Cut Your Own Lumber with a Portable Sawmill
Written by Norwood Owner Dave Boyt
My first experience with a sawmill was assisting my older brother Art, running a Bellsaw sawmill which, in its day, was considered a small portable sawmill. After spraying in enough ether (starting fluid) to put down anyone within a quarter mile, Art would push the starter while I hoped for the best (the best being that the tractor wouldn’t start, and I could go home). Black smoke billowed out of the exhaust as the ancient Massey Harris tractor reluctantly rumbled to life. On a calm day, the soot from unburned diesel exhaust hung in the air. On a windy day, it blew in your direction, no matter where you stood. When the smoke went from black to white, the tractor had warmed up enough to go to work. Art would then back up the tractor to tighten the flat belt that transmitted the power from the tractor to the mill. My job was to chock the wheels, as the tractor was never known to have had working brakes. It took both of us to roll an oak log onto the carriage with cant hooks. With luck, I could hold the log in a place while Art clamped it down.
We always held our breath when engaging the tractor’s power take off. If the tractor was even slightly out of alignment with the mill, the belt would fly off in a random direction. Assuming we were both still standing after such an event, we would put the belt back on the pulleys and repeat the procedure with the tractor aimed at a slightly different angle. Sometimes we’d get it right the first time, and sometimes it would take an hour or more.
When it came to actually cutting lumber, things really got interesting. If the belt managed to stay on the pulleys, the 52" circle saw blade spun at a terrifying speed. With no guards or safety devices, we stayed well clear of it. Stories of people who had become careless or unlucky enough to lose a limb or life were common. The idea was to make an initial cut called a “slab cut” to get the log flat on one side. Then we’d roll the log with our cant hooks and repeat the process to slab off the other three sides. Once the log had been squared into a cant, the boards started coming off. Sometimes, it actually worked out that way, but the log would occasionally break loose of the clamps and roll against the blade, stopping it while the tractor continued to run. Then it was a mad dash back to the tractor to disengage the power before the belt, which was now producing black smoke of its own, burned through.
Sometimes, the stress in the wood caused it to pinch the saw blade. The heat from the friction would warp the blade, causing more friction. The tapered board that resulted went onto the slab pile for the next winter’s firewood supply. Somehow, we managed to cut enough lumber for Art’s post and beam house without hurting ourselves or the mill beyond repair. We also had enough firewood to last several years.
I never did like working around that sawmill. I can only imagine the violations it would rack up if it ever had an OSHA inspector look it over. What I did like, though, was cutting lumber. Even a rough old oak log can have beautiful wood inside it, and watching it come off the mill one board at a time, is almost magical. I had “sawdust in my veins.” Since then there have been significant improvements in sawmill design. Small sawmills are easier to run, waste less wood, are easily portable and, best of all, safe to operate. There are models that suit almost any purpose, from the occasional hobby cutter who wants a little wood for projects around the farm, to production mills capable of providing good employment for three or four people. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to more than $50,000.
Small sawmills come in two basic designs, though there are many variations of each. The smallest and simplest is the chainsaw mill. It is a fixture that holds your chain saw steady for a straight cut through the log. The bigger the chain saw and the back to make a second cut. Ideally, each pass down and back yields a board. These mills were developed in New Zealand and designed to cut the huge trees found in that part of the world, often 10' in diameter and larger, though they do fine on the smaller trees found in other parts of the world, they are most efficient on trees 24" diameter and larger.
The design, and the one I now use, is the portable band saw. These machines use a horizontal band saw blade, typically 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" wide, powered by engines ranging from 9 h.p. to 60 h.p. The log is stationary on the bed, and the engine and blade ride down the track on a carriage. Besides being safe and easy to use, the thin blade takes only 1/8" kerf, so it produces less sawdust and more boards.
After owning several mills, and watching dozens more at work, I now operate a Norwood Pro MX34 portable sawmill. This is a manual sawmill. The 23 h.p. Briggs and Stratton motor has the sole task of turning the blade.
Loading, turning, and clamping the log—as well as setting the board thickness and pushing the carriage as the blade—relies on a combination of muscle power and my old 8N Ford tractor with a front end loader. The mill is easy on fuel, using only about 1/2 gallon per hour. The guards are effective without being in the way, and the mill kicks the sawdust away from the operator. One lever controls the throttle and clutch. As soon as the operator lets go of the lever, a brake engages to stop the blade in a few seconds. According to Norwood mill designer Peter Dale, the mill is used worldwide, and is designed to meet strict European safety standards. A few of the other features of the mill that impressed me were its rigid frame, smooth feel while cutting, and the availability of track extensions for longer logs, if I need them. And If I get tired of manhandling the logs, I can add hydraulic sawmill attachments to load, turn, and clamp them.
Even people with no sawmilling experience have found the machine’s controls intuitive and easy to learn. “It took me about 20 hours of cutting to get comfortable running the mill,” recalls Gerald Robertson of Angus, Ontario. “…mostly when no one is watching,” he laughed. Robertson, who drives a truck for a living, cuts lumber on his band saw mill evenings and weekends. He uses the mill for his own projects, including a log cabin. “I couldn’t afford a cabin like this without the LumberLite ML26 portable sawmill. All the logs, beams, roofing and flooring came from logs I cut and milled from my own bush [woods].” He noted that he milled two sides of the logs flat for the cabin, and that they fit perfectly. Robertson also sells lumber to neighbors for extra income.
Here in Missouri, my own experience has been similar. As manager of a family tree farm, the mill is a natural fit, and it has been the source of material for a number of projects. A bath house that collects rain water and recycles gray water for the garden is my most recent project. Even without access to trees, the mill would still work for me. In most cases, customers provide the logs. I have enough opportunity to cut on shares. The mill could provide me with income and building materials even if I didn’t have any timber of my own. The optional towing/trailer package has been a real benefit. Weighing in at about 1,800 pounds, the mill is as easy to tow as any 16' trailer and only takes about ten minutes to set up at a customer’s site. I have even backed it into a customer’s driveway in the middle of town to cut up a couple of logs. Watching customers thrill over seeing their logs milled into lumber brings back memories of my own excitement the first time I experienced it.
I remember one customer who got very emotional as he watched me mill a century old burr oak log. He recalled playing in that tree as a child. The tree had died, and he wanted lumber from it to make furniture and a fireplace mantle for his home, as well as oak chests for his children. It took two days to cut down and mill the huge tree, but he was thrilled with the results. And that, for me is the best part of the job—the people I meet, the friends I make, and knowing that I provide them with a service that they value.
If running a sawmill appeals to you or you are interested in hiring a sawyer to mill logs for you, the best way to find a sawyer is to log onto www.woodweb.com and www.forestryforum.com. Both have resource directories where sawmill owners list their services. You should be able to find one not too far from you. These websites also have forums that are full of opinions and good advice for sawyers of all levels of experience. Some portable sawmill manufacturers keep a listing of sawmilling services that use their mills and they may also be able to help you find a local sawyer. Norwood also has a great portable sawmill forum where owners exchange ideas and advice, and get technical help at www.norwoodsawmills.com. Finally, as a writer for Sawmill & Woodlot Management magazine, I would like to give it a plug, as well. The magazine carries reviews of all types of small portable sawmills, as well as technical advice and articles on all aspects of woodlot management. Check their website at www.sawmillmag.com.