From childhood it’s always been a dream to build our own home. More specifically a timber frame house. Call us dreamers, but we never gave up the hope. A couple years ago we decided to purchase rural land and, among other things, begin learning to make our own lumber and beams.
We had dabbled with chainsaw mills to see if we could make it work and reduce cost. Did we forget to mention debt free was also part of the vision for this home?
While the chainsaw mill proved formidable, the sheer size and volume of beams and lumber needed made us realize if we wanted to mill a precise frame in a timely manner and with reasonable labor, we were going to need a portable sawmill of some kind.
We hope that this page can serve as a resource to others looking to do research on the best portable sawmill for their needs. We’ll share which sawmill we chose, things we’ve learned from that choice and our experience with the sawmill so far… the good, bad and even downright ugly.
The Best Portable Sawmill: A Consideration Guide
If you’ve been researching portable sawmills for more than five minutes you’ve realized that portable sawmills can be had in many different sizes, configurations and even different designs.
Suffice it to say we’ve learned there is no such thing as the best portable sawmill; all sawmills have their pros and cons.
Here are some of the major considerations you’ll encounter when deciding which portable sawmill is right for you and your needs.
How will you be moving logs?
Our average log while milling our timber frame was a 20″ green Douglas Fir, 28 feet in length and weighed in at approximately 2000 lbs (check out our first log delivery).
Have you ever tried to push a 20′ long car with cant hooks and knots on its wheels up a ramp? Good, now that we’re on the same page…
One major awakening that happened within a day of getting our mill was the sobering realization of moving logs to the mill. Formerly, we’d only moved logs 30 yards or less using mostly block and tackle or let gravity to do the work.
Then we brought our chainsaw mill to the log from which we could easily move the slabs we created. Mind you, all we created was 1.5″ rough-sawn slabs. I doubt we could have carried anything over 2″ thick; slabs that thick are just too heavy, even for two people.
When you’re looking at a mill you first need to think about how the heck you’ll get the mill to the log like a trailer mounted mill with good road access or you’ll use heavy equipment.
Can you move logs by hand?
Unless you’ll be making very small lumber (under 8 feet in length) and working with logs under 20″ in diameter, moving by hand is not only a chore but physically dangerous! You can do it, but do so with full disclosure!
Can you drag logs on the ground?
Dragging logs is a terrible idea. If the bark is left on initially the bark can provide protection but you’ll be forced to debark the log before milling or risk doing crazy damage to your blade(s).
Debarking is a good idea anyway as bark is full of blade-gobbling matter. If you can lift and carry the logs you can often get by without debarking which saves a lot of labor! Blades are cheap compared to a chiropractor.
Moving logs with equipment.
In the end, we opted to buy a backhoe. This wasn’t exclusively for moving logs but for a host of things including building our home, snow removal and digging our water system to name a few. Moving logs was high on the list, however.
Even for this 15,000 lb machine, a 28 foot long 24″ green Douglas Fir log proved formidable. With practice we got it down to a few minutes to load a log without jarring the mill, risking injury or damaging our grapple.
What about log loading ramps and cant hooks?
When our mill first arrived we purchased log loading ramps which included cant hooks. It took us ONE log to realize for our use, primarily beams for our timber frame home, this wasn’t just hard work, it was potentially lethal.
In one afternoon we had attempted to safely move a 20 foot 18″ green Larch (Tamarack) butt from our flatbed to the mill using ramps and scared ourselves silly. One wrong move is all it takes.
Consider bringing the portable sawmill or chainsaw mill to the log.
If you can’t move logs then you’ll want to focus on a mill that you can bring to the logs themselves.
For going-to-the-log applications we’d focus on circular saws or chainsaw mills. Their portability and ability to be set up in difficult locations make them a clear favorite.
Have equipment or small logs (under 16″)? Then a bandsaw mill might be just right!
There’s more to consider of course, but to get the most from a bandsaw mill being able to safely move logs is vital. Keep in mind that having a mill in a fixed setup and moving the log is far more efficient overall. Moving the mill to the log has many inherent inefficiencies.
Plan to make lumber, beams or both?
