Rural builders discovering financial advantages of portable sawmills

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By Dave Boyt  –
My first experience both with a sawmill and building a home was a little over 30 years ago, when I built my own passive solar post and beam home in the hills of southwest Missouri. I would figure out what lumber I needed for the next week, cut the trees and haul the logs 20 miles to a small mill. The sawyer would cut the lumber to my requirements, while I helped by off-bearing the slabs and lumber, turning the logs, and shoveling sawdust. The sawmill was an old circle mill powered by a Detroit Diesel engine that roared at full throttle any time it was running, and belched a cloud of black smoke when the blade sliced through the wood. Safety gear was pretty much unknown back in the early 1980s, and the exposed belts, shafts, and 60-inch diameter blade would have sent OSHA safety inspectors running for cover. This continued for nearly two years while my wife, two small children and I lived in a mobile home on the construction site. With the house mostly built and all my fingers and toes still intact, we moved in.

After I saw my first portable band sawmill demonstration at a farm show, I persuaded my wife Becky that I could wrap up some of the unfinished details on the house if I bought one. Glancing down at the plywood subflooring worn smooth by 20 years of use, she agreed.

The band sawmill is a completely different machine from that old circle mill I first worked with. Picture a shop bandsaw on steroids, turned sideways and powered by a gas engine, and you get the idea. Unlike the circle mill, the log is stationary on the frame, and the engine and blade move down the track. It was a manual mill, which means muscle power for loading and turning the log, adjusting the thickness of the cut, and pushing the blade through the wood.

I did sell it, but it was to buy a bigger hydraulic sawmill. It worked on the same principle as the manual mill but the engine ran a hydraulic pump that powered the log handling and fed the blade through the wood, all with the push of a lever or flick of a switch. Over time, I decided that the simplicity of the manual sawmill suited me better, and I now run a Norwood LumberPro MX34.

The Norwood mill can cut logs up to 34 inch diameter, and can also accommodate odd-shaped logs that custom woodworkers value. The 23 h.p. Briggs and Stratton engine is quiet and sips fuel at the rate of about a half-gallon per hour. It actually cuts faster than the hydraulic mill did, because all of the power goes to the bade. Operating controls are on a single lever, which drops the throttle back to idle and stops the blade when I let go of it. The belts and blade are well shielded, and the operator works in a safe place behind the blade. The frame is solid and with the trailer package, it is as easy to tow as any 16 foot trailer. This lets me take the mill to the logs. I have even milled logs in a customer’s driveway right in town.

One of my biggest projects was cutting all the siding for a century-old dairy barn. The owner had decked up some huge oak logs. Every log pushed the mill (and me) to the limit, and most had to be trimmed a little just so the mill could cut them. Each board was 12 inches wide and installed as vertical siding about as fast as I could mill them. That project took nearly a week, and I lost count of the thousands of board feet involved. The task was truly a family affair. The senior of the group, probably in his 70s, was the logger, and only appeared long enough to drop a massive log for me to mill, then was off to cut another. The father and his sons assisted by offbearing the 80-pound boards as I cut them. It was the biggest project I had tackled up to that time, and we were all glad when the job was finished, but proud of the work. They did a splendid job putting that siding up, and with a metal roof, the barn will be good for another three generations.

Pierce barn

The Pierce dairy barn, near Anderson, Missouri. This 100+ year old barn was in serious need of new siding, which the author cut on his portable band saw mill. The boards were all full 1” by 12” oak. The only way to get wood this size and quality is to have it custom milled.

Easy-to-use sawmill even for the novice
Even people with no experience have found sawmill operation 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 sawmill evenings and weekends. His first project was a log cabin. He noted that he milled two sides of the logs flat for the cabin, and that they fit perfectly. Inside the cabin are exposed cedar beams and ash flooring, and a neat stack of sawmill slabs sits next to his wood cook stove. “All the logs, beams, roofing and flooring came from logs I cut and milled from my own woods,” he explained. “I couldn’t afford a cabin like this without the sawmill.” Robertson also sells lumber to neighbors for extra income.

The author mills a 28” diameter oak log on his Norwood portable sawmill. Although he mostly works at his location, it is easy to transport to customers’ sites when necessary.

Convert unwanted logs into high-value quality-lumber
Most people think of lumber as a material that is harvested in the forest and moved into urban areas for building, but Jonathan Arnold does the opposite. He salvages urban logs cut by his tree service company for use in his country home a few miles from Barrie, Ontario. The solid walnut counter top, the mantle above his fireplace and hardwood floors in his home all came from trees that he had salvaged through his business and milled on his portable mill. “I like the fact that the wood isn’t going to waste, plus there is no way I could buy this quality of lumber,” he noted. With his home nearing completion, he is milling lumber for other area homes. Some of his customers buy lumber from trees he removed from their property. Others just like the idea of the trees being used for lumber instead of mulch or firewood.

Jonathan Arnold shows off some of the logs in his woodyard. With his own home nearing completion, he is cutting and selling lumber to other area homebuilders.

Opportunities
Small band sawmills offer a number of opportunities for builders. They can be used to cut framing, siding, flooring and other materials such as stalls, partitions and fencing at a cost well below that charged by commercial lumber yards. While it seems that the size of a 2 x 4 at the store keeps shrinking, the sawmill can cut any dimension, allowing you to match framing in older structures when doing a restoration. In many cases, the raw material for my jobs comes from trees cleared for the building site, and customers appreciate the fact that the wood from those trees is used instead of being bulldozed into a pile and burned.

 

Not all lumber is big boards. This walnut crotch has fancy grain that will be used by a local woodworker for a table top. Often, special cuts like this are more valuable than the rest of the tree.

Sawmill Resources:
Norwood Sawmills has a great forum, “Norwood Connect”, where current and future sawmill owners exchange ideas and advice, and get technical help online.

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.

Finally, Sawmill and Woodlot Management magazine carries reviews of all types of small portable sawmills, as well as technical advice and articles on all aspects of woodlot management. Check its website at www.sawmillmag.com.

Dave Boyt has a degree in forestry, and manages his family tree farm near Neosho, Mo. He has run portable band sawmills for 12 years. He works for Norwood Sawmills as a writer, and is managing editor of Sawmill & Woodlot Management magazine. He welcomes comments and questions and can be contacted at dboyt.42@gmail.com.

 

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