Lumber from a Bandsaw Mill

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Lumber from a Bandsaw Mill

This simple piece of equipment turns logs into building materials

Posted on Dec 1 2017 by Martin Holladay
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Let’s say that you own a piece of land and you want to build a house. If you live in a forested region, the first step is to cut down enough trees to create the needed open space for your foundation, lawn, and driveway.

As you’re cutting down the trees, you may think to yourself, “I’m going to need to buy lumber to build my house. I wonder if these logs can be milled into 2x6s and 2x10s.” The answer is: they probably can.

If you live in a rural area, someone in your town probably owns a portable bandsaw mill. This type of mill can be transported to your site, and in just a day or two, the mill will transform your logs into piles of framing lumber and boards.

Local lumber for local needs

Over the past 40 years, my friends and I have built lots of buildings with green lumber, including homes, garages, barns, and sheds. Many of these buildings were framed with lumber milled by Leslie Ham.

When I moved to this corner of Vermont in the mid-1970s, Leslie ran a local cabinet shop. In 1995, Leslie decided to switch careers, and he bought a Wood Mizer bandsaw mill. He’s been a sawyer ever since.

Leslie is hard-working. He thinks before he speaks. Like many older Vermonters, he’s inclined to be thrifty with both money and words.

According to the old saying, when a farmer slaughters a pig, nothing is wasted: the aim is to use “everything but the squeal.” Leslie applies the same philosophy to trees. His sawdust is bartered or sold for bedding. Leslie has a sugaring operation, and his two vocations are complementary. All of the slabs (the outer edges of the log that include bark) from his mill are cut and stacked in his sugar house. In March and April, Leslie uses the slabs to fuel the arch where he transforms maple sap into syrup. Because of his steady supply of slabs, he doesn’t need any other source of sugaring wood.

Framing with green lumber

If you are restoring an old barn, or building a new outbuilding in a traditional style, you’ll probably want to find a local sawmill. In many rural areas of the country, traditional outbuildings are clad with unpainted rough vertical boards — and you can’t buy that type of board at Home Depot.

Similarly, if you are designing a timber-frame building, you’ll definitely want to make friends with your local sawyer.

My own house is stick-built. I saved a lot of money by framing my house with green lumber — back in the 1970s, green lumber was much cheaper than kiln-dried lumber. (These days, the savings are less.) But framing with green lumber can be tricky. The lumber is dense, so you’ll be lifting more weight. If you include a solid carrying beam in the center of the house, the beam will shrink, causing the upstairs floor joists to form a subtle V. If you sheathe your home with boards, the boards will shrink, leaving gaps in your sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. . Some species of wood will twist as they dry.

In short, framing with green lumber is a pain, and is best suited to do-it-yourselfers with a lot of time on their hands. But as long as you are aware of the ways that green lumber differs from kiln-dried lumber, all of these issues can be dealt with.

Watching boards come off the mill

Portable bandsaw mills are mounted on trailers that allow the equipment to be towed to a job site. These days, however, Leslie does most of his milling at home. His bandsaw mill is parked in an open shed behind his house.

When I stopped by Leslie's mill recently, he was sawing 24-inch-diameter pine logs for my brother Clark MacKenzie. Clark has been hired to build a log building — a Russian-style sauna, known as a banya — for a Russian-American acquaintance. The logs will be squared on three sides, with the bark side facing out.

The large diameter logs were split down the middle; the half-logs will eventually be stacked, log-cabin style. Some of the logs had a large enough diameter to permit the sawing of a 1x24 board from the center of the log.

Logs are heavy. If you own a bandsaw mill, you'll be moving a lot of logs, and you'll quickly learn how to use ramps and a peavey to ease your work. Eventually, however, you’ll discover that it’s easier to move logs with a tractor or forklift. Leslie has both.

If you are lucky enough to own forest land and a chainsaw, and you occasionally do some logging, I’m sure that you understand why a visit to a sawmill is so much fun. Transforming a tree into lumber is both simple and miraculous.

From bridge planks to fine furniture

I asked Leslie whether he enjoyed milling. He responded with an anecdote. “Someone bought a log cabin that had been disassembled, a cabin from the 1700s. They decided to bring it to Vermont in pieces. They wanted me to re-saw the logs to make a frame that would look like post and beam, but the frame wasn’t structural. It was for the great room. For looks. It turned out that the logs were full of nails. They must have tacked wallpaper to the logs. The contractor had one of his employees go over the logs with metal detectors, but they still couldn’t find all the nails. So the saw blade would find them. It doesn’t bother me to hit a piece of metal once and a while, but when it happens on every log, it’s not very pleasant.”

