From Timber to Lumber: A Beginner’s Experience, by Sam D.

The recent article on Do it Yourself Timber Harvesting prompted me to share my experience starting a homestead on our 200+ acre tree farm in East Texas. Almost two years ago I settled on a site back in the woods next to a dry run-off creek bed for my home. Our farm has been in the family for well over a century, and the forest area I picked sat untouched for 60 years.

One of my first investments was a 20” Stihl chain saw. Starting with little experience, about 10 chains, one sprocket and 2 replacement bars later I’m finally getting pretty good at felling trees. A 20” inch bar is a good size for using with a sawmill, as it can fell trees up to 2-3 ft in diameter. Having a smaller 12-16” backup saw will be a lifesaver the first few times your bar gets stuck in a tree. It’s also much lighter and easier on your back for small jobs.

One thing to consider is the cost of chains. I get my 20” pro chains locally for about $15 each, but most places charge over $22. At this point, accessories and replacement parts have cost as much as the chainsaw, so plan accordingly.

I started clearing the building site for my Earthbag dwelling by cutting out the smaller trees first. It let me get used to the saw, practice proper cutting technique, and make small mistakes. I quickly realized that once you get over about 6” in diameter it’s a different ball game. The trees go where they want to go. You likely won’t be able to guide them down or push them off if you get your bar stuck. Looking back I can’t stress enough the importance of proper safety gear, taking your time, and evaluating the situation. I of course, learned the hard way.

Mistakes Happen in a Split Second

Towards the end of the clearing phase the last couple dozen big trees lined the creek walls. I started working on a 2′ diameter sweet gum with a hollow trunk. The plan was to drop it back away from the creek so it could be cut up and dragged out of the way for later milling. My uncle was on his small tractor helping with clean up.

My face cut wasn’t level, so the wedge angled up slightly. When I connected the back cut the tree didn’t fall. I pulled my saw out, the light wind shifted, and the tree fell the opposite way over the creek. Even worse, it fell over a new fence row on the back of the property. I quickly went back to the fence and looked at the two main 10” branches suspended a few feet in the air over the barbed wire fence. I stood next to the fence, reached over and cut the first branch. Then I stepped in about 2 feet and started cutting the second branch. This is where things went horribly wrong.

About ½ way through the second limb, I heard a loud crack and the next second to me, seemed like it lasted 10. I heard and felt a loud thud; I realized that feeling was something hitting me in the head; I heard every vertebrae from the top of my neck to the bottom of my shoulder blades crack one after another. I remember thinking, “Oh sh**, this is going to hurt,” and then I blacked out.

I woke up laying on my back, the chain saw gurgling on the other side of the fence, my safety glasses and ear protection were several feet behind me, my jeans ripped, my leg cut open on the barbed wire, and eventually I hear my uncle shouting, “. . . Sam are you okay?” I replied, “Yeah, give me a minute,” as I laid back attempting to breathe in severe pain. It’s a good thing I woke up, because my uncle, who broke his neck and has trouble walking, had planned to use a cable to drag me out across the creek with his tractor!

What went wrong? Well, several things.

  1. My face cut wasn’t level which may have contributed to the tree falling the wrong way, and I didn’t use a wedge to prevent this.
  2. Having little experience with larger trees I underestimated the dangers involved in felling a large 120 ft tall, 4,000-6,000 pound tree. (Anything over 5” is potentially dangerous)
  3. I was in a hurry to avoid repairing the fence.
  4. I didn’t evaluate the situation. The tree trunk was suspended 4 feet off the ground.
  5. I created a very dangerous work area after cutting the first branch over the fence. When I stepped in to cut the second branch, the first was directly over my head. I should have cut the first branch again, getting it out of the way.
  6. Again, I didn’t evaluate the situation. Not only was the trunk off the ground, but the second branch was bound on the side against another tree. Once I cut half way through it, it snapped under the tremendous pressure and the trunk slammed to the ground, glancing the back of my head.

I was very lucky, mostly because the fence wasn’t damaged, but also because I wasn’t killed, paralyzed, or left with a broken neck. It took several months to recover, and I couldn’t turn my head for a month. A few thumb torture sessions later with a neurosomatic massage therapist finally completed my recovery and today I’m back at 100%.

Take the Time to Learn Safety Procedures

After my injury we found a local part time logger to come in and remove the last 16 big trees on the site. He cut the trees and hauled them off for free, making money on the timber. I worked with him and learned a lot by just watching. If you have the chance to learn from an experienced logger, then do so.

