DIY Saw Mill

DIY Saw Mill

8 Oct 2011

Choices choices choices…

In order to build anything with timbers you have to have timbers. Funny to write that out, of course you do but… it’s really not all that easy. This isn’t something commonly done – which means you can’t go to your average ‘big box’ store and pick from a selection of readily available materials. So, if I want to pursue building with timbers it seems to me there are really only two choices at this point in the decision tree: find a sawyer or buy my own mill.

So what goes into the decision? Certainly my grid. Given the choice between ‘renting’ or ‘buying’ I tend towards buy. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of repeatedly paying for things when you don’t need to. How about flexibility. What happens when I want to get wood for another project? How about cutting a decorative or other unique piece, maybe an uncommon species. The ability to adjust and improvise doesn’t exist if you don’t have the means. Then there is the enjoyment of learning something new. Given the opportunity why not expand and grow? Ok, I’ve talked myself into buying a saw mill :-).

Now, which one. After some time on the Internet (ok, hours and hours) I think I have the broad strokes of what is available sorted out. There are the old style circular mills. While there are a range of sizes and the very smallest might be suitable for amateur use they are really heavy and more suited fixed higher volume operations. Bottom line is that this style of mill is way too big and expensive for my needs. Also, these mills have fallen out of favor these days because of the volume of wood lost to the saw blade. Sawdust represents wasted product so the wide kerf of the circular blade is not as efficient as the very narrow cut of a band saw.

Band saw mills probably have the broadest range of application. They can be very large production units all the way down to very simple and small personal mills. The pricing is very competitive at smaller scale and there are many many manufacturers to choose from, not to mention all the build it yourself plans out there. Some pluses are lots of options at a reasonable price point, flexible cutting lengths, and efficiency. Down side is not quite as portable as some options and there is a balancing act between the largest log and the size of the mill. Also blade maintenance needs to be considered. Based on what I read dirty wood really tears up blades so you have to factor in buying new/sharpening blades; and sharpening requires a paid service or guess what? More tools!

A modern take on the circular mill with a portable twist is the ‘swing saw’. There are a few popular manufactures that popped out; Peterson, Lucas, and Mahoe are the ones I seriously considered. Instead of moving the log past a very large fixed blade like the traditional circular mill these designs mounts the motor and a smaller blade on a carriage that rolls on a portable frame sitting over the log. Part of the magic is a flush mounted blade that allows the lumber to be cut off the log one piece at a time. The first pass cuts vertically then the return cuts horizontally. Lots of ‘pluses’ for this system. You don’t have to move the log, you can cut where it drops (as long as you’re not on hill), plenty of options in sizes/features, and you get the benefit of flexible blade sharpening/repair. The down side from my perspective is really just cost. These mills are a little more expensive.

Next class of mill uses a cutting head on a set of rails attached to the log to cut. Commonly called ‘Alaska Mills’ they generally use chainsaw power head and a simple jig to hold the saw, although I did find a company that manufactures a small band-saw for use in this style of mill. Cuts are made by manually (pushing) the saw along the rail. The guide rails can be simply a piece of lumber attached to the log or more elaborate (and accurate) and guides of extruded aluminum. This set up is the ultimate light weight, simple ‘down and dirty’ way to mill lumber. Pluses include dual use of the power head, you can fell the tree and cut it into lumber with one motor. Sharpening is easy and I already have all the tools and skills needed and chain is not nearly as affected by dirty wood, although if you went the band saw route same concerns previously mentioned apply. Also, like the swing mill you don’t have to move the log. The main downside I see just watching is that it sure seems like a lot of work to be pushing that saw by hand bent over the log and the setup looks rather tedious and slow.

A variant of the chainsaw mill I came across was very intriguing and ended up being the mill I purchased. It’s a product manufactured by the Swedish company Logosol and it blends many elements of the other approaches to milling. The power head is most often a standard gas powered chain saw, although an electric chain saw and band saw cutting head are both available. Unlike the Alaska mill it utilizes an aluminum fame to hold and raise the log for each cut in 1/4″ or 1/2″ increments and there is a crank on the cutting head sled which rides on a fixed rail at waist level to move the saw while cutting – no hunched over pushes. Still the drawback of being a little slow and wide kerf so lots of saw dust… but given the style of cutting I will most often be doing – large timbers, I think this is best match.


Well, decision made, now to buy… This was actually a very interesting part of the experience. I got the number for the Logosol distributor in the United States and when I called it turned out to be a real live person rather than some retail clerk. How nice to get someone on the phone who really knew and understood the product! I explained what I was doing and got some recommendations along with a return question: would I be interested in a second hand mill? Hey, if it was in good shape and the price were adjusted a bit of course! Turns out a guy bought the mill then decided it really wasn’t something he wanted to do. The rep sent some photos, it looked good, and the discount was very helpful, so I make the buy.

Post script: Logosol is now sold through Bailey’s. I have not purchased from them so can’t comment on the level of knowledge or service, perhaps a reader who has will comment below.

The mill came in a bunch of boxes and the installation manual and bag after bag of hardware was a little intimidating. Not sure why, but I didn’t take any pictures of the process 🙁 so I can’t share that part, but I can say it really wasn’t all that bad. The first logs that became available were from a beech tree. I carried the mill out front, set up the saw, and gave it a try. What a hoot! I’m so glad my daughter pulled out her phone and recorded the first two cuts, here is the second…

So that’s that. Mill assembled and working well. Now to get to work finding logs for the shed.