I asked Leslie what types of construction projects his lumber is used for. “It’s a little bit of everything,” he said. “I cut lumber for furniture, and I also cut lumber that’s about as rough as you can get, for bridge planks.”

I know that Leslie supplies lumber to Lyndon Furniture and Calendar Brook Cabinetry in Lyndonville. I asked Leslie what species these two furniture makers requested. “White ash, cherry, maple, birch, butternut, and even some walnut,” said Leslie.

How is the hardwood lumber dried? Leslie answered, “There used to be a kiln in St. Johnsbury” — about 15 miles away — “but the kiln closed. Now they take the boards to a kiln in Massachusetts.”

I asked whether he takes his mill on the road very often. “In the past, most of the milling I did was away from home,” Leslie answered. “People who have a woodlot, people who maybe plan to build a house or a garage or a sugarhouse, have trees they have cut, and they call me up. They would often end up helping me mill the lumber. But now that I am semi-retired, I do more of the milling here at home.”

I asked Leslie whether his customers save money when they cut their own logs. “When the customer is putting in a lot of his own time, and doesn’t consider his time as having a lot of value, then yes, he is saving money,” Leslie said. “But if you have to hire someone to cut your trees and then pay me to mill it and then pay your carpenter to build something — well, then you would be better off going to a lumberyard. But you can’t go to a lumberyard if you need a particular size of lumber that you can’t buy — a big timber or some type of specialty lumber.”

I asked how his planned transition to retirement was working out. “I try not to take any new customers on,” Leslie said. “I’m trying to slow down. But a few new customers have managed to slip through the cracks.”

What’s the largest diameter of log that the mill can handle? “Around 36 inches maximum,” said Leslie. “They have come out with a mill that allows you to get an extended head, and there are times I could have used that, but at my age I’m not going to get another mill. This mill as it’s set up can do logs that are 21 feet long. If I put on the extension — that takes a couple of hours to set up — I can do logs up to 45 feet long. I once milled a carrying beam that was 40 feet.”

A technique for green builders?

If you spend a few hours watching a bandsaw mill in operation, you’ll probably conclude that you’re watching a classic example of appropriate technology. A bandsaw mill is efficient but not overwhelming. It’s designed at a human scale; two people can easily operate the equipment. You can pull the trailer into a clearing in the woods in the morning, and by the end of the day, you’ll have a satisfying pile of lumber ready for your building project.

Like other examples of appropriate technology, bandsaw mills aren’t as efficient as large-scale technological solutions. If you want inexpensive lumber, buy it from a mega-mill in Canada. But if you have an interest in natural building and you like to support your local economy, spend some time getting to know a local sawyer.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “What’s the Definition of ‘Green Building’?”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.


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Image Credits:

  1. All photos: Martin Holladay

1.
Dec 1, 2017 6:34 PM ET

Edited Dec 1, 2017 6:37 PM ET.

Thanks Martin
by Rob Myers

Thanks Martin, this was a wonderfully written look at a craft that should be close to every woodworkers heart!
When I built my first house in 1976 I took all of the cleared trees (pine, maple and cherry) to be milled at an old sawmill that was nestled in the woods near the village where I lived - and run by someone just like Leslie. I coveted the wood and for over 40 years I seem to have been moving it around and waiting for just the right project - which has finally arrived. It will be used for the kitchen cabinets and counters in the house that I am currently building. There is something very circular about the whole thing and the wood feels right for the task at hand!.
One thing that you didn't mention is the magic of cutting into the wood and revealing whatever lies therein. I currently own a very small portable bandsaw mill (you can pick it up and load it into a truck) and I never tire of milling wood - every board is like a gift.


2.
Dec 1, 2017 7:13 PM ET

Garland Mill
by Paul Eldrenkamp

Martin,

In some ways the opposite of a portable bandsaw mill but in other ways very much a blood brother, in Lancaster NH there's a water-powered sawmill operated by the Southworth clan on a commercial basis (http://garlandmill.com/the-mill/).

If you've never been there, it's well worth a trip (and maybe even a companion piece to this one). When I first visited there I kept thinking I was in the Shire.

