DIY

How to Mill Your Own Lumber: A Homemade Sawmill

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/GRECAUD PAUL
If commercial lumber costs are keeping you from your dream home, there may be another choice: your own sawmill.

Talk about frustration!

There we were, right next
door to a national forest, and every day we could see huge flatbed
trucks chug into the woods and cart hundreds of giant logs out to a
commercial lumber mill a few miles away.

How we envied that mill!
Because, with all those millions of fine trees in the mountains around
us, the high retail cost of lumber was keeping us from constructing a
house right there on our very own homestead. And we had such a great
location too: high on a bluff overlooking a quiet river valley.

“What we need,” we told ourselves, “are two things: legal access to those trees and our own sawmill.”

And,
surprisingly enough — after we’d analyzed the problem — it only took a
little applied imagination, a few inquiries, the passing of several
weeks, and the expenditure of approximately $600 to put both the legal
access and the sawmill neatly in our hip pocket. Here’s how we did it:

Legal Access to Cull Logs

Before
we did anything else, we checked out the availability of all those
national forest trees that surrounded our property. (After all, it did
seem pointless to spend a lot of time and energy designing a mill if we
couldn’t get logs to cut with it.)

So we just took a little drive
into the areas of forest that the commercial logging outfits were
licensed to cut. And we quickly noticed that the loggers had felled many
fine smaller trees to make the clearings and roads they needed to haul
out the really big logs they were actually after.

The smaller
trees, called “cull” in the trade, were too little for commercial use
but they were certainly big enough for us! And there was so much cull
scattered within easy reach of the timbering roads that we knew we’d
easily be able to reach all we wanted with our two-ton truck (we
wouldn’t need a tractor, winch, or any other heavy equipment to drag the
trees from the forest).

So far, so good. The trees were within
physical reach but what about legal access? Would the National Forest
Service let us have a few of the logs that were going to waste? “Well,”
we told ourselves, “it won’t hurt to ask.”

Buoyed by such homespun
wisdom, we made our way down to the local office of the NFS and
explained to the rangers on duty what we had in mind. They were as
cooperative as could be and told us that, for the trifling sum of $15.00
and the promise that we’d observe simple fire precautions and leave the
roads and woods as we found them, we could have a permit to haul out
20,000 feet of cull logs. Twenty thousand feet! Needless to say, we paid
the $15.00 and made the promises.

Gathering Your Wood

Getting
those culls out of the forest was easier for us than you might think.
The strong, young men in our group were willing to spend long and hard
days in the woods in order to save several thousand dollars in lumber
costs. And we already had a good chain saw with which to trim and
section the trees we selected. And our trusty two ton truck with its 14-foot-long bed was all we needed to haul the logs home.

So we just rolled up our sleeves and went to work. And before long, 20,000 feet of culls were stacked up out in our work-lot.

Necessary Equipment for a Sawmill

Once
we’d selected, trimmed, sectioned, and hauled home those logs we knew
it was time to tackle the construction of that sawmill we wanted. So we
began to look for the components we’d need to build the machine. And,
living as we do in a logging region, they weren’t too difficult to find.

First
we spent about $90.00 for a good 30-inch circular saw blade with
carbide cutting tips. The mill operators and machinists we talked to
advised us on the best speeds to run the blade and told us what we’d
need in the way of shafts, pillow blocks, pulleys, belts, and sheaves
for the mill. Local suppliers who stood a chance to sell us the items we
couldn’t scrounge or buy secondhand were eager to help figure a way to
link an engine to our blade and otherwise design what was really just an
“oversized table saw”.

To power that saw, we bought a brand new
Briggs & Stratton one cylinder, 10-hp gasoline engine for $300.
Chances are we could have picked up a good used one for much less but,
since we sort of plan to extend our homesteading venture a ways into the
future, we figured that the new engine was a good investment.

( EDITORS NOTE:
Sawmills can be
and have been turned by almost any prime mover capable
of supplying good lugging power
or torque at low rpm. Steam engines and
electric motors are widely used in commercial mills. Both, hover, have
notable drawbacks:

It’s not always easy to find a boiler
for a steam engine, for example, and
once you do you need an extra man, a
stoker, to keep the powerplant running. Steam plants also have more
than their share of trouble with local fire codes.

Electric
motors aren’t much better for sawmills. They have to be big to pull
those oversized blades through green logs so big that they usually
require special heavy-duty wiring, transformers, etc., that are both
expensive and frequently difficult to keep in service.

Water-powered
sawmills, on the other hand, work like a charm but few of us have a
handy stream running through our backyards these days. And diesels are
expensive to buy. Which is why most small mills are now turned by the
powerplant that most of us find most readily available, most affordable,
and most convenient: the gasoline engine.)

Building a sawmill

I’ve
called our sawmill an oversized table saw, and it is. But what a table
saw! First off, the table part of the rig is a full 4-by-8 sheet of
1 3/8-inch plywood bolted to a 2-by-6-inch and 2-by-8-inch frame and covered with a
1/16-inch thick sheet of metal (both to resist the weather and to provide a
smooth surface for the logs to slide on).

The saw’s cutting guide
is an eight foot long piece of kiln dried, straight 2-by-8-inch redwood
which is also covered on one side with 1/16-inch sheet metal. This rip fence
is held to the top of the table by 4-by-4-by-1/4-inch angle iron that is,
in turn, locked down by removable 3/8-inch steel pins. Holes drilled through
the tabletop permit us to move the rip fence back and forth so that we
can cut boards one, two, four, six, eight, and twelve inches wide.
Changing from one setting to another is a snap.

The entire table
was mounted on six 4-by-4inch Douglas fir legs framed together with 2-by-4’s. A 3/4-inch plywood floor and sides and diagonal wire braces cinched up
tight with turnbuckles add strength and rigidity. The whole assembly was
then fastened with embedded anchor bolts to a four inch thick concrete
pad that measures approximately four feet wide by ten feet long.

The
engine was separately mounted to two paired sets of 2-by-4’s which, in
turn, were anchored to the concrete foundation. Several layers of old
inner tubes sandwiched between the pairs of 2-by-4’s reduce to a minimum
the amount of powerplant vibration transmitted to the saw’s table.

Inspections and Cutting Costs

What a joy it was to fire up that engine for the first time and run a
log through the mill! All those exuberant weeks of logging together,
simple carpentry, machining, and problem solving — all of which had been
fun — were paying off at last. Hallaloo! We were in the lumber business!

To
date, we’ve milled part of the timbers and boards we need for our new
house (which we’ll erect ourselves in accordance with local codes) and
we’re all full of the deep satisfaction that comes from using
imagination and group energy to do it all ourselves.

Incidentally,
just as we finished our mill, we learned that our county’s building
codes specify that all lumber used in construction must be certified for
quality by an official inspector. This not only means that we have to
be very careful to select logs free of bugs and rot but that the
necessary inspections will run us anywhere from $50.00 to $300.

But
that ain’t dampened our spirits none. Cause inspection fee and all
we’re still milling out our own lumber for about one-tenth what it would
cost us at the local retail lumberyard!