Cutting Your Trees Into Your Own Lumber, Part 1


Dave Boyt and Wonderdog at the millSalvaging dead or dying trees, and milling the logs into lumber is a great experience.  It is part of the powerful connection I feel with the land, and I am always delighted to share it with my friends and customers.  If you have it in mind to hire a sawyer with a portable sawmill to cut lumber for a chicken coop, front porch, or a full-sized home, there are some things you can do before, during, and after the milling to make it go more smoothly.  Finding a good sawyer can be challenging.  Woodweb and Forestry Forum are common hangouts for sawyers with internet connections.  I’m frequently on Norwood’s Town Hall forum, where I pick up (and occasionally offer) ideas, advice, and opinions.  Some custom sawyers even have their own web sites.  Of course, if you know a sawyer, or someone who has had a good experience with one, you’ve got a real head start.

If a portable mill is coming to your place, a certain amount of preparation will save you time and money, and will yield more usable lumber.  The mill needs to be fairly level (straight is more important than level), and there needs to be plenty of room to work around it.  I’ve had my Norwood mill in some pretty tight places, but a 30’ square area should give you and the sawyer enough elbow room to work.  Also think about how you’ll get the mill to the site.  Could you get a 20’ trailer to it?  More than once I had to cut down trees to widen a trail so I could get the mill to the “level” cutting site.  You’ll also need a level place to stack the boards that isn’t too far from the mill—or a nearby place to park a trailer if you’re going to stack the boards for drying somewhere else.

The logs need to be stacked in such a way that they can easily be loaded onto the mill.  If possible, move the logs to the mill site on a wagon or carry them with a front end loader.  At least lift one end of the log off the ground when pulling it.  Dragging logs behind a tractor will leave you with ruts, and the logs with grit embedded in the bark.  Sawyers don’t like grit in the bark—it dulls the blade, and you may find yourself facing an additional charge if they are too dirty.  Don’t cut any of the logs shorter than 8’ long, unless you’ve checked with the sawyer!  A lot of mills have trouble clamping down shorter logs.  Anything less than 8” diameter is generally best left for firewood.  They take too long to clamp down, and you just don’t get much lumber out of them.

Be realistic in your expectations.  A good sawyer can do a remarkable job converting rough logs into straight lumber.  But if you ask a sawyer to cut 1” by 8” lumber out of a log that is 6” diameter, prepare to be disappointed.  I have actually had that happen.  If you are supplying your own logs, the sawyer has very little control over the finished product.  Small and crooked logs take longer to cut per board foot, because they are harder to clamp down.  A sawyer who charges by the board foot may balk at cutting logs under 10” in diameter, or charge more per board foot, simply because it will take more time.

Plan ahead of time how you will handle the lumber.  Stack some of the poorer logs at the front of the pile.  These will be cut into blocking to hold the rest of the lumber up off the ground.  They just need to be big enough to 6” by 6” cants, and don’t need to be pretty.  Plan to have enough of to cut 4’ long and lay about 20” apart to hold your longest boards.  For example, if your logs are 12’ long, you’ll need nine square 4’ long blocks to hold up your stack of boards for drying.  You could make them out of four 8’ logs or three 12’ logs.

You’ll save time and board handling if you arrange the stack to start out milling the longest logs, and work your way down to the shorter ones.  I advise my customers to arrange the stack so that the best logs get sawn first.  As we work the pile down toward the smaller and more crooked logs, we  may reach the point where it is too much work for too little lumber.  The remaining logs go for firewood.

12/30/2011 9:28:20 PM

David I really enjoy reading your articles. Great memories are renewed from reading your excellent writing and experiences. You really have to be a sawyer to fully understand and most people don't listen when you tell them what you so accurately outline in your article. I would never cut less than a 10" log. I quickly found out I also needed to tell customers that was 10" at the small end. I also carried a metal detector with me and ran it over logs prior to cutting. After you have cut through an embedded metal fence or old nails once you don't want to shut down and sharpen the blade unnecessarily. . I never allowed the customer to approach the mill while I was running it. They would see me do it and then think that it looked easy and could do it themselves. Sometimes a job took three or more days and I didn't want them to run the mill in my absence. Good way to get injured and I didn't like the distraction either. Some would actually try that so that was remedied by fixing the mill so it would not start before I left it. They are paying for the lumber to be a specific size and I didn't like to lose focus and waste any wood. I made them stay 20' away as I worked. I once remember a guy bartered with me for cutting cherry flooring. In exchange he said I could have a cherry tree myself. I should have been more specific as the tree he 'allowed' me to cut had to be dragged a long way to load, and was hollow in the bottom part. Live and learn and after that I wanted to know exactly which tree and that it was solid through out. Another guy wanted me to re cut log siding. That was a ball. That is why I quit cutting for others and now only cut for myself. I just got tired of being asked to quarter saw an entire log into 2 X 6's from a 10" log. .

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