Tools for Possibilities: issue no. 5

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Portable, precise lumber cutter
Alaskan Chainsaw Mill

To cut your own boards from a felled tree, you need either an expensive bandsaw mill, circular saw or a bad-ass chainsaw and a bracket to hold the chainsaw parallel to some reference surface. The Alaskan mill attaches to the saw’s chain bar and keeps the chainsaw in line with a flat surface, allowing you to cut slabs as thin as ½ inch thick. The Alaskan is easy to set up. There is really only one way the saw can fit into the mill. Then, you adjust the two posts on either end to the desired clearance (make sure both posts read the same distance). To make sure your first cut is straight, you use a slabbing bracket; I used the aluminum slabbing rails made by Granberg. Then, you just adjust the clearance to the width of your slab and use the surface of the previous cut to guide the next cut, and the next, and so forth.

After moving into a new house in a wooded area, I realized a dead, 100-foot Red Oak was just 50 feet from the house. Following a few spells of high winds, I knew it was just a matter of time before it might give out, so I hired a local arborist who methodically cut off the upper part of the tree (a 20-ft. section), then worked his way down, cutting more of the tree into 8-ft sections. We had a nice surprise when we finished: the wood looked to be in great shape and seemed like it might make nice flooring. But I soon discovered the professional sawmills near us won’t touch a log less than 9 feet long. Instead of hiring someone with a sawmill to come to my property, I decided to get my own rig.

There are three different kinds of sawmills: circular saw, bandsaw, and chainsaw. I looked at the Lucas Swing blade, several different bandsaw mills and other chainsaw mills. If you have plenty of space and lots of money, Timberking makes some good mills. Most bandsaw mills and circular saws are portable in the sense you can hook them up to your pickup truck and tow them to the site, but they are not portable in the sense you can pick them up and haul them down the hill and through the woods. My number one consideration for the mill was that I should be able to take the saw to the log since I didn’t think I could take the log to the saw. One thing to consider about a chainsaw mill is that it wastes a lot of wood. If you’re going to build a fixed installation, a bandsaw or circular saw is the way to go. As I’ve learned, though, Red Oak is *heavy*, especially when it is wet. Getting the log to the rig wasn’t an option, so I went with a chainsaw mill. I chose the Husqvarna 385XP saw with a 28-inch bar, along with a 30-inch Alaskan mill. That means the mill can be adjusted to fit any bar up to its maximum size, in this case 30 inches. You can install basically any size bar into a chainsaw. I chose 28 inches since it would be big enough to work with any of my logs (my largest log was about 20 inches in diameter).

What’s impressed me about the Alaskan mill is its simplicity, sturdiness and the geometry of the bracket. The bracket on the mill allows the user to keep the mill flat against the log. With other mills, like the more expensive Logosol system for instance, you attach a bracket to either end of the log and use it to index down through the log. This is probably a better system for indexing, but seems like a lot more work; plus the Logosol also supports the chainsaw only from one end. The Alaskan bracket provides support at both ends of the bar, and it comes in a size as short as 24 inches and as big as 56 inches. Granberg also makes a kit with a bar to allow you to attach *two* 385 power heads to the saw. They also offer an oiler kit to increase the amount of oil on the chain, and they manufacture special ripping chains that make cleaner cuts (I used one). I read one guy’s review where he said you needed three sharp chains before starting a days worth of cutting. Maybe that’s about right; I could never last more that one sharp chain worth of work before petering out. Some reviewers have mentioned the effort that goes into sharpening the chains makes a chainsaw mill unacceptable. I didn’t really find it to be onerous. Since the Alaskan mill is basically the same size as the saw, storage isn’t an issue. I just leave the saw mounted in the mill. (NOTE: I learned the hard way, that it is important to store the saw upright. When I stored the saw on its side one time, the next time I used the saw, it took me about 5 hours to get the saw started.)

A few things to remember about chainsaw mills: This is hard work and the going is slow. On my best day, I only managed to finish two logs. Had I been cutting 1- inch boards (instead of 2-inch ones), this would have been much slower. Admittedly, though, my wood was Oak; maybe, just maybe, pine is easier. Also, the saw vibrates a lot. I exchanged my saw’s plastic handle for a foam grip, which helped some. Lastly, while the Alaskan rig makes the saw safer, you can never forget there is a lethal weapon in your hands. Although I’ve given up on the flooring idea, I still have all this good lumber which I’ll certainly use for a woodworking project. – Jack Tomlinson
Locate metal before woodcutting
Lumber Wizard, $149

With the price of lumber going up all the time, I’m recycling wood more than ever. But I ruined a blade on my circular saw after hitting an old nail I’d missed when cleaning the wood (my eyes ain’t what they used to be). The Lumber Wizard is a lot less expensive than those security metal detectors, and it’s saved my new blade a couple times. It takes less than a minute to check a big sheet of ply. If it finds something and I still can’t see it, I use the Little Wizard (when I purchased my Lumber Wizard, this came bundled with it).

I guess you could just use the Little Wizard to scan lumber, but it would take longer since it only covers a few square inches at a time. The bigger Lumber Wizard covers about a 6″ x 6″ area, so sweeping it over a big ply or 2 x 4 goes pretty darn quick (for thicker wood, I usually flip over the lumber and scan both sides just to be sure). The battery life is pretty good, too. I went three months on a single nine-volt battery, using it several times a day, three to four days a week. The Lumber Wizard also has a vibrate setting, which is helpful if other machines are going in the shop, since my hearing ain’t what it used to be. – Robert Palembas
Chainsaw protection
Husqvarna Helmet, $42

I’ve been using chainsaws for many years. Over the decades I have probably owned 5 or 6 different ones. In the 1960s and ‘70sI used chainsaws extensively, cutting up redwood (from the beaches or windfallen trees in the woods) into bolts, and which I then split into shakes for roofs and siding. These days I use a Stihl Woodboss MS270, 24” bar for firewood. Every year I find wind-felled oak on country roads, haul it home, cut it into stove-size lengths, then rent a splitter for a day and stockpile a year’s or more worth of firewood. Point is, I’ve had a lot of chainsaw experience.

The other day I was sawing through a piece of wood on the woodpile and as I finished the cut, the blade hit a log below it and snapped back towards my face. It sent a chill of adrenaline that I somehow felt in my ears. Very scary.

BUT I was wearing my Husqvarna helmet, which combines skull protection, ear guards, and a metal mesh facemask. I’ve only been using the helmet the last few years, prompted by a log rolling down the hill and knocking me down. I felt then I should have had one of these helmets all along. Good thing. This time the blade didn’t reach my face, but if it had, the mask would have blocked it from carving up my flesh.

I urge you chainsaw users: get one of these. $40 or so. Play it safe, please. The more hours you’ve operated chainsaws, the more the chance of a freak accident. Experience doesn’t make you invulnerable. – Lloyd Kahn

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