For a source of lumber, as well as a profitable business, a portable sawmill can be a key piece of equipment on your farm. The seasonal nature of farming means there are slack times as well as times of low income, and there are always construction projects that range in scope from replacing a few boards on the front porch to building a barn.
Wood You Rather?
My first experience with a sawmill was in the early 1980s, assisting on an old circular sawmill run by a flat belt which was driven by a tractor. Besides the obvious hazard of working in the proximity of an unshielded 5-foot blade that occasionally threw fist-size chunks of wood in random directions, the mill had the nasty habit of throwing the belt (which also lacked safety shielding). Hardhats and hearing protection were unheard of. Somehow, I managed to keep all body parts and some of my hearing intact while milling enough lumber to build the passive solar post-and-beam home where my wife and I raised our family (and still reside).
From that experience, I got “sawdust in my veins,” and when portable band-saw sawmills became available, I took a serious look at buying one. A band-saw sawmill is an efficient, affordable and safe way to covert logs into lumber. These mills are now available in various sizes and prices, ranging from a $3,000 no-frills “hobby mill” to $80,000 production machines with 60-horespower diesel engines and full hydraulics.
I needed lumber for a barn and several sheds, and I had a good supply of logs on my own property, so I purchased one. While hydraulic systems were available, I opted to save some money and purchased it as a manual sawmill. The engine powers the band-saw blade, but muscle power does all the log handling.
Band-saw blades take about a 1⁄8-inch kerf—less than half that of the old circle sawmill, which means they recover more lumber from each log and require less power to run. The blades cost about $25 each, last for about four hours of cutting oak and can be sharpened several times. Manual mills typically use air-cooled gas engines in the 7 1⁄2- to 25-horsepower range. The 23-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine on mine, for example, runs all day on 3 gallons or less of fuel, and processes a 20-inch diameter by 8-foot oak log into 2-by-4s in about half an hour.
Being able to mill lumber the exact size I need is a huge benefit. To replace the decking on my trailer, for example, I milled white oak logs into 16-foot by 13⁄4-inch-thick planks for a perfect fit. One of the most common requests for custom-cut lumber is a fireplace mantle, but a lot of my wood goes to woodworkers across the country for slab tabletops and other one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture.
Over the past decade, the mill has provided me with lumber and a source of income. As word got around that I had a sawmill, I started getting calls from neighbors for items including fencing and barn timbers. One of my favorite jobs is milling lumber “sentimental” trees from family property. Building furniture from these trees lets them remain part of the family for generations. Spring is always a busy time for me, because I live in tornado-prone Missouri. Anyone competent with a chainsaw is in high demand. Recently, I spent a full day helping a crane operator remove a huge tree from the roof of a house in a nearby town and got some beautiful oak lumber, as well as requests to help remove other downed trees from the storm.
A portable sawmill can be a useful tool, even if you don’t have a source of timber on your own property. Area tree services are an excellent source of logs at a minimal cost, because it saves them the effort of cutting them up and hauling them off to a landfill. They can be a source of a wide variety of species, including sycamore, cherry, walnut, sassafras, box elder, elm and hedge. The key is being available to pick up the logs quickly, as tree services usually don’t get paid until the yard is cleaned up. Woodworkers, in turn, welcome unusual species for their projects. Specialty cutting, such as quarter-sawn sycamore, can bring higher prices than walnut, especially if your mill can cut wide slabs.
(Saw) Dust in the Wind
If you want to look into sawmilling, a good place to start is arranging a visit to a local sawyer. Most will be willing to show you the basics, and any three sawyers will have a half-dozen opinions on matters including cutting techniques and which brand of chainsaw is better.
While many sawyers generally welcome some free labor, don’t expect them to share their sources or customers with you. It takes years of hard work to build up a business. It pays to be flexible. I have set up out in pastures, as well as driveways and front yards in town. Any level piece of ground with enough space to maneuver the logs can become a site for milling.
As for the business itself, social media is a powerful tool to market your service, sell lumber and source logs. I have had some response to ads on Craigslist, but Facebook gives people a better idea of who you are and what you have to offer. Repeat customers and word of mouth keep me pretty busy.
Remember business cards. I’ve had a number of people stop by while I was milling at a customer’s location—or even when fueling the truck—to ask about sawing—or sometimes just wondering what the heck I’m towing, which provides me with the opportunity to make up a good yarn before promoting the business.
While many sawyers charge for custom cutting by the board foot, I charge by the hour. Don’t sell yourself short. My general rule is to charge three times what my time is worth—1⁄3 of the fee goes to fuel, equipment maintenance and amortization, 1⁄3 for taxes and insurance, and 1⁄3 for my wages. With a little experience, you can estimate your fee by looking at the logs. My fee averages around $0.35 per board foot, but the cost is higher for small or crooked logs, which take longer to cut and yield less lumber.
Tools & Gear
The sawmill itself is the biggest investment in the business, but you need a few other tools. A good chainsaw in the 60-cc’s tops the list. In addition, I have a 95-cc saw with a 42-inch bar that I use to quarter logs too big for the mill. (My record log at this time is a 50-inch-diameter sycamore.)
Operating a mill as a mobile service means you need a vehicle capable of towing the mill. A four-wheel-drive, 3⁄4-ton flatbed truck is ideal. My manual mill weighs only 1,800 pounds and tows easily, but bigger mills with hydraulics can weigh more than twice that.
A flatbed trailer is also useful for hauling logs and lumber. I do most of my heavy hauling with a 12,000-pound gross weight log trailer with electric brakes and breakaway braking system. To load logs either onto the trailer or on the mill, you need a good winch. I use a chainsaw-powered winch to parbuckle logs up a pair of ramps, but an electric winch and deep-cycle battery can also do the job. Miscellaneous tools include a cant hook for turning logs, a small axe and a couple of 8-inch plastic logging wedges.
Personal protection equipment deserves special mention as an essential investment in your business. For milling, eye protection is a must. I highly recommend hearing protection, steel toe boots and leather gloves.
For chainsaw work, get a pair of chain saw chaps and a logger’s helmet. Chaps will stop a chain saw before it bites into you. Considering that the average emergency room visit for a chainsaw injury involves 112 stitches, there is no excuse not to wear them. The helmet includes a hardhat, hearing protection and face/eye protection. Wood chips exit the saw at roughly 60 mph, and it only takes one in the eye to send you to the hospital.
Sawmilling isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t mind hard work, being outdoors and occasional long hours (on a recent job at the customer’s location, we finished up after dark, operating by the headlights of several vehicles), it can be a great way to make an income. I have made some good friends through the business, gotten to know some of my neighbors better, and even wound up with fresh produce, wild mushrooms and honey for my efforts.
If you are interested in setting up a small sawmill, search YouTube for “Dave Boyt Sawmill” and that should bring up a few of my videos.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.