Small Log Chainsaw Mill is compact and its light-weight design easily bolts to your chainsaw bar with no drilling
Saw and Save
If you spend a lot of money on lumber, and would like to slash your costs big-time, have I got a deal for you. I produce thousands of board feet of prime oak, walnut and cherry stock for pennies per board foot. And you can, too! Here’s how.
Like any devoted woodworker and husband, I was more than willing to accommodate my wife Becky’s request for a new Mission-style bed. So, after some careful planning, I went to my local hardwood supplier and bought the necessary oak – about $300 worth. And after Becky saw how nicely the bed turned out, she came up with a list of about a dozen other furniture pieces needed for our home.
Studying the options
Although I cheerfully agreed to undertake every project on the list, I knew I had to come up with a more affordable means of acquiring lumber. S, I checked out these alternatives:
Then I tried and settled on the Alaskan MK III Chainsaw Mill Attachment for a chainsaw from Granberg International (for address see the Buying Guide at the end of this article). The 36” model I use (24”-, 30”- 48”- and 56”-long models are also available) consists of a 10-pound, H-shaped metal frame that clamps to the saw bar. Combined with my 33” saw bar, this setup gives me 26½” of cutting capacity. I power my mill with a Husqvarna 285CD that I purchased at a garage sale for $100. The saw engine displaces 5.2 cubic inches and produces 5.5 horsepower – about the right amount of cutting power for the 33” saw bar.
My costs besides the chainsaw included $189 for the MK III, $30 for repair parts for the used chainsaw, $80 for the 33” chainsaw bar, $40 for sharpening tools, and $40 for a special ripping chain (a standard crosscut chain works, but not nearly as efficiently). Including other miscellaneous items, my total investment was less than $500. A similar setup with a new chainsaw would cost around $1,000.
How a chainsaw mill works
To prepare a log for the mill, I first cut it into 8’ or 10’ lengths – whatever makes the best use of the log. Then I trim off any limbs or burls to make the log as cylindrical as possible.
It takes me about 10 minutes to attach the chainsaw to the MK III frame. Then, I secure a 12’-long 2x8 fir board to the top of the log with two 4½” screws. The 2x8 stays stiff, flat and straight thanks to a pair of 10’-long, 1/8x2x2” steel agnle irons that I mounted along the edges on one face of the board. I secured the angle irons with countersunk 1-¼” screws spaces 12” apart. The irons go against the bark and help cradle the 2x8 to the log.
With my eye and hering protedction in place, I set the sawmill for a 5”-deep cut and make the initial slabbing cut. With a sharp chain I can make this slabbing cut through an oak log in less than two minutes.
This cut gives me a first peek at the grain color and figure inside the log. Even now, having cut many logs in all sorts of species, I still get a thrill every time a log reveals this inner beauty. For example, the white oak log shown in this article yielded lots of wavy grain and splotches of bird’s-eye figure as shown in the photo B. Imagining how I will use this figure in projects helps make the hours of cutting go by quickly.
Now, with a flat plane established on the log, I remove the 2x8 guide and set the mill for a 1¼” deep cut (this yields 1” thick boards after shrinkage from drying and planning). I’ve found that only boards 2½” or more in thickness require me to wedge the cut open to prevent the board from pinching the saw bar.
I make successive cuts as shown in photo C until my mill is within an inch or two of the ground. What remains of the log is light enough that I can prop it up a few inches with scrap pieces of wood before making the final cuts. I place wedge blocks around the bottom of the log to stabilize it.
Note: Even though the maximum cutting width of my sawmill is 26½”, I once used it to mill a 42” diameter log from an oak tree that was close to 200 years old. To do this, I rotated the log 180º after making the initial slabbing cut and one board cut. Then, I made another slabbing and board cut, and rotated the log 90º. At this point I could saw completely through the log without rotating it any further.
Guiding the sawmill through the cut requires little effort on my part. If the log is on a slight downhill the mill will pull itself through the cut. About the only discomfort I experience is a tingling in my hands and some stiffness in my lower back. Padded gloves help with the vibration. To prevent my back from getting too sore, I alternate between standing, crouching, and kneeling during the cutting. I also take a break after every log and go for a short walk. I’ve tried back support devices, but they seem too restricting for this type of work.
To keep the saw cutting efficiently, I resharpen the chain after every four boards. For fast sharpenings I use a cylindrical grinding stone and a battery-powered rotary tool such as the Dremel model in photo D. (Granberg sells a car-battery-powered sharpener that’s faster yet.) Even with a sharp chain, it may take five or six minutes to complete cuts in the center of an oak log.
Working this way, I can typically make 200-250 board feet of 5/4 oak boards in a six-hour period. I haven’t had the chance to cut softwood logs, but I would imagine that the cutting would go much faster. I also intend to buy an auxiliary oiler that mounts to the far end of the bar ($33 from Granberg). My saw’s automatic oiler doesn’t put out enough oil to keep up with such heavy-duty use, and the auxiliary oiler should make the cutting go faster with less wear on the saw.
After I get my boards home, I stack and sticker them in the same order that they came out of the log. (See photo E of some of my outdoor stacks.) This makes it easier to match woods later during project construction. I leave the bark on the boards, and seal the ends with latex paint to slow the drying. I cover the pile with anything that will shed rain, typically old plywood or plastic panels weighted with concrete blocks or slabbing cuts from the milling. After one year of air-drying, the wood gets down to about 12-14 percent moisture content (MC). I live in Iowa; in other areas of the country the boards may air-dry to a higher or lower MC.
Then, I bring the boards down to about 7 percent MC over a 2-3 week period using the low-tech, but effective, dehumidification setup. To make this small kiln I first lay a sheet of plastic on the concrete floor of my garage workshop and stack and sticker the boards on top of this sheet (with the bottom boards a few inches off the floor). I place a dehumidifier, fan, thermostat, and relative humidity guage next to the stack and cover everything with another sheet of plastic. While the dehumidifier drives the air within this “ tent,” the fan circulates air for even drying throughout the stack.
I adjust the humidistat on the dehumidifier each day to keep the relative humidity inside the tent at about 30-25 percent, and the temperature in the 85-90º Fahrenheit range. For the dehumidifier to work effectively, the air outside the tent should be at at least 60º. As the wood nears 8 percent MC, the temperature inside the tent may climb as high as 105º. Then, I uncover the stack and check the MC of the wood with a moisture meter. At 7 percent MC I turn off the dehumidifier, re-cover the stack, and let the fan run for two days just to make sure that the entire stack has stabilized at 7 percent.
This setup cost me nothing because I already owned all of the necessary equipment. And, I feel that my patient approach to drying lumber yields higher-quality stock than I could buy. For more on drying lumber see these issues of WOOD® magazine:
*February 1993, “How to succeed at air-drying lumber,” pages 40-41.
*June 1994, “WOOD magazine builds a solar kiln,” pages 44-46
Pros and cons to consider
The versatility and economical price of a chainsaw mill make it the ideal choice for me. Other points in favor of these mills:
On the other hand, I don’t recommend a chainsaw mill if you have more money than time. You’ll spend a full day dealing with a single large hardwood tree. Also, keep the -0following in mind:
How to find free, high-quality logs
I don’t own any forested property, yet I have more logs offered to me than I can cut into boards. Here are some things that I’ve done to keep the logs rolling in.