Chapter 2: Portable vs. Stationary Sawmills

In a world where so much seems to be made of plastic, the sawmill industry continues to thrive. In 2019, the sawmill and wood production industry generated an estimated $35 billion in revenue, mainly thanks to residential and commercial construction sales. From house framing to pallet construction, sawmills provide the wood products consumers demand and need. According to IBISWorld research, the industry will continue to grow with the housing market and can prove profitable for sawmill businesses small and large.

Sawmill owners or those looking to enter the industry have many options when it comes to choosing the best machinery for their business. Some entrepreneurs who own forested land may be interested in starting a small business with a portable sawmill. Others might want to work under any weather conditions with a stationary sawmill indoors. Anyone curious about owning sawmill machinery would consider factors such as production needs and whether they’d be sawing at a base site or remote location. Large facilities need stationary industrial-quality sawmill equipment for efficiency and high production levels. They also require machinery like band saws to cut large logs.

A portable sawmill and a stationary sawmill each has its place in the wood processing world. In this chapter, we’ll cover the differences between portable sawmills, stationary sawmills and industrial sawmills.

What Are Portable Sawmills?

Portable sawmills became popular in the 1800s when they were used to bring the mill to the harvest site. In the past, they may have been powered by steam or water. Today, most portable sawmills run off a gas or diesel engine.

Stacked wood boards

Portable sawmills are small sawmills that sit on a trailer or, at times, can rest on bricks or wood blocks. Some of these can fit in the bed of a truck or may be towed in a trailer. One or two people may operate a small portable sawmill.

Modern portable sawmills are easily moved and are often used to manufacture specialty wood products by hobbyists. They are generally band mills with blades that are around 2 inches wide. The sawyer must feed a log into the machinery. Maximum log sizes range from 16 to 20 feet in length and 18 to 36 inches in diameter. Portable sawmills can’t produce dry lumber. Therefore, sawyers still need to plane and dry wood after using a portable sawmill.

Landowners might own a portable sawmill to harvest trees from their property for a profit or manage tree growth on their land. With a portable sawmill on hand, they can mill trees that have been damaged by storms or insects rather than leaving them to rot. Portable mills are also popular machines for DIYers. For example, many sawmill owners use their equipment to complete a project, such as building a barn or shed. The lumber is also commonly used to construct furniture, cabinets and other crafted objects. These smaller sawmills allow landowners with acreage to process timber without having to transport logs to larger facilities. People who own portable sawmills might also provide milling services to neighbors.

It’s unlikely you’ll find portable sawmills used to process wood for house construction. Building laws may require a grading stamp, which prevents sawyers from using their land’s lumber to construct homes.

What Are the Types of Portable Sawmills?

Generally, there are three different types of portable sawmills. The type you would choose depends on how you intend to use the sawmill, how much lumber you need, and how fast you need to saw.

sawmill cutting a tree

The various kinds of portable sawmills include:

  • Chainsaw mills: A chainsaw mill is a tiny portable sawmill built to be used by one or two operators, and meant to cut wood in remote areas. A chainsaw mill can fit in your hand, so you can easily carry it to faraway locations. The basic chainsaw mill has a steel guide bracket attached to the chainsaw bar. Some have a track and frame system mounted to the chainsaw. They produce a kerf of about 0.40 inches. Chainsaw mills are inexpensive but slower than other mills and make rough cuts. Although you will need further milling to obtain a finished surface with a chainsaw mill, it may be the best option for working in small areas, dense forests or over rugged terrain.
  • Swing blade sawmills: Swing blade sawmills have a moveable head that travels along a track to cut a log. It uses a circular blade and has a kerf range from 0.20 to 0.30 inches. A swing blade sawmill can take hours to set up once you’re at the worksite, and it’s heavy to carry. You would likely need several people to help with the transportation and operation of a swing blade sawmill. The main reason businesses use this type of sawmill is for cutting speed.
  • Band mills: Band sawmills have a saw head with two band wheels and a frame that guides the saw head through the log. This type of portable sawmill produces the smallest kerf of between 0.06 to 0.12 inches. Band mills are highly portable and easy to set up and operate. They typically produce smooth, high-quality surfaces. You’ll find band mills available in small manually-operated sizes or large builds designed for processing plants. You can choose one with a configuration and cutting speed to meet your needs.

How Much Does a Portable Sawmill Cost?

Portable sawmills are generally priced from $3,000 to $10,000. If you want a heavier-duty portable sawmill with a hydraulic feeder system, you may be pushing $40,000 to $70,000. Pricier options can come with a conveyor and transfer table and are more like a mini industrial mill. Hydraulics also add to the cost but reduce manual labor. Sawyers have more than 70 manufacturers and a wide variety of models to choose from when selecting a portable sawmill.

Other expenses such as labor, repairs, fuel and transportation of the mill can add several hundred dollars to the cost of owning and operating a portable sawmill each year. It’s also worth considering the additional equipment needed to run a portable sawmill, whether it’s used for a hobby or small business. This includes a pickup truck, chainsaw and tractor for transporting logs. You’d also need space to dry and store the wood and a building to keep the sawmill when it’s not in use. Usually, lumber is air-dried, but some sawmill owners build a kiln.

What Are Stationary Sawmills?

The term stationary sawmill often refers to a small sawmill, like a portable mill, which is kept in a woodshop, barn, garage or something similar.

Circular saw blade

Traditionally, a stationary sawmill is a large band saw or circular saw. One benefit of owning a stationary sawmill is it allows production under almost any weather conditions because it’s usually located under a roof. The downside is logs must be brought to the mill.

Stationary sawmills are usually larger than portable sawmills. Some business owners may require a stationary mill to process big logs. With both portable and stationary sawmills, you load the log yourself unless you have a feeder system.

Portable vs. Industrial Sawmills

Industrial sawmills are used in commercial facilities to produce a range of consumer products, whereas portable mills are more for hobbyists. Industrial sawmills are modern machines built for high production, accuracy and efficiency. They are designed for manufacturing large quantities of quality lumber while reducing labor and energy costs. Some industrial mills invest millions in their facility, sawmill machinery, storage areas and handling equipment to produce lumber sold at stores.

An industrial mill relies on specialized equipment to increase throughput. A typical industrial sawmill layout includes hydraulic-powered debarker machines, log carriages for transporting timber, band saws and circular saws, and edgers and trimmers. Circular mills are used for cross-cutting or sawing across the grain, and band mills are used for rip-cutting or sawing along the grain. Some commercial mills have two to four stations set up for log processing.

Industrial sawmills are also designed to process large logs that a portable sawmill couldn’t handle. For example, industrial band saws use blades that are typically 4 to 14 inches wide, whereas portable sawmill blades are around 2 inches wide.

Also, unlike portable or small stationary sawmills, you would not load logs yourself with industrial equipment, which uses conveyor belts to feed logs.

Overall, modern industrial sawmills are highly technical and efficient and use digital technology to increase precision and improve other aspects of the sawing process. For more information about industrial sawmill applications, call us at 1-800-233-1969, and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.

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