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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Cutting Your Trees Into Your Own Lumber, Part 2

 Dave Boyt and Wonderdog at the millIn my previous blog, I wrote about preparations for having a sawyer bring a portable band mill onto your homestead to cut lumber.  To sum up, have a good idea of what you want, so that the logs are sawn as efficiently as possibly.  For example, if most of the lumber is going into a tool shed, how many 2x4s will you need, and how long?  How much 3/4” thick siding will you need?  If you will be using a combination of custom sawn lumber and “store bought” lumber, let the sawyer know, so that he can match the dimensions (a store bought 2x4 is actually 1-1/2” by 3-1/2”, and it seems like they keep getting smaller!).  By the way, I realize that I’m being a sexist pig by referring to the sawyer as a “he”.  In reality, most are, but as a writer for Sawmill & Woodlot Management magazine, I have met several ladies who would put most of us guys to shame. 

Placing a half-dozen of the poorer logs at the front of the pile will give you the opportunity to have some 6” by 6” “blocking” cut to stack the lumber on.  The blocking gives a six-inch space between the boards and the ground.  This allows air to pass Blocking for stacking lumberover both sides of the board so that it dries evenly.  Otherwise, it WILL warp.  Even if you plan to move the pile in the near future, take the time to stack it.  Also, wood in ground contact starts decaying within weeks or months, depending on the species.  This is good for a log out in the woods, but not for your lumber.  Stack it right the first time. 

The blocking should be 4’ long, so you can cut an 8’ block in half or a 12’ log into thirds.  You need enough to support your longest boards every First layer20”.  For example, if your longest logs are 12’ long, you will need eight blocks.  You may have to set some boards aside until you get the foundation built.  If you are cutting wood that rots quickly, such as pine, sycamore or hickory, the blocking will not last more than a couple of years in ground contact, so you might want to raise it off the ground with treated wood or cement blocks. 

You will also need “stickers”—lots of them.  These are roughly 1” square by 4’ long strips of wood that go between the layers of wood.  The stickers need to be placed directly above the blocks.  Again, the idea is to allow air to flow between the layers of boards.  If you used the poorest logs to make the blocking, the sawyer may have enough boards from First layer of boards with stickers in place for the second layerthem to cut enough to get you started.  As you go, have the sawyer edge (square up the edges) of the boards into stickers.  Also, when possible, I like to put poor quality boards on the bottom two layers of the pile to serve as a moisture buffer between the ground and the good boards.  As you stack the boards, leave at least a 1/2” gap between them to improve the air flow.  It is important to keep the stickers lined up straight.  Green (freshly cut) lumber will sag if it is not supported.  The ideal lumber stack would have tin over the top to shed water, but I usually just stack poor quality lumber on the top to shelter the stack from the elements. 

A well stacked pile of boardsThe main points are to 1) support the wood as it dries to avoid warping and 2) allow air circulation around each board so that it dries evenly.  It is best for the wood to air dry before using it, though there are some techniques for using green lumber.  No matter how careful you are, there may be a few boards that just won’t stay flat.  It is better for a board to warp while in the stack than to warp after it has been nailed in place.  Besides, you can use any warped boards for bracing—or, in the worst case—for firewood.  You have a lot invested in your lumber—both in time Chain saw dovetail 1and money.  And even if you salvaged dead trees, stacking and storing the lumber properly demonstrate respect for the natural resource by putting it to its best use. 

In my next blog, I’ll write about how to deal with sawyers.  Some welcome your help, while others require that you come no closer than twenty feet while the mill is running.  There are also many cutting patterns, such as quarter sawing, and sawing symmetrical to the heart that will help you get the most out of your logs. 

Chain saw dovetail 2For now, here is a quick project for those of you with advanced chain saw skills.  Dovetail joints are the height of fine furniture and craftsmanship, requiring careful cutting with a router and jigs, or careful precise work with a saw and chisel.  But dovetail joints with a chain saw?  Building benches with only a chain saw and no metal fasteners is a crowd pleaser at county fairs, and gives me something to do with the slabs other than cut them for firewood.  First, I’d better put in a disclaimer.  This requires a “bore cut”, in which I bore through the wood with the nose of the bar.  The bore cut requires a sharp chain and proper technique.  Here’s a youtube video that explains it pretty well.  Practice bore cutting on some firewood before attempting a dovetail joint.  Also, wear chain saw chaps, logging helmet and steel toe boots, just in case. 

Chain saw dovetail 6First, cut about 18” off the ends, or have a slab at least 3” thick that you can use for the legs.  Flatten the end of the bench to about 6” from the end, so that the legs have a flat surface to rest on.  Then make a plunge cut about 4” from the end of the bench, and make about a 6” wide notch.  The sides of the dove tail taper inward, which will lock into the leg.  Next, transfer the pattern of the tail onto the top of the leg to lay out the “pin” of the dovetail joint.  Before cutting the pin, use a straight edge to mark the cut lines.  And be sure to clamp the leg down before cutting the pin, because it will try to move when you cut it. 

The pin should slide easily into the dove tail notch.  To tighten it, make a wooden wedge, and tap it into Chain saw dovetail 4place until the joint is secure.  Don’t over tighten with the wedge, because it is easy to split the bench apart.  As the wood dries over time, the joint may loosen.  Just tap the wedge in a little to tighten it. 

Be careful about bringing wood furniture into the house.  If it has bugs, such as the powder post beetle, you may find your house infested.  This happened to us a few years ago, and I can assure you, this is a problem you want to avoid!  It would help to remove the bark, and leave the bench outdoors for a year if you do plan to bring the bench inside.  I like the idea of recycling slab wood.  There is no shortage of the raw material around my sawmill, and if it doesn’t work out, it just goes onto the growing firewood Chain saw dovetail 5pile.  I’ll try to get a video posted on youtube, but for now, you’ve got the basics.  Just be careful with the sharp end of the saw. 


bruce mcelmurray
1/24/2012 8:48:38 PM

Excellent writing David. I look for your topics as they are informative and good reading. I was one of those sawyers that kept owners away. I didn't like pets or animals around either. I did it mostly for liability reasons. Being a retired Senior Claim Supervisor for one of the major Insurance companies I am well experienced in the liability area. I would get very nervous when I had to leave my mill on site if the owner had children or if there were neighborhood children around. A mill could be considered an attractive nuisance that a child could get hurt on and the sawyer would have no defenses. There is no way to really keep that from happening either. The owner would always want to help but if they get hurt depending on the seriousness of the injury you have a costly problem or you end up cutting their lumber for free to keep from being sued. One way to avoid that is to take out a general liability policy because a mill can be very dangerous to those who are not acquainted with it. The problem is that insurance is expensive and the profit margin on milling wood is slight, and won't cover the cost of the policy in many cases. There is always the risk of damage to the mill by people messing around with it when you have left. I had one person pull a log on the mill after I left and try to mill it our and ruined my blade. I always run a metal detector over the log before I cut it and that particular log had fencing buried in it. It is not nice to come out the next morning and find a blade ruined as what little profit you have just departed. So I did not allow anyone near the machine when it was in operation and worried nights that some child would get hurt or killed on it. Something a sawyer has to consider if you don't want to be paying a large liability claim. You will unfortunately find that you don't have many defenses. I would recommend that any sawyer who cuts lumber for others pay a visit to their insurance agent. Just my thoughts.