How to Convert Standing Dead Trees to Lumber

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray

The above pile of logs in the photo came from a very dead spruce tree on our property. When I walk through our trees and I see a 16” conifer tree that had just died last winter I experience the thrill of looking at the board feet within that tree and projects I can make with it When looking at the pile of logs in the photo most people see firewood or just a pile of logs. What I see when I look at those logs is 220 board feet (per the doyle log scale) of lumber that is ideal for many uses. Projects like making two standing closets and an addition to our kitchen plus a new front door and pantry door. That is what I visualize right there in that pile of logs – lumber. So depending on who you are when looking at a pile of logs they can be viewed quite differently depending on what you intend to do with the logs.

Moisture Content in Lumber

Many people realize that lumber comes from trees and hence logs can be converted into lumber. They also know when they need lumber the easiest place to get it is at a lumber yard. They know that it has been kiln dried to a specific moisture content and finished down to a nominal size. The lumber I mill is dimensional and true to size. If you purchase lumber at a lumber yard that wood has been dried to a certain moisture content but as you move it to your area it attains the moisture content level where you are. Lumber will reach the equilibrium of the atmosphere moisture around it. Therefore air drying lumber is nothing short of allowing it to reach the equilibrium where it is located. I seal the end grain with paraffin wax paint so it will obtain a more uniform moisture level and doesn‘t dry too quickly and warp or wind. I also use inch by one inch strips of wood to keep layers separate and support the weight equally. These are called stickers.

Living in a semi arid locale our milled out dead trees dry out very fast where the moisture is literally sucked out of the wood. Curing time does not require more than a few weeks if handled properly. If I mill the logs out now I will have lumber available later this fall which is fully dry and cured that I can use to make two free standing closets. A-Frame construction does not allow much room for conventional closets so making two free standing closets will go a long ways toward the organization of our clothes.

Running an Efficient Wood Mill

Setting up the wood mill only takes about an hour but I go over the Honda power head carefully before I even start to set the mill up. I want to be sure all the fittings are properly greased, sharpen the blade, check fluid levels, clean the air filter and make sure proper tension is achieved so it will cut efficiently. The mill could be set up in an hour but I’m pretty fussy and want it set up just right so I don’t have to stop cutting once I get started. In the attached photo it is set up and ready to go. It is capable of cutting up to 2000 board feet a day but for me that would have been 30 years ago. At my current age I tend to move a little slower plus I’m not in a big hurry.

Available Dead Trees

My closet projects will require about 320 board feet total and these logs in the photo will be short of the needed amount. Fortunately we have more dead trees available that also died last winter in which I can make up the extra board feet. In addition I will also need another 62 board feet for a new front door and pantry door.

If you are a do it yourself person and have a wood lot or access to a wood lot and have projects to make out of lumber perhaps a small wood mill would be to your advantage. If you decide to mill your own wood or know a sawyer who you can pay to mill lumber for you it would be advantageous to learn about air drying techniques so once cut your lumber does not warp, wind or mildew. Milling the trees into lumber is the easier part and the more tricky part is drying the lumber properly. It is not a difficult task but it needs to be done properly to end up with usable lumber. It makes little sense to mill the lumber and then have it end up in an unusable condition due to improper drying techniques.

Pick the Right Wood Mill

There are a number of wood mills from chain saw mills to the more sophisticated band saw mills and blade mills (like the one in the photo). Any will do the job and some depend on the size of the log you plan to cut. They are reasonably priced to fairly expensive depending on just how sophisticated you plan to go. After I mill out the lumber there are the culls remaining which are very popular for those looking for firewood. They cut easily, split easily and are already dry and prime quality firewood. Some sawyers sell the culls but I just give them away to get rid of them. Our community has a brush burn site but I would rather see them put to use keeping people warm instead of just destroying them. The sawdust from the milling process works it way into the ground also serving as a soil binder. Nothing goes to waste and the total cost to make this lumber and projects is equal to the cost of two gallons of gasoline.

Milling your own lumber to make your own projects is rewarding in many ways. Knowing the final product came from a specific tree and was converted to a useable project is reward enough. Also knowing that none of the residual went to waste is additionally rewarding.

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