Milling Your Own Lumber
Popular Woodworking|December 2020
Whether a hobby or a small business, it's a woodworker's dream job.
By Logan Wittmer

As a craftsman, I've always enjoyed building stuff. But the pivotal point that led me into woodworking happened long before I stood at a table saw or picked up a hand plane. And that point is clearly ingrained in my memory. I was 12 years old and my grandpa and I harvested a pecan tree from his yard. Instead of cutting the trunk into firewood, grandpa hired a sawmill to come out and turn it into lumber.

It was at that point that I, at 12 years old, had an earth-shattering realization that wood literally grew from trees. I know, I was a 12-year old genius. It was that day that triggered my fascination with the material we use for our woodworking. And I've noticed in the past few of years, the number of people that are starting to share this interest with me are growing. The number of people becoming interested in harvesting and milling their own lumber has increased. And if it's piqued your interest at all, the good news is that it's not as complicated as you might fear.

There are a number of reasons why I would argue that someone should consider milling their own lumber instead of hitting up a lumber yard.

First, and maybe the most obvious, is the cost. Milling your own lumber can produce quality material for a fraction of the price of a lumber dealer. In fact, if you purchase your own mill, like I have, you can actually make a profit off of it by selling lumber to other woodworkers and by offering to mill other people's logs.

The second reason I enjoy milling my own lumber, and you will as well, is that you have control of the material through the entire process. This means you select how you want the lumber cut and are in control as it's drying. In my experience you'll end up with stock that is much higher quality than you can readily buy.

Finally, I take great satisfaction in turning urban trees into lumber that can be used for a project instead of going to the dump or fire pit. On this same note, you'll also have access to some unusual species that are almost impossible to buy commercially.

All of this is not to say that you have to go out and buy a sawmill to mill your own lumber. A quick internet search will usually yield a number of local sawyers that will come out and mill your logs on site. However, if you do take the dive into purchasing a sawmill, you'll wonder why you waited this long to buy one. Now of course, this all starts by getting your hands on some logs.

1 Milling your own lumber can open up a world of materials that you may not have access to at the lumberyard, like this 24-inch wide cherry log.

2 Don’t think that a sawing log needs to be arrow-straight. Small, odd pieces such as this walnut crotch can yield some beautiful, specialty pieces.

Finding and Picking Logs

When it comes to picking up logs (or hoarding them, as my wife says), I've found a few different sources that work well for me. As a rule of thumb, there are always free logs available, and I don't pay for them.

The first, is harvesting the trees myself. This works well if you own property or have access to property with millable trees. Plus, you have the ability to selectively harvest and manage the timber stand. This allows the trees to reach their full potential before harvesting.

Probably my most consistent source of logs are a handful of arborists that I work with. If they get to a job site and have a nice log, they'll usually give me a call. The crews I work with take trees down year-round, and it's often less work (therefore cheaper) for them to have me come take a log, rather than dispose of it.

Another source for free logs comes from land clearing companies. These guys are usually spending a week at a site clearing land for large commercial spaces or residential developments. This method can be rather hectic, but fruitful. What I mean by that, is you'll often have a number of good sawing logs in one spot, but there will be a narrow window to get in, get the logs you want off of a log pile before it gets dosed in diesel fuel and burned.

Finally, don't overlook online classified ads. Often times a homeowner will list a freshly felled (or fallen) tree for free if you want to come and cut a section of it. (Stay away from the free if you take it down ads). I always make sure to ask if it's okay if I take just the trunk, and if there's access for me to get the mill up to it. Even if the homeowner is trying to sell the log, I'll touch base and leave them my contact info. Most of the time they don't get a buyer and they get to a point they just want it out of the yard.

Now, while I never turn down free logs, there are a few things I look for. First, I make sure it fits on my mill. My Norwood HD36 has a 36-diameter capacity. So, I'm focusing on logs in the 16-36 range. As far as length goes, I shoot for the 4'-13' range. And don't think that a tree has to be arrow straight either. While I stay away from limb wood, trunks with crotches, splits, and other so-called defects can make some beautiful lumber.

3 Pulling logs out of a burn pile can be a great way to score some valuable logs. A handful of log chains, a truck, and a winch have served me well.

4 A log cant (or log peavy) is invaluable in safely moving and rolling logs. Utilizing leverage, you can move a several thousand pound log with minimal effort.

When it comes to what species to look for, that really depends on where you are in. Here in the Midwest, I get mainly ash (a lot, thanks to the current ash-borer situation), red and white oak, hickory, elm, maple, walnut and the occasional cherry. But don't discount a wood just because you've never seen it in a big-box store. Some of my favorites to mill are sycamore, linden (basswood), and apple.

Once you've identified some logs that you're planning on milling, now comes the first party trick—picking them up. Now, I admit. I cheat. My mill is portable, so I can cut them on site and throw the boards in my truck. You can hire a portable mill to do this as well.

However, if you are looking to pick up the logs I would suggest renting a trailer and a skid loader and loading up a handful of logs in an afternoon. Sometimes, arborists will have one on site, as will clearing companies. A small handmade gift is a good way to thank them for loading the logs for you. Otherwise, if you have a trailer you can use ramps and a winch to roll the logs over the side using a process called parbuckling. For a more dedicated log loading rig, take a look at some log arch videos on YouTube (Matt Cremona has a great one on his channel).

5 Fresh off the mill, you flood the lumber surface with water. This will wash away a majority of the sawdust, and also show you the grain of the wood.

6 Some of the most beautiful lumber I saw, such as this cherry crotch, would grade fairly low at a commercial mill, but any woodworker can see the value in this character.

CUTS OF WOOD

Live sawing is making cuts straight through the log, leaving the bark on both sides. For this, the log needs to be smaller than the guides on the mill (28 in my case). Usually, the lower bark is discarded and the top one covers the stack.

Plain sawing removes four sides of bark to turn the long into a cant. Then, the cant will be sawn down into boards, and I usually leave the center of the log (with the pith) as beams for workbench parts or fireplace mantles.

Prepping Logs for Milling

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