I started milling lumber about 25 years ago with a chainsaw mill, which is just a chainsaw with an attachment to control the depth of cut. The simple device allowed me to consistently cut accurate lumber with a minimal arsenal of equipment. It was a great way for a guy who knew nothing about trees or logs or sawmilling to learn about producing lumber. And, even today, I still use a chainsaw mill (Lucas mill) to cut the live edge slabs which we sell at WunderWoods.
Customers are regularly impressed with the quality of the cut from the chainsaw mill, imagining that the chainsaw will necessarily make a terrible cut with a nasty surface finish, which it does not. As a matter of fact, the quality of the cut from a chainsaw mill is better than the bandsaw – it’s very flat and absent of dips and doodles (scientific term) associated with thin bandsaw blades. Don’t get me wrong, bandsaws can and do, cut just as well, but when they start to get dull or otherwise less than perfect, they will cut anything but flat. A chainsaw cut will remain flat as the chain dulls, it will just cut slower.
A chainsaw mill is commonly referred to as an “Alaskan mill” because of the brand name “Alaskan mill” attachment made by Grandberg International, the same way you might call any facial tissue a Kleenex, but it doesn’t need to be this exact type. As far as I am concerned, any mill which uses a chainsaw chain and bar is a chainsaw mill, no matter the setup.
The Alaskan mill is a simple metal frame, which attaches to the chainsaw bar and can be adjusted to change the depth of cut. It is so simple, in fact, that you could easily build one yourself. They have never been too expensive, so I think most people just opt to buy one. You have to set up two rails (many use a ladder) on top of the log to guide the first cut, but after that the Alaskan mill just rides on the previous cut. I am a fan of the Alaskan mill for its simplicity, and I have a warm place in my heart because it was my first mill. If you didn’t own a chainsaw and decided that you wanted to cut some lumber, you could be making your own lumber for about $500, for a small chainsaw and the Alaskan mill attachment.
I started with the Alaskan mill after reading an article about a father and son using one to cut logs in the woods. I thought it would be cool to cut my own lumber with a chainsaw, and I didn’t want to invest too much in the beginning because I didn’t have a source of logs. Plus, I didn’t own any land, wasn’t friends with any tree service guys and really had never even used a chainsaw before, so I wasn’t sure if it would take. The Alaskan mill promised me the ability to cut lumber anywhere and be able to do it with no heavy equipment – a small pickup truck was more than enough to get milling.
The Alaskan mill works just as advertised, but understand that it is not a production machine. The operator is the sole source of power, and as such, it isn’t an easy row to hoe. It would take me most of the day, by myself, to load up equipment, travel, set-up, mill one 20″ diameter x 8′ log, clean-up, load up equipment and lumber, and travel back home. That was fine with me at the time because I was young and I was tickled to end the day with more than 100 board feet of hardwood lumber. Using my simple logic, my equipment would be paid for in just a couple of logs.
Needless to say, this milling thing did take, and I kept on finding more logs and milling them. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I needed more production, so I moved up to a Lucas mill, but funny enough, not with a chainsaw slabbing attachment. I bought it only with the circular saw setup, which appeared to cut much faster. I then moved onto a bandsaw mill, then to a large circular mill, then back to a bandsaw mill, and only then back to the chainsaw mill attachment for the Lucas mill.
I always liked the Lucas mill and once wide, live-edge slabs started coming into style, it just made sense to use the Lucas with the chainsaw slabbing attachment to cut big logs. The mill I use now (a bigger Lucas mill) is a major upgrade to pushing a chainsaw through a log and really makes the process more enjoyable. I still have the noise of the engine and need to sharpen the saw quite often, but the sawdust and fumes aren’t directly in my face and I don’t have to work so hard to push the saw through the cut. The hardest part now is moving the slabs out of the way, since the Lucas mill can cut up to 60″ wide and they get quite heavy.
I was prompted to write this because even though I have upgraded to the Lucas mill for my sawmilling, I still do a lot of work with a chainsaw, and I want to remind or encourage everyone to not forget about their chainsaw as a means of milling. Don’t think that you need a “sawmill” to produce high-quality lumber or that if you have a “sawmill” that you no longer need your chainsaw. You won’t get dazzling production numbers, but you can still be milling at almost any time with just a chainsaw. I am reminded of this all of the time when I see posts from others of the big and beautiful wood they have cut, just by taking their chainsaw mill to the tree.
