Sawing Sycamore With a Norwood Portable Sawmill

Reader Contribution by Dave Boyt
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Big Sawmill Jobs

All right, I’ll admit it. My sixty year old body just doesn’t do things as easily as it did twenty years ago. Problem is, my brain doesn’t always seem to get the message. I can look at a job and say to myself, “yes, I remembering lifting, shoving, riding, driving, or fixing something like that, so I’m sure I can do it again.” Usually by the end of the day, my brain catches up to what my body has been trying to tell it. This phenomenon is especially evident when I’m running the sawmill. The manual sawmill requires me to do all the lifting and log turning by hand, though I often enlist the aid of “Henry”, my 1953 8N Ford tractor. I have also installed a winch, which helps tremendously.

Meeting the Customer

While demonstrating the Norwood sawmill at the Mother Earth News Fair in Lawrence, KS last fall (great show, by the way), I noticed a fellow watching as I cut one board after another from a fair-sized oak log. After introducing himself as Doug, I learned that he had some fair-sized sycamore trees on his property that had fallen, and he wondered whether I would be willing to come over and take a look to see whether I could saw them up. What I didn’t realize at the time was that “fair-sized” meant up to six feet diameter and forty feet tall! Once again, my brain kicked in without consulting my body. “Sure, I can mill those.” Truth is, I’ve never been beaten by a log, but I’ve never worked on anything this size.

Milling Oversize Logs

A few weeks later, I towed the mill 167 miles to the Doug’s place and went to work. The mill’s 36-inch diameter log capacity is big, even, for many big production sawmills, but we had to set the biggest logs aside for a later date. There were plenty of “small” logs to keep us going for a weekend. Fortunately, he had a loader that was capable of lifting the one-ton logs onto the mill. With careful positioning, we were able to get the maximum-size logs on the mill, and cut slabs thirty inches wide! Just imagine… a table top built from a single board. Sycamore has the best grain pattern with beautiful flecks, when quartersawn, so we did as much of that as we could, most of it with one natural edge. By the end of the first day, we were both exhausted, and I was more than glad to accept Doug’s offer to have dinner and stay over at his place.

Salvaging Lumber

With as much lumber as I saw, it takes a pretty impressive log to get my attention, but the lumber that came off was so beautiful, I bartered my work for wood, instead of the usual payment. Over the weekend, we only milled four logs, but wound up with nearly 2,000 board feet of lumber. As I stacked the wood on the back of my old Chevy flatbed and hooked up the mill, I thought about the other possible fates for this beautiful wood. Most likely was that it would have been bulldozed into a pile and burned — or simply left to rot. It certainly was satisfying to know that I had played a part in salvaging the log. My next project is to figure out a way to cut the bigger logs. The potential is mind boggling! Round conference tables six feet diameter, with chairs, and desks all made from the same log. Even the smaller pieces have me thinking about dulcimers, guitars, and other string instruments.

But that will have to wait. The rule of thumb is that wood has to air dry about one year for each inch of thickness, so I have a while to make my plans for it, though I expect I’ll sell most of it. As soon as I finish a project with it, I’ll post more photos.

The best part was forging a friendship with the owner of the trees. It will take at least two more weekends to finish up the job, and I look forward to his hospitality as much as I do the challenge of milling the rest of those logs!

Meanwhile, stay safe & warm, and I’ll try to do the same.

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