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How to Find and Work With a Local Sawmill Service

Using a Local Sawmill Service: How-To

Sawmill Service Primary Equipment: Wood-Mizer LT40-HDG35

Sawmill Service Primary Equipment: Wood-Mizer LT40-HDG35

Finding and Contacting a Sawmill Service Provider

I ask every customer the simple question, “how did you find our sawmill service?”  A majority of the time, the customer has started with an on-line search.  Take your pick, Google, Bing, Yahoo!, etc.  Next up on the hit parade, referrals from past customers.  Reach out, either on-line, or to your friends and neighbors, or both.  There are industry websites that might also prove useful in your search; Wood-Mizer’s Find a Local Sawyer, and portablesawmill.info are two such sites.

When using Google, the prospective customer will click on a link in the search results, and from there, with a simple click can be taken to a website, in our case it would be our Sawyers page regarding sawmill services.  Our result is shown below.

sawmill services southwest Michigan

Google search result, sawmill service southwest Michigan

Do your due diligence; there should be more than one service available,

Primal Woods Contact Form

Primal Woods Contact Form

though the industry took a pretty good body blow when in 2008-2009 the housing bubble burst.  Consider reviews or testimonials, on the website or a Facebook page, if the provider maintains either of those.

Once you have found one or more sawmill services that might be able to do the work, make contact.  On our Sawyers page, you will find a Contact Us link.  At that point you can simply fill out and submit the form, email one of us, pick up the phone, send us a message on Facebook, or, if in our neck of the woods, send up a smoke signal.  At this point it is simply time to get into a conversation. You will develop the necessary level of comfort with your sawmill service provider, or not!  If it’s the latter, keep looking.  Once you are in communication with a sawyer of your choosing, both parties to the process will have a number of questions.

Setting Expectations for the Sawmill Service Experience

I would argue that the collaborative setting of expectations is key to having a great experience when engaging a sawmill service provider. And this goes both ways. In our work, this expectation-setting generally takes the form of an exchange of emails, text messages, and/or phone calls, and may begin days or weeks before the scheduled service takes place.  Pictures have been found to be worth at least a thousand words.

sawmill service site view

stack of white oak logs, Wood-Mizer LT40, stickered and stacked quartersawn white oak boards

As the sawyer, the sawmill service provider, I am interested in several details:

  • How many logs are to be milled? The more logs, the more log handling; in getting logs presented to the mill, and onto the mill, safely.
  • How big are the logs? To a degree, bigger is better, but both very large logs, and smaller logs, drive again, additional log handling.  What is very large? Relative to mill capacity, in the case of our Wood-Mizer LT40, larger than 22 inches in diameter, on the small end, is large.  Lengthwise, over about 16 feet long is large.  The “sweet spot” for size is 16 to 20 inches in diameter, and 8 to 12 feet in length.  Having said that, the mill can handle diameters up to 36 inches, and lengths to 20 feet, but expect extra log handling as a part of the process.  The size of the logs also defines the limit on how much lumber can be produced.
  • How misshapen are the logs?  Think phone pole-straight, with little taper, say 4-6 inches smaller in diameter at the small end than at the large end; perfectly manageable.  Lots of flare (aka taper, normally this is in the butt log, the first log above the ground), more than 8 inches, and the “toe boards” on the mill do not have the range to center the long axis of the log above the mill deck; this impacts the amount of board feet produced negatively.  The stubs of old branches that have not been removed to flush with the bark on the main stem, are cause for additional log handling.  “Bent,” or significantly bowed logs; more log handling, fewer board feet, especially if the log is longer, relatively speaking, or smaller in diameter.
  • Are the logs clean?  Sand, pebbles, dirt and all manner of debris, collect in the bark as the log is being skidded from point A to B; this debris shortens blade life.
  • Were the logs taken from yard trees, or from trees that were on a fence row?  This can be bad news. Folks will frequently drive nails in to available trees, or use them as a back-stop for target practice. Or, the tree can simply grow around wire fencing.
  • Are the logs stacked nicely, such that they can be presented to the mill easily with a cant hook or Peavy? Or does the customer have heavy equipment for moving logs to the mill?
  • What species are the logs?  Blades are designed to work with harder or softer woods, and the mill head travels more slowly through hardwoods.  A lubricant that cuts pine tar is necessary when cutting logs from conifers. And so on.
  • How long have the logs been on the ground?  Rot can reduce the quantity of lumber produced.
  • What types of lumber are requested?  Plainsawn, the usual, is quicker and easier than quartersawing. Quartersawing results in more stable lumber, if a bit less of it, and takes twice as long to process.  See our post on this subject, THE QUARTER-SAWING PROCESS, AND PROBLEMS, OH NO!  The sizes of lumber are typically a discussion of thickness. One inch thick boards, 4/4 lumber (four quarter lumber in the vernacular) is common.  Sometimes a customer wants 6/4, 8/4, or 12/4 for a particular application (1.5, 2 and 3 inches thick respectively.)  Is a “live edge” on one or both sides desired?  Live edge is popular at the moment, perhaps it is a trend.  Leaving the natural profile of the tree on the edge of the board, is especially attractive on thicker slabs.  Visualize a farm table top, or a mantle, for example, perhaps a rustic bench.
  • And finally, will there be a helper, or helpers, to aid in the log and lumber handling?

