More Sawmill Adventures

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Sawmill Surprise

Life is what actually happens while you are planning something else.

I had intended to spend all day working on the commissioned five-string fiddle, today, and had taken the day off from work in order to do just that. Ann and I got up at 3:45 AM, she left for work about 5:45, probably, and I had intended to begin work immediately, but I really was not feeling well (possibly something I ate), and was very tired (short nights) so, about 6:45 AM I decided to go back to bed for a few hours. (Good choice!)

I locked the front door, and toddled off to sleep. At about 9:45 I woke up, and thought I could hear someone moving around in the house. I knew I had locked the door, so I thought this was most peculiar, but… my mother-in-law has a key, and sometimes comes during the day to drop off something for Ann or to complete some other errand. So I got up to see what was going on.

My son Brian also has a key, so I was not too surprised when I went to the front of the house, to find out  that Brian was out by the sawmill. It turned out he had been there since 7 AM, so it is nice that the saw engine is so quiet. I hadn’t heard it at all, though it was less than 100 feet from where I was sleeping.

Sawmill Practice

Four years ago, a neighbor had given Brian two small logs of black walnut. At the time he had no way to process them, so they had sat on the ground on a compost heap for all that time, fully exposed to the weather…hot, dry, cold, wet, freezing, and back again. But now that we have a sawmill, Brian had decided to get a little more practice with the saw, by slicing up those walnut logs. He did not anticipate that very much of the wood would be salvageable.

But, even with the crooked shapes (they were limbs that had fallen in a storm), and the cracked ends (the ends had never been sealed against checking) and the rot and ant-damage from neglect on the ground, Brian got between 25 and 30 guitar sets out of those two little logs.  They are exceptionally beautiful sets, too, as, when he started slicing, he found out that the walnut was highly figured, not just “plain” black walnut.

Black walnut Guitar backs and sides
Part of the pile of backs and sides cut from a single small log. all bookmatched sets, some good for two sets per pair.

Learning Curve

It took longer than it should have…. We are still learning to use the saw. It took us well over an hour to change the blade, because there were adjustments to be made that were not mentioned in the (extremely limited) manual. Maybe two hours of cutting time, an hour of “head-scratching” time learning the idiosyncracies of the tool, and an hour changing the blade. We stopped and ate, talked, took pictures, and had a good day together. Not what I had planned, but highly rewarding.

Black Walnut Ripple

Yeah, I know, it sounds like ice cream…but have look at this:

black walnut bookmatched guitar back
Bookmatched Black Walnut guitar back with water added to show the figure in the wood.

This pair of bookmatched back pieces will make two guitar backs. One exceptional, one just very nice. Some of the sets are not big enough for two guitars but will make one guitar and one or two ukulele sets.

But, Does it Pay?

Some time ago, someone questioned Brian’s wisdom in making all his own bindings, saying “But it is so cheap to buy them! Wouldn’t you be better off to spend your time doing something else?” At the time, the issue was the relative value of his making his own high-quality curly maple bindings for guitars, as opposed to buying them ready made. He figured out that, once the bandsaw and sanding jigs were in place that he could make 100 sticks of bindings in book-matched pairs in a very short time, sand all of them and have them set aside in matched sets of four (the number it takes for one guitar). He figured out that he spent less than three minutes per “stick” in that way, and, the people that sell them (thus saving you so much time) charge $5/stick. Four per guitar…$20 for the maple binding on a single guitar. But if he makes them himself, he spent 10-12 minutes. So, if he saved $20 in 12 minutes of work, then he was “saving” $100/hour. (That is pretty respectable, I’d say.)

And: fairly ordinary black walnut guitar sets (at a well-known supplier) sell for $150 (matched back and sides), so in the two or three hours he spent cutting up two small logs that were given to him, he produced enough guitar sets (extremely high-quality sets; not at all plain) to more than cover the purchase cost of the sawmill. (Yep. It pays.) There is hard work involved, but it is good work, and a good feeling of productivity, while salvaging wood that would otherwise have become firewood.

And… we still have not started milling up the ton (or more) of curly maple for which we had originally bought the sawmill. This was not how I expected to spend the day, but it was pretty encouraging to see Brian driving home with all those guitar sets.

When he makes a guitar of some of that wood, I will post a follow-up photo or two.

Thanks for looking.

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Sawmill Adventure

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New Sawmill

Rationale: Why buy a sawmill?

Brian was given a large maple tree, partly cut up, which has a great deal of curly, highly figured wood in it. Ann’s parents had paid to have the tree removed, because it was rotten in the center and beginning to be dangerous. But there was a lot of very good wood, too, especially in some of the larger branches.

Maple tree
The maple tree that ispired the purchase of the saw. For size comparison, that is Grandma and Grandpa with the main trunk.

We did not have a way to mill it, and people who do that sort of thing usually charge a good deal for their services. We had read a number of positive reviews online regarding the Harbor Freight sawmill, so we decided to buy the saw, mill up the wood, and, if we really didn’t need it any longer, then we could sell the saw after we were done. (Rigghht, like that’s gonna happen!) Also, we had to hire a young neighbor who logs for a living to bring his big chainsaw and slice that big log into pieces we could more easily move around. (Still very heavy.)

