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Lumber from a Bandsaw Mill
Over the past 40 years, my friends and I have built lots of buildings with green lumber, including homes, garages, barns, and sheds. Many of these buildings were framed with lumber milled by Leslie Ham. When I moved to this corner of Vermont in the mid ...
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The horizontal blade on this bandsaw mill is creating a wide board from the center of a pine logSince it is mounted on a trailer, this type of mill can be towed to a job site.
Let’s say that you own a piece of land and you want to build a houseIf you live in a forested region, the first step is to cut down enough trees to create the needed open space for your foundation, lawn, and driveway.
As you’re cutting down the trees, you may think to yourself, “I’m going to need to buy lumber to build my houseI wonder if these logs can be milled into 2x6s and 2x10s.” The answer is: they probably can.
If you live in a rural area, someone in your town probably owns a portable bandsaw millThis type of mill can be transported to your site, and in just a day or two, the mill will transform your logs into piles of framing lumber and boards.
Local lumber for local needs
Over the past 40 years, my friends and I have built lots of buildings with green lumber, including homes, garages, barns, and shedsMany of these buildings were framed with lumber milled by Leslie Ham.
When I moved to this corner of Vermont in the mid-1970s, Leslie ran a local cabinet shopIn 1995, Leslie decided to switch careers, and he bought a Wood Mizer bandsaw millHe’s been a sawyer ever since.
Leslie is hard-workingHe thinks before he speaksLike many older Vermonters, he’s inclined to be thrifty with both money and words.
Cutting Down Trees and Milling Lumber
A Visit to the Local Sawmill
Nostalgia for the Hippie Building Heyday
Twenty Below and Off the Grid
Low-Road Buildings Are Homeowner-Friendly
According to the old saying, when a farmer slaughters a pig, nothing is wasted: the aim is to use “everything but the squeal.” Leslie applies the same philosophy to treesHis sawdust is bartered or sold for beddingLeslie has a sugaring operation, and his two vocations are complementaryAll of the slabs (the outer edges of the log that include bark) from his mill are cut and stacked in his sugar houseIn March and April, Leslie uses the slabs to fuel the arch where he transforms maple sap into syrupBecause of his steady supply of slabs, he doesn’t need any other source of sugaring wood.
Framing with green lumber
If you are restoring an old barn, or building a new outbuilding in a traditional style, you’ll probably want to find a local sawmillIn many rural areas of the country, traditional outbuildings are clad with unpainted rough vertical boards — and you can’t buy that type of board at Home Depot.
Similarly, if you are designing a timber-frame building, you’ll definitely want to make friends with your local sawyer.
My own house is stick-builtI saved a lot of money by framing my house with green lumber — back in the 1970s, green lumber was much cheaper than kiln-dried lumber(These days, the savings are less.) But framing with green lumber can be trickyThe lumber is dense, so you’ll be lifting more weightIf you include a solid carrying beam in the center of the house, the beam will shrink, causing the upstairs floor joists to form a subtle VIf you sheathe your home with boards, the boards will shrink, leaving gaps in your sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen.
Some species of wood will twist as they dry.
In short, framing with green lumber is a pain, and is best suited to do-it-yourselfers with a lot of time on their handsBut as long as you are aware of the ways that green lumber differs from kiln-dried lumber, all of these issues can be dealt with.
Watching boards come off the mill
Portable bandsaw mills are mounted on trailers that allow the equipment to be towed to a job siteThese days, however, Leslie does most of his milling at homeHis bandsaw mill is parked in an open shed behind his house.
When I stopped by Leslie's mill recently, he was sawing 24-inch-diameter pine logs for my brother Clark MacKenzieClark has been hired to build a log building — a Russian-style sauna, known as a banya — for a Russian-American acquaintanceThe logs will be squared on three sides, with the bark side facing out.
The large diameter logs were split down the middle; the half-logs will eventually be stacked, log-cabin styleSome of the logs had a large enough diameter to permit the sawing of a 1x24 board from the center of the log.
Logs are heavyIf you own a bandsaw mill, you'll be moving a lot of logs, and you'll quickly learn how to use ramps and a peavey to ease your workEventually, however, you’ll discover that it’s easier to move logs with a tractor or forkliftLeslie has both.
If you are lucky enough to own forest land and a chainsaw, and you occasionally do some logging, I’m sure that you understand why a visit to a sawmill is so much funTransforming a tree into lumber is both simple and miraculous.
From bridge planks to fine furniture
I asked Leslie whether he enjoyed millingHe responded with an anecdote“Someone bought a log cabin that had been disassembled, a cabin from the 1700sThey decided to bring it to Vermont in piecesThey wanted me to re-saw the logs to make a frame that would look like post and beam, but the frame wasn’t structuralIt was for the great roomFor looksIt turned out that the logs were full of nailsThey must have tacked wallpaper to the logsThe contractor had one of his employees go over the logs with metal detectors, but they still couldn’t find all the nailsSo the saw blade would find themIt doesn’t bother me to hit a piece of metal once and a while, but when it happens on every log, it’s not very pleasant.”
I asked Leslie what types of construction projects his lumber is used for“It’s a little bit of everything,” he said“I cut lumber for furniture, and I also cut lumber that’s about as rough as you can get, for bridge planks.”
I know that Leslie supplies lumber to Lyndon Furniture and Calendar Brook Cabinetry in LyndonvilleI asked Leslie what species these two furniture makers requested“White ash, cherry, maple, birch, butternut, and even some walnut,” said Leslie.
How is the hardwood lumber dried? Leslie answered, “There used to be a kiln in StJohnsbury” — about 15 miles away — “but the kiln closedNow they take the boards to a kiln in Massachusetts.”