Even if I am not using it for the actual milling, there are plenty of times where the chainsaw still comes into play, whether freehand or on some type of mill, and I am still amazed by the simplicity of it all. I use the chainsaw to rough mill mantels which we haul out of tough locations by hand and to cut large logs into quarters for further processing on the sawmill.
Every time I do some sort of work with the chainsaw, especially if it is part of the milling process, I always think back to my early days and appreciate what it can do. I think I really like the idea of knowing that if I needed to, maybe if I was stranded on an island full of large trees (and plenty of gas), I could mill everything I needed with just a chainsaw – maybe one with an attachment, but still, just a chainsaw.
Feel free to send me a photo of your chainsaw milling, and I will be glad to post it here with a link. I am sure everyone would love to see what is possible with a chainsaw/chainsaw mill.
The call usually goes like this. A potential new customer calls and says, “I am looking for a mantel. The stone guys are coming tomorrow, and I need something today so they can put it in. Can you cut me a mantel?”
The answer, of course, is yes. However, I spend a little time calming them down and explaining that they are going to mount the mantel after the stone work is done, how it will come out beautifully and how not having a mantel right now won’t slow anything down.
Most people expect that the wood is going to be embedded in the stone, which is the reason for all of the last-minute, frantic calls, but I argue that the wood should not be surrounded by stone, mostly because of wood movement and not because of the fact that they don’t have any wood to surround with stone.
All wood, dry or wet, moves with seasonal changes and the stone does not. This means cracks will develop around the mantel over time. They will be small, perhaps unnoticeable, around dry wood, but if the wood is newly sawn and installed wet, the cracks will be unsightly after the wood has dried and shrunk. The other possibility is that green wood could bow, twist, or warp in some fashion and blow things apart. If a 8″ x 11″ x 8′ long piece of white oak decides to move aggressively, there may be little that can stop it and the results could be catastrophic. It is definitely possible that any stone or brick veneer could be popped from the wall when the wood starts moving.
So, I say, don’t fight it. Don’t try to put the stone around the wood. Let the stone guys do their thing, step back, take a deep breath and then find a cool piece of wood to install in front of the stone.
The method I recommend works for installing any solid wood mantel above any fireplace, from drywall to stone and anywhere in between, and the process is quite simple.
Besides your tools and the actual piece of wood for the mantel (purchased, of course, from WunderWoods) you will only need 5-minute epoxy and two steel stakes. I get the steel stakes at Home Depot in the concrete supply aisle. They are 5/8″ thick steel stakes used for concrete forms and they are very sturdy. Do not use rebar because it is too flexible.
You might be thinking that just two steel rods aren’t enough and be inclined to use more, but don’t, unless it is absolutely necessary. Two 5/8″ thick stakes can easily hold 200 pounds (which I usually verify with a modified one-handed pinky pull up in which my knees stay on the ground), and I have found that even with more than two stakes, the heavy lifting is usually done with just two, while the others are just along for the ride. And, since the extra stakes just make for more drilling and more chances for things to not line up, I say don’t use them. If you feel that you need to beef things up, just get bigger steel rods.
The basic premise of this method is that you are installing two shelf brackets in the form of steel rods that will support the mantel which will have two holes drilled in the back to accept the rods, all of which will be hidden.
Start by determining the mantel location and then finding suitable places to install the rods. The rods need to be mounted solidly, either through the wood framing or through the stone, or both if possible, and close to each end of the mantel. Usually the exact locations are determined by the stone or framing layout.
Drill the holes in the fireplace surround with a 5/8″ masonry bit and a hammer drill in stone or brick, or a 11/16″ bit and a regular drill in wood. The 5/8″ bit in stone will usually leave a hole with enough room for level adjustment because the hammer drill makes a roomier entrance. Since wood drills easily and with a cleaner hole, the 11/16″ bit is required to allow for level adjustments.
Next, you will need to drill 1″ diameter holes as deep as possible in the back of the mantel that line up with the rods (be careful not to drill all of the way through). I usually just measure for the locations, but if you are worried about messing things up, you can make a drilling template to use on the wall and the back of the mantel. This still doesn’t eliminate screw-ups (nothing does) because it is easy to flip the template when you should have flopped it. Be sure to mark your template with top, bottom, left and right sides, and don’t forget to mark the side that faces the mantel and the one that faces the wall.
