Portable Sawmills for Woodworkers

By Dave Boyt | Posted: 12/05/2012 5:29PM

 

To a true woodworker, whether professional or amateur, there are few things more exciting or inspiring than being the first to sort through a freshly-arrived stack of hardwood lumber. Only the sawyer and lumber handlers have seen it. While sorting through the boards, you can’t help wondering: “what did the tree look like?” “where is the rest of the log?”, where are the book matched pieces?”, or “what if the sawyer had turned the log differently to expose more highly figured wood?” Usually, though the nagging question is “why does someone else always manage to pick through the lumber before I do?”

Instead of wondering, Duane Slaymaker, of Strasberg, PA, loads a log onto his sawmill and pictures in his mind what it looks like on the inside. With more than a decade of experience, he has learned to read the logs, and decides for himself how to cut them for the best grain.

Duane is a professional woodworker who runs a one-man shop in central Pennsylvania. His custom furniture is in offices and high-end homes throughout central Pennsylvania. Duane says that milling his own lumber is a logical link between the raw material and the final product. It gives him total control, allowing him to start out with the desired dimensions and the opportunity to turn the log for the best grain pattern. He keeps boards from the same logs together in sequenced bundles so that he can match the grain or make book match panels.

Duane has come a long way since he began his career as a woodworker twenty-four years ago. He recalls, “Equipped only with a table saw, drill press, router, band saw with a broken shaft and a ‘nothing to lose attitude’, I began building cabinets and custom furniture.”

Starting up a woodworking shop in the middle of Amish country, Duane knew that he would need to quickly find a niche to set him apart from the other shops. As he moved toward high-end cabinetry, he became increasingly frustrated with the quality of his raw material. “Many times I would travel to a supplier only to find the best lumber had already been picked out of the pile.

No tools or training can turn a piece of low grade material into a quality cabinet door panel or table top,” he recalled.“I wanted to get away from depending on others for my lumber. The Norwood sawmill was a good fit. It wasn’t all that expensive, and seemed like a good way to explore cutting my own lumber without risking a considerable investment. I took a leap of faith and ordered the mill.”

Duane has been using his Norwood LumberMate 2000 sawmill for over eleven years. The LumberMate is a manual band saw mill. The best way to describe it is as a shop band saw on steroids. The 1-1/4” wide blade is horizontal, powered by a 20 h.p. engine. The log rests on the track, and Duane provides the muscle for pushing the blade through the log, as well as loading and turning the logs.

His only other sawmill equipment are his chain saw and John Deere 2020 tractor, which he uses for loading the log on the mill and for moving stacks of lumber. Next to the mill is a stack of walnut, cherry, maple, and sycamore logs waiting to be milled. Nearby are stacks of lumber air drying.

Pushing the blade through the wood by hand is easier than it sounds, and Duane explained that it lets him feel how the blade is cutting. “I usually slow down when going through a knot or cutting wide boards. When it takes more push than it should, I know the blade is getting dull and ready to be changed—a five-minute task.”

In spite of its small size, the mill handles logs up to 31” in diameter, and 13’ long.

“For me, it’s worked out better than I could have hoped,” he said.“Now I know what it’s like to take that first slab off a log and see what’s inside. Some are disappointing, and some are like opening the best Christmas present. What’s inside the log is what goes into my projects. I mill locally-available solid lumber—and even some veneer—to the dimensions I need.”

Duane noted that it is a lot easier to find quality logs than quality lumber. “People know that I’ve got the sawmill, and give me a call if they have a tree down on their property. Mostly, they just want to see it used for something other than firewood.” Several commissions have allowed him to build projects of wood taken from the client’s own property.

One customer now enjoys dinner at a table made from a tree that had previously threatened to fall on the house. It has changed the way Duane looks at logs. “When driving, my eyes scan the landscape for fresh cut or downed trees,” he told me. “If the log looks promising, I will negotiate its removal with the landowner.”

A good way to determine whether a small band saw mill is good fit for a woodworking business is to hire a local sawyer to do some custom cutting. Many band saw mills are portable and can be brought to your location. I run a portable custom sawing business, and enjoy the expression on my customers’ faces when they see a perfectly cut walnut crotch cut from a log that most loggers would have left out in the woods. I can see their minds exploring the possible uses for the wide slabs, book matched boards, and quarter-sawn sycamore that comes off the mill. High school students, woodworkers, and forest landowners have tried their hand at running my mill, and all are amazed and delighted that they can produce boards.

Of course, the bottom line has to make sense. Even for Duane’s one-man shop, milling a few logs per week the mill has benefits, both financially, and in providing him with a resource for his niche market. To determine whether a portable sawmill would work for a given application, there are several questions to answer.

Do you have time or the inclination to take on a new task? Do you process enough material to justify hiring someone to run the mill full time or part time? With a single operator, even a small band mill like Duane’s Norwood can consistently produce 150 board feet of lumber per hour.

Is there potential market for selling surplus lumber? Costing around $10,000, it may not be the most expensive piece of equipment you own (roughly a third the cost of a new pickup truck). Based on what you pay for your lumber, how long will it take to pay for itself? Is there a local resource for the type of wood you use in your shop? Do you need to arrange other processes, such as kiln drying or surfacing? Amortization is based on a $12,000 investment and 75,000 board feet per year:

Costs are per thousand board feet.

 

            Operating expense:          $60 (fuel, blades, maintenance)

            Fixed expense:                  $20 (amortization, taxes, insurance)

            Labor:                                 $300

            Logs:                                  $800

            Kiln drying:                        $500

            Total expense:                 $1,680

 

            Current cost of lumber:   $3,200

 

            Savings:                           $1,520

 

            Board feet to pay for the mill:   6,580

 

A great way to learn more about small sawmills is to stockpile a dozen logs and have an independent sawyer (like me) bring in a portable sawmill to cut them. This will give a first-hand view of how they work. I am always glad to work with tree care companies and would love to see more of them start a sawmilling “branch” of their business.

Many of the forums listed below have contact information for sawyers across North America. The Forest Products association in your state may also have a list of custom sawmills. A call to the Conservation Department can also help get you in touch with them. You may find that working with a custom sawyer is the best way to start converting your logs to lumber. Depending on the species and the market, some sawyers may even be willing to cut on shares, giving you a chance to market your lumber with minimal overhead expense.

Duane explained that the mill is more than just another piece of woodworking equipment. “For me, running the sawmill is therapeutic. On a nice day, I’ll go throw a log on the mill and slice it up. It gets me away from the smell of varnish or the stress of a complex glue-up, or just gives me a chance to clear my head and enjoy the outdoors. It lets me re-connect with the wood in a way few woodworkers can. I have a passion for creating with wood. The mill completes that passion.”

For photos of Duane’s shop and his work, visit his web site at http://www.duaneslaymakerswoodshed.com. For more information on the Norwood sawmill, you can call 1-800-567-0404 or visit their web site at http://www.norwoodindustries.com. There are good sawmill discussion forums at woodweb.com, forestryforum.com and arborsite.com. It is a good way to find out what people think of their sawmills.

Dave Boyt is a Managing Editor for Sawmill and Woodlot Management magazine, and operates a custom sawmill service near Neosho, Missouri. He also writes for Norwood Industries.


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