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Cutting your own lumber

Saving that tree

©2004, 2016 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

I do not cut and dry my own lumber, other than pruning around the house and playing with an occasional log. But I have heard lots of discussions, read quite a few articles, and surprisingly, have often been asked how to do it. (Why?) But here is what I have learned from others over the last few years.

Residential Trees

Harvesting a few trees in a residential area is a major problem. The low cost way of removing a tree among houses and landscaping is to cut it into small pieces as it is taken down, so cranes aren't required to avoid damage from falling logs. Thus there are no large logs to make prime lumber - it is more like firewood by the time it hits the ground and is stacked. Branches are of little value, since they are small (little wood) and have stresses from growing sideways - the good lumber is in the trunk. Bringing in the equipment to remove a few trees in a commercial manner would be prohibitively expensive, not only for the equipment, but for the space that would have to be cleared to allow the large machinery.

Residential trees are feared by most commercial saw mills because they have nails from old signs, buried in the wood, wires used to hang the bird feeder long ago, heavy metal hooks from the days of clothes lines, horse shoes dropped in forks or nailed to the tree for luck, BBs and birdshot buried in the upper trunk and branches, and so forth. Many saw mills simply refuse to handle residential logs.

Sawing the log that is already down

There is a cottage industry of sawyers with portable sawmills. There are many brands available, but a very common (good) brand is from Wood-Mizer Products, Inc. (800)553-0182, or www.woodmizer.com, who reportedly will share the name of their customers (who own sawmills) in your area. A list of sawyers by area is on the web at www.woodweb.com/Resources/RSSDGsawyers.html. Some sawyers do this as a hobby - I have watched, and it looks like it would be fun as well as VERY good exercise.

Many of the people with portable sawmills will bring their trailer-mounted mill to your location, and mill one or a few trees. Many charge separately for their blades (think in terms of $25 each), with a blade lasting a few hours or until encountering a metal obstacle. Some charge per board foot, others per hour. Some charge for travel and setup time, others have a flat rate (like $50) to get started on your site.

The type of mill used by the sawyer makes a difference. Logosol makes a very inexpensive guide for a chainsaw. It cuts logs slowly, and the chain wastes a lot more wood than other options. But for a couple thousand dollars, you can be in business yourself, or be started with a very addicting hobby. Hud-son and Timber King have low power units that have to be carefully set up, so be sure when the charges start. Most Woodmizer units can start sawing almost immediately, but their small mills are far slower than their high end units. The bigger mills even have hydraulics to turn and level your logs, dramatically improving productivity. One Internet discussion suggested $75 per hour (plus blades) was a common price for the mid-size Woodmizer LT40 hydraulic unit. Another person who had logs arranged and provided helpers found that the high-end Woodmizer LT70 averaged 600 board-feet per hour. This suggests a cost as low as 10 cents per board foot, but more often you should plan on 25 to 50 cents per board foot for sawing.

You should have a good idea what you want to do with the wood - lots of large, short pieces for turning, or longer, wider pieces for cabinets. A good sawyer can help you get the most wood out of a tree if you want a variety, or can help you get the best yield of the specific type of wood that you want.

In most situations the wood should be sawed soon after it is cut. Bugs and rot infest some logs far faster than others. Living wood may have over 100% moisture content (the weight of the water in the wood is greater than the weight of the wood when dry). Wood isn't "dry" until the moisture content is around 10% or less. With that much water coming out of the wood, the logs will shrink and split as they dry

In the Central Texas area (30 miles from Austin, 10 miles NE of Georgetown), consider the services of Bill Stuewe, who will cut the logs you bring to him for $75 per hour, one hour minimum, or will bring his mill to you for $100 per hour, from the time he leaves until he gets back. He has a WoodMizer LT40 (for cuts up to 24 inches), and two chainsaw mills for the really large or specialized logs.

Drying the wood

As a general rule, wood needs to be dried about a year for each inch of thickness. Sawing boards thicker to give flexibility through resawing later is a great idea, but the drying time becomes very long, and the loss from warping and splitting grows dramatically. Web sites and chat groups often talk about drying the wood - lots of little details make things better, so do more research before you try it, but generally it goes like this:

Commercial lumber is often kiln dried, reducing the year to a week or so. With proper controls, kiln-dried lumber can be more even and have fewer stresses and splits. Improperly done, the wood can be ruined through case hardening or other faults. The kiln can also kill any bugs and larve in the wood (by holding the temperature above 130 degrees for four hours or more). Some wood can be improved during kiln drying - for example Walnut sapwood is almost white, but already has the chemicals that produce the characteristic dark brown walnut color. With proper kiln drying (sometimes called steaming), those colors can be developed, making the walnut sapwood almost as good as heartwood, and usable in many applications.