Bandsaw mills are great for large beams.
For us lumber is important, but not as important as the beams we’d be using to make our 36’x36′ Douglas Fir timber frame house.
What made this frame challenging to mill was the length of the longest timber at 27 feet (final dimension in the frame is 25 feet 6 inches, but we always over saw!). This one fact put the circle saw family out of contention. For many of them the longest cutting length is 24 feet.
Then let’s look at the largest beam we’d need to cut at 8 inches by 15 inches. Even for the largest, non-production circular sawmill available, 15 inches is a substantial cut and would require creativity to produce. With a 10″ kerf you’d need to make two passes and hope they’re spot on! We needed 8 of these pieces… So while it’s within the abilities of the circular mill, pieces this size are by no means a strength. Most entry level bandsaw mills have no problem with this beams of this dimension.
For us the bandsaw mill with it’s “limitless” track extensions, ability to make large and long consistent cuts for the beams made it the clear winner. The cost of the timbers made it very worthwhile for us to mill all our own beams.
Circular saws may be better for lumber.
For lumber production a bandsaw mill often requires more steps to produce lumber than a circular saw. Additionally the circular sawmill can cut in both forward and back passes (bandsaw mills cut only on the forward pass) cutting operator fatigue in half.
There’s another perk to circular saws when it comes to smaller lumber under 10″. Because of how the mills are designed, you can “flip” the blade from a vertical position to horizontal. This feature makes it possible to literally “carve” a laundry list of pieces out of a log. On one pass you might want to harvest 8″ tall pieces. You only need two pieces of lumber say 2 inches by 8 inches, you could use maybe a couple 8 inch by 8 inch beams and maybe a couple 4 inch by 8 inch pieces you could later trim to 4 inch by 4 inch pieces. That’s all doable quickly with the circular sawmill. The same cuts would take quite a bit more processing with a bandsaw mill.
For mass produced common dimensional lumber it would be a close tie. The bandsaw mill would require more effort for the same product as the log must be rotated to make additional cuts. Remember that the circular saw blade could “swing”? That ONE feature removes the need to re-position the log.
Length to be Milled
With their “limitless” track designs you can cut to nearly any conceivable length. Of course at some point the curve of the earth begins to become a factor…. you get the idea.
If you intend or at least need to have the option for long lengths, let’s say over 20 feet, you might want to consider a bandsaw mill. Circular sawmills are however available and capable of cuts upwards of 25′, but you begin diminishing the strengths of that type of mill such as portability.
Width to be Milled
For most circular sawmills, the largest single pass cut depth, vertical or horizontal, is 10 inches. If you’re looking to make mostly dimensional lumber or posts under 10 inches you’d be set. Can you cut larger? Yes, but more effort and skill are needed and the process becomes a bit cumbersome.
Most bandsaw mills can easily handle cuts in the 28-inch range and the top-of-the-line mills can make 36-inch cuts.
Something worth noting is the design of the mill head, however. So while a 36-inch cut is possible you will be limited on the depth of that cut. Most mills have drive belts which have a cover that intersects the “throat” of the cut. When cutting at maximum width you’ll be limited on depth. Sorry guys, you can’t cut a 10 inch by 36 inch slab… DARN!
Here we’re not so much discussing slabbing. We’ll touch on that now!
There are people who have built massive slabbing bandsaw mills however, so it can be done! For mills on the market, however, the selection gets quite narrow. If your slabs are 36″ or less, bandsaw mill is a great option!
For a dedicated slab machine, or to keep your slabbing options open, a circular sawmill with a slabbing conversion can be a great option! This opens the door to cut slabs up to 9 feet. Wait, there are still logs out there that big? SERIOUSLY! Gonna need a crane for that sucker!
Production Business vs. Hobby
Portability over complexity could be more profitable if you’re frequently milling on location. Either way, bandsaw mills here really start to shine.
With features like hydraulic loading, hydraulic turning, debarkers, automated head drivers, programmable repeatable cuts and board returns much of the “heavy” lifting is done by the mill. Quickly, any of the weaknesses of the bandsaw mill are equalized and production soars while operator fatigue drops.
