Limber Lumber

When designing a project, there are a number of competing interests. Client wishes, cost, regulations, and creative style all influence the end product.

On-site sawmills are an economical and efficient way to make use of local timber. Courtesy Of Pony Boy Gilbert, Long Tom Custom Sawmill

Many projects today include a requirement for environmental performance, whether due to a regulation or a client request, and it’s often assumed that this equates to higher costs.

However, when it comes to using wood, there is an opportunity for a project to perform both environmentally and economically. This stems from the use of wood sources milled nearby, or in many cases, on-site, using a portable band-saw mill equipped with a thin kerf blade.

There is growing awareness among architects, cities, and even state organizations of utilizing wood processed in this way.

Truly Local Lumber

Most modern kerf band-saw mills are portable and built as a wheeled trailer. An operator can position a mill at the log yard for general duty, and if a project demands, simply tow the trailer to the site and begin milling within 30 minutes of set-up time.

This versatility allows on-site trees to be utilized, as opposed to transporting them.

Numerous outdoor projects use “green” lumber that has not been dried or seasoned. However, there are numerous occasions when a project will call for dried lumber, which is achieved through the use of a wood-drying kiln.

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Many sawyers own and operate kilns, and for specific projects kilns can be set up on-site to dry the wood, reducing the potential for warping and checking (cracking) for more precise uses.

Kerf Technology

Kerf is the width of cut a blade makes as it passes through material, branding it an efficient way to mill wood. Low-cost chainsaw mills typically consume one-half inch of wood with each pass.

Traditional circle-saw mills and high-production conventional mills typically have kerfs a quarter of an inch or greater. Thin kerf saws remove as little as one-tenth of an inch per cut to produce smooth, consistent, accurate lumber with less of a log wasted as sawdust.

The benefits aren’t theoretical. When making basic slabs, Art Blumenkron, owner of Goby Walnut & Western Hardwoods in Portland, Ore., says, “I recover two additional slabs for every eight passes I make. I save close to 3/8” of wood over a chainsaw mill, and I can hold much tighter tolerance, which means less waste when I flatten the wood.”

This approach increases yield from material available, and when the lumber is used for a project on-site, maximizes cost savings with as much as 30 percent more lumber made from each log.

The environmental benefits from producing wood needed for a project near or on-site are maximized as well, displacing the need to harvest, transport, mill, and distribute lumber long distances.

A wood shelter rises up from the trees around it. Courtesy Of David and Teresa Weyler, Little Kentucky River Winery

Most green-certification systems award project points both for use of a renewable resource and for using a locally sourced product, potentially helping a project achieve a higher certification level than may otherwise be possible.

Custom Dimension Lumber From Portable Band-Saw Mills

For an architect, one of the most useful features may be the ability to cut wood to nearly any dimension and length desired. For example, if a client requests an outdoor pergola or gathering area with large beams, in addition to a lengthy lead time, the materials would be cost-prohibitive for most project budgets.

However, because a band-saw mill is adjustable, large-scale or custom dimension beams can be made as easily as dimensional lumber.

Unique And Specialty Wood Species Can Be Obtained

While off-the-shelf, common-species lumber is available almost anywhere, local portable sawyers often have a selection that is difficult or impossible to obtain from traditional sources.

Wood can be sourced directly from the project site, storm blow-down, or urban woodland removed of necessity, diverting it from the waste stream.

Less-common species will be available from a specific region. For example, Pacific Coast Lumber in San Luis Obispo, Calif., offers Walnut, Acacia, Ash, Sycamore, Oak, Red Gum, Elm, English Walnut, Cypress, and old-growth Redwood.

Local Source Forest Products of Northwest Washington specializes in helicopter-recovered old-growth Cedar and Douglas Fir.

North Florida Portable Sawmill near Jacksonville specializes in recovered old-growth Cypress, and also offers Pecan, Laurel, Hickory, Cherry, Cedar, Oak, Maple, and Pine.

Because of the versatility of portable band-saw mills, there is the opportunity for specialized milling methods that result in beautiful wood products. Local Source often “quarter saws” its old-growth material.

Quarter-sawing orients the grain in parallel lines along the length of the board, aligning the dense grain to the best visual advantage and producing a board that warps less with changes in humidity.

Put Into Practice

When the Eugene Water and Electric Board was expanding recreational opportunities at Lloyd Knox Park, members wanted the Visitor Center to contain a green element. Part of the green requirement for construction was to utilize the removed trees as a project component.

The contractor, based in Veneta, Ore., didn’t have experience in utilizing on-site trees, but had noticed a local truck bearing the company name “Long Tom Sawmill” in big, bold letters.

The milling company, named for the nearby Long Tom River, and owned and operated by Pony Boy Gilbert, was formed after Gilbert observed that too many old or damaged logs went to waste during construction.

The Native American-owned and -operated company has a diverse project portfolio that includes ongoing work with the University of Oregon’s Sustainability Department. University officials call on Long Tom Sawmill when trees or large tree parts are removed from the campus due to storm damage, disease, or hazard potential.

The material is milled into lumber used by students in the Project Design Department to craft furniture and other campus products.

A Pacific Northwest-style timber-frame structure required numerous large beams, which are typically cost-prohibitive. Because there were not enough logs to produce all of the timbers, balance was obtained from traditional sources. As a result, a higher-quality structure (that would have compromised the budget had crews ordered the materials) was fashioned.

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture recently released an important study, asserting that “Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design. The use of wood provides substantial environmental benefits.”

By utilizing truly local wood processed in a highly efficient manner, the project can perform both environmentally and economically.

Clayton Petree and his father Jack own Public Policy Perspectives in Bellingham, Wash. Both are dedicated to exploring practical approaches to environmental issues that businesses can adopt to be both environmentally sensitive and profitable. The two have written more than 2,500 articles for regional, national, and international publications. Clayton can be reached at 360-733-1303 and