How to Mill Imperfect Logs

If you mill for profit, getting the best ‘bang for your buck’ means knowing how to mill all kinds of logs with your portable sawmill. While larger scale sawmills will always desire pin straight [boring] logs, your niche can be turning these logs that might otherwise be discarded into beautiful planks & boards that are more interesting to the woodworking market.

If you’re milling strictly for your personal use, you probably already know that imperfect logs can give some of the most interesting and beautiful slabs. And, even better, your chances of coming upon some of these logs for free is much higher than perfect, straight logs. So, while you might be tempted to ignore imperfect logs that may give you trouble, if you learn the tricks to milling them, you won’t regret it!

Removing Log Flair

A “flair” is a warped section of a bottom log (the main log that holds up a tree). Flairs make logs harder to roll in a straight line and because they cause logs to lie at an angle when loaded onto a sawmill, but you dont have to cut off that length if you want to mill it. Your best bet is to trim off the sides so you don't lose any good length.

To remove flairs, shave your log down with a chainsaw before you load it onto your sawmill. To test the log, try rolling it and see if it manages to keep to a straight line. Then, put the log onto the sawmill and have a look to see if it’s pushing the diameter of the mill. If it is, you’ll be able to see how much more trimming it needs until it fits (better to realize this now than when you’re milling).

Levelling Imperfect Logs

When you’re milling, you want the center of the log level across the mill. You can use roller toe boards to do this, or if you don’t have toe boards, try improvising by using a hydraulic jack or scissors jack, or shims. No matter how oddly shaped your log is, milling level to the center of the tree will give you the best results that will be the least likely to warp. Leveling your logs will be more difficult if they're irregular shaped, but the additional effort will be well worth it.

Dealing With Knots

Knots are mostly found in upper logs because these logs have more branches. If you’re cutting an upper log, you’ll need to make sure you adjust your milling strategy. For example, if you’re using a bandsaw, be careful, as the teeth can grab the grain of the knot, which can make the band blade rise or dive. To stop this from happening, try feeding the log through at a slower rate and apply more tension to the blade. If you’re still having problems, check the tracking to make sure the blade is riding properly on the band wheels and the blade guides are properly aligned.

What To Do With Curved Logs

Rather than trimming the log and losing significant wood in order to square it up, work with what you've got! Leave a live edge, and plain cut your curved log so that you can see the shape in your final boards.  Many woodworkers want curved logs, for example, for signs or for unique table surfaces. So, if you find the right customer, or if you're looking to make something that is one-of-a-king, mill the log as is -- this is what we call a ‘character’ log!

This photo is from TimCosby, member of the Forestry Forum, who says he can sell a board from a curved log like the one shown for $600-$900. 

If you absolutely can’t find a customer who is looking for a curved log, trim the log as short as possible to remove the curve. From there, you should be able to get a straight board from it.

Cut Cookies

If the log you're dealing with is particularly hard to handle due to its odd shape, chances are, it will yield some very interesting & unique cookies for smaller decorative projects. Try your hand at that rather than discarding your character log.

If you haven't milled a log this way before, here is a short instructional video from our Sawmill School Series that shows you how.

Can You Mill Branches?

Branches are typically not worth milling because the problems they cause are not worth the effort. And in these cases, you should use branches for firewood or make mulch out of them using a chipper. Larger branches, however, can be useful, and if you really want to get the most money for your lumber, you can try milling them. Here are a few things to keep in mind: - First, check to see if a branch is large and straight enough to put on a sawmill. - “Tension wood” is on the topside of a branch and will make it harder to hold the branch straight. This tension won’t be relieved until you start to mill the branch into boards. - You might see the boards start to warp. If you see a branch bend too much as you’re milling it, you are better off abandoning the branch.

Turning “Odd” Into Amazing

While you may have been avoiding unique or unusual logs, the industry has shown that some of the most beautiful pieces have been created out of what another sawyer may have disregarded as “waste” wood. Below are just a few items woodworkers have created out of imperfect logs: - Signs - Shelving units - Bookcases - Flooring - Tables, and more. By putting in an extra bit of effort to figure out how to properly cut and manage an irregular log, you’ll be amazed at the finished product!

How Do You Mill Imperfect Logs?

Have we missed anything? We want to know what you do with imperfect logs! Share your thoughts and let us know using the Norwood Connect forum.