Is My Sawmill a Toy?

When I bought my sawmill, the advertisement read: “The Frontier OS27 is our reliable mid-size sawmill with even more horse-power to serve your milling needs.”  Bruce Todd, who has a lot more experience with mills than I ever will, told me that it’s a toy.  From the fun I’ve had learning to use a mill, I think he may be right – but my sawmill is for a retiree, cleaning things up.  To Bruce, a mill has been a way to make a living and support a family.

It is definitely fun – and I’m glad that my venture into sawmill operation came 50 or 60 years later than my classmates.  It’s just one more of my retirement activities.  Somehow, I retired into a complexity of self-employment activities – the old service station/store building needed lots of maintenance, the trees need thinned for forest health, a few acres of hay make things qualify as a farm, the trailer park needed maintenance . . . I think staying busy as aging takes me down physically does qualify as a retirement plan.  Last night, I listened to another retiree telling about landing in Madrid.  My story is about sawmilling for fun.  I’m not certain that my retirement path has been the norm.

My first research into band sawmills was over 40 years ago – Russ Hudson and John McBride set me up to visit a guy who was using one and to try to get him working on a conservation plan.  The visit was a failure – a very stoned and very pregnant teenager greeted me to explain that “Dad isn’t home.  He’s in court.”  The story gets more upbeat – when I taught at FVCC’s Libby campus half a generation later, I encountered the young lady again in the classroom and academic reinforcement center.  Even later, she made a point of tracking me down to tell me that she had completed her master’s degree.  Later still, I learned the lessons of running a bandsaw. 

Part of the fun of the sawmill is leveling the track – the track is light, the logs are heavy, and the soil beneath shifts with wet and dry, frost and thaw, and needs to be as close as possible to dead on.  Some folks can accomplish this with a carpenter’s level and string.  I’m no carpenter – I started with a self-leveling level and a survey rod.  I’ve recently picked up a self-leveling laser, and I think I’ll be able to level the mill far quicker, with fewer steps, and by myself.

Changing the sawbands was a challenge when I started, but with everything adjusted correctly, after the fourth band, it has grown to be an easy task.  When things warm up in the Spring, I’ll be cutting and moving more downed timber and turning it into boards.  I have learned that even a lead bullet in a tree dulls the saw, and really enjoy dodging the full metal jacket bullet or fence staple that awaits my saw.

Cull boards?  I think my standards aren’t as limited as the American Wood Council produces – my poorest are still suitable for firewood, and my next category is fence bracing.  There are a lot of uses for a board that has a bit of errors in it . . . and I have fences that need repair, as well as buildings that need maintenance.  As an old man, cutting four or five hundred board feet in an afternoon is plenty for me . . . the task of cutting the logs to length and moving them to the deck takes the same amount of time for my toy mill as a larger one. 

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