Sawing utility poles

Is it safe and practical? Advice from those who've done it. August 25, 2003

Does anyone have experience resawing used telephone poles on their bandmill? I would like to make a pole barn, and the local utility company sells old poles for .40 cents a ln. ft., which makes some big poles for $8. I was going to put the creosoted ends back in the ground for my main posts after cutting them in half, and sawing some collar ties out of some of the others. I imagine they are cedar of some type. Any reason not to do this? Where else can you get rot resistant logs 20' + for $8-$10?

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
Lots of people will warn you about the dust and scrap… blah, blah, blah. I have sawn many poles, and always wear a mask and gloves. Some saw out very well, while others don't - no real rhyme or reason why. I usually drip vegetable oil on the blade while sawing, which keeps the buildup down. Look the poles over very well, and still plan on hitting staples, nails and tacks. Make sure you saw from top to bottom on the pole.

(Disclaimer) Never saw used poles, as you will get cancer and die; for that matter, don't use treated lumber, use a fireplace, fill your gas tank or eat fish you caught yourself.

The "birthmark" on the pole normally located 10 to 15 feet above the butt will tell the species of the pole along with a whole lot of other information.

Some common timber species codes.
WC = western red cedar
WP = ponderosa pine
JP = jack pine
LP = lodgepole pine

NP = red pine
DF = douglas fir
SP = southern pine
WL = western larch

After the species code there will be another letter or two but that is only to designate the type of preservative treatment.

From my list you can see that not all poles are equal as far as strength. If sawing for a barn I like WC for the posts, although sometimes you get a pole that has dry rot inside. I like SP (I think most of this is SYP) for the rafters, beams, and anything else, plus it saws easy. Never had a DF but some of the others are only suitable for lightweight construction like garden sheds or lightweight trailer decking.

As far as sawing, pick a cool day so you can wear a long sleeve shirt with the wind at your back and a dust mask. I had a real close association with poles for about 10 years climbing them, drilling them, pulling splinters out, and sawing off the tops about 30' above the ground. Never even thought about dusk masks, but the sawdust sure don't taste good in your lunch!

Certainly, sawing the poles has a risk of exposing yourself to chemicals - the green poles would be of great concern. Both a concern about cancer-causing chemicals (often 1 to 10 years delay) as well as allergic reactions. A previous posting has the same argument that is used to justify smoking cigarettes - "I did it for 40 years and it hasn't hurt me." Indeed, some people are unaffected, but many others are.

A second risk is the disposal of treated sawdust. Environmentally, this is much more serious than disposal of a pole, due to particle size. Potentially, the area where you saw the poles could be a toxic waste site, depending on the preservative.

Why is the utility getting rid of the poles? It is very expensive to replace a pole, so they obviously would be replacing poles that they feel will fail soon. I wonder if such poles would be good for use in a structure. As we have stated many times before, check with local building inspectors for advice on whether they will approve.

Finally, preservative chemicals used for poles are not approved for use inside a structure because the vapors, or other releases, would not be healthy. As I understand it, treated wood used inside a barn which resulted in contaminated milk is the primary reason why Chlorinated phenols (penta chloro-phenol) are no longer used as a preservative.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

The problem with contaminated milk was found to be penta getting mistakenly ground into the feed mix that was fed to the cows. Unfortunately, this was discovered after the media blitz that somehow the cows had eaten the penta treated poles in the barn. Estimates were that the concentrations in the milk would have meant several pole barns would have had to have been eaten. But alas, using penta in a building was "forbotten" after that error, and taken off the market. A little hype goes a long way.

I second what was said about waiting for a cool day to wear a long sleeve shirt. I recently cut some creosote bridge timbers that were soaked pretty good. I wore a mask and a short sleeve shirt. It burnt my arms (like a bad sun burn), but I got me some nice poles for my new saw shed and I would do it again if I had the chance.

Blades and lots of blades and you will be fine. I have found that 0.055 hold up better to the nails. Also, if you hit a nail and can clean the metal out of the teeth with a chainsaw file, you can often saw more with the same blade with maybe a small skip in the cut.

I wear a cheap pair of coveralls gloves and a good mask. I save the sawdust and put it in the bottom of postholes and footings. It often will burn right up if you drop a match in it.

Now if this stuff in the poles are so bad, how come they stick them in every creek/river crossing for bridges? I have seen the little oil slicks on warm summer days. I have seen more people get sick when I was sawing walnut.

