Portable Sawmill on a Tree Farm


Reprinted from Green Horizons, Vol. 16 No. 1, Winter 2011

Tree farming has been such a large part of my life for the last thirty years that sometimes I forget not everyone understands what it is and what it involves. If 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 1-7/8” thick and install trailer flooring that will probably outlast me!

Unlike the older circle mills most people are familiar with, small band sawmills move the blade on a track through the log. The blade is well guarded, the engines range from sixteen to twenty-five horsepower, and one or two people can easily operate them. Over the past dozen years, I have owned a chainsaw mill and several band sawmills. Presently, I operate a Norwood LumberMate Pro MX34 band sawmill. 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 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 five 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, which 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 thousand board feet:

Labor: 8 hrs @ 25/hr - $200
Logs: $180
Harvest/transport: $50
Fuel: 4.5 gallons @ 3.50 per gal - $15.75
2 Blades resharpened @ $8.00 each: $16.00
.5 blade replaced (blades can be resharpened 3 or 4 times before they need to be replaced: $15.00
Maintenance: $2.00
Repairs: $5.00
Amortization: $1.70
Taxes/insurance: $2.00
Total: $487.45

In other words, the cost comes to less than $.50 per board foot. Compared to that 2x10 from the lumberyard, sawing the lumber would generate a net profi t of $.20 per 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 starts out 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 just 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 lumber yard. The potential will only be realized if hard work is combined with good business sense – including marketing. While I believe that my mill was a very 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’ve 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 sawdust in your veins.”

Author’s bio: Dave Boyt has a degree in Forest Management from the University of Missouri. He is Managing Editor for Independant Sawmill & Woodlot Management magazine and manages a family Tree Farm in southwest Missouri. He is employed by Norwood as a writer and operates the sawmill for fun and profit in his spare time.


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