I asked whether he takes his mill on the road very often“In the past, most of the milling I did was away from home,” Leslie answered“People who have a woodlot, people who maybe plan to build a house or a garage or a sugarhouse, have trees they have cut, and they call me upThey would often end up helping me mill the lumberBut now that I am semi-retired, I do more of the milling here at home.”
I asked Leslie whether his customers save money when they cut their own logs“When the customer is putting in a lot of his own time, and doesn’t consider his time as having a lot of value, then yes, he is saving money,” Leslie said“But if you have to hire someone to cut your trees and then pay me to mill it and then pay your carpenter to build something — well, then you would be better off going to a lumberyardBut you can’t go to a lumberyard if you need a particular size of lumber that you can’t buy — a big timber or some type of specialty lumber.”
I asked how his planned transition to retirement was working out“I try not to take any new customers on,” Leslie said“I’m trying to slow downBut a few new customers have managed to slip through the cracks.”
What’s the largest diameter of log that the mill can handle? “Around 36 inches maximum,” said Leslie“They have come out with a mill that allows you to get an extended head, and there are times I could have used that, but at my age I’m not going to get another millThis mill as it’s set up can do logs that are 21 feet longIf I put on the extension — that takes a couple of hours to set up — I can do logs up to 45 feet longI once milled a carrying beam that was 40 feet.”
A technique for green builders?
If you spend a few hours watching a bandsaw mill in operation, you’ll probably conclude that you’re watching a classic example of appropriate technologyA bandsaw mill is efficient but not overwhelmingIt’s designed at a human scale; two people can easily operate the equipmentYou can pull the trailer into a clearing in the woods in the morning, and by the end of the day, you’ll have a satisfying pile of lumber ready for your building project.
Like other examples of appropriate technology, bandsaw mills aren’t as efficient as large-scale technological solutionsIf you want inexpensive lumber, buy it from a mega-mill in CanadaBut if you have an interest in natural building and you like to support your local economy, spend some time getting to know a local sawyer.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “What’s the Definition of ‘Green Building’?”
Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.
Tags: appropriate technology, bandsaw, bandsaw mill, board, Lumber, portable saw mill, sawmill
Image Credits:All photos: Martin Holladay
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Dec 1, 2017 6:34 PM ET
Edited Dec 1, 2017 6:37 PM ET
Thanks Martin by Rob Myers
Thanks Martin, this was a wonderfully written look at a craft that should be close to every woodworkers heart!
When I built my first house in 1976 I took all of the cleared trees (pine, maple and cherry) to be milled at an old sawmill that was nestled in the woods near the village where I lived - and run by someone just like LeslieI coveted the wood and for over 40 years I seem to have been moving it around and waiting for just the right project - which has finally arrivedIt will be used for the kitchen cabinets and counters in the house that I am currently buildingThere is something very circular about the whole thing and the wood feels right for the task at hand!.
One thing that you didn't mention is the magic of cutting into the wood and revealing whatever lies thereinI currently own a very small portable bandsaw mill (you can pick it up and load it into a truck) and I never tire of milling wood - every board is like a gift.
Dec 1, 2017 7:13 PM ET
Garland Mill by Paul Eldrenkamp
In some ways the opposite of a portable bandsaw mill but in other ways very much a blood brother, in Lancaster NH there's a water-powered sawmill operated by the Southworth clan on a commercial basis (http://garlandmill.com/the-mill/)
If you've never been there, it's well worth a trip (and maybe even a companion piece to this one)When I first visited there I kept thinking I was in the Shire.
Dec 1, 2017 9:52 PM ET
Rob by Malcolm Taylor
"Every board is like a gift"That rings true for me tooThere is something immensely satisfying in building with wood that has come from a mill on siteWe are lucky to have several portable ones nearby , and several mills that can supply larger pieces in our local communityThey aren't water-powered like the Garland mill Paul writes about, but are still fascinating places to spend a bit of time poking around in.
Dec 2, 2017 6:25 AM ET
Response to Rob Myers by Martin Holladay
I smiled when you recounted the story of the 40-year-old boards that you've been air drying, awaiting the right projectI have stored lumber, too -- some of it decades old: cherry boards waiting for a furniture project, and lots of sugar maple boards, perfectly dry, awaiting a future floorWhat project? What floor? I don't know.
Over twenty years ago, I decided I needed a new dining room tableI wanted to see how much of the work I could do myselfI went into the woods with my chainsaw and an Alaskan chainsaw mill -- a simple jig that cost me about $100I found a very nice maple tree, and turned it into lumber about 2 1/2 inches thickThe chainsaw chews up a wide kerf, of course, but it was fun to do it myself.
I stickered the lumber for a couple of years, and I managed to finish the project about 3 years after I felled the treeOur family has been eating off that table ever sinceProjects like that are very satisfying.
Dec 2, 2017 6:30 AM ET
Edited Dec 2, 2017 7:20 AM ET
Response to Paul Eldrenkamp by Martin Holladay
Ben Southworth has been inviting me to visit his mill in Lancaster for several years, and it's been on my to-do listI haven't made my way over there yet, however.
GBA readers will know Ben SouthworthHe's a sawyer, designer, and Passivhaus builder who's been involved with several projects we've reported on (and who is active with NESEA):
Two Single-Family Passivhaus Projects in Maine
A True Net-Zero Gut Rehab, New England-Style
A Leaky Old House Becomes a Net-Zero Showcase
The photo used to illustrate one of Stephen Thwaites's articles shows a Passivhaus that Ben Southworth built for his parents.
You're right that living in northeast Vermont or northern New Hampshire is like living in the ShireMost of us who live here have feet with leathery soles, and we all like to eat two breakfasts.
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