With the ability to have the mill basically “set up” on a trailer the time it takes from arrival to milling is just a few minutes reducing “windshield time” and increasing billable time!
Expect to see handsome cost increases for features like those on a production mill, but this cost is quickly realized in profitability.
For hobby mills, maximum features at a budget friendly price point is often desirable. For this you’ll once again find bandsaw mills shining bright. Models are available that can be expanded as needed keeping the initial investment low. These entry-level models often have less automation and require more effort to operate. A tradeoff to reduce both purchase cost and also overall maintenance costs.
Portability, Mobility & Setup
For us we wanted… well, all of it! We wanted to ability to anchor the mill for a prolong period of single-location milling as we cut our 118 piece timber frame from 55 logs. After all that was done, the mill turned into a road block, restricting access and use of our property (only because we have yet to mount it to its trailer).
We also wanted the ability to travel to mill for ourselves and help others. Sometimes moving logs is much harder or less convenient than moving the mill. For this reason we opted for a mill that can be mounted on a trailer as well as stand alone.
For “arrive and saw” operations the trailer mounted, tow behind, bandsaw mill is hard to beat. Towable behind most full sized pickups (ya know to carry all the other stuff you’ll need to run a mobile mill!) and setup requiring under 15 minutes you can be milling more and assembling less.
If chasing logs that can’t be moved is your thing a circular sawmill is the way to go, but it’s quite a specialty and keep in mind that you’ll need special accessories to open the door to slabbing. Why else would you go all that way to a log you can’t move?
Several mills offer a lower cost entry level stationary option with the ability to add a trailer package later. As we always say, “Never say never!”
We never saw it (no pun intended) coming, but we created a MOUNTAIN of sawdust with our chainsaw mill making lumber from just ONE pine tree. We harvested enough lumber for our hot tub deck decking. For every 4 boards we cut we turned one potential board into sawdust or about 20% waste. The kerf on our chainsaw, even with a narrow kerf ripping chain, is right at 3/8 inch.
The larger 10 inch circular saw mills feature a 5 tooth blade with a kerf at 1/4″.
The kerf on a properly “set” bandsaw blade is under 1/8″. 1/3 the kerf of our chainsaw mill and 1/2 of a circular saw mill! Even with this “thin kerf” we still managed to create over 10 cubic yards of sawdust when milling the 55 logs that make up our timber frame.
WOW! Unless you’re in it for the sawdust, anything you can do to reduce waste is more lumber in your….uh…pocket? Kiln. IN YOUR KILN!
Aside from a sharp blade/chain the next factor that dictates effort required is the width of the kerf. Wider kerf, more effort! With the chainsaw mill a “fast” cut on a 8′ long 16″ log took about 3 minutes. That same cut with a sharp bandsaw blade would take under 30 seconds. E.F.F.O.R.T!
When you’re at this for 3 straight weeks, 12 hours a day, that effort becomes apparent VERY QUICK! Using the same math it would have taken us approximately 4.5 MONTHS to mill our frame with a chainsaw mill! And it would have been WAY less accurate. NO. THANK. YOU!
Circular saws are harder to acquire, often require more shipping and have an overall higher acquisition cost starting in the $8,000 range. To be fair, an entry level circular sawmill is a formidable machine. To gain access to the larger 10 inch circular saw mills expect a much larger price tag.
When contemplating budget consider a few things beyond the features. What about upkeep, maintenance, repairs, warranty and resale? All of those contribute to what the vehicle industry calls “true or total cost of ownership”. It’s a way of looking at not just the price you’ll pay at the showroom, for example, but to actually operate, maintain and ultimately the price you’ll be able to fetch if you decide to sell. Let’s just call these “intangibles”.
It’s not a secret that the companies who’ve been around for decades and their core business is sawmills are going to provide a better “after sale” experience. Some of these companies even provide amazing support to second hand owners of their mills. It’s really a tribute to their longevity when an early generation of their mill is still in operation. What better way to build a legacy than to support these owners!
