Basic tips for turning trees into lumber

July 29, 2015

Sawing your own lumber is practical and economical. You save the cost not only of buying this important raw material but of having it delivered. You can also cut your lumber to your own specifications rather than shaping projects to commercially available sizes. Here are some basic tips to help you get started.

Basic tips for turning trees into lumber

Value is key

Most important of all is the quality of the lumber you get.

  • Air-dried lumber of the type demanded over the years by furniture makers, boatbuilders and other woodworkers is rare and expensive — lumber mills today dry their wood in kilns rather than wait for years while it seasons in the open.
  • The boards you cut and stack yourself can match the finest available, and in some cases may be your only means of obtaining superior wood or specially cut stock at a reasonable cost. You may even be able to market surplus homemade boards to local woodworkers.

Traditional tools

Many of the tools used in cutting lumber are available from hardware stores.

  • Some, such as froes, broadaxes and adzes, are manufactured by only a few firms and are difficult to find.
  • Lumber mallets can be homemade; log dogs can be fashioned from steel reinforcing rods sharpened at both ends.
  • Before the days of tractors, powerful teams of animals working in yoked pairs and urged on by long stockwhips dragged heavy logs from forest to mill.

What and where to cut

  • For best lumber and greatest yield per log, select trees with smooth, straight trunks at least 30 centimetres (12 inches) in diameter.
  • Trees that have branches at the top only are the best choice since limbs cause knots in finished boards.
  • Avoid hollow trees or trunks with splits; both probably signal extensive decay in wood.

Tips to keep in mind

  • Holes or a hollow trunk mean heartwood may be rotten and the tree unsuitable for lumber. Use for firewood instead.
  • Trunk grain turns out at a limb, producing a knot. Knot of live limb will stay in place in seasoned board but dead knots fall out.
  • Tumour-like burl can be cut off without damage to the lumber of the trunk. Burl wood is strong and beautiful, good for making bowls, smokers' pipes and fancy cabinet veneer.
  • Cross-section shows zones of tree. Best lumber comes from outer heartwood and inner sapwood. Checking and other grain separation reduce tree's lumber value
  • Twisted bark means twisted wood grain, both indicating that the tree grew under stress. Twist does not reduce strength of the wood itself.
  • Limb crooks and forks were prized by many early lumber-getters for use as hooks, braces and other supports. Single piece with continuous grain gives natural strength.
  • Note: Before starting, check with your local land conservation body that there is no restriction on the felling of trees on your property.

By learning a few basic skills, you can use your lumber resources to the fullest, harvesting trees when they are mature, converting the best stock into valuable building or woodworking material and burning imperfect or low-quality wood in your fireplace or wood stove. Get started today!

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