This may seem like a lot of questions, but they are generally answered quickly in the normal course of a conversation.  The customer too, will have questions:

  • How long will this take?
  • When can you do the work?
  • What will the work cost?
  • How do I dry the lumber?
  • How much lumber will be produced?
  • Is the species of log that I am milling suitable to its intended use?

All but the last question should be answered by the sawmill service provider, assuming his questions have also been answered.  To the last question, I consult The Wood Database if the customer nor I have the answer at the ready.  Feel free to ask of the sawmill service provider any questions you might have.

You may wish to formally contract with your sawmill service provider, or the provider may use a contract routinely.  Our contract form is provided for reference.

Primal Woods Sawyers Sawmill Service Contract Form

Primal Woods Sawyers Sawmill Service Contract Form

Safety Considerations

As the sawyer, I wear boots, gloves, and hearing and eye protection religiously.  If the wind is blowing in the wrong direction I may wear respiratory protection, too.  I recommend that my customer use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) as well.  The most dangerous part of the operation by far, is the log handling, and any heavy equipment that may be operating in the handling of logs and/or lumber.  Logs are heavy, as is heavy equipment, naturally; consider those to be the irresistable forces.  Consider the sawmill to be the immovable object.  Let’s just say that you don’t want to be in between the irresistable and the immovable.  Pay close attention to what’s going on, and mind your hands and feet around pinch-points.  On-site, after I have set-up the mill, I conduct a short safety briefing of those involved, to discuss and answer any questions regarding the safety considerations.  I carry with me gloves and hearing and eye protection for two people besides myself.

Additional Sawmill Service Considerations

  • If you want to know or be aware of more of the “lingo,” Wood-Mizer’s Learning Center is a good place to start.
  • Generally, you will need a flat space to stack the lumber, and “stickers” to separate layers of lumber, allowing for sufficient airflow to dry the lumber.  Stickers are typically 1×1’s, 4-5 feet in length.  The base of the stack is usually a few 4×4’s again 4-5 feet in length.  Stickers can be made by the sawmill service provider, from the logs being milled, the 4×4’s too for that matter.
  • Breakdowns:  Murphy shows up occasionally, according to Murphy’s Law.  You should not be charged for downtime; your lost time is enough of a penalty.  If the sawmill is well maintained, downtime should be minimal, and cuts accurate.
  • Costs breakdown into a few categories:
    • Mileage.  The first 50 miles round-trip is included in our delivery and set-up charge; “your mileage may vary.”
    • Delivery and Set-Up.  Inside 25 miles one-way, we charge a flat fee for delivering and setting up the mill.  It typically takes 20-30 minutes to set-up the mill.
    • Milling. The mill having been set-up, we charge by the hour, or by the board foot; by the hour is the usual.
    • Blades.  There is no charge, or rather the cost is embedded in the Milling price, for blades used in the normal course of millng lumber, typically 4-5 blades per 8-10 hour day.  If we hit something in a log or logs, there is a flat fee for blades so damaged.
    • Take-Down.  We do not charge for take-down of the mill; the clock stops when milling is completed.
    • Payment is typically cash or check, we also take plastic
  • Production: I measure every log, length and diameter at the small end, when it is presented to the mill.  This is recorded together with start/stop time for each log, breaks, blade changes, fuelings, etc.  This information then allows me to tally an estimate of the board feet of lumber produced for the customer.
  • Portable sawmill services can be provided in most any weather, hot, cold, or in between, even in snow.  The one weather condition that stops milling is rain.  Some sawmill service providers are concerned about the electronics on the mill, and indeed, most of the moving parts are moved by electronic control of electric motors, either directly or indirectly.  Electronics are not our concern; what is our concern is that when wet the sawdust created thoroughly “mucks up the works.”  That is a scientific term obviously.  Also, if heavy equipment is involved, wet ground can be problematic, not to mention messy.  If it’s rainy season, you may want a back-up date on the calendar.

The Fun Bits

First up, meeting the people.  It just seems that our customers are great people, people not keen to waste precious resources, artisans including furniture makers and builders, farmers, homesteaders, etc.  Seeing the smile on the face of a customer at the end of a long day is a huge bonus.

The process; the attention required, being out of doors, the sawmill running flawlessly, having the tools and parts on-hand when Murphy shows up.

Watching the stack of lumber grow, smelling the wood, and seeing the grain exposed for perhaps the first time in 50 to 250 years.

Subsequent to “the day,” seeing your project brought to life.  It just can’t be beat.

sawmill service project photo

20 foot long 4×8’s and 10 foot long 10×10’s form the structural elements of this addition; cut as part of our portable sawmill service on the Wood-Mizer LT40, in the depths of December 2016

I hope you have found this post both informative and useful.  Please add your value in the comments section, which it turn will help us to improve.

All the best,

John

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