Now I do things very differently. First, I wear a hard hat that includes ear protection and a face shield. I wear steel toed work boots most of the time after tearing into a pair of hiking boots while de-limbing a tree. I’ll probably add the protective chaps one day, but my shift in mindset can’t be stressed enough.

I take the time to clear all vines, brush, and limbs from my work area before cutting. I look at my escape routes. I walk around the base of each tree looking up the trunk to see which way it wants to fall. I watch my back cut closely to see if it’s getting wider as I cut. I use plastic/wood wedges on bigger trees, attach a cable with a come-along, or use my backhoe when possible to push them over. When a tree trunk doesn’t go right to the ground I take the time to walk around it again, see what’s holding it up, and figure out a strategy to clear the other branches and take it down from there.. Since my accident, I’ve safely cut down over a dozen giant oaks that died in last years drought with no problems.

Chainsaw Care and Maintenance

I struggled with sharpening chains early on. There are great Youtube videos out there teaching the basics. The overview from Wranglerstar is very through.  I use a large C-clamp in the woods to hold the bar steady and tighten the chain first to prevent wobbling. A sharp chain will cut straighter/faster, it will run cooler, stretch out less and last longer. Watch the wood chips coming off the saw. When they go from little squares (chips) to more of a sawdust consistency, stop and sharpen. It may seem like a pain, but a sharp chain will save you a lot of headache in the long run.

If your chainsaw is cutting sideways it’s because the chain is dull, the teeth were not sharpened evenly all the way around, or the rakers need to be filed down. Keeping your blade out of the dirt is also extremely important. Sand will stretch out your chain faster than anything. 

Does a Sawmill Make $ense?

While considering the resources available living on a tree farm, and the lumber required for my earthbag dwelling,  I decided to purchase a sawmill. The two manufacturers that have the best reputation are Wood-Mizer and TimberKing. A basic manual sawmill will run about $3,000 to $5,000 used. Adding hydraulics for log loading, turning, and cutter head movement bumps that up to about $10,000-$15,000. A computer controlled mill starts around $30,000, and the mechanically inclined can build one for about $2,000.

I decided on a used TimberKing 1220, their basic fully manual 15 horsepower band saw mill with a 28” capacity. I paid about $5,000 and it came with 2 cant hooks (a must), a $900 blade setter/sharpener kit (Strongly Recommended), a trailer kit, and a track extension that cuts lumber up to 24′ in length.

Anyone living on a large plot of land with trees should seriously consider buying or building a sawmill. Every year we get dead trees from the summer drought, lightning strikes, and blow downs from the storms. For those of you on small plots in the country with lots of trees around a sawmill may still make sense. I’ve cut down large cedar trees for neighbors who wanted more grass growing for their cattle. I’ve even picked up logs cut by the power companies to prevent downed power lines. I’ve had requests to mill lumber from a small timber company and supply wood to a man who makes furniture.

I run the mill by myself 90% of the time using either the cant hooks or my backhoe with a set of skidding and lifting tongs to move logs around. Skidding tongs are for dragging logs, lifting tongs are heavier duty and rated for overhead lifting. Forks can be added to the backhoe as well, but it will make an already 20 ft machine even longer. A skid steer is the ideal companion for a sawmill, but I get by with my backhoe using the tongs. The downside is tongs only work on one log at a time, and moving logs or leftover slabs in bulk requires forks.

Most logging operations won’t touch anything under 10 acres because of equipment moving/setup costs, and this leaves a lot of good timber available for small mill operators. Another option is to offer a portable sawmill service or have people bring logs they pay you to cut or give you a portion of the cut timber (usually up to half).

We used to pay someone to cut, stack, and burn our dead trees that fell into our hay pastures. Now they produce a very basic building material that in a TEOTWAWKI/natural disaster scenario, would prove invaluable. This is especially true for the lower end sawmill designed for manual operation.

Sawmill considerations in a Post Collapse Environment

With the higher end models, what happens if something in the hydraulic system breaks down and you can’t fix it? Can it be run manually? How will you get a 1,200lb log 4′ off the ground without the hydraulic loader? There’s also the extra fuel consumption to consider, as some models have a separate engine to run the hydraulics.