--Paul Eldrenkamp


3.
Dec 1, 2017 9:52 PM ET

Rob
by Malcolm Taylor

"Every board is like a gift". That rings true for me too. There is something immensely satisfying in building with wood that has come from a mill on site. We are lucky to have several portable ones nearby , and several mills that can supply larger pieces in our local community. They aren't water-powered like the Garland mill Paul writes about, but are still fascinating places to spend a bit of time poking around in.


4.
Dec 2, 2017 6:25 AM ET

Response to Rob Myers
by Martin Holladay

Rob,
I smiled when you recounted the story of the 40-year-old boards that you've been air drying, awaiting the right project. I have stored lumber, too -- some of it decades old: cherry boards waiting for a furniture project, and lots of sugar maple boards, perfectly dry, awaiting a future floor. What project? What floor? I don't know.

Over twenty years ago, I decided I needed a new dining room table. I wanted to see how much of the work I could do myself. I went into the woods with my chainsaw and an Alaskan chainsaw mill -- a simple jig that cost me about $100. I found a very nice maple tree, and turned it into lumber about 2 1/2 inches thick. The chainsaw chews up a wide kerf, of course, but it was fun to do it myself.

I stickered the lumber for a couple of years, and I managed to finish the project about 3 years after I felled the tree. Our family has been eating off that table ever since. Projects like that are very satisfying.


5.
Dec 2, 2017 6:30 AM ET

Edited Dec 2, 2017 7:20 AM ET.

Response to Paul Eldrenkamp
by Martin Holladay

Paul,
Ben Southworth has been inviting me to visit his mill in Lancaster for several years, and it's been on my to-do list. I haven't made my way over there yet, however.

GBA readers will know Ben Southworth. He's a sawyer, designer, and Passivhaus builder who's been involved with several projects we've reported on (and who is active with NESEA):

Two Single-Family Passivhaus Projects in Maine

A True Net-Zero Gut Rehab, New England-Style

A Leaky Old House Becomes a Net-Zero Showcase

The photo used to illustrate one of Stephen Thwaites's articles shows a Passivhaus that Ben Southworth built for his parents.

You're right that living in northeast Vermont or northern New Hampshire is like living in the Shire. Most of us who live here have feet with leathery soles, and we all like to eat two breakfasts.


6.
Dec 3, 2017 10:36 AM ET

Live edge slabs for siding
by dayna.burtness

Hi Martin,

I am new to milling and building and could use some advice. We are starting to mill white pine slabs for live edge board on board siding (don't worry, we'll be incorporating a rain screen as part of the wall assembly!). What's the best point in the process to remove the bark? Pre milling, post milling but pre-drying, or will it just fall off after a year of outdoor drying? The slabs are 7/8" or 15/16" thick.

Thank you!


7.
Dec 3, 2017 9:31 PM ET

Adirondack Siding
by Ethan T ; Climate Zone 5A ; ~6000HDD

dayna...around here they call that Adirondack siding (http://hanklelumber.com/adirondack-siding.html). I've dreamed of finishing my house that way... What species of wood are you using? How are you treating the wood?


8.
Dec 4, 2017 5:55 AM ET

Edited Dec 4, 2017 5:59 AM ET.

Response to Dayna Burtness (Comment #6)
by Martin Holladay

Dayna,
You'll probably have to seek local advice; I don't have enough experience to help you. My only experience with removing bark from softwood logs concerns spruce and fir, not pine -- and every species is different.

Here's what I know about spruce and fir: When these trees are cut in the fall or winter, the bark is tenacious and hard to remove. When cut in the spring, during the season of growth, there is a wet layer between the wood and the bark that allows the bark to come off easily.

If you intend to leave the bark on the slabs and want to let the bark dry (and possibly curl) on its own schedule, I guess you don't have to do any work. Note that you risk insect infestation with this approach -- several species of insects live between the wood and the bark, and they are more likely to start chewing if you leave the bark on the logs.

If you intend to remove the bark from the logs, this work is easier to perform before the logs are milled than after. I've used a drawknife to remove bark from logs in the past.


9.
Dec 4, 2017 11:57 AM ET

Edited Dec 4, 2017 12:23 PM ET.

Re: comment 7 and 8
by dayna.burtness

Ethan -- I like that look! I was thinking vertical reverse board and batten siding with live edges but will have to see how I like using it on a small shed project first before committing to use it on the whole house in 2019. We have about 6 acres of 35 year old white pine and a Woodmizer LT10.

I am still researching ways to treat the wood. There are some timber framers here who have used untreated pine to side their homes and have had zero issues 15 years in.

Thanks for the feedback Martin. I will ask locals about strategies for dealing with white pine bark.


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