Purchasing the Saw

All of us did a lot of looking, online. There were many reviews of this particular saw, all stating that “for what it is (a home-owner’s sawmill, not a commercial machine)” it is a great buy. Everyone complained about the assembly manual (it is problematic, yes, but we got it done), and everyone said there were things they would want to improve, or modify (that’s fine, too.) But all concluded that the saw worked amazingly well. And…it was affordable. So we bought it and waited for it to arrive.

Getting it Home

I decided that the best way to get the thing safely home was to meet the truck at the distribution center, so I drove Brian’s pickup to the Con-Way trucking “will-call” center, and they kindly loaded the seven-foot long, 746-lb. crate into the pickup, pallet and all. They gave me a length of bright yellow 1/2″dacron line with which to secure it, and I headed for home.

But, having gotten it home, I realized that unloading it was going to be an issue…no forklift on this end. So, I used an engine hoist to lift the back end of the crate high enough to get the pallet out and insert a sheet of plywood to protect the bed-liner, then three 4 x 4 posts to serve as an off-loading ramp.  Then I lowered the crate, and began shifting it inch by inch, using the rope. I threw a bowline around the top rear bar of the ladder rack, then stuck the dacron line through the front bottom of the crate, used a “trucker’s hitch” to cinch the line as tightly as possible, and a few turns around the bar to hold it. Then I threw my whole weight (the “incredible bulk” at work) on the rope, transverse to the tension, deflecting the rope by maybe six inches and moving the crate an inch or so. Re-tightened the rope and repeated.

It took me 2 hours to get the crate off the truck, and on the ground, using this method, but I got it off safely, and without damage to the saw, so all was well. By the time Brian arrived, we were ready to uncrate the saw. We used the engine hoist again, to lift the saw mechanism out of the crate, and set it on blocks.

Harbor Freight Sawmill Machanism
Uncrated saw, balanced on blocks. (That’s the crate, on the left.)

Then we had to sort through all the pieces, look at the manual, and figure out how to put it together. The manual was definitely not the worst I have seen, but could surely be better.  All that said, we didn’t really have any complaints. Here are the parts: very heavy duty steel, and a nice finish. (Yes, I do like green!)

Sawmill track and miscellaneous parts.

We began assembly, following the manual step-by-step. It was not too difficult to do, even though we had only hand-tools. (Some of the online reviews were done by people using pneumatic wrenches…that does speed things up a bit.)

assembly in progress
Assembly in progress.

The track went together pretty smoothly, though we did find that it is a good idea to use a c-clamp to align the track ends, because the finish is so smooth that when we tried to tighten the last bolts, the track would shift slightly, so that the track ends were out of line. The clamp held securely until the bolts were tight, and no further movement was detected.

track assembly
The nearly completed track: to those sharp-eyed observers among you, yes, I am aware that the log-clamp mechanism is backward– I realized it after the fact, and we had to take it apart and reverse it. (oh, well…)

Grandma and Grandpa showed up to enjoy the process…we were all pretty enthusiastic.

Grandpa and the new saw.

We lifted the saw mechanism onto the tracks, and were nearly ready to go.

Completed saw
Whole crew (Ann was taking pictures).

Here’s a photo of the other side of the saw:

Other side of the saw.

Finally, we leveled the track, using “line-of-sight” and wooden shims.

leveling the track
Leveling the track: line-of-sight, pry bar, and wooden shims. Dead straight. (Notice the log-clamp thingy is pointing the right way, now…)

Then we decided to experiment with a very dry, old, willow log.

First log: old willow. This will be used for linings and blocks in my instruments. willow bends easily, cuts like butter, when shaping it, and still is strong and very light.

We filled the engine-sump with oil, the tank with fuel, and the blade-coolant jug with water, and started the engine (301 cc Predator–a four-stroke gasoline engine comparable to a 9hp Kohler, I am told). It started on the very first pull, and ran very smoothly… no problems at all. So we made a trim-cut to get the lumps off the log, and a few very thin (7mm) cuts to experiment. The saw cut with virtually no effort. In the photo it looks as though Brian was pushing hard, but in reality, he was bending down to see what was happening…it was getting pretty dark by that time.

Trim cut
Trim cut–getting dark.
Several more cuts.

We decided to call it a day. Brian came back the next day and finished cutting the willow up into slabs that I will later shape into blocks and linings for cello, viola and violins. Here is some of the salvaged willow (the old log had a lot of ant-damage):

Willow lumber
Salvaged Willow lumber from Ant-damaged Log

It was a good day, all in all. (Obviously Brian was still feeling like clowning. 🙂 I was pretty tired.)

completed machine
End of the day–everything works fine!

Now we just need to get the maple chunks to the saw, and learn how to handle them safely (they are still quite heavy and unwieldy.) I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I need to get going on that five-string fiddle. It will take priority for the next month. Brian knows how to run the saw, so I will let him play with it, while I make a fiddle.

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