There are arguments that air dried lumber is better, but just as many arguments that kiln-dried lumber is better. Authorities that I respect conclude that the differences are very subtle, both processes can give great lumber, but both can be done poorly.

This may sound like a lot of hassle for a little return. On the other hand, I know of someone who collected and dried wood over the years, as a hobby and exercise plan, and recently sold his collection for $800,000.

Lumber Grades

Each type of wood has it's own unique grading rules. As an example, some of the rules for walnut are described. The formal definition takes many pages and weeks of training to interpret the formal rules. A professional lumber grader has years of experience to be able to look at a board and determine the grade in seconds without tedious measurements.

Top grade "FAS" walnut sells for $4 or more per board foot. FAS is evaluated from the worst side. Each board must be a minimum of 8 feet long, at least 6 inches wide, 1 inch thick after drying but before planing. Flaws like cracks and knots are still allowed, but the expected yield of usable wood is about 83%. BUT sapwood is not considered a flaw in grading (even though it may be useless when making furniture). Some retail operations sell nearly perfect wood, with no sapwood (better than the top FAS grade), at prices that may seem extremely high (but can be worthwhile for great wood with no waste).

The next lower grade is "One Face - 1F." The primary difference is that the FAS standards are applied to the "best" side of the wood, rather than the worst.

The next grade for Walnut is Select, sometimes sold as SAB or S&B - Select and Better. This is similar to 1F but the minimum board size is 3 1/2 inches by 6 feet. Many outlets only sell one of the above grades.

Number 1 common Walnut typically sells for about half the price of FAS. The primary difference is that the minimum overall size is 2 1/2 inches wide and 4 feet long, but the clear areas must be at least 3 inches by 3 feet or 2 inches by 4 feet, and the clear areas must be at least 2/3 of the area of the board. If you are making small items, this is a good choice, but you won't get big pieces for furniture!

Number 2 common walnut is cheaper still, and is good for narrow long requirements like frames and mouldings. The minimum overall board size is the same as above. The clear areas at least 3 inches wide and 2 feet long must cover over 55% of the total area of the board.

Buying Residential Lumber

Most locally sawn lumber is sold "run of the mill" - whatever comes off the sawmill (ever wonder where that phrase came from?) It is not graded, and probably has a good portion of short pieces (low grade) or knots. One mill estimates that log-run lumber is 40% Number 2 common, 40% number 1 common, and 20% select. This is useful wood, but not the premium grade that gets the high prices. And even if the sawmill didn't find all the nails, there are probably still some hiding.

The price of residential walnut, fresh sawn, is probably little more than the cost of the sawyer. Once it has been dried, walnut is likely to sell for $1 to as much as $3 per board foot (with the higher prices going for lots where the smaller pieces and sapwood were already discarded)

All this may not sound like much revenue for such a hassle, but I know someone who got a quote to have some trees removed - they would have to pay. They did not look for a way to harvest these trees on their farm, which happened to be large walnut trees. When they later sold the farm, the buyer harvested a few trees and sold the wood for enough money to pay for the entire farm.

Am I interested...

Practically every letter I get asking about harvesting wood eventually asks if I am interested, especially in walnut trees.

First, thanks for thinking of me for the Walnut. Unfortunately I live in the suburbs, with no out-buildings or outside storage area, and no attic, so I have no room to store the walnut for a year or two or three while it is air drying. And, of course, I don't have a drying kiln. So I am not a candidate for the wood myself.

Second, thanks for preferring to use the tree rather than just burn it. Black Wanlut trees are a premium wood, and they grow so slowly that large trees are getting scarce. The sapwood where the growth occurs is white, and takes a long time to turn to the brown heart wood that is used for furniture. So younger trees, even those nurtured to grow fast, have a smaller percent of the good heartwood.

What if you have a tree that you want to go to a good home - not just firewood. How do you get started? A note on some of the woodworking sites on the web should get attention of interested people in your area. Suggest that you post something like one of the following ...

Good luck!

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©2004, 2016 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.