Cutting Your Trees Into Your Own Lumber, Part 1

Reader Contribution by David Boyt
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Salvaging 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.

If you know what you want ahead of time, you will be much more satisfied with the outcome.  One of my best customers wanted to build a large chicken coop.  The logs were neatly stacked and ready to cut, and she had a cut list.  This gave me the chance to get the most out of each log.  The posts, beams, and siding all went onto a trailer which she pulled over to the construction site with a tractor.  While I was milling the lumber, she was busy building the coop! 

Listen to the sawyer’s voice of experience.  For example, if you ask for lumber cut 2″ thick, that’s what you get.  But if you ask the sawyer for lumber for a 2″ thick table top, he (or she) will probably recommend cutting the boards 2-3/8″ thick so that after they are dry and surfaced smooth, you’ll have your 2″ thick table top.  It also helps the sawyer cut more efficiently.  I take the time to look for interesting grain patterns and keep a sharper blade on the mill when cutting furniture wood.  For trailer flooring, I cut for speed and efficiency without worrying about appearance.  I don’t want to get too long-wind

ed, so I’ll continue this blog a little later with comments about paying the sawyer, how to help during the cutting process, and taking care of the finished pile of lumber. 

We’ve all got our favorite tools and techniques, and I’d like to describe a chain saw sharpening tool that is small and surprising accurate.  Steve Maxwell’s blog on sharpening a chain is great.  He didn’t mention the stump vise shown in the blog, but they work great to hold the bar steady.  The Husqvarna file guide (yes, it works on other brands of chain saws) clips onto the bar and is pretty accurate, once you learn to use it.  The roller guide gives you the angle and depth for the round file on the cutters, and the “crow’s foot” gives you consistent depth for the rakers.  They cost less than $15.00 at Bailey’s.  There is a video tutorial on the Bailey’s web site that shows how to use it.  The stump vise, by the way, is also at Bailey’s.  I don’t get a commission on these gadgets.  Whatever you use, a well sharpened saw is much safer than a dull one.  Less wear on the machine, less fatigue for the user, and better control over the cut.  Whatever you do, be careful out there.