On a regular basis, probably at least once a week, someone contacts me looking to have a pin oak milled into lumber. They are excited because they finally got their hands on a truly giant specimen of a tree, and even though it is just a red oak, they are excited to get to work with a hardwood at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of not-so-good news and try to get them to reconsider.
As I mentioned, pin oak is in the red oak family, but that is about the only relationship it has to any decent red oak lumber. Pin oak is not milled and sold commercially under the name red oak, and as far as I know, is only used for low-grade products like pallets and blocking, where the only requirement is that it be made of wood that will stay together. And funny enough, pin oak often falls short of even that low requirement.
The problem is that many pin oak trees suffer from ring shake, which is where the rings of the tree peel apart like an onion, making that section of lumber nearly unusable. The beauty of ring shake is that it can’t be seen from the outside of the log and it won’t always be visible even early in the milling process. Sometimes, it won’t be until the lumber has been fully processed and dried for it to start falling apart. Needless to say this is frustrating, especially if you are counting on that lumber for a project and then end up with no wood to work. Even if the ring shake isn’t bad enough to make the lumber actually break, it very often leaves at least one fancy break line somewhere in a board where you would rather not have it. Again, super frustrating.
So, let’s say you find a pin oak that is solid, with no ring shake, then it is all clear sailing, right? Far from it. You may have lumber, but you probably don’t have great lumber. One of the main attractions for pin oak is the giant size and the promise of a never-ending bunk of lumber comprised of super-wide boards. This, you may indeed have, but it comes at a cost. The cost is that all of the super-wide lumber will have super-wide growth rings, rings that may be up to 1/2″ or more in width. Because the tree grows so fast, putting on up to 1″ in diameter per year, the logs get big in a hurry too. It isn’t uncommon for a 36″ diameter log to have only started growing 45 years ago. It was planted because the trees grow to a large, stately appearance quickly, and that means big, wide growth rings.
Big growth rings mean a coarse textured wood, no matter how you cut it. Whether flatsawn or quartersawn, red oak is already known for its open, in-your-face, grain, and pin oak is ten times worse. Imagine an 8″ wide flat sawn board that may only show a couple of annual rings on the face. It looks more like the cheapest of spiral cut plywood for sheathing the side of your house, instead of quality hardwood lumber for building fine furniture. That same 8″ wide board, if quartersawn, will probably show about 20-25 rings, where a high quality white oak board will show 60-80 rings. The difference is night and day, with the higher growth ring count looking much more refined and not so clunky.
Even if the wood stayed together and for some reason the growth rings weren’t so wide, pin oak would still be far from a great hardwood. The lumber typically also sports bad color, bad smell (commonly referred to as “piss” oak by local tree guys), and many more knots than are outwardly apparent. Since the trees are usually open grown and well pruned, the always straight, always perfectly upright trunks appear to contain up to 30′-40′ of clear lumber. The truth is that the trunks typically contain only 8′ of clear lumber near the ground, with the remainder being full of knots from previously trimmed branches.
Overall, I have nothing good to say about pin oaks, except that they grow big, tall and straight. And, while it may be possible to mill pin oak lumber that meets some minimum requirements (like staying together), the best pin oak is still easily surpassed in quality by almost any other reputable wood. Just know, if you are thinking about paying someone to mill a pin oak tree for you, that I wouldn’t even mill a pin oak if it magically fell on my sawmill. I would take the extra time to get it out of the way, so I could mill something better. It’s just not worth it. Move on.
My sawmilling adventures began with an Alaskan chainsaw mill, which is just an attachment for a chainsaw to allow it to repeatedly cut a log lengthwise into lumber. It wasn’t anything fancy, and while it produced fine lumber, it was painfully slow to use. It didn’t take too many hours of me directly sucking in sawdust and fumes, while sweating my butt off, to start shopping for a more capable sawmill.
When I started my search, I considered bandsaws made by companies smaller than Wood-Mizer or TimberKing or Baker in a quest to also find smaller prices. While searching, I found several mills that looked suitable in the $5,000-$10,000 range, and I also came across a new “swing mill” from Australia called a Lucas mill.
The bandsaws looked to be a good choice as far as production went, but I didn’t have any way to move logs at the time, so the Lucas won out. It’s ability to easily break down and set up on site, while fitting in the bed of a pickup truck made it the clear choice, especially for larger logs. I say clear choice, but it wasn’t an easy choice. I didn’t like that the basic mill, fitted with a circular blade, was limited to 6″ or 8″ wide lumber without the optional slabbing bar attachment. And, my biggest fear was that this new mill from Australia, that I knew nothing about, might not be as good as it appeared in the videos.
