Chainsaw and bandmills

A comparison of chainsaw mills and bandmills for small-scale production. March 28, 2001

Does anyone have experience with both chainsaw mills and low dollar manual bandmills? I want to mill hardwood lumber for my own use and am looking for something with low maintenance.

Forum Responses
There are two kinds of chainsaw mills. The first kind you wrestle around, on and off logs, as in an Alaskan mill. These are low maintenance, flexible for quartersawing, etc. I've cut a couple of hundred board feet a day of hardwood, but they are hard on the back, dirty, and generate lots of sawdust. The kind that rides on a frame is easier to use, but quartersawing is more difficult, as you are not referencing off a cut face.

I also have a Ripsaw band mill. It has three advantages over the chain mill. It's almost 10 times faster, produces a fraction of the sawdust, and makes a smoother cut. However, it only cuts 14" across, as opposed to 30" for the chainsaw mill. The bandmill demands more maintenance.

I use the chainsaw mill to trim and quarter big logs, up to 38" diameter. I can then usually use the bandmill to alternately slab off the quartered faces.

I run a Granberg chainsaw mill, and have seen live demos of a half dozen bandsaw mills, and there is really no comparison. For production and efficiency, nothing beats a good bandmill.

Any mill, bandsaw or chainsaw, has to saw through logs. Horsepower and the sharpness and design of the cutting teeth will determine how fast you can feed the saw through the wood (or vice versa). I haven't seen any 20 hp chainsaws or chains with a kerf as fine as even the coarsest bandmill, so right there are two advantages to bandmills--they have more horsepower and need to remove less material. In addition, many of them have log handling equipment built into the platform, which is a very good thing. A well maintained hydraulic bandmill can saw wood almost as fast as you can feed it logs--they are truly impressive.

A chainsaw mill can cut boards four feet wide or wider, depending on bar length. Even with the largest Husqvarna or Stihl powerhead, it can still be slow going sometimes.

I ran one of the chain saw motor powered mills with a band on it before buying a bigger bandmill. The chain saw-powered mill was very hard on my back and produced marginal results, possibly a result of my inexperience. I have no real education in sawing, but can produce very nice lumber with my bandmill. If you can afford it, go with a Timberking or Woodmiser.

I don't have experience with both but have hired a Woodmizer to do some hardwood. It cut yellow birch and sugar maple quite impressively. Since then, I moved from an Alaskan to a Logosol. I know the Logosol is running up there with cheaper bandmills. I considered two problems: I heard that the quality of cutting with small bandmills left a lot to be desired. With the mills I have, I can keep within 1/32 dimensions with smooth sawing. The second problem was portability. I don't have log moving equipment, other than a jack and my peevee. Chainsaw mills seem to have the advantage.

For each 1/32" kerf, you lose about 2% in yield. This alone should help you figure which is best, as a band mill may have only 3/32" kerf while a chainsaw mill may go over 9/32".

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

Portability was an important factor when I bought my Alaskan mill. I've worked up trees 1/4 mile down walking trails, and I can roll the saw in on a cart and roll the boards back out. Not efficient, not production-worthy, but it works.

I took Logosol up on their offer to try it risk free and ended up sending it back. It's a good setup for small production but I would not want to mill several hundred board feet at a time with it. It is slow and at the shows you don't see the constant chain sharpening, refueling every twenty minutes, and bar oil refilling. The noise and smoke drove me away.

I ended up with a Woodmizer Lt-40 manual. I've used the LT-15 and it's a great machine for the buck. The resale is supposedly really good on that model. It will cut way faster with less noise and aggravation than a chain mill.

I started out with a small homemade circular mill that cut only 14" deep in a log. Any log bigger than that I would run through the mill, then finish cutting with a chainsaw. I could cut some pretty big logs but it was a lot of work.

I now have a band mill that will cut a 50" log and would not trade it for anything. It is about half the work, the lumber is accurate and can be smoothed in one pass on my little 12" planer. There's less sawdust, more boards per log and it's 10 times faster. It's quieter and there's no oil on the boards.

