Portable Wood Milling: It’s a Thing.

Portable wood milling: How does it work? We

When we first visited our little house in Michigan, we were in awe of the trees. (Hence, ‘Tree House.’) Our lot is surrounded by mature trees on three sides and there are more than a few giants right on our property. While the majority of our trees are healthy and well-balanced, the enormous Silver Maple that shaded the entire backyard had been improperly trimmed over the years and was showing signs of disease. These are not facts that one wants to hear from professional arborists, even more so when it’s a tree with several enormous limbs dangling over the roof of one’s house. After additional professional consultation, we made the extraordinarily difficult decision to have one of the trees that had given ‘Tree House’ its name removed completely. Womp.

In an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons, we posted an instagram story looking for guidance on how to salvage some wood from this century-old tree. We thought, What if we could make our dining table from this maple? Per the norm, you – our amazing readers! – came through. We received a recommendation that we reach out to John at Primal Woods for on-site wood-milling services. Wait. What? On-site wood-milling is a thing that exists? We can now confirm that it is a thing that exists, and that it is awesome.

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John was an absolute pleasure to work with from the very first phone call. Both Kim and I have had experiences in which, sadly, contractors and tradespeople have talked down to us or as if our curiosity is a nuisance. John is the polar opposite! He’s kind, informative, and professional, but most importantly, he’s a down-to-earth guy who was a blast to work with for an entire morning. (As an added bonus, John is a fellow two Pittie-mix rescuer! Jack and CC immediately took to him and showered him with slobber love.) If you’re not in Southwest Michigan, you probably won’t meet John (boo), but this site includes a search function to help you find a portable sawmill service in your area (yay!).

Portable wood milling: How does it work? We

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How Does Portable Wood Milling Work?

The milling process was fairly hands-on in the sense that John worked a Wood-Mizer mill, which is essentially an enormous band saw on wheels. Kim and I helped maneuver logs onto the machine, and then we cleaned, hauled and stacked our lumber after it had been cut. The machine lifts logs onto a stationary cradle and holds them in place, then the saw itself travels down a length of track to cut perfectly measured lumber, wasting only 1/8″ of wood (due to the blade itself) per cut. Nice.

Portable wood milling: How does it work? We

The milled wood has a texture similar to what you’re left with after using a standard table saw or circular saw. It’s a bit rough, but it’s still smoother than we both expected! We’ll likely have quite a bit of finish sanding to do, but that will depend on the final joinery and planing of the lumber. As each cut was made, we oohed at how every slab seemed even more beautiful than the last.

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How Much Does It Cost?

The service cost less than what we expected and yielded more lumber than we anticipated. Our overall cost hovered around $300, which included an hourly rate plus a per-mile travel charge at 88 total roundtrip miles. We actually stopped short of milling all four logs we had set aside, because we had far more live edge lumber than we could ever use! Everything was milled down to 2″ thicknesses with at least one squared edge. We left the fourth edge live on the larger slabs, since we still aren’t sure how wide the planks will need to be for our (eventual) dining room table. Once we determine final width, we’ll trim the excess down on our table saw. Note: We chose a 2″ thickness based on personal preference, but you could choose whatever you’d like! This is your chance to get creative.

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What Happens Afterwards?

At John’s request, we scored a few free pallets from a local hardware store and stacked all of our lumber onto the pallets, alongside our shed. Between each layer, we used small lengths of broken down pallets to keep the air moving between our slabs. He recommended that we use a tarp for protection, but not to fully enclose the milled lumber. The goal is to allow for airflow, while still keeping rain and snow off of the wood for at least 6-8 months. After the initial natural dry time, John recommended we kiln-dry the lumber, and he even suggested a few local companies that we can contact when we’re ready.

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At the end of our milling session, we ended up with seven boards that measure 7′ x 2″ x 15″  and nine slabs that measure approximately 5′ x 2″ x 18″. It’s WAY more wood than we’ll ever need, but it will allow us to build any table – multiple tables! – we can dream up in the future.

Portable wood milling: How does it work? We

The experience was unlike anything we’ve ever done, but most importantly, it left us with a tangible reminder of one of the reasons we chose this property in the first place. The trees.

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  • Norah - September 12, 2018 - 8:02 AM

    So cool! I love reading about this process. You are going to be able to make something gorgeous out of that wood, and $300 for special home-grown lumber seems so very worth it.ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 12, 2018 - 8:46 AM

      Agreed. Salvage shops in our area charge $20 or more for an old (although very pretty) 2 x 4, which we’ve definitely purchased in a pinch. This is so much more special!ReplyCancel

  • Heather O - September 12, 2018 - 8:06 AM

    This is SO cool! And I am glad you got so much functional lumber. I cannot wait to see what you come up with!ReplyCancel

  • Stacy G. - September 12, 2018 - 8:23 AM

    I am jealous of all the potential projects you could make with all of this lumber. What an excellent way to make lemonade.

    It must have been so fun to watch the milling process.

