4 Things We Learned Milling Our Own Lumber with our Homemade Chainsaw Mill

We’re green behind the ears and are starting our off grid homestead. One of the things which excites us about this lifestyle is the opportunity to explore alternative projects. When planning our homestead we’d done a ton of research on milling your own lumber, whether to build a DIY homemade chainsaw mill, using a homemade chainsaw mill and getting to try it out for the first time was both scary and exciting. Here are a few things we learned right out of the gate with our very first homemade chainsaw milling sessions

Pick the right tress to fit your homemade chainsaw mill

Every chainsaw mill design out there is a little different. Our DIY homemade Alaskan mill was designed to fit our Stihl MS660 92cc chainsaw with a 36” bar. That means its pretty large, but so is the saw. We weren’t sure we’d invest in a commercial mill as we didn’t really know what was involved in milling you own lumber and whether it was a worthwhile venture. We needed a mill faster than we could get one delivered because our projects were ready to go now, not in 3 weeks. So we set up our mill to fit the 36” bar we had. With our DIY mill we can cut up to 28” wide cants. So while our bar is much longer, we had to carefully pick our trees.

Measuring trees to ensure they are small enough for our DIY homemade Alaskan chainsaw mill
We measured trees at the waist and butt to ensure they will fit our DIY Alaskan chainsaw mill later when we mill our own lumber

When cruising our timber, one reason we chose this land for our homestead, taking inventory we measured each tree at the butt to ensure it wasn’t oversized for our mill. We carefully chose trees that would narrowly fit based on the widest diameter near the base of the tree. Though we didn’t mill up the butts of the trees yet we know that when we get to them we won’t suddenly have new problems with them not fitting our mill. It’s tempting to go after large trees just because there is a ton of board feet in them, but you need to consider the limits of your sawmill and whether you’ll be able to get all that lumber or beams you want without wasting a perfectly good log.

We have a new mill on hand that is a Granberg mini mill that will help us cut larger trees as it’s designed to cut the sides of a log without rotating it. This will help us cut larger trees down so that our saw is able to fit while also producing instantly useable beams and cants. We’ll do a post on this mill and lessons we’ve learned with it once we have a chance to give it a test drive.

Don’t fall tress where you can’t get to them with your chainsaw mill or a winch

After having great success milling our first two trees we fell a healthy looking pine tree but based on the lean we were worried it might fall in the wrong direction. We decided to go with the lean and fall it where it naturally wanted to go. This mean falling it on the side of a hill. Safety was the first concern. To add insult to injury based on it’s lay we had a very difficult time using our ATV to winch the sections after cut to a flat place where we could mill them.

Winching logs into place for milling lumber with our chainsaw mill
Using our 2500lb atv winch to pull logs into place for milling with our Alaskan chainsaw mill. This thing is awesome, and our backs are thankful too!

The lesson learned here is you’ll either need a more sophisticated skidding or winching system to extract the log sections or find a way to mill the log on the hillside. In our case for the first section we decided to mill it on the hillside. This proved to be very difficult and dangerous. Often while milling the log would move or want to roll just from the forces being applied to it by the milling. It all ended well with the log in good clean slabs and no one injured.

We did however break the racking system on our quad. It wasn’t obvious that only a single weld was holding it together to the main frame. This weld snapped during winching. I’m glad we found this out then and not at a more critical time. A local repair shop has fixed the problem and properly attached the rack and we have also located a snatch block which will help us winch from a more secure location as well as take advantage of the full winching power of our 2500lb atv winch.

This has me rethinking which trees to harvest going forward and if I choose to harvest on a hillside I’m going to have to come with a more robust extraction plan as milling on a hillside is just plain risky.

If you’re going to mill lumber, use the top sections, not the clear butt ends

When grading your trees and which sections to use for what you’ll want to look for knots, twist, sap pockets, burns and other flaws. These can have a severe negative impact on the strength of the wood in that area and may make it unusable for a specific component such as a beam or cant.

The first two trees we harvested were red fir or Douglas fir. They are somewhere around 80-100 years old and have self pruned in the lower 2/3 of the tree. The upper crown still has many branches. Where you find branches you’ll want to most likely use for lumber or smaller posts and beams. Where the wood gets clear, is free of branches and other weak spots, is premium wood and perfect for the most rigid and strong beams and posts. We have only yet milled the top sections of both of these trees and they have been milled into lumber.

DIY Homemade chainsaw cutting the top of trees
We milled the top of two Red Fir (Douglas Fir) trees and got enough slabs to make 46 2×6 boards

Our DIY Alaskan mill did perfect cutting an 8 foot tree section 18” in diameter in about 10 minutes per slab. It takes about an hour to cut 5 slabs between fueling up and adding bar oil. We’re cutting 1.75” thick slabs with live edge. With the chainsaw thickness of .5” this brings your total cut to about 2.25”. Out of an 18” log you’ll get about 6 slabs. Your last cut will often be the largest unusable part as it will have a weird shape and can at most be milled into a bench or short post.

We’ve been cutting the slabs into dimension lumber using a skilsaw, chalkline and table saw. All said and done the tops of the two fir trees produced 6 section 8 feet each. In total using every last inch of lumber we produced around 46 2×6 boards. These because the frame and platform for our DIY hot tub deck. Our total cost to produce all of this lumber including the fuel, bar oil, chainsaw chains and sharpening is about $50. The value of the lumber is somewhere around $250. It’s not a massive savings, but the pure satisfaction of making your own lumber is priceless.

Hot tub deck built from lumber made with our homemade Alaskan chainsaw mill
Here is the framework for our hot tub deck! Not bad for a few solid days of work. Made entirely from wood milled with our diy homemade Alaskan chainsaw mill

Bucking stands increase safety and reduce fatigue when using a chainsaw mill

Using an Alaskan sawmill puts your body in a very unique position where you are very low to the ground so as to get proper force on the mill. The size of the powerhead on your chainsaw may also be an issue on smaller logs as it can drag on the ground or in the twigs and shrubs. This can be exhausting. The solution we’ve found is making bucking stands to get your log sections up out of the dirt, aid in ergonomics while milling and reduce fatigue.

diy alaskan chainsaw mill using bucking stands
Having bucking stands helps get the log off the ground and improves ergonomics for easier and safer milling

We use a small log section that we find laying around. You could also make one from a tree crown that might not be super usable for anything else. Simply cut a deep ‘V’ in the middle and law them about 2/3 of the length of your log section apart. You can even do this right where the log section lay so no need to move the section far. We did like to try to move the sections in to a more clear, flat and easy to access are, but some sections are too large to move far so you’ll have to mill them as is where is.

The difference in fatigue and frustration with bucking stands and not is immense. After a little trial and error we found that bucking up a few log sections at a time is the fastest way to mill as you only have to set your mill up for the first cuts once and then after that it’s just straight production. We’ll talk more about that later on things we learned to make milling our own lumber faster and easier.