Next insert a steel stake into each hole and secure it with 5-minute epoxy. Be sure to fill in the front and back for full support. While the epoxy is setting check the rods for level and adjust as necessary. I often add some small wedges to help hold things level while the epoxy is setting up. After the epoxy is set up, trim the rods to the final length which is determined by the depth of the holes in the back of the mantel.
In a perfect world you would slide on the mantel and be done at this point, but it is rarely the case – often you will need to make some small adjustments to compensate for drilling by hand. If the mantel doesn’t sit level it can be adjusted by adding wraps of tape to the metal stakes, either near the front or back, depending on which needs to be raised.
Once you have the mantel sitting level you are done. Don’t worry about gluing it on – it isn’t necessary and will only make the mantel more difficult to remove if you need to work on it in the future.
“The June rise used to be always luck for me; because as soon as that rise begins, here comes cord-wood floating down, and pieces of log rafts – sometimes a dozen logs together; so all you have to do is catch them and sell them to the wood yards and sawmill.”
–Quote from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
I am reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn right now (mostly because everyone that considers themselves a fair-bit learned says it’s a proper read) and I came across the above paragraph about wood floating down the river. It struck me for two reasons. First off, I see the river every day and can’t help but be drawn to it for the logs that float past my shop. The second, and most appropriate reason, is that it mentions the “June rise”.
I didn’t know the “June rise” was a thing, even though I knew the river was highest in the spring. Personally, I think of June as the summer, but early June is still spring, and this year the rise was in spring and interestingly enough, in June. As a matter of fact, it was June 1st officially, but started with a vengeance on May 31st.
That night we were at the Ameristar Casino, on the Missouri River, in downtown St. Charles for my dad’s retirement party, planning on an upscale night out with the family. We were going to attend the retirement party, go swimming, watch TV in the bathtub (they have TV’s in the bathrooms), probably go swimming again the next morning and go out to breakfast, and just generally live it up as much as possible with our 7-year-old daughter. I say, “We were going to,” because things didn’t go as planned.
After the party, we went to the pool and were told that we would have to get out because a storm with lightning was headed our way. It wasn’t a big deal because we knew that we could swim the next morning, so we headed up to the room to find something else to do. We ended up watching out from the 22nd floor, with a great view, to see the approaching storm and lightning. It looked rather ominous, so we turned on the news to see that a tornado was headed in our general direction, and so, ended our night of fun.
We sheltered in the basement, hearing second-hand damage reports as we waited for it to pass. We weren’t in the basement long, but the hotel lost power, so we spent the rest of the evening in the lobby until the power came back on. When we finally got up to our room, we, of course, looked out the window and could see vast areas of darkness where there should be light, punctuated by areas of bright flashing lights. The tornado had come very close to the hotel and the lights were from emergency response teams. It looked like the tornado might have went close to our house as well, but there was nothing to do that night. All of the power was out and traffic was all locked up because the highway was closed, so we just hung out in our room, watched the news, watched the rain, and went to bed.
When the sun came up, there was some evident damage from high winds, but the most obvious outcome from the storm was the rising river. It was already a little high before this latest storm, and the all-night rain pushed it to flood levels. The water from the river was starting to fill the lower parking lot, making the hotel an island.
As I looked out from the 22nd floor, I could easily see a large segment of the Missouri River, and guess what I saw. Logs, logs and more logs. Huge ones floating right on by, and in good numbers. In just one minute, easily three to four giant trees would go by, along with all the smaller pieces. The “June rise” was on.
As much as I wanted to get all of those logs, it was obviously too dangerous. The water was high and swift, and as far as I could tell, only an idiot would get on the river in those conditions. It didn’t matter right then anyway, because I had to focus on the ramifications of the tornado.
A few days later, as I was looking at some downed trees from the tornado, one of the guys in the conversation mentioned how fast the river can drop in just a day, “like someone pulled the drain plug,” he said. Near the river, he had a house that was flooded the day before and was now on dry land. He also mentioned that he had a lot of trees just float onto his land, as well as some that were knocked over by the tornado.
This got me thinking more about the logs on the river, and that it would be a good time to look for logs or driftwood. But, I didn’t do much about it. I had a never-ending supply of logs right around my shop from the tornado and didn’t need to go looking for trees in the river. Plus, the river was still high, even though it had dropped a lot.
