So, after my last post about stacking saw milled lumber, you should all be experts in the first steps of getting ready to crank up that sawmill and get to work! When my husband and I realized that we would need to cut down a dozen trees where we planned to build our house, a friend mentioned having someone with a sawmill come in and cut them up into lumber for future building endeavors. As this idea started to morph and become its own beast, we suddenly became the proud new owners of a Wood Mizer LT15 sawmill. Why pay someone to do your dirty work when you can slave and sweat over it all summer long yourself? 😉 And so the story began where every spare moment was spent cutting down trees, cleaning up their tops, having huge bonfires, stacking loads of firewood and cutting lumber out of the wide bottom trunks.
The sawmill we own is a hand cranked and manually adjusted model where the log lies stationary on the mill and the human pushes along the gasoline powered ban saw blade, taking off slices of wood one by one, picking them up and moving them to the side. While not extremely hard, it was a loud and dirty process. I got more sawdust in my eyes that summer than I ever hope to get in there for the rest of my life combined. When we first started we also ran into the problem of how to get a round log into a bunch of rectangular pieces with the least amount of waste. On top of that, with a motor running and earmuffs protecting our hearing, it was pretty difficult to discuss with each other the best plan of attack for each log. Eventually we figured out a good system, and learned a new silent language we devised, composed of pointed, head nods and facial expressions. We were on a roll.
The first thing you need is a plan for what dimension lumber you want cut. Without that already in your brain it makes it the whole process much more difficult. Coming into the process all willy-nilly just doesn’t cut it. Since we were building a barn with all of our wood, we needed wood in all shapes, sizes and lengths. Hmmm, lengths: that brings up another point I forgot to mention before. When you cut the length of your log, it is best to make it at least a foot longer than the lumber you need. For example, if you need 8’ long boards, you should cut your log to at least 9’ in length. This is in case the ends of the boards split while drying. Painting the ends of the logs before milling will also help keep the boards from splitting since rapid moisture loss (the main culprit in board splitting) is stopped with the paint barrier at the end.
The single most important tool you will need is a “cant hook”. A cant is the term for your log once the rounded edges are cut off and it is more square in shape. A cant hook is a simple tool with a hinged hook on one end that digs into the log while you use mechanical leverage to help roll the log. It’s pretty amazing and makes you feel super strong when you are able to move a humongous log by yourself.
So right now, you have your drying racks set up, know what dimension lumber you want, have cut the length of your log longer than necessary and have both ends painted, and you have your handy cant hook in hand. You are ready. Using your cant hook and some ramps (or the forks of a tractor if you are that lucky) get your log up and onto the sawmill! Ideally you want to have the narrower end of the log at the beginning of sawmill track; this allows you to have an idea of just how much the logs needs to get whittled down when you start the blade up.
This is how we went about making our round log into rectangular pieces with the least amount of waste:
The first cut you make should be shallow. Since the log is tapered and wider at the end of the log, starting with a ½” cut could still result in a 4” thick slab at the end, which can be pretty heavy and awkward to move.
After you make the first cut, you need to think: Do you need to make a second cut on this same side again? Remember that ideally you will end up with a square(ish) log with little bark remaining on it. Most likely you will need a second cut. Cut thickness can go in any increment that you want. If you are interested in cutting a bunch of 2” thick boards, then maybe your next cut should be 2” thick. It will take a lot off of your log, but the scrap could be set aside and trimmed into a board in the end.
Once you are satisfied with your top cut(s), get out your trusty cant hook and roll the log 90° so that you can trim off another side. Just like before, take a thin slice at first and then decide how much to take on a second cut. Continue this all the way around the log. When you get to the last side, remember what dimension lumber you want in the end.
Most likely there will be one or two sides of the log which will have more bark on it than the other sides. What size do you want your cant to be before you start taking slices off of it for your boards? Are you cutting 2”X6” boards? Then you should aim for a cant that is 12” in at least 1 of its dimensions since that will allow you to get 2- 6” boards. Are you looking for 1”X5” boards? Aim to have 1 side of your cant 10” so you can get 2- 5” boards out of each slice. Sometimes it is not that easy and you may have to mix and match your dimensions you end up with. Maybe a few 2”X6” boards and some 2”X4” boards if your log is only big enough for a 10” cant and not 12”. Remember to save any worthy trim pieces that could get trimmed into lumber at the end.
Once you have your cant to the right size, you will want to start double flipping your log after each cut. Since the tree you are cutting has been growing for decades under all sorts of conditions, it is likely that there will be a lot of tension in the heart of the tree. You will be able to notice this tension being released (much more in some logs than others) when you take your slices off and the board bows up. By flipping the log twice after each cut, you are alternating cutting from the top and bottom of the cant, releasing the tension in the log equally from both sides and hopefully cutting down on how much bow you have in your boards. As you cut your slices off each side, set them aside if they need to be cut in half again.
Congratulations. You now have a stack of lumber! Do you still need to trim them up a little more to get your desired dimensions? Maybe you wanted a stack of 2”X6” boards but you currently only have 2”X12” boards. Don’t turn that sawmill off quite yet! Bring a few of the 2”X12” boards back over to the sawmill and lay them on their 2” sides stacked next to each other. Clamp them in place and set the sawmill blade at 6”. Now you have a bunch of 2”X6” boards. Remember all of the trim pieces that I told you to save? You can do the same thing with them too. Lay them on their sides and trim off the remaining bark to get usable lumber. Viola!
Lastly comes my least favorite part: stacking the wood on those beautiful drying racks you already made and covering them with sheet metal and a weight to help them dry straight (I don’t know why but I really dislike stacking the wood. I think it is because when the sawmill gets turned off I think I am done for the day, only to realize there is still more work waiting). Wait a few months for them to dry. You can buy a moisture meter for pretty cheap to see how much water content is still in your boards. 10% is pretty darn good for air dried lumber. Now get to building something!
*Another thing that we ended up doing was buy an hour meter for our mill. This helps keep track of how long your machine is running which is good for maintenance and resale purposes.