Unfortunately, my fears were NOT immediately allayed. I went to pick up the more than $10,000 sawmill at the shipping terminal, and I couldn’t help but feel like I way overpaid for the amount of merchandise I picked up (Did I mentioned that it fits in the bed of my pickup truck?). There was only a sawhead, two long rails, and a few other miscellaneous metal parts that formed the frame ends. Besides that, the kit included a sharpener and some other odds and ends, but none of it added up to very much. I started doing the cost per piece arithmetic in my head, and it wasn’t looking good.
Regardless of my buyer’s remorse, I was tickled to have a “real” sawmill and set it up in my back yard the very first chance I got. After just a short time reviewing the directions, I had the sawmill set up and ready to cut. Even for someone who had never set one up, the Lucas went together fast. It was then that I realized what I had paid for. I didn’t pay for lots and lots of parts and extra bulk. I paid for an impressively designed machine, with an amazingly small stature, than can tackle the biggest logs. I paid for all of the research and design that went into the mill by the Lucas boys, and I paid to not lug around thousands of extra pounds, and I paid for everything to go together with minimal effort and a minimal number of steps. I got all of that and more.
From a design standpoint, I can confidently say that every part of the Lucas mill is well-planned and simplified beyond belief. The only mechanisms that I have ever had a problem with are the winches that raise and lower the ends of the long rails. They work perfectly fine and they are quite smooth, but they can be dangerous. When fully loaded with weight, it is possible to release the winch and lose control, resulting in a violently swinging handle that can smash your arm and allow the sawhead to come crashing down. I know from personal experience, as this has happened to me more than once, with the last instance leaving me at the hospital with a possible broken arm (luckily it was just a very bad contusion). If they were to ask, I would recommend that the winch system be built like the raising and lowering mechanism on my TimberKing 1220 manual mill, which magically is able to easily raise and lower the sawhead with complete control and without the possibility of having a disastrous crash. I have no idea how it works, but it smoothly operates the sawhead with a very heavy 15 hp electric motor attached to it like it isn’t there at all.
Now that you know to watch your arm and to be careful when lowering the sawhead on the Lucas mill, I can continue telling you how wonderful the Lucas mill is. First off, realize that I bought a Lucas mill in 1995, so I have been using one for about 2o years now, and I still use it on a regular basis. It is a very versatile machine that can handle big logs with ease. I often get asked how big of a log I can handle, and with the Lucas mill in my corner, I can just answer, “Yes.”
Currently, I use the 8″ model, which means that with the 21″ diameter circular blade attached it can produce up to 8″ x 8″ dimensional lumber. I rarely cut 8″ x 8″, but the mill can easily be adjusted to cut any dimensions under 8″. I often cut 1″ and 2″ thick lumber by 8″ wide.
The Lucas mill is called a “swing” mill because the blade can flip or swing with the pull of a lever from the horizontal to vertical position and right back again. The cool part is that both of the cuts line up with each other and work in concert to produce accurate and straight, completely edged lumber without a dedicated edger or any extra handling. In contrast, to edge lumber on a bandsaw mill requires flitches (lumber with bark edges) to be stood up in the mill and cut one or two more times to produce lumber with four square edges.
When cutting dimensional lumber I can easily work by myself making the vertical cut walking backward, then making the horizontal cut walking forward and finishing by sliding the cut board backward and out of the way. After a quick repositioning of the sawhead and a flip of the blade, I am back to cutting another piece of lumber. When cutting dimensional lumber like this I get in a rhythm–walk backward, flip blade, walk forward, slide board, move and flip blade, then repeat. The first cuts on the outside of the log are firewood, but after one pass across the top of the log and then dropping the mill to the next set of cuts, almost every pass produces an edged piece of lumber.
When I first got my Lucas mill I used it with the circular blade most of the time. Everything I produced was fully edged. Big slabs weren’t in style, so I didn’t even own a slabber, let alone use one. Now things are different. Live edges are in and so are big slabs, so the slabber is on the mill most of the time. The slabber is an attachment that turns the sawhead into a giant 2o hp chainsaw mill, with a maximum cut of 64″ wide.
I use the Lucas mill with the slabber attachment to cut all of my big logs that will produce slabs for table tops. With the slabber attachment the Lucas is not fast, but it can cut much wider than my bandsaw mill (maximum cut of 29″ wide), and it doesn’t make sporadic wavy cuts like the bandsaw mill. Knowing that I won’t get a miscut on a high-priced piece of wood gives me a great piece of mind.
