Advantages of Owning a Small Sawmill for Homestead and Retreat Building, by Tennessee Hillbilly

There are many ways to be prepared for whatever the future may hold and no feasible way to be prepared for every scenario. While “Beans, Bullets and Band-Aids” should be given the top priority, there are many situations where a small band saw mill fits the bill.
In the current situation, it’s a cheap source of lumber for building projects. On a homestead/retreat there is always a need for lumber. Having selected a remote area for security reasons, by default, places an individual a long way from any supplies, but usually an abundance of trees are available. There have been many times when I needed just a few boards to complete a project. It’s simple to place a log on the mill and saw the boards to the dimension needed. It saves a 40 mile round trip to the lumber yard. It’s free and best of all the tax man hasn’t yet figured a way to tax it! The mills are relatively simple and inexpensive to operate. Even my wife enjoys running the saw. Of course, it becomes my job to load and turn the logs and pull and stack the lumber and slabs when she operates the mill. Once people find out you have a mill, it seems like they all have three or four logs just lying around that they are glad to give you if you will just haul them off. Just keeping my eyes open around these 200 acres provides all the logs I need from diseased or storm damaged trees. These are trees that would otherwise decay in the woods. Everywhere I go, I see trees that need to be salvaged that would make good lumber. One day I will run completely off the road while looking at a load of logs on a passing truck. At our house, this is referred to as “Log Envy”

People will often barter with you to saw their logs. Usually this is in the form of you, the mill owner and operator, taking a portion of the lumber from the logs they bring to you. This amount ranges up to 50 percent. Be sure to report the fair value of this lumber on your income taxes. It seems as though most people appreciate getting anything free and will gladly leave some of the lumber with you in exchange for turning their log, that otherwise would most likely have rotted, into something they can use. In the future this ability to barter could really save the day.

The mill has saved more than enough to pay its own way and continues to be used regularly. The cost delivered, was abut $8,000. I set it up as a stationary mill and built a shed over it. (There is no bought lumber in that shed!) I recently sawed 6,000 board feet of pine on less than 10 gallons of gasoline. Certainly at some time in the future, gasoline could become hard to obtain, but most likely a few gallons would be available, even though the cost may go up significantly. Even if fuel cost $20 a gallon, the fuel cost for an 8 foot 2×4 would only be $0.20. I typically have enough stabilized fuel stored to saw many tens of thousands of board feet of lumber. Logs could be harvested and with a little manpower maneuvered to the mill by hand if it had to be done. A wheeled carriage could be constructed to make this fairly simple. However, a tractor with pallet forks on the front of the loader makes the job much easier and uses a surprisingly small amount of fuel. Certainly a horse or other draft animal would be a worthwhile addition in a fuel shortage. Another advantage now, but especially during a fuel shortage, is the ever abundant supply of slabs that make excellent firewood.

The set up I have has the ability to saw logs up to 24 feet in length and a diameter larger than I care to handle. There are considerably more board feet of lumber in a large diameter log, but small logs are much easier and safer to handle. Many types of log scales are available to measure to small end of a log and provide some prediction of the number of board feet of lumber in the log. They typically look like a complicated yard stick, but anyone can learn to use one in a matter of minutes. A board foot is a measure of lumber that contains 144 cubic inches of wood. That would be 12 inches square and one inch thick. A 1 X 4 three feet long would be one board foot. A typical band mill will often saw 50 to 75% more than scale while sawing small logs due to the thin blade as compared to a commercial mill. I have regularly sawn 500 board feet in a day in addition to the regular chores that are required to be done around the farm.

The bands (blades) do become dull and sometimes break. Currently they can be replaced for about $20 or sharpened for about $7. If I’m careful to clean the dirt off the logs and don’t hit an ingrown object (nail, fence staple, etc.), up to a thousand board feet can be sawed with one blade. I typically keep 30 blades on hand. In a push, they could be sharpened by hand, but I have no intention of doing this when I can get it done right for $7. I’m sure that in a crunch I could find several uses for the blades as they are dulled. Although I haven’t tried it, I see no reason why a slow but workably bow saw could not be made from them. It would only cut when being pushed instead of cutting both directions.

Green (freshly sawn) lumber cannot be used in many projects without proper drying, most often in a kiln. The lumber will shrink and cause many problems in furniture and indoor woodwork. There are ways around this for the woodworkers, but that is beyond the scope of this article. However there are many applications where a little shrinkage, warping or bowing doesn’t cause any real problem. Barns, hay sheds, equipment sheds, an outhouse when the water stops magically filling the white porcelain bowl, deer blinds for the present time which can do double duty as listening/observation post when things become less secure, work shops and many other projects. Many houses were built in rural areas years ago with green lumber. They usually are not particularly level or square, but they are still standing and serviceable long after those who built them are gone.

In a situation where the economy has broken down, there are definite advantages. Lumber yards, if they still exist, would have very limited supplies for very exorbitant prices. In any kind of grid failure or fuel and transportation crunch, the big commercial mills would shut down. Some lumber could be scavenged from abandoned houses and buildings. But I doubt people would take kindly to others helping themselves to their structures even if they were not using them. Most modern construction makes use of a considerable amount of paneled products such as sheet rock, oriented strand board and plywood that is very difficult to disassemble and maintain the integrity of the products. Having a few thousand feet of "stickered" lumber in the dry could be like money in your pocket at a very critical time. The investment required to store this lumber is very small. With a few select people joining us at the retreat in a bad situation, we can accommodate them in our house for a time. If the situation drags on for a long period of time, we have the capacity to construct semi-permanent or permanent dwellings at different strategic locations around the farm at very little to no cost.

A sawmill opens many opportunities in an uncertain future. When it’s all said and done, an opportunity is all we can really expect out of life.