I was in your position and my biggest problem was finding something portable. I chose a Hudson chainsaw mill. There is more waste and it is slower going, but it has worked fine for me in my part-time hobby. Price and portability are not the only things to consider. Stability, maintenance, set up and getting the log on the mill are a few others.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor D:
I often use an Alaskan mill, and while it is not as efficient as a bandmill in the actual sawing of the log, it has numerous advantages that often aren't considered. With an Alaskan Mill, you simply fell the tree, trim the log, and slab it off, right there on the spot. If it's on a steep hillside, no problem. I often cut logs that I can't get a vehicle to, much less a skid loader to load up a 3000 pound oak log. Even if I could get to it, I'd need to have the skid loader, truck, etc, just to get it TO the bandmill... which of course I would also have to buy. In that light, it can save a lot of money. As for weight and it being hard on the back, it's almost effortless. Once the bar is started in the log, all you have to do is hold the throttle and it glides right through the log, particularly when you are cutting on a slightly downhill slope. Easier on the back than cutting firewood, for sure. If you use the right chain, it will produce a surface smoother than any bandmill I've taken my logs to. Generally, none of the ridges that are characteristic of a bandmill.

Alaskan Mills are scoffed upon by most bandmill owners, but they definitely have their place, particularly for small scale operations or in difficult terrain... not to mention cutting walnut crotches and other wide boards that bandmills can't handle.

Comment from contributor A:
I have several chainsaw mills by a firm in the UK called Rail-O-Matic. They work similar to the Alaskan but are much better due to their rolling platform and quick adjust riser system. A quick twist of the built in handles on either side of the mill is all that is needed to adjust things. Once the platform is set it will not move, giving very accurate plank thicknesses.

Comment from contributor B:
If you’re here because you’re trying to decide on a saw mill for personal use, I’ll give you some advice based my experiences. I did a lot of research before my purchase and here is what came out of it. Everybody’s need is a little different, so do a little research and pick the choice that fits your needs.

I wound up buying the Granberg Alaskan Mark III Mill. My purchase was based basically on price. I bought the 24” so the cost was between $150 and $200. I figured if I didn’t like it, I wasn’t out that much and a resale on ebay would result in a minimal loss. Luckily I was pretty pleasantly surprised.

My main focus for the mill was to build a couple of storage sheds. One would house my motorcycle; one was a garden shed and the like. I had access to some pine trees that fit the bill. I have less than $1000 in my setup including a new chainsaw, and I easily recouped my investment in the two sheds. I can’t really count the entire cost of the saw, because I was about to buy a new saw for fire wood anyhow.

I bought the 24” mill because I was going to run it on a Husqvarna 359. The Husqvarna 359 is a great saw, but just not big enough to run a mill unless you’re doing a very small amount of cutting. My budget allowed me to buy a Husqvarna 385XP. This saw is big enough for the amount of lumber I want to cut, but if I was cutting a lot of lumber, I’d like bigger. Don’t get me wrong, I did cut a little with the 359 before my 385 arrived. For small projects, it would suffice.

As for the choice of the mill? If you have continued access for lumber logs, and plan to cut larger amount of lumber, I’d go for a band saw mill. I’ve cut with a band saw mill, and they are a little easier and a quite a bit faster. The biggest drawback was the need for equipment to get the log on the mill. Cost is another huge factor of course. For a decent band mill we’re talking in the thousands of dollars. It’s still not a bad investment, just a longer return on your investment.

Think about size when you buy. I was lucky by cutting with my 24” bar before buying a new chainsaw. The 24” Granberg Alaskan Mark III Mill will cut 21” wide. To get the 21” cut you’ll need a 28” bar. You lose a little on both ends of the bar, mostly from the roller end.

Also think about the size of your logs. A 24” log sounds big, but here in the northeast, it really isn’t. I’ve cut logs up to 38” with my mill, but it take some manual cutting to get the cant down to the 21”. Bigger would have been better for the bigger logs, but the added weight of the mill would have been a huge drawback for me. You also start getting into the need for an added oiler, also adding to the weight and portability loss of the mill.

The main advantages of the Alaskan mill are the price and the portability. I throw it in the back of my truck, with a bucket of accessories, the gas and oil, an aluminum ladder, and off I go. I don’t have to worry about a trailer, a way to get logs moved, and the mess stays in the woods. If you don’t think about sawdust, think of this, with a 3/8” swath, you are grinding one 1” board for every three into sawdust. I’m not so worried about the loss of wood but the pile of sawdust in the end is much bigger than I expected. In the woods, its spread out and nature can take its course.

