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.

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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: 

  • Harvest my own wood and haul the logs to a sawmill. I’ve always been able to get my hands on good-quality logs (see the article on page 98 for tips on doing this). But, hauling the log to the mill was a lot of work, and gave me little control over the finished product. The mill charged 40 cents a board foot for cutting the log into boards, and would accept only logs from forested property for fear of striking embedded metal and damaging a blade.
  • Buy my own sawmill. It didn’t take long to decide that I couldn’t afford a trailer-based bandsaw or circular-saw mill, both of which start at around $6,000. These make sense if you mill large numbers of logs, or go into business sawing logs for other people, but that’s not what I had in mind.
  • Buy a handheld portable mill. These come in two forms: a bandsaw mill powered by a chainsaw engine, or a metal frame that guides a chainsaw. Both types save you the work of moving the log because you cut it right where it falls. I tried a bandsaw model and like its performance but the price (about $1,400 without engine up to $2,000 with engine) was too steep for me.

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:  

  • You can cut curved logs because the mill follows the contour of the log.
  • I’ve used my mill to saw logs in tight city backyards that make the log inaccessible to a trailer-based mill. It’s a lot easier to move boards than logs!

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: 

  • A chainsaw makes a 3/8” kerf, so a lot of the log is turned into sawdust (especially compared to a bandsaw mill). Since I harvest free trees otherwise destined to be firewood, the amount lost to sawdust doesn’t deter me.
  • You need a strong, sturdy back. I’m in my early 40s and in average physical condition. I hope I’m able to handle this rig 15 to 20 years from now, but I’m not counting on it. And that’s okay because my friends tell me I’ve already amassed enough wood for three lifetimes!

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. 

  • Get the word out. Once people know that you are looking for logs, you’ll get all sorts of offers. Most people don’t have any idea what a chainsaw mill is or how it works, so I take the time to fully explain the process to them.
  • Many people feel an emotional attachment to large trees on their property, and they’re often intrigued with the notion that the tree will “live on” as lumber in projects. For good public relations I sometimes offer to make for the property owner a small project from a piece of the tree.
  • I don’t offer to cut down a tree in exchange for the lumber if a tree is within falling distance of a home or other structure. It just isn’t worth the risk. I will offer to cut the limbs into firewood if the tree is felled by a tree service. Often, a tree service charges extra to haul away a large log or cut and chop it into firewood. Recently, I saved a property owner $150 by sawing up a log left by a tree service.
  • Before committing to take a log, drop by to inspect it. Don’t waste your time on any log that’s less than 12” in diameter, or too full of defects. If it’s obvious that the tree contains nails or other metal from such things as tree forts, bird feeders, or barbed wire, then take a rain check. The metal will dull your chain, and the wood will be stained around the metal.
  • If you decline to cut down a tree or take a log, explain fully and politely your reasons. That same person, or someone they know, may some day offer you the log of your lifetime.
  • Inquire about housing developments or other projects in your area where trees will be cleared. When a freeway was planned to go through a wooded area, I contacted the landowner. He had sold the logging rights to a lumber company but told me I could take what the loggers left behind. The lumber company spared any tree under 24” in diameter, so I had plenty of good trees to choose from. In the time after the loggers left, and before the highway crew bulldozed the property, I milled 25 oak and walnut logs that would have gone up in smoke. I was in heaven!

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