Often lower priced “hobby” mills come with little or no support, can be more difficult (or VERY DIFFICULT) to service, repair and maintain and resale value is weak for all the same reasons. If your skill set leans toward DIY and you’re up for the challenge this might be less intimidating than someone who needs or wants a more “plug and play” mill.
Parts, Serviceability & Warranty
The ability to get your mill repaired and back in service without major headaches should be considered in the buying process. The best companies don’t just make sawmills, they’ve got as many or more people dedicated to servicing, repairing and improving their products. Some even keep all service records for customers so when they sell the mill the new owner has an entire service history. Kinda like that guy who kept all his oil change receipts on that Honda Civic for 300,000 miles? Yea, that.
If you plan to use the mill professionally or operate VERY remote, having easy maintenance and serviceable parts on hand is imperative to success. Downtime is money for any sawyer, but when parts are out of reach and the job must get done you won’t regret having a machine built with service in mind.
Then again if milling is your hobby, maybe grinding, welding and fabricating is too? So if you love to tinker, all you need to know is will your grounding clamp fit on the steel! It is made of steel, right?
Sharpening is probably the most frequent and most challenging maintenance required to keep your mill running cool, cutting accurately and productivity high.
Bandsaw blades requires an additional process called “setting” the teeth. This establishes a slight opposing bend to alternating teeth establishing the “kerf” to be slightly thicker than the blade to prevent binding during cutting. This needs to be done each time the blade is sharpened and must be very consistent. Inconsistent “set” will create inconsistent and undesirable cuts.
Thankfully the cost of sharpening for bandsaw blades is quite affordable to have done professionally by a service like Woodmizer ReSharp. At around $7 per blade you simply ship the blades in a box, they sharpen, set and ship them back to you in about a week. Blades that have excessive damage or are at end-of-life are simply recycled.
We purchased two boxes (15 each box) of blades. Once we consumed the first box (cut over 20 logs) we sent it in for sharpening and used the second box in the mean time. If you’re sawing constantly like we were we’d go through a box in about a week, roughly the time it takes to send in a box for sharpening.
Circular saw blades can be sharpened on the mill by the owner with jigs provided by the saw manufacturer. Keep in mind that circular blades have a much higher overall cost than bandsaw blades. Hitting something like a rock, spike, fencing or conduit (yes, people hang conduit on trees!) can render a blade junk, beyond sharpening. If you plan to be sawing logs or materials that have a high probability of containing debris then a bandsaw might be the only way to go due to reduce blade cost.
Engine Type & Altitude
When looking at power plant options consider blade width, production speed, hardwoods, longevity and NOISE!
You’ll want to take your time considering where you plan to saw (altitude reduces power) as well as noise (urban nor suburban milling might restrict decibels allowed) before making your selection.
We chose the 25HP Kohler on our mill for it’s excellent cost/value/power/efficiency balance. We can saw large logs, at higher altitudes (above 5000′ above seal level) and maintenance costs are very low. Noise is acceptable and we aren’t anticipating excessively high hours of operation over it’s lifetime.
Summary Pros & Cons of Each Type of Portable Sawmill
Portable Bandsaw Sawmills
- Ease of loading
- Ease of transport
- Availability very good new and used units
- Longest milling length
- Deepest / Widest single pass cut upwards of 36″ wide and 16″ deep
- Available diesel engine
- Blades are affordable, quick easy to replace
- Very narrow kerf 1/8″ or less
- Hydraulic systems available to increase production, reduce labor
- Hook up and tow portability
- Available automated milling features
- Production speed making lumber
- Production speed creating wide mix of output from single log (2×4, 4×4, 4×6 etc)
- Moving large or old growth logs onto mill can be impossible
- Blade sharpening not easy for mill owner
- Sensitive to foundation, easy to mis-calibrate
- More labor to operate (rotate log, cuts only on forward pass)
Portable Circular Sawmills
- Ease of sharpening, can be done by mill owner
- High production, cuts in both directions
- Creates “circle sawn” look, which is value added
- Set mill up around massive logs, mill in place, no need to move log
- Production speed creating wide mix of output from single log (2×4, 4×4, 4×6 etc)
- Less labor, no rotating log to make cuts
- Available slabbing attachment for up to 60″ wide slabs
- Length of cut limited to 18′. Longer length compromises portability./li>
- Depth of cut limited by diameter of circular saw, often 10″ or less in single cut
- Portability and Setup
- Thicker kerf = more waste, more effort
- Blades are costly if damaged by metal or stones in logs
Extras & Bonuses
Our Portable Sawmill Experience Playlist
5 Tricks to Save Money on a Portable Sawmill
Look for Demo Models
Many manufacturers attend regional events open to the public including agriculture shows, home shows, construction trade shows and logging conferences.