As for accessories, here is what I recommend. First, make yourself a couple of 2 x 4s for slabbing brackets. Granberg sells slabbing brackets, and to be fair I have never used them, but even a 2 x 4 is not high enough for a crooked log sometimes. I don’t see how the commercial brackets would work well unless all of your logs are nice and straight. I cut 2 - 2 x 4s at 20” (that 1“ smaller then the opening in the mill) and drill 1/4“ holes along the bottom. Then buy some ¼ x 4” lags. Spend the extra couple of dollars and buy a lag driver to fit your drill. The lags with the driver work *SO* much better than normal screws. It is a huge time saver.

Here is my Accessory list.

2- 21” x 2 x 4

4 ¬ ¼ x 4 lags with ¼” washers

1- Aluminum ladder (make a wooden one if you don’t have access to an aluminum ladder heavy enough)

1- 2’ level

1 ¬ 8” or 12” speed square (for squaring the second cut)

1 ¬ Framing square (for squaring the second cut on larger logs)

1 ¬ 3/8” drive socket with a ½” deep well socket.

1- Dremel type chain sharpener.

1 ¬ Cant hook.

Next, buy a 3/8” drive Craftsman’s ratchet. Make sure you get the one with the lever to flip the rotation direction. This helps when changing the height of the mill with gloves on. Also get a 1/2” deep well socket. Trust me; the wrench that comes with the mill is slow and cumbersome.

When cutting, I make the first and second cuts on all my logs at once. This helps reduce the number of times I have to adjust the height of the mill. I then cut all 4” cuts or all 6” cuts next; I then cut the 4 or 6” slabs into 2 x stock for a finished board. I then make all 1” cuts and so on.

To make the first cut, I lag my 2 x 4s on both ends of the log to hold my ladder, trying to make the small end cut as small and possible and the large end to get a straight cant. I use an aluminum ladder most of the time. Depending how heavy your ladder is and how log your log is, you may have to support the center. Trial and error is the best teacher. I also drive 2 lags in the top of the 2 x 4 to hold the ladder from sliding from side to side. I may try adding some blocking instead, but I haven’t tried that yet.

For the second cut, I square the 2 x 4s off of the first cut. I bought a cheap plastic 8” speed square. Its plastic, bright orange and it was cheap! When I find a cheap plastic 12” speed square, I’ll buy that as well. For the larger logs I’ll still use the framing square. I have thought about making a wooden square, but haven’t tried that yet either.

In many of the post about the mills you will see references to the amount of work involved. I am 50 years old and work as a network engineer (not much exercise). I have however worked with a chainsaw all my life. The weight of the Husqvarna 385XP with a 28” bar, and the mill is pretty heavy. The lifting, bending pushing and pulling is pretty hard work. It is one more consideration to make for the band mill or at least the track style chainsaw mill. You lose some portability, but save a little heavy lifting. If you don’t have some fairly extensive chainsaw experience, I’d stay away from the chainsaw type of mill.

I’ve always just sharpened my saws with a file, but quickly bought a power sharpener for lumber cutting. You have to keep the saw a lot sharper than cutting fire wood and the 28” blade holds 93 teeth. The time spent filing was pretty substantial, and the sharpener just made it easier. I also quickly learned to turn the chainsaw upside down so I didn’t have to remove or readjust the mill to sharpen the saw.

If you’re like me, you’ll base your gas consumption on normal firewood cutting. I can cut a year’s worth of firewood on a couple gallons of gas. Cutting lumber is totally different. I can go through 2 gallons of gas a day. The size of the log makes a big difference as well. Cutting an 8 foot log at close to full width (20” or 21”) will get me about three cuts on a tank of gas. Of course it also yields a board 20” or 21” wide and 8’ long. Cutting that down to a 12” cut however greatly increases its efficiency.

I haven’t figured out the whole chain saw chain dilemma. I can tell you different types of chain cut differently. I have a rip chain ordered and will see how it works, although some of the normal chains work well, and gradually filing them to a 0 degree angle does help a little. The chain that came with my saw was a low kickback 30 degree chain. It cut ok, but it gave a very rough cut.

Comment from contributor J:
In reference to mills and which is better, it really relates to your needs and what you can afford. I constructed a mill with 40' capability for cutting sill logs, pitch cuts for roof parts and smaller amounts of lumber for custom trim and woodworking projects. I built a frame for a chainsaw to bolt to, with a separate oiler on the tip which made a big difference in cutting speed. I have used bandsaws and they are very quick and low key compared to chainsaws. My advantage with a chainsaw mill is how it fits to my needs cutting here and there for hand crafted log work and having a big saw to scream through some 3'-4' diameter Douglas fir, come firewood time. So for me, chainsawing works.