siding, chicken coops, and fencing. Other jobs include cutting “urban logs” from yard trees that have died or blown down. Some of these trees had sentimental value to the owners, and they wanted to make some furniture from them. To be realistic, this assumes that you can sell all the lumber you cut for the same price as the lumberyard. The potential only will be realized if hard work is combined with good business sense — including marketing. While I believe that my mill was a good investment for me, it is worthwhile to get other opinions. A couple of good web forums are woodweb.com and forestryforum.com. Foresters, sawyers, and woodworkers from around the world participate to ask questions and offer their opinions. If you see any posts from “Post Oakie,” you have found me!

 

Like a number of tree farmers who thought they’d sell their mill when they finished their house or barn, I did sell my first mill — to get a bigger one. Once I got started, I just didn’t want to give it up. I call it “getting sawd".

 

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