About a week ago we milled a big Black Oak log for our friend Martin Goebel of Goebel & Co. Furniture. It looks like he has some big plans, and they include a large tabletop for a customer. Our mission was to get at least one good slab, cut at 4″ thick, that would stay together through the drying process. The log was stout with a lot of character and a few bad spots, but it was so big that getting some slabs that met the requirement was no problem.
This is the first log that I have milled on the Lucas Mill that required the mill to be jacked up (by about 10″) to get started. The mill will cut up to 62″ wide with the chainsaw slabber attachment, and we still had to trim both sides of the butt end for the log to fit. We milled the bottom log with the slabber, and Roger Branson of Red Rooster Sawmill cut up the top logs on his Wood-Mizer LT40. In all we got about 1,600 bd. ft. out of the tree, with about 1,000 bd. ft. coming out of the bottom 10′ log.
Here are the photos of the event:
After the milling we got all of the wood back in the shop and stacked to start drying. It is nutty to know that the lumber is so big that it takes two of us just to slide one end of the slab on to the sticks. Luckily, the stacking is done, and now we wait, with our fingers crossed, in hopes that nothing breaks as it dries.
Working with wood is most enjoyable to me when I can just grab a tool and get to work – forget the tape measure, the jigs, and the worry. It is one of the reasons that I really like to work at the sawmill. One of my favorite things to do is bust up big logs with my chainsaw so they will fit on the sawmill or to prepare them for quartersawing, or better yet, just to move them.
I have an old 742 Bobcat that is rated to work with 1,500 pounds, which isn’t much when the logs get big. But, that doesn’t stop me. I just cut the logs lengthwise to lighten the load. People always ask me how big of a log I can cut (in reference to my sawmill). And, I always tell them, “As big as I want if I have my chainsaw.” By the way, my TimberKing 1220 sawmill will process a 30″ diameter log without any chainsaw work and cut boards up to 24″ wide. To a lot of people it seems crazy, like I am cutting the tree the wrong direction, but it works. It takes a little while, but it works.
When I get ready to break down a log, I only use the chainsaw (nothing on the bar to guide the cut). This gives me maximum flexibility, even if it is daunting at first. Daunting or not, you would be amazed how good the freehand cut can be with just a little practice (that doesn’t mean that I haven’t made some terrible freehand cuts).
When it comes to chainsawing a potentially valuable tree, I wasn’t always so cavalier. I would mark, remark, cut, check, recheck and cut again to make sure I wasn’t screwing it up. Now, after some practice, I realize it isn’t so hard, and rarely do I mess it up too bad. To help you not mess it up at all, I have some advice. It starts with only a minuscule amount of planning and a micron of forethought. After that it’s just you and your chainsaw.
Here is the plan of attack (This works for all lengthwise cuts on a log, but is shown on the flat face of a half log below):
First, decide where you want the cut to start and make a mark on the top of one end that you can see from the other end (I just make a small chainsaw cut). Then, swing around to the opposite end and make a mark where you want the cut to finish. Next, make a shallow marking cut using your entire bar. Start with the back end of the bar on your original mark and drop the front end of the saw on to the log in line with your mark at the other end. The idea here is to start your straight line by aiming at the finish point. After you mark the log, swing back to the side you started on and do the same thing.
At this point the log will be marked on both ends the length of your bar. Sight down these two lines to make sure they are in line with each other and then connect them. If they aren’t lined up, adjust now, before you get to deep. Trust your eye, it will tell you all you need to know. Imagine you are eyeing up lumber at Home Depot, but now you can fix the crooked wood. If you don’t trust your eye you can use other guides, like a straight board or a chalkline if you want, but I say trust your eye.
After you have scored the log, it is time to start cutting. I like to work the entire line, going back and forth and dropping a little deeper each time. I keep doing this until my chainsaw is at a pretty steep angle, and I feel like I have a nice cut to guide the saw. After that, I aim the bar down as deep as necessary to finish the cut. I work myself along the log and make sure to leave the end cut for last. If you cut the end first then you have to finish in the middle of the log. This is dangerous because your body will be next to the log when it breaks apart and squishy things could happen. Finish with your body off to the end of the log.
That’s all there is to it. With a little practice your cuts will be straighter than you imagined. Trust your eye and let the sawdust fly.
Note: There are chainsaw guides available like the Beam Machine and the Alaskan Mini Mill which guide the chainsaw along a piece of lumber or track. These work fine and give a straighter cut than freehand cutting. I find that they work well for shallow cuts but are harder to use with a big saw making deep cuts. They are much easier to set up on the flat cut face of a log half compared to the round outside of a log for the first cut. I am not against using these guides and I know that I lose a little bit of lumber because of imperfect freehand cuts, but I like the freedom of being able to do whatever I need when I need it with just my chainsaw.