I've sawn my fair share of these utility poles and the work and expense doesn't justify the end product. Chemicals of any type are a danger with excessive exposure. I had several conversations with the Dallas Texas EPA office about HAZ/MAT concerns, etc. and according to the EPA, there are none. They don't even require you to dispose of the sawdust.

Have lots of blades and I mean lots of blades. It is not uncommon to make one cut and change the blade. I used Wood-Mizer Double Hard 7 degree hook blades and I was still getting one pole per blade. There is also some argument about what to use to lube the blade. Some swear by diesel/barchain oil; others swear by soap or cooking oil. I've used them all, with no appreciable difference in saw rates. If anything, the diesel mixture made the whole experience that much worse. What I did find that worked okay (i.e. kept the blade from melting on a cut) was plain old cool water in massive quantities.

Lastly, unless the pole is jet black on the outside and hard as a rock (translates to almost impossible to cut), then once you open that pole up, most of the time the chemical will only have penetrated a few inches into the wood, so you end up with a pole that is no more durable or rot-resistant than any other timber. Just for info, I milled over 2000 poles last year in a contract job and I will never do it again. My employees still joke about if we are gonna go mill some poles today.

I would be more concerned about the CCA or penta poles than creosote.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

I got about the same response from the EPA here. Kansas City Power and Light Company was running a WM and sawed every pole they could get. They sold retail and also donated a lot of lumber to the city and park department. Got all kinds of impressive good press for keeping poles out of the landfill.

You're wrong on how far the preservative penetrates the pole. I always thought the same as you - that it only goes in a couple of inches. Sawed some SYP poles and the wood was bright and looked liked a freshly sawn SYP log. Used the lumber to frame up supports for pegboard in the machine shed and every place I put a nail I had bleedout of the treatment chemical. Also built a couple of workbenches from it and painted with latex. The treatment chemical bled through the paint also. Heard the same thing from a couple of other people I know that saw poles.

My word of caution is to never use the lumber in a building that is lived in.

To saw poles, you need to cut 4" off the butt to get rid of the heavy treatment plus the staples and date stamp nails. Look the pole over closely to find nails. Get big poles off a high line in the country. Take heavy slab cuts and the band will run 3 to 400 BF.

Some people like the chocolate color of the treated wood and are disappointed when you open it up and it looks like a freshly sawn pole. However, the smell remains, as does the leeching. Sorry to hear about the workbench.

Guess I've been lucky so far. All the poles I've sawn have cut like butter. Really good price, too. Take all you want and they load 'em up too. Most of them look like brand new poles. Very few nails so far.

My experience on treated poles, rr ties, and rr bridge timbers: I check every piece for metal with my metal detectors. Haven't hit metal in any of this resawing for 4-5 years (usually saw about 12-40 hours of this stuff a year). I have very little problem with blades unless the timber or rr tie is white oak. My last job was about 50 bridge timbers and I think I only used 4 blades. I only use water to clean the blade and I do use a lot of it.

I always wear a mask and long sleeve shirt. I have been burnt up twice and no longer resaw creosote in the hot weather. The dust will collect on my wet t-shirt, the sweat dissolves it, and transfers it to your skin. Big problem. CCA and creosote will penetrate all the way to the heart in pine and stop. The penta is a very serious chemical. I was told by Wood-Mizer several years ago to wear a full respirator and as close to disposable clothing as possible.

I also found that the part of the penta pole in the ground to be the hardest thing I have ever tried to cut, contradicting what I said earlier. I remember using 21 blades in less than 6 hours. Some blades wouldn't cut longer than 10 feet. I have not ever run into penta poles again but if I did, you can bet there would be a hefty blade charge.

A final comment - just because that creosote film on the water doesn't kill you when you or your kids go swimming, it certainly doesn't mean it is harmless. We have to believe some of the things the government tries to tell us and I, for one, believe this stuff is not good for me and do everything I can to limit exposure. After all, there are plenty of other things we get exposed to that we can't control.

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

Comment from contributor A:
Old Western red cedar poles are almost always creosote treated at the butt only, the remainder is treatment free. Pine, either southern yellow, lodgepole, or red is usually treated full length with either CCA Peg or Creosote. The creosote pine poles are known in the utility trades as "blackjacks" due to their appearance when new and leaