Day 10994 - Big Ben and the Thomas Sawmill

I have been a horrible blogger. In the hustle and bustle of activity, I have stopped writing. For anyone wanting to blog, I recommend making writing part of your routine. For me, the writing process helps me digest everything I've done, and allows me to think about accomplishments in a different way. With this fresh perspective I become a better decision maker, and paths to reach personal goals are clarified.

The next few posts will all center on specific accomplishments, and I'd like to shift my writing style to that, by focusing on places, projects or events, instead of jumping around like I have been. While this is chronologically accurate, and shows the realism of finding time and energy to work, I think it's a bit harder to follow.

The first story, told in hindsight after many months, is of Big Ben and the Thomas Sawmill. Last year my friend Gavin had me come over and help him clear a few small trees, then dice them up for firewood. This was a good amateur chainsaw operator project. While cutting the trees, I was enamored by the massive Great White Pine in Gavin's backyard. The tree was enormous; splitting into four major branches, each the size of your typical central NH tree. I told Gavin that if he ever wanted some cash, to let me know, because I would take the tree down and turn it into a barn. Gavin, being the nature lover he is, politely refused. He had named it Big Ben and it was a proud feature of his backyard.

Several months later, a strong squall line blew through, taking many trees down. One victim of this storm was Big Ben; two of the four massive branches fell in the storm. Gavin called me, asking if I could help him clean up the mess made by the big branches. Travis and I set to work cleaning up small branches to assess the trees, and found a pair of poor man's ship's masts. There were a few small crooks in the wood, and they had broken in several spots from the impact, but we were looking at a lot of healthy lumber.

Gavin wanted live-edge slabs for tables, and a cleaner back yard. I wanted beams for barns. I called my dad for a sanity check, rattling off dimensions of the logs, and asked if it was time to buy a sawmill. His reply; "Son, it's time." Knowing that both Gavin and I stood to gain from this deal, I loosened the purse-strings and turned to craigslist. I found a reasonably priced Quebec-made PTO chipper for the Ford 1700 to mince up the smaller branches. The chipper did this admirably. We found that it would cut green pine limbs the size of your thigh, and dead pieces the size of your arm.

While we chipped away at the branches, literally, I called Thomas Bandsaw Mills in Brooks, Maine and ordered a Mill. Reviews I had read online said they were solid and simple, the 6013 model (now known as a "2413") hadn't changed in 20 years, and I found that the prices the used mills commanded on craigslist were the same as the price new. Wanting something I could tow around and set up anywhere, I ordered the 6013 with a reinforced track and trailer kit. It would be ready for pickup in three weeks.

With the 1700, a chain, and some logging tongs I readied the knotted tops of the trees for my first attempts at milling. At home I watched youtube videos for good techniques to avoid wasted time and wasted material. By the time I got down to the sturdy bases of these branches, I wanted to be somewhat proficient.

Watch out for the Robin's nest while skidding logs!

At the end of June, the Mill was ready for pickup, and Gavin towed it into a clearing in the woods with his Kubota, meandering around trees. We left the axle on for the first few logs, leveling the track using the yellow struts, a farm jack, and the tractor's bucket.

The first few logs could be picked up with the tractor, and driven on.

Once the logs were dogged, we could begin passes with the mill. Some sources online said the bark would dull the sawblades faster, but given how cheap it is to get blades sharpened, I elected to save the time that would have been spent debarking and convert it to higher operating costs for less time.

The first two cuts are made to make a clean 90' angle out of the log. I cut down in 1" or 2" increments, so that any boards cut during this process could be resawn later, reducing waste.

After the 90' cuts, the log can be secured with the small hooks in the bunks, and the dogs set low, so the mill can go all the way down to 1". here is a 6x6, 2x6, 2x4 and 4x6.

The sawmill's field site. Logs get loaded on the sawmill trailer's "left side" and the mill's tower is walked backwards through the log by the operator on the left side. The pallet has tools, oil and fuel for the mill, chainsaw and equipment. One day I'll make forks for my tractor so that's easier to move, and logs are easier to load.

Our first products! The stakes separating the lumber for drying are a natural result of edging boards, and cutting a timber from the log. The live-edge slabs were "three man" lifts, and a fourth would have been nicer! Heavy!

As we went down the tree, taking logs from top to bottom, the tractor couldn't lift the progressively heavier logs. To facilitate loading, we took the mill off its axle, bringing it as close to the ground as possible. Using nylon straps with loops on both ends, as well as the chain on the bucket's hooks, we could lift the log evenly and position it where we wanted it. Final adjustments were made with a farm jack, or a 2x4 lever and some patience. One of the great things about having the mill, and a chainsaw, is the ability to make whatever wood tool you need for positioning logs!

This 16' behemoth, 30" across, barely fit on the mill, barely fit under the tower, and the tractor was barely able to load it by pushing alternating sides. A pair of purpose-built loading ramps would be useful.

This piece yielded six 16' 6x6 posts.

Maintenance on the mill was easy enough, although it did have the "expected" unexpected growing pains and a few learning experiences. Letting off the forward pressure with the blade turning through a log is a good way of pulling the blade off the wheels. The two adjustment guide rollers on the bottom of the tower, that are left and right of the blade passing through the log, have nylon bushings that wear, loosen, and turn, jamming and ruining blades. Above, Travis mounts a fresh blade on the mill.

This was my overnight fix for the jammed guide bushing. I cut two pieces out of nylon sheet, glued them together, then sanded the new bushing to fit the curve of the steel angle. A single countersunk screw, which had deformed, holds the bushing in. Eventually I'll replace the left-side bushing with this design, but it is holding up better than this right-side bushing did. The challenge with this was making it fit right when the bearing gets installed again (notice the top layer of nylon was trimmed back in the third photo.)

With the logs finished, the mill was set back on it's axle for the trip home.

And the lumber was loaded on the parent's trailer for the trip up to the north country. If only I had a deckover trailer and some bucket forks...

Up north, a nice dry site was mowed for the stack of lumber to slowly air dry, and with the help of my mum and grandfather, we unloaded the trailer, and stacked everything by size next to the bus.

All told, Gavin, Travis and I were able to mill more than 1200 boardfeet of lumber, over five days of milling, out of the half of Big Ben that came down in the windstorm. These beams will undoubtedly be used in construction of a home up North, and have sentimental value knowing they came from my friend's land. How cool would it be to visit you friend's house, and point to wood that came from your own land?