    Also, off-topic, (sort of!) I just discovered you guys are nominated for a Domino blog award! Congratulations. https://www.domino.com/content/design-blog-awards/
    I voted. Good luck!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 12, 2018 - 8:45 AM

      Thank you so much, Stacy!ReplyCancel

  • Amanda B. - September 12, 2018 - 8:46 AM

    So cool! The look of a slab with all that natural grain is so amazing. What will happen to the rest of your tree that you didn’t choose to cut into slabs/lumber?ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 12, 2018 - 8:48 AM

      We saved the best pieces and milled those first. We asked John if he wanted the remnants, but he already has more than he knows what to do with! The folks that cut down our tree are picking up what was left behind.ReplyCancel

  • Rachel - September 12, 2018 - 9:23 AM

    WOW wow wow wow!!! This is SO cool and surprisingly not that expensive! How awesome that this service exists… I’m so excited for you guys and your super-personal future dining room table!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 12, 2018 - 10:56 AM

      Our minds were blown on all counts.ReplyCancel

  • Kimberly - September 12, 2018 - 10:15 AM

    Sooo neat! There’s a company in my area that does this to “rescue” lumber when trees are being cut down and discarded. My offer still stands to carve you some spoons for the tree house!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 12, 2018 - 10:56 AM

      We haven’t forgotten about you! Once we start milling things down even further, we hope to save a chunk. You might need to poke us again though, in all fairness. ;)ReplyCancel

      • Kimberly - September 12, 2018 - 2:39 PM

        Awesome! I don’t mind poking, I never did grow out of my toddler repetitiveness. HaReplyCancel

  • martina - September 12, 2018 - 11:52 AM

    I don’t think “stricken” is the word you want in the first paragraph. That’s a really unpleasant thing, like being stricken by the plague. Please feel free to delete this after reading, I’m not trying to be a know it all!ReplyCancel

    • Kim - September 12, 2018 - 11:56 AM

      You’re right! Updated to reflect how we REALLY felt. :)ReplyCancel

  • Dave - September 12, 2018 - 11:53 AM

    Wood-Mizer sawmills are from Batesville, Ind. I remember driving by the garage on St. Rt. 46 and seeing two or three finished sawmills for sale. That was in the early 80’s. Today, the Batesville location is one of many. Check them out on woodmizer.com!ReplyCancel

    • John Newell - September 12, 2018 - 7:31 PM

      Dave, you must have seen that soon after Wood-Mizer basically invented the category in 1982. We picked ours up in Indy; they don’t assemble them there, but that is where their blade “Re-Sharp” operation is. Good folks.ReplyCancel

    • John Newell - September 12, 2018 - 7:44 PM

      Dave, you must have gone by shortly after Wood-Mizer basically created the category in 1982. We picked ours up in Indy, where they also have their blade “Re-Sharp” operation. Good folks.ReplyCancel

  • Barbara Flynn - September 12, 2018 - 12:58 PM

    This was an awesome piece! How exciting to get so much live edge. What an amazing process to be able watchReplyCancel

  • L - September 12, 2018 - 2:38 PM

    My husband does his own portable chainsaw milling! It looks something like this: https://www.forestry-suppliers.com/product_pages/products.php?mi=42051&itemnum=75252&redir=Y Though given the amount of work involved, I think he’d gladly pay $300 to get it all done for him! (And it’s not a cheap hobby in terms of supplies!)

    One pointer for drying your wood: I’d suggest you paint the ends of your boards ASAP. (We usually paint the end of the log before milling it for maximum efficiency.) What you’re trying to do is dry the wood evenly to minimize splitting. Moisture will leave the end grain much faster, so if you seal that, it helps the board to dry a bit more evenly and to split less.ReplyCancel

    • Scott - September 12, 2018 - 3:30 PM

      Thanks L! Primal woods also offers Alaskan chainsaw milling -it does look like MUCH harder work than the Wood-Mizer. We love the idea of painting the ends of the boards. Anything we can do to help them dry evenly is worth the effort!ReplyCancel

      • John Newell - September 12, 2018 - 7:37 PM

        Painting the ends of the boards is good advice Scott. The “standard” is called Anchor Seal, but even if you brush on some latex it will slow the drying through the ends. Chainsaw milling is certainly tougher work. I only use it if the diameter is too much for the Wood-Mizer, and the customer wants live edges on both sides. With the Alaskan mill we can go to 42 inches in diameter.ReplyCancel

  • Nancy Preston - September 30, 2018 - 7:15 PM

    this post was so relevant to me! We just lost a lovely maple tree due to hurricane Florence. I’m going to look at the website that you listed and find a local source. Thanks!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah @ Ugly Duckling House - November 30, 2018 - 11:58 AM

    A reader sent me your link because I’m thinking about doing Alaskan chainsaw milling! Good to see we have options that range from a total DIY from start to finish and if not, getting a little help at certain steps in the process. Right now, my biggest concern is drying and whether we might be able to build a solar kiln or something on the property once the slabs are cut.

    The trees we’re thinking of milling are HUGE and we’re wanting to use them (first) as a headboard and then perhaps as a live edge counter in our vintage camper renovation.ReplyCancel

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