Home Milling is a little like Home Baking

By which I mean, in both cases once you have acquired some basic skills and equipment you can turn your hand to making a variety of products (whether bread, rolls and cakes; or beams, flooring and lintels).

This indeed is often the main benefit in training and equipping yourself to process your own timber – the ability to produce what you need, when you need.

This point was brought home to me many years ago when we demonstrated chainsaw milling at a local agricultural show. During the course of the day we converted a number of logs into boards and beams of various dimensions. People were transfixed – it is a very powerful experience seeing a round log being transformed into useable timber right in front of you – but more often than not their first question was: ‘how does the cost compare with going to the builders merchants?’

I suppose we should have expected this but I have to say this caught us somewhat by surprise. Of course price is a factor, and for some products mainstream merchants will be cheaper, but that isn’t really the point of the exercise. The issue is, if you rely on those merchants you will be restricted to a certain range of products, in a certain range of dimensions. If your project or need falls outwith that range, then you have a problem.

By contrast, should you for example be installing a fireplace and fancy a heavy-duty mantelpiece, say from Douglas Fir, 8 feet long, 14” deep and 6” thick – no problem. You can cut to exactly the dimensions you require, in the species you want.

As well as this flexibility, the apparent inefficiency of milling individual items in this way is less marked than you might think. True, it will take a bit of time, but consider this: every useable piece of timber in your log can be sawn from it, and even the remainder is not waste, but will go into your fire.

Mobile bandsaw

Mobile bandsaw

This is an area where ‘appropriate technology’ comes in. There was a time when home sawmilling of the type described above would have either involved very basic equipment producing fairly crude results, or equipment so costly as to render the exercise beyond the means of most. Nowadays, however, there are a plethora of chainsaw mills, mobile bandsaws and swing-blade circular saws all producing excellent results.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses but depending on your priorities you will almost certainly find something to meet your needs. Prices range from a couple of thousand pounds for a chainsaw sawbench (assuming you have a beefy chainsaw already) to well over ten times that much for an all-singing, all-dancing mobile bandsaw with hydraulic log loading etc.

Such equipment is invariably imported – typically from Scandinavia or North America – as you might expect, as most other countries have a much stronger forest culture than we do. As an example of this, there is a great magazine available in the USA called Independent Sawmill & Woodlot Management, so large is their ‘family forestry’ sector (there are 10 million family forest owners in the US).

I get a digital subscription to this, and out of idle curiosity counted up the number of adverts for mobile sawmilling equipment in the latest issue. There were eight different manufacturers – and that did not include firewood processors, sawblade suppliers, kilns etc.

Indeed, one of the magazine’s more entertaining projects is their annual ‘Great Portable Sawmill Shoot-Out’ where different sawmills line up against each other against the clock, to convert a standard parcel of logs. Each is scored on speed, and quality & quantity of timber produced. By all accounts it is a great day out and the mills perform most impressively.

Readers of this blog now hankering for a mill of their own could do worse than read the Shoot-Out event review. Happy milling!

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