At these shows they offer demonstrations and a chance to test some of their equipment. It is common that the units used at a show are available for sale at a reduce rate given their previous use, but have all the same warranty benefits of a new machine.
At those same shows it’s common to find show specials offering a reduced price for sales made at the show. Just ask!
Refurbished Portable Sawmills
Many of the companies who’ve been around for many years have units that either were leased, sold with financing and later had to be reclaimed due to default or a customer may have returned a mill shortly after purchase for one reason or another. These mills are then serviced and available for sale with a limited warranty. They probably sell fast though!
Buy Used (From Someone Wanting to Upgrade)
Many first time sawyers start small and over time either find themselves wanting to pursue sawing professionally or their needs change and are looking to upgrade. Sales reps have such a close relationship with their clients that they might be aware of someone who is ready to upgrade once their current mill is sold. Just ask if someone knows of someone looking to upgrade!
Call Local Dealer & Ask About People Who Want to Sell
There are times when a mill is for sale but maybe the owner doesn’t know much about it or would rather let someone else handle the sale. Kind of like a consignment. Whether a family member is deceased or maybe someone is simply too busy this can be a great way to find a used machine not listed elsewhere.
Must-Have Portable Sawmill Accessories
- Equipment / tools to move logs
- 3000 lb Log Grapple
- Bed extensions if you’ll be milling long logs
- Trailer package if you plan to mobile mill without requiring disassembly
- 2 (yes 2) Cant hooks. One person can create more force with two hooks. Less damage. Less effort.
- Laser Level to level long logs or logs with lots of taper
- Log ramps if you don’t have equipment
- Taper wedge (prevent log from rolling off mill and help adjust/hold tapered end)
- C clamps to prevent taper wedge from moving on bed
- Spare blades
- Spare belts
- Engine cover
- Hour meter, if one isn’t included to aid in maintenance intervals
- Blade tension alignment tool
- Blade tension gauge
- Belt tension adjustment tool
- Operation manual
- Various wrenches for retightening and adjusting mill
- Impact driver to speed up assembly or maintenance
- Framing square for marking beam on butt cut
- Loggers tape measure for quickly measuring long logs and log diameter
- Large air compressor to remove sawdust from track, drivebelts and head height adjustments
- Wood stickers to stack lumber and beams
- Chainsaw to cut up and remove waste slab wood for firewood or chipping
- Board foot or cant size calculators for maximizing log yield
- Moisture meter to monitor drying
- Quality construction work clothes that can stand up to sawmilling
10 Bandsaw Mill Tricks for EASY & ACCURATE Cuts
- Blow off entire track after each cut
- Slow down on your first two cuts, make sure they’re square. Less waste. Less effort.
- Square off the mill deck for accuracy
- Fasten or secure the mill to prevent frequent mis-calibration moving logs
- Change your blade right before your final cuts
- Calibrate the mill before final cuts
- Push cants off the mill forward to process into firewood
- Think ahead about what lumber you’ll actually use down the road, instead of making random thickness cuts
- When decking logs, place log butts at the mill head end for easier leveling
- Use a floor jack to raise tapered end to centerline to maximize usable board footage
- Keep in mind your mill head max cutting diameter includes cruck, taper, bow and knots!
Enjoy this post? Follow our home build!
While we enjoy sawmilling and timber framing, most of our time is spent doing other tasks on the build such as icf construction, installing our radiant floor heating, drilling concrete, soaking in our diy hot tub… you get the idea 😉
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