As much as I tried to avoid them, I couldn’t. Within just a couple of days, I was headed across the Missouri River on the Blanchette Bridge back into St. Charles, when I noticed the mother lode. Off to the right, near a parking lot for downtown St. Charles and Frontier Park was the biggest log jam I have ever seen. It was as big as a football field full of logs and driftwood, all piled in tight and screaming my name. It was huge, and I expected that I could pick logs from this pile for a long time. All I had to do was wait for the ground to dry a bit, and I could move in (with the proper clearance, of course). I knew that the logs would be there awhile because every person working for St. Charles was cleaning up the tornado debris and none of them were going to worry about this pile of logs, no matter how big it was, on the banks of the river. Heck, another good rain would take it down river anyway. So, I waited – but not long.
Only two days later, I was headed across the bridge in the same direction and looked down at the giant log jam to see only dirt. A football field-sized piece of real estate that used to be covered in logs, was now just dirt. It was incredible that they could have cleaned up that many logs that fast, but somehow they did. I thought I had plenty of time, but I still missed them, just like the great walnut log I let go downstream at the end of winter.
I told myself it was for the best, and that I didn’t need to chase river logs, but I was sure that the “June rise” had left something for me. It is a big river, and I knew that there were treasures to be found. I held out as long as I could, but then finally, I took the official “plunge”.
It happened a couple of weeks ago and knowing that summer was coming to an end, I went out and picked up five river logs, figuring that I better do it now before the water gets cold. I didn’t find any walnuts this time, but I did find one, in particular, that makes me want to go back. It is a silver maple, like the others that I picked up, but it must have spent more time in the water because the sapwood was very dark, almost black. At the same time, the heartwood looked almost new, making the boards with both sapwood and heartwood have amazing contrast. I was especially excited at how the dark sapwood looks like marble or some other stone. I always say, the less it looks like wood, the better it is.
Here are some photos of my prized log. Click on any of the photos for a closer look and to view the slide show.
The entire log was solid, including the sapwood and produced six slabs up to 22″ wide and 2-3/8″ thick, and in case you were wondering, all of them smell like the bottom of a river. Other than that, milling this log was a completely enjoyable experience. And, even though I can find plenty of logs on land, this one log will have me going back to the river again, especially around June.
Earlier this year, I was reintroduced to the Missouri River when my daughter, Mira and I were almost blown off of this planet by a group of reenactors. We were cruising the river bank and wandered in to a not-so-secure, secure area right before the big moment. Luckily, we escaped with our lives and have been able to go back to look for more treasures. (click here for the full story)
A few weeks ago, after Mira’s girl scout outing to learn about the river, we ventured out on our own. Mira found pieces of colored glass, mussel shells and special rocks, while I, of course, looked for wood. I found some cool pieces that weren’t too big to take back and was especially intrigued by long slender pieces of wood that were debarked. I don’t know what did it, but I assume it was a small rodent. I don’t think it was a beaver because the teeth marks are small, so I am calling them “Muskrat Sticks” until I learn something different. Every stem was chewed like corn on the cob (the way I do it with all of the corn gone, not like the girls do it with sporadic bites between kernels). I was drawn to them because they were so uniform in size and texture, and all of them were recently chewed down, so the color was consistent too. I don’t know that anyone will use them, but I grabbed them anyway.
After that, I got thinking even more about wood (I know, it doesn’t seem possible, but I did). Specifically, I was thinking about that giant river running right by my shop and all of the other treasures that it might be dropping in my lap. Since then, I have had two occasions to cruise the river and look for more goodies, and I must admit, I am pretty proud of myself. My biggest/best find was an old railroad tie. It was just floating right next to the bank, and I grabbed it. I almost walked right by it because I was focused on logs and branches. If you look really close, you can see where the spikes went through it originally. Now, the holes merge into the hollowness created by the years of bobbing in the river. Amazingly, it is completely solid, except for all of the wood that is missing. It will make a great rustic fireplace mantel for the right person in the right house.
While I was searching, I also found a couple of other pieces that stood out in the crowd. One looked like a rock or something unwood (I can sell any wood that doesn’t look like wood – weird, I know), while the other was chewed by a very cooperative beaver. He left just enough for it to be useable and picked the perfect diameter log to make a table leg. I have always thought that it would help to have a well-trained beaver, and he couldn’t have done a better job. Thank you, beaver.