A friend of mine sent me an e-mail recently and said he had a line on a couple of logs. He gave me no details. I responded quickly telling him that I was not currently chasing logs because I had to focus on work that would make me money quickly, and collecting logs was not it. He let it go until I saw him at the next St. Louis Woodworkers Guild meeting when he brought it up again. This time he talked about the trees being big, which caught my attention. Then he said the magic words – Burr Oak. It wasn’t an accident that he knew the magic words for me because they were magic words for him too. See, a few years back he built the front door for his house out of Burr Oak lumber that I milled, and we both want more like it.
I knew it would be hard to duplicate, because that tree was, by far, the biggest that I have ever milled. It measured 54″ in diameter, inside the bark, 20′ from the ground. It was ginormous.
Unfortunately, the bottom 12′ where the clearest lumber would have been was rotten, but I still got an 8′ log that was pretty clear from the top. That particular tree was very close to my last home in Hazelwood, MO and I had admired it from a distance for a while. It was in a fenced in area on the IBM campus, so I never got right next to it to appreciate just how big it was before it fell. It was a perfect looking tree, the kind that you draw in school, with a short trunk and a big round top. I specifically remember saying to myself, “That is a big tree, too bad the bottom log is so short.” That short log was 20′ long, which shows you how wide the tree was. After seeing the photos of it on the ground and actually working on it, I imagine that it would have set some sort of records for size.
To mill that log, we cut it first into quarters with a chainsaw, lengthwise. Then we milled each quarter on the sawmill to produce quartersawn lumber. I always tell customers that size is one of the key factors for deciding whether to quartersaw a log or not. Sometimes I have to think about it, but this log left me no choice. We had to quarter it to get it on the mill and then still had to take a deep first cut on my old Corley circle mill to get things started.
The log produced quartersawn boards without bark or pith up to 20″ wide, which is crazy wide for quartersawn white oak lumber. I still dream about the lumber that would have come out of the base of that tree if we got it before it rotted. They would have been perfectly straight-grained and up to 25″ wide without a defect, and I would have retired on the proceeds. As it was, the bottom log was completely gone and the top log that I milled still showed some signs of decay in spots.
After working with that log, I heard Burr Oak and started picturing more of the same. I heard big and I pictured perfection in wood. I knew the potential and hoped for a repeat. Well, after picking up the new Burr Oak I must say it is nowhere near as big. It is big (about 36″ in diameter), just not ginormous.
It will have good lumber in it since it is solid to the ground, but it has a lot of branches and nubs that will make the lumber less than perfect. It doesn’t matter, though. I am a wood junkie and I can’t do anything about it. If I didn’t go get it, I can guarantee that it would have been bigger than the biggest Burr Oak and not rotten. The Burr Oak also came with a big cypress and a funky sycamore, both of which will also find a home on the walls of my shop. Thanks John, for letting me know about it (I owe you some lumber).
I have spent a lot of time cutting wood at the sawmill and in the shop with bandsaw, chainsaw and circle blades. I have found a sharp blade to be imperative. Probably all of you know this already, so I am preaching to the choir. But I wanted to add a few things that you may not know.
A sharp bandsaw blade will overcome almost all of its other shortcomings. Your blade may not have the proper set, may be tracking to the left or right, or have other issues that will cause crooked or wavy cuts, but once sharpened it will always improve. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a blade that started out strong and cutting perfectly, only to find that the cuts quickly became wavy. I would tell myself that I must have a problem with the saw, maybe with the blade guides, because I haven’t used it that long and it just couldn’t be dull yet. And, though one time I did have a blade guide issue, every other time the blade was just dull. Dull and nothing else. I probably hit a rock and didn’t know it. Here I was, worried about the set of the teeth and it has never been the set. Now, I don’t question it. If the saw isn’t cutting right I put on a newly sharpened blade and all is good.
A sharp circular blade will overcome almost all of its other shortcomings. See a theme yet? Not long ago, I owned a circle mill with a 48″ bottom blade and a 30″ top blade. These big blades are set at a slight angle to the feed of the log so that the trailing side of the blade is out from the cut just a bit. The saw guide on the front would keep the blade in the right place, but only if the saw was sharp. If it wasn’t sharp, the blade would dig in, cut crooked, warm up and cut more crooked until finally it became shaped like a big salad bowl. With a sharp blade the tolerances of the setup were much less critical. As long as it was sharp, and the kerf was still wide enough, it would just cut… and cut… and cut.
A sharp chainsaw blade makes life worth living.There is nothing better than a chainsaw that cuts fast. It makes the job enjoyable and a lot less like work. I sharpen my chainsaw a lot. If it is not throwing out big chips at a fast rate I stop and sharpen. I sharpen my chain on the bar with a hand-held electric grinder until the teeth get so worn they break off. I highly recommend this type of sharpener. It uses your car battery for power and will sharpen a 20″ bar in just a couple of minutes. If you use a chainsaw and don’t have a sharpener like this, get one.