Aldona Bird, Columns/Opinion

Wood mill proves ‘an undertaking’

When my sister Lina told me she’d gotten a wood mill to make boards from trees on her property, I was pretty excited to see the operation.

Then I learned it was a comparatively cheap and portable version of a mill, and was even more stoked — you know I’m all about the DIY and budget options.

On a visit to her home, I had the treat of watching her use this Alaskan chainsaw mill. When she started, I thought, heck, maybe I should get one and see if I have an undiscovered passion for woodworking and carpentry.

Set up looked relatively simple; basically the saw mill is an all metal large brace running the length of the log. Two clamps attach to the chainsaw, with a metal device that goes over the metal bars (or right on the log after the first cut is made), with adjustment for board width.

“It’s basically just a metal brace that keeps the saw cutting evenly to the surface,” Lina explained.

She secured the metal brace with 2-by-44 boards drilled into the log. To cut a board, she just slid her chainsaw (outfitted with a ripping chain) down the log, inserting wedges along the way to keep the board from pinching the saw.

My enthusiasm waned as I watched Lina make the first cut. I abandoned thoughts of taking up this new project around minute eight, when she was roughly halfway through cutting the first piece off the 10-foot log.

It took more than 15 minutes of very laborious work for one cut. The 20- inch diameter log was on the ground, and Lina alternated between crouching, lunging and kneeling to work on it without her back cramping.

“You’re running the chain saw quite a long time for each cut,” Lina said, adding, “it takes a tremendous amount of fuel.”

The Alaskan chainsaw mill’s usefulness is portability — you can take it to wherever the tree falls, so unlike using a more standard bandsaw, you don’t need large equipment to move and lift logs.

“This [Alaskan chainsaw mill] is probably somewhat less energy intensive to do,” she said. To reduce her own energy expenditure, she enlisted the help of friends to cut and move the cut boards.

“We’ve been experimenting with different thicknesses, because drying it is the next challenge,” she said. The trees she cleared with this method were Sweetgum, infamous for warping and curling as they dry.

With friends, she tried a four-inch thick board, but at 10 feet long and 20 inches across, they couldn’t budge it, so she cut it into two 5-foot pieces, and stuck to a 2-inch thickness after that.

Lina told me the rule of thumb is, “if you dry it outside, it takes one year per inch of thicknesses.” So she’d have to wait two to four years for the boards she’s been cutting. Instead, she’s piling the boards in her backyard, and said, “I’m going to try to build a solar kiln around it.”

Lina explained a solar kiln is basically just a shed painted black on the inside with a glass or plexiglass roof. A fan inside provides air circulation. At night humidity builds, relieving the stress of wood drying too fast.

While the design and set up of an Alaskan chainsaw mill is beautifully simple, as Lina said, “it’s still an undertaking.”

I decided that if I have any logs I want cut into boards, I’ll just give my big sister a call.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She explores possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County.