I’ve spent several hundred dollars stocking extra parts, new blades, and doing repairs on my mill. The setup is fairly simple, and the engine is a Kohler Command Pro, commonly found on riding lawn mowers so that’s easily sourced.

I’ve cut large 24 foot, 6”x6” and 9”x9” pine beams to support a living roof on my earthbag home. I’ve used the slabs (a waste product) to build a rustic heavy duty chicken coop. A sawmill really opens up a lot of creative possibilities for woodworking projects.  I also have a huge pile of slabs that I can sell for $50 on Craigslist or bury to create a hugelkulture bed. Hardwood slabs can be burned for Charcoal which is added to soil or used in filters. I scoop up the sawdust and use it in natural building and spread it in the gardens.

The Hardest Part of Running a Sawmill

Working big logs logs stands out as the toughest job on a manual mill. Two people using cant hooks makes this easier. A long heavy crow bar is also useful for moving/straightening logs. The longer and bigger the lumber your cutting, the heaver it gets, the more difficult it will be to move. The toughest job is lining up a big log to cut the maximum length your mill can handle. You only have an inch or two of clearance on the ends, and manually sliding a big log from the end is hard. Using a backhoe can/will snag on the frame and drag the whole setup off level footings, and you will be spending the next hour re-leveling. .

Cutting is simply setting the blade height with a crank and then turning a second crank to move it forward. A rough cut 2x12x20′ pine is around 80lbs. if fairly green, and this must be moved and stickered (stacking with small stakes in between each board to let them evenly dry). So the bigger the log, the more likely help or tractors are needed.  Anything under 10 inches is hardly worth cutting up, and anything over 18 inches is much easier with help. 

What Tends to Go Wrong

Just like the chainsaw, having a sharp properly tensioned blade is important to avoid wavy cuts and other problems. New blades tend to stretch after their first use. Not observing the tension loss and running into dense knots has led to wavy boards several times. I’ve run a blade so dull it stopped in the middle of the log. It won’t back out because the band will slip off the wheels, and getting it out is a real pain. The trick is to pay attention and change the band as soon as it starts to dull.

It’s also tricky sometimes to square up the cut side against the log stops while locking it down for the next cut. It sometimes twists a bit and I end up with trapezoids instead of square boards. A bit of close observation and practice can minimize this. Putting the lumber through a planer or Turning the cant (squared up log) back and making a second pass can fix this.

I spend about 30 minutes setting and sharpening each blade, which can be done anywhere from 4-8 times depending on the steel’s hardness. Two people running a mill all day will go though 3-5 blades which cost about $28 each with shipping.

Getting to a Finished Product

Fresh cut lumber will need to be stickered and dried out either naturally or in a Kiln. I dry lumber on cinder blocks to raise it off the ground, and cover it with large tarps from billboards. Used billboard tarps can be found at flea markets, trade days, or on craigslist for less than $50. They are heavy duty compared to hardware store tarps with string between PVC layers.

If you want to produce and sell dimensional lumber you will want to consider building a kiln. It’s basically a shed with a heater. In an off grid situation, it should be possible to use a rocket mass heater to dry out lumber by burning the leftover slabs every few days to heat the shed.. It would certainly require a commitment over several weeks.

Beyond that you will want to consider a  robust thickness planer and shaper if you plan to make wood flooring or other finely finished wood products. All that’s left is to figure out what to do with all the cheap lumber you’ll have sitting around. I’ve built beautiful counter tops with 2”x17” planks from a 60 year old pine. I built a water tower, a working wishing well, a heavy natural oak bench and I’m learning how to do mortise and tenon joints, which works well with large rough cut lumber.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Putting a roof over a stationary mill is a good idea. A large span is ideal to move logs in, which for me means 30+ feet. Used chicken house trusses are ideal. They typically have a 40 foot span, room at the sides to stack lumber, and they can be purchased for about $100 per truss.

One final note, having worked with axes and hand saws, I can’t overstate the importance of storing fuel to run your equipment. In my case this is a plastic 55 gal HDPE drum, treated with PRI-G fuel stabilizer annually (for up to 12 years storage), a hand operated transfer pump, and a bung wrench. It’s important to seal the bungs tight so the lighter fractions in gas won’t evaporate, fouling the fuel.

None of us know what the future holds, but the ability to produce usable lumber for your local community is an invaluable asset for you and your neighbors.  In a post collapse situation, it could prove to be an invaluable bartering resource.