These days when the slabbing attachment isn’t on the mill, the circular blade is, but not for milling lumber. I have been using it to flatten my kiln-dried slabs, and as long as the blade is sharp, it works great. After I move the slab into position, I just skim the surface with the mill to remove the high spots. Next, I flip the slab, drop the mill a bit and skim the other side. The end result is a perfectly flat slab, ready for final planing. The kids at Lucas sell planing and sanding attachments, but I haven’t used or purchased either one since I finish almost all of the slabs with the power hand planer or wide-belt sander.
Every time I use the Lucas mill, I am reminded how well it works, from quickly setting it up to making small adjustments, everything is simple. And, I know when I show customers how capable it is, they are impressed that such a lightweight, easy-to-setup mill can do so much.
Note: While Lucas is more than welcome to pay me to endorse their mills, as of now they do not. This was written for educational purposes and to let others know how my slabs are produced.
Through the years I have dulled a lot of bandsaw blades on my sawmill, and for the longest time, I have struggled with keeping them sharp. I have tried multiple tools and methods to get this done, but only within the last year do I feel like I have found a good solution.
The problem starts with the bandsaw blade itself. It is a finicky conglomeration of bent teeth, cut from a thin piece of flexible steel that is somehow supposed to cut a straight line, not only from front to back, but also side to side, and if it isn’t well machined and sharp, there isn’t a snowball’s chance that this is going to happen.
Early in my career, when a new saw blade dulled and started to cut waves, I would try things like adding tension to the blade, slowing down my feed rate or even adjusting my blade guides. No matter what I tried, a dull blade would still make a wavy cut. However, if I used the exact same setup but installed a new blade, the cut would be perfect again. As a matter of fact, almost every other adjustment could be less than perfect and a sharp blade would still make a good cut. From 15 years of experience, it is clear that I need to keep my saw blade sharp and touch nothing else.
My standard course of action is to put on a new or newly sharpened blade from Wood-Mizer when my cut starts getting wavy. This is a great way to live. Nothing cuts like a brand new blade, and it feels like a treat to put one on. Even the resharpened blades cut great since they get a complete factory treatment, including cleaning and full tooth grinding and setting. I have always had great results from Wood-Mizer, and I highly recommend their new blades and resharpening service. (Disclaimer: I am not being paid by Wood-Mizer and Wood-Mizer doesn’t know I’m writing this post – they probably don’t even know I exist.)
The problem for me was that time in between cutting like new and cutting like crap. I would have a blade that was cutting great, but I could feel it pulling hard and on the verge of cutting poorly. I didn’t want to pull it off of the saw because it was running so well, but at the same time I knew my time was limited. If I could just get an edge back, I could keep cutting with the same blade and not have to mess with sending the blade off to be sharpened, and I would save $7 (by the way, I think $7 is a great price for the quality of service, but I would rather not spend it if I don’t have to). So, off I went, looking for a way to sharpen blades on my own.
In the past, I tried using a manual sharpener that came with my first bandsaw mill. It functioned like it was designed to, but the results weren’t great. Besides having to take the blade off of the mill and set it up in the sharpener, it used a stone that wore down quickly and wouldn’t maintain a flat, consistent face on the tooth (looking back, I probably should have tried some other stone options, but I didn’t).
Later, I tried a few other approaches. The first was using my chainsaw grinder, like the one below, which had a similar problem to the first grinder. The small stones would wear down quickly and the thin bandsaw blade would basically cut the stones in half.
The next attempt used a sanding disc on a drill. I liked the idea of using sandpaper because it maintained a flat surface during grinding – it would wear down, but not change shape. This one showed potential, but it was incredibly hard to control because the spinning motion pulled the drill up and away from the blade.
I finally gave up, feeling like I had exhausted every option cheaper than buying a fully automatic grinder like the factory has, but I never gave up on the idea of sandpaper as a good abrasive that doesn’t change shape.
Up to that point, all of my attempts focused on sharpening the saw by grinding the front of the tooth. There was nothing else I could think of that would fit between the teeth and grind the front of them. But, then I thought about grinding the top of the teeth. This surface is easier to get to and taking material off of the top will still lead to a sharp point – it doesn’t really matter which face gets ground down.
I started off with my 3″ Porter-Cable belt sander just to try things out and it worked great. I could sand the top edge of the tooth with control and the speed was slow enough to not feel like I was burning the metal (which softens the teeth). The only problem was the weight of the belt sander, which might as well have been 1,000 lbs. because there was no way I could hold it to sharpen all of the teeth on the blade.
At the time I didn’t own a small belt sander, so I took a gamble and purchased a Porter-Cable 371 compact belt sander. I figured that even if it didn’t work for the blade sharpening I would at least have another tool in my woodworking arsenal and that there were going to be plenty of times when a small belt sander would come in handy. Finding other uses for the new sander hasn’t been much of an issue though, because it works great to sharpen blades, and it is always parked (plugged in) right next to my saw, ready for the next dull one to come along.
I simply leave the blade on the saw and grind just enough off of the top of each tooth to get the edge back. I use my free hand to steady the blade and to advance the saw to the next tooth. In a matter of just a few minutes I can be back to cutting, feeling like I have beat the system.
Now, there are limits to sharpening your saw like this. First off, no matter how good you get with the sander, the blade will not be as good as a new one or one that has had a full factory grind and set because this grinding is changing the geometry of the already finicky blade. And, it will do nothing to improve a blade that was just generally running badly or running badly for a specific reason like hitting a rock or metal (all of these problem blades get sent out for a full resharpening). It will, however, make a blade that was running well continue to run well and make flat, straight cuts for much longer.
Generally, it seems to work out that I touch up a blade with the sander a time or two and then send it out for full service or, for some of them, they keep working great and I keep sharpening them with the sander until they break. For all of the others, I hit something along the way (dirt, rocks, concrete, nails, hooks, cable, wire, screw-eyes, barbed wire, fence posts, screws, license plates, horseshoes, railroad spikes, chain, conduit, hangers) that either destroys the blade or dulls it enough that it needs a full regrind.
Even if I don’t use this method all of the time, it is nice to have another option to get back to cutting. If nothing else, I personally love the comfort of knowing that when I get down to my last new blade (and forgot for the second week in a row to order new ones) that I won’t be stuck cutting wavy lumber.
If you have driven down Highway 40 in St. Louis recently, you may have noticed a new structure being erected next to the St. Louis Science Center where the “temporary” Exploradome once stood. After 16 years in service, the inflated building was past its prime and too expensive to operate, so it was replaced with a new, permanent agriculture exhibit called Grow.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the new building that features massive bent laminated beams which create a beautiful swoosh of a roof. Just outside the entrance of the new building is a vermiculture display that I built for the exhibit. While it pales in comparison to the woodwork that went into making the building, I like to think it makes a nice little earth-friendly welcome mat for visitors.
The vermiculture unit, designed by Mark Cooley, uses worms to make compost. Built out of locally salvaged Eastern Red Cedar, the two-compartment structure is set up to have green waste loaded in the top and compost extracted from the bottom after the worms have done their job eating the contents. The two compartments, which are side by side, are divided by a wire mesh that allows the worms to move between compartments. This particular unit has glass panels to allow for viewing of the interior from the front of the display, though the glass is not required for use.
This project was a bit out of the norm for me since it was more carpentry than fine woodworking, but it was a fun change to build something that wasn’t so fussy. I had the most fun when I was able to find some logs in my shop already standing against the wall for the project. They were left over from another project, and I was able to just carry them to the sawmill and cut the parts I needed. I chuckled to myself while I was doing it because I have never just hand carried logs to the sawmill that were standing in the shop like sticks of lumber. It was only possible because cedar is lightweight and the logs were small, but I still had more than enough to make this project.
Cedar mills like butter on the sawmill, even when dry, and since it was going outside I didn’t need to do any extra drying. I was able to mill it, plane it and assemble it right away, which made it feel more like I was building a fort or a treehouse, especially since I never get to knock something out like that. It reminded me a lot of the Mermaid Lagoon sign I made for Mira a few years ago, since both went together expeditiously. There were a few critical measurements to maintain, like the size of the footprint, but everything else was somewhat negotiable as long as it looked and worked like Mark Cooley’s design.
The vermiculture unit is nestled in the Grow exhibit along a mulch path surrounded by plantings that are arranged like a garden or small farm field. Nearby are live chickens, two new tractors, a greenhouse and a dairy demonstration area. Inside the building are electronic, hands-on displays that focus more on the places that generate food, from the species of plants to different farm settings. Outside, on the North side of the building, are a couple of displays that focus on water, with a chance for the kids to interact with displays that are both hands-on and hands-wet.
The St. Louis Science Center and the new Grow exhibit are free to all visitors. It opens Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The Science Center closes at 5:30 p.m. during peak summer hours (May 28-Sep. 5, 2016) and at 4:30 p.m. during off-peak hours.
In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.
In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding. It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.
Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.
As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.
I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.
Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.
Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.
One of the first things I needed to figure out when I started cutting rough lumber on a sawmill was what thickness to make it. I could generally determine if I wanted it to be thick or thin, but just how thick or thin? 4/4 lumber is 1″ thick, so it should be rough cut at 1″ thick, right? Not exactly. For hardwoods, the commercial target for 4/4 lumber is actually 1-1/8″, which allows enough margin to produce dried and planed lumber at a thickness of 13/16″ or 3/4″ (3/4″ is acceptable, but the extra 1/16″ of thickness in 13/16″ material allows room for additional planing or sanding after panels or doors are glued up).
The crazy thing is that back then I couldn’t find solid information on lumber thicknesses anywhere and when I referred to the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) guide, the thicknesses didn’t match up with what I was finding from hardwood producers. The NHLA guide doesn’t include the bonus 1/8″ of thickness – 4/4 lumber, for example, is specified at a minimum of 1″.
In my experience, 4/4 hardwood lumber cut at 1″ is too thin to consistently produce flattened and planed lumber at 13/16″ thick and will even have trouble producing 3/4″ thick unless the boards are very flat. The only way 1″ thick rough-cut hardwood lumber can plane out completely to 13/16″ or 3/4″ thick is to skip the flattening and just plane the lumber. This will produce thicker finished lumber, but it won’t be flat and straight since the planer will simply follow the curves of any crooked boards. From a woodworkers perspective this is a horrible practice and makes woodworking much more difficult. For this reason, I cut my 4/4 hardwood lumber like all other quality producers at 1-1/8″ thick and don’t accept anything from other sawmills or wholesalers at 1″ thick.
Starting with the lumber measurement and adding 1/8″ for the final thickness is how all of the hardwood measurements go, with a target for 4/4 lumber at 1-1/8″, 5/4 lumber at 1-3/8″, 6/4 at 1-5/8″ and 8/4 at 2-1/8″. These are the commercially accepted numbers, and except for 8/4 lumber the ones that I shoot for. The problem with 8/4 lumber is that since there is more wood it shrinks more than thinner lumber and 2-1/8″ thick just isn’t enough thickness to flatten and plane lumber to consistently finish at 1-3/4″, which is the target for 8/4 lumber. When I flatten and plane batches of 8/4 lumber milled at 2-1/8″ thick it isn’t uncommon for half of the lumber to finish at 1-5/8″ thick instead of 1-3/4″.
Because I think 2-1/8″ is a little thin, I commonly cut 8/4 lumber at 2-3/8″ thick. 2-3/8″ thick is twice that of 4/4 lumber, plus the 1/8″ saw kerf that would have been between the two imaginary cuts. The extra thickness not only impresses the ladies, but it assures a final dried and planed thickness of at least 1-3/4″ and officially uses no extra wood when compared to cutting 4/4 lumber (to keep things simple, a friend of mine simply calls it “double four quarter” lumber). As I mentioned though, 8/4 is commercially sawn at 2-1/8″ thick, so if you cut it at that measurement it isn’t wrong, 2-3/8″ is just better for the end user (none of my customers have ever been upset that the wood is a little thicker).
The previous examples were for hardwoods, but softwoods, like white pine, can be cut thinner since they shrink less and dry straighter overall, plus softwoods are commonly used for construction purposes instead of furniture, which don’t need the extra thickness for secondary planing or sanding, so 3/4″ final thickness is common for 4/4 softwood lumber. For 4/4 white pine for example, I cut 1″ thick, which will finish at 3/4″. And, for cedar, which shrinks very little and is very straight and stable, I will go even thinner, down to 7/8″. In general though, softwoods are cut on the standard quarter scale with 4/4 lumber measuring 1″.
The scale below shows the target hardwood lumber thicknesses for commercially produced, rough-cut lumber and their planed thickness counterparts. These are the sizes you should expect to find when shopping for hardwoods.
Hardwood Lumber Measurements
Quarter-scale measurement Rough cut thickness Planed thickness
4/4 1-1/8″ 13/16″
5/4 1-3/8″ 1-1/16″
6/4 1-5/8″ 1-1/4″
8/4 2-1/8″ (or 2-3/8″*) 1-3/4″
*2-3/8″ is a better thickness to consistently finish at 1-3/4″ thick, but 2-1/8″ is the norm.