Whether you have timber of your own or have access to timber, milling it into lumber can be practical, affordable, fun and fulfilling. There is a growing number of methods to mill your own lumber, beams, cants and posts. One method that is becoming more mainstream is the Alaskan chainsaw mill.
The Alaskan chainsaw mill has been around for over 60 years since the chainsaw really became established as a safe and reliable tool for professionals and homeowners.
Over the decades, the tooling and setups have been refined and perfected. However these solutions also have a substantial price tag behind them.
So, the question is should you build your DIY, homemade chainsaw mill or buy one? Here are a few things we learned with creating our homemade chainsaw mill, and why we decided to buy this professional one after all of our research and experimenting.
To jump to our video comparison of our first impressions of the new mill compared to our DIY one, click here!
Accuracy: Homemade chainsaw mills just aren’t accurate enough to make precise or consistent cuts.
Unless you basically rip off a commercial design and build your own mill using someone else’s proven setup or you have mad engineering and fabricating skills, you’ll likely be making a mill from commonly available materials that can be purchased and assembled.
Given this reality, the materials will not really be designed to work together as a unit and will have their limitations.
For example, our DIY chainsaw mill uses 5/16” all thread rods to set the depth of the guide against the chainsaw bar. While this setup is fairly rigid at shallow depths, it becomes less accurate the deeper you cut.
So if milling 2” lumber is satisfactory, then I wouldn’t even consider milling 6” beams or posts.
We’ve had a couple decent struggles milling 2” slabs if you get in a little too deep as you enter the log it’ll make for a fun cut as you struggle to get back to the proper depth during the cut.
Also, because you set the depth on both sides of the guide independently, you run the risk of having inconsistent thicknesses from side to side on your slab.
While this might be minor, it could be a problem depending on your desire or ability to process the slabs after milling.
We’re seen fairly consistent results but if we were trying to make precise cuts, our homemade chainsaw mill wouldn’t be the first tool of choice.
Assembly: The professional mill was quicker to assemble where the DIY version took some research, running to Home Depot and half a day of tinkering.
Assembly between the two mills was a very different experience.
If you’re looking to get up and running to mill some serious lumber and build a house ASAP, then we suggest going with a professional model.
If you’re a hobbyist and love doing things yourself, then you may enjoy the process of coming up with your own design plans, or even trying to mimic some plans on the web.
Homemade chainsaw mill: For our DIY mill, we first had to scavenge the web for chainsaw mill inspiration. I found a video of a guy milling lumber, made some assumptions as to how his mill was made, and went to work. Of course, you can also look for some sort of plans, but that’s not how I roll. Once I had my plans, I took a trip to Home Depot, walked around the store for a while gathering what I needed, and then it took maybe half a day to assemble the thing. I also had to get a couple of holes drilled in my bar which meant dropping the bar off for a few days while I waited patiently.
FYI: Chainsaw bars are made our of spring steel which can’t be drilled with your average tools. Ask me how I know… I broke about $20 in drill bits trying to drill holes in the thing and ended it dropping it off at a local machine shop.
Granberg chainsaw mill: We were able to pick this up when it was delivered and had it assembled within 45 minutes.
While Granberg’s instructions are somewhat complicated-looking, we were able to quickly figure it out. We made this video of the assembly, how to assemble a Granberg chainsaw mill, which you can find below.
Safety: You can make a DIY chainsaw mill safer, but never truly safe.
Safety, when working with a chainsaw or any chainsaw attachment should, be the top priority.
A portable chainsaw mill has many risks uncommon when using a chainsaw for other things such as firewood or cutting down trees. Because you’re so close to the saw and working the saw pretty hard, you’ll likely be breathing a lot of the exhaust.
Also, because of your body position and reducing mobility, you’ll be close to the saw that in the event a chain breaks or other problem occurs, bodily harm could result. We also have been milling and have encountered metal fragments in the wood which can end up on your clothing as the sawdust is commonly pouring out onto your legs or body.
A DIY chainsaw mill could be designed to account for these things, but in so doing the cost would likely be at risk and you would be quickly approaching the cost of a properly vetted and engineered product which already accounts for and has been proven to increase operator safety.
Unless your sole purpose is to either build a new design or you simply must build your own everything, then you must accept that any homemade chainsaw mill that is assembled from commonly available parts won’t have all the safety features of a professional or commercially available model.
One of the most glaring safety issues with the our DIY chainsaw mill is the lack of a well-designed handle to help the operator push it through the log. This means you end up getting tired or trying different positions to find the right leverage.
One mistake could put your hand in a bad place near the chain or exhaust from the powerhead.
Another safety feature is a bar protector as it’s common for chainsaw mills extend well past the log. Our homemade Alaskan chainsaw mill accounts for this safety concern by having a guide that is longer than the bar so someone near you while milling can’t inadvertently walk into the bar while in operation. It goes without saying this would end very badly.
Finish quality: Our homemade chainsaw mill left us with the need for a planer.
Our homemade chainsaw mill didn’t cut smoothly at all, even when things were going smooth.
In the end, we ended up with multiple gouges as seen in the photos below. We also burned through a lot more fuel and a lot more bar oil.
In order to use this lumber on our hot tub deck, we were going to want to run it through a planer to smooth it out. The problem is that we didn’t have a planer, nor were we eager to purchase one new. Nor did we want to wait for a good deal to come up on Craigslist as that could be months.
When we saw the finish quality of the slabs produced with the Granberg, our hearts sung with joy! We were so happy that the finished quality was good enough.
We really didn’t want to have to run every single piece of lumber through a planer.
Fatigue: Fatigue is higher with our homemade chainsaw mill than a professional chainsaw mill.
If you’ve only watched videos or seen pictures of a portable chainsaw mill in operation, we’d like to explain that one of the hardest parts of using this method of milling your own lumber is dealing with fatigue. Why is fatigue so high?
First, you should be using one of the larger chainsaw power heads that can handle the arduous task of milling lumber. We use likely the best chainsaw for an Alaskan chainsaw mill which is 92cc and is the second largest saw they make.
This powerhead weighs over 16 pounds… enough to wear out a grown man after a while.
Next, add in the weight of your portable chainsaw mill, and the weight soon exceeds 20 pounds. While that’s not much to carry in terms of a bag of rice, the chainsaw is an already awkward tool and with the mill attached, it is more difficult to handle.
Even with a sharp chain, if you’re milling green lumber, it takes a fair amount of effort to push the saw through the log. Add all of this up and you’ll see that it takes stamina to run one.
Professional portable chainsaw mills have been refined and developed to have handles and push bars in just the right locations to make operation easier and to increase safety.
They are also made from lightweight materials like aluminum (the good chainsaw mills are like the Granberg. Other models are made from steel (GOD i can’t imagine how heavy those are!) and are balanced so they are easier to manage and operate.
Once you’ve run a quality tool designed to be ergonomic, you know the value of such design.
Practicality: Our DIY Alaskan chainsaw mill was a fun project, but not a serious tool.
We don’t regret building and milling our first lumber slabs with our homemade chainsaw mill. It was a fantastic way to get familiar with the process, validate the concept, learn new skills and have some serious fun making the lumber for our DIY hot tub deck.
We’ll keep the mill around for other days or in case for some reason our new Granberg mill has problems.
Building and using your own portable chainsaw mill is fun and if we were only going to do some weekend projects, like clean up after a windstorm like the one we had recently, it could be a useful tool to make on your own and save a few dollars.
Since we’re intending to mill beams, cants, posts and lumber for our future timber frame barn and other structures around the off grid homestead, we need a serious tool… one that is accurate, reliable, low fatigue, safety focused and study for years of use.
For us, this means moving to a properly engineered product like the Granberg MK-III Alaskan Chainsaw Mill.
Cost: The chainsaw mill is the cheap part of milling your own lumber… think long and hard about where you want to pinch your pennies.
Honestly, if you’re trying to find a cheap or cheaper way to make your own lumber or mill up logs you have laying around, then think hard and long about where to pinch pennies.
A chainsaw mill is the cheap part of milling your own lumber. Whether you make your own or buy a professional chainsaw mill, you’ll still have to invest in a quality chainsaw, chains and even an additional bar. All of these are far more expensive than the mill itself.
Here’s a breakdown of your mandatory costs, regardless of what mill you go with.
You’ll need a powerful saw of at least 80cc for the larger mills. These saws new will be $500-$1500 depending on brand and quality. We were able to find our STIHL MS660 on Craigslist for $750 but spent an extra $50-100 on a tune up.
Chains ($30-50 each)
To run a chainsaw mill of any kind you’ll need ripping chain which can either be standard cross cut chain that has been filed at 10 degrees instead of the typical 30 degrees. Your standard crosscut chain will wear you out and make really poor cuts.
Each chain will cost between $30-50. Add $10 for sharpening. You’ll want a couple chains so you don’t have to stop milling to sharpen mid-milling session. So you’re easily at $100 for chains.
Additional Bar ($50-$100)
You may also need an additional bar if you’re wanting to mill logs bigger than the bar that is included with the saw.
If you plan do make your own chainsaw mill, then you’ll need to drill holes in the bar which isn’t easy and you’ll likely want to hire a professional to do this. Expect to pay $50 for the drilling of holes… that already eats into your savings of making a mill yourself.
Chainsaw Mill ($150-250)
A chainsaw mill is really inexpensive in the big picture.
For our homemade mill, we spent maybe $50 on the high end just on materials, plus $50 for the bar and holes, so we were out maybe $100.
In the end, we saved $100 compared to buying a professional tool only we sacrificed safety, precision, expended more energy, and even wasted more of our previous lumber due to error.
Hardly worth it in our opinion… unless you just want to tinker around. In the end, if you go the professional route, you’re out an extra $100-150 for a bunch of added benefits, and you’ll end up with a professional tool for life where your DIY version may easily get bonked or tweaked.
Video: First impressions of our professional mill as compared to our DIY version.
We’ve milled up an entire tree with our Granberg mill, but we decided to shoot some video of our first few cuts. First impressions are everything so we wanted to capture it on film before we forgot.
Some of the things that stood out to us on our first cut was the easy of assembly, precision, ease of use, efficiency as well as the quality of the finish. Check ‘er out, we hope you enjoy the vid!
Top-Selling and Most Popular Chainsaw Mills
The goal of this article wasn’t necessarily to convince you to not try your hand at a DIY chainsaw mill, but if you’re convinced that you should cough up the extra couple hundred bucks to go with a quality, professional tool, then here are the best chainsaw mills on the market.
Like I mentioned previously, we ended up buying this one.
To be honest… there really aren’t that many Alaskan or portable chainsaw mills! There are many larger portable mills, but those start to increase in price quickly. That said, there are limitations to chainsaw mills but here are your options.
Granberg MK-III Alaskan Chainsaw MillThe Granberg MK-III Alaskan Chainsaw Mill is the go-to Alaskan chainsaw mill in the forestry industry and for good reason.
Their chainsaw mills are well-built, easy to put together, are made of aluminum and therefor are incredibly lightweight, precise, and Granberg has a plethora of additional accessories to complement the mill such as a rail guide system, chain sharpeners and even the mini mill to create posts and beams (we have one of these too just haven’t used it yet).
It was a no-brainer to us to go this route.
So far, we don’t see any cons to the Granberg. It’s a pretty specialized tool. We think we can use this in combination with the mini mill to complete the construction of our timber frame barn.
If we do notice any cons, we will update this page accordingly.
Comprehensive List of Tools We Use to Mill Lumber With our Chainsaw Mill
Here are all of the tools we use on a daily basis when we’re milling lumber.
These aren’t strictly tools we use for milling the slabs themselves, but also tools we use to cut down our trees, winch the logs into place, hoist the logs up onto bucking stands, and turning our slabs into dimensional, usable lumber on our property. Here’s a video on how we make lumber.
Summary: Deciding which route is best for you; DIY or professional?
My goal with this article was to share some viewpoints on the whether to create your own homemade Alaskan chainsaw mill, or buy one.
There are certainly many points for and against both options. Really your circumstances, experience, skill set, budget and needs will dictate which option is best for you.
We’ll keep posting up our experiences milling our own lumber with our new Granberg MK-III Alaskan Mill and comparisons between it and our homemade chainsaw mill.
Whichever way you decide to go have fun, be safe and most importantly, make some sawdust!