Portable Sawmills - What Should You Buy?

Quick Guide to Buying a Portable Mill

Dave Boyt on Portable Sawmill
Dave Boyt on Portable Sawmill. Dave Boyt Image, Used by Permission

Portable sawmill manufacturers are thriving in today's economy. There are nearly 80 brands of mills represented and sold in the United States and Canada. There are over 200 companies producing components and accessories. Do-it-yourself sawmills are attracting more and more people - and people have a real penchant for cutting their own trees or finding salvage trees and sawing lumber from them.

The timber owner who wants to saw his or her own lumber for personal use can purchase from a large list of portable mills.

Also people who want to saw commercially, both part time and full time, are buying mills by the thousands. Every potential buyer has a unique set of specifications that will determine how much of a mill is needed and what type of a mill should be purchased. These specs influence both the price, the accessories, and design of the sawmill.

Daily users need a different mill than a person sawing part time or in his private forest. A mill that provides an income should be of a different quality with different specifications than a weekend mill used to saw personal lumber. Sawmilling is physically demanding and the right machine should should be purchased that will give some advantage to the inevitable stress and strain on the machine and the user.

I have compiled a current list of helpful sites including sawmill dealers, service companies, sawmill magazines and much more. Please include this sawmill reference page as a first place to start in finding the "just right" portable sawmill.

So what should you look for in a mill?

What Will You Cut?

You always should determine the log size and product you want to cut before selecting a mill! A mismatch of mill to log and/or products can cause you much aggravation and can wind up costing you money and wasted raw material.

The log diameter and length of the average tree you intend to use should determine the size of mill you purchase.

A mill designed for large logs just may not handle small logs the way you want. The expense of a larger mill may be more than you need to pay. On the other hand, a mill too small can be easily damaged by large logs and will waste both your time and valuable wood. Mismatched mills can also be very dangerous.

The products and tree species that you want to cut also need to be considered when choosing a sawmill. The importance of the amount of wood lost to sawdust (kerf) increases with the value of the wood you intend to cut. Chainsaw mills generally have a kerf of about .40 inches; circular sawmills have a kerf that ranges from .20 to .30 inches; bandmills have the smallest kerf of between .06 to.12 inches.

Size of Operation

Total mill production should be a major determining factor for the kind of sawmill you purchase. A hobby sawyer does not need a mill that is capable of producing 20,000 board feet per day, seven days a week.

An income producing mill has to have production capacity capability as well as durability. In most cases you would use a circular saw rig for production efficiency. Band mills are "kerf" (loss of wood to sawdust with each pass) efficient and cut out as much as 20% more wood than circular saws.

However, all but the most expensive band mills are slow producers and should be avoided if production is important.

You have to remember that the price you pay for a mill is in direct proportion to the production of the mill. Most portable sawmill manufacturers are quite frank about the production realities of their mills. Some manufacturers will give you the names of some of their customers for you to talk with. You definitely need to talk to other users!

Generally, the less expensive the mill, the lower the production. New portable sawmills range in price from less than $4,000.00 to over $80,000.00 depending on the amount of production you need.

Hydraulics

Hydraulics make sawing easier and faster. That's a simple fact.

But they can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a sawmill. To some people, hydraulics are absolutely necessary because they minimize log handling time which increases production and they also take the back-breaking work out of sawing. Hydraulics can reduce manual labor, the need for extra equipment, and maybe even money.

It comes down to buying a mill with hydraulic loading arms as compared to running a front-end loader; employing hydraulic turners vs. using cant hooks; Running hydraulic or motorized feed-works vs. manually pushing the saw. The degree of mechanization is a major issue when sizing up a mill.

 

Accessories

Most portable sawmills come with some accessories. However, you will be tempted with the trailer package, with extra bands or bits and shanks, with sharpening systems, with a sawyer's seat - you get the picture. These accessories can add major costs to the sawmill. Many times they are necessary but some times they are not, depending on your type of operation.

An automatic sharpener/setter system for band blades normally costs a couple of thousand dollars. Some sawyers find that sharpening their own blades is the most cost effective way to operate; some send their blades to a sharpening service (roughly $6.00-$8.00 per blade including shipping costs); some people simply dispose of their blades after 4 or 5 hours of usage.

Your production requirements will determine which of the three options is the best for you.

 

Buying a Band Mill

Band mills are very popular and lead in portable mill sales. Here is what Sawmill Exchange suggests are the choices and price ranges on popular band mills:

  • Manual: The least expensive. They have no labor-saving hydraulic features which increase the amount of work you must do. New models with a trailer package generally cost between $4,000.00 and $9,000.00.
  • Power Feed: The blade is mechanically powered into the cut, but you must load and turn the logs manually. New models with a trailer package generally cost between $9,000.00 to $14,000.00
  • Fully Hydraulic: This category of portable sawmills features the most labor-saving devices that minimize the workload and maximize production. The more expensive models normally have larger power units and other accessories designed for higher daily production. New models with a trailer package generally cost between $16,000.00 and $32,000.00.
  • High Production: These mills are designed for professionals and normally require a higher level of expertise. They offer specialized features designed for higher production sawing, such as high-powered engines, wider bands, and more productive log and lumber handling equipment. New models with a trailer package generally cost between $35,000.00 to over $100,000.00.

Thanks to Sawmill Exchange for much of the information provided in this feature. Linking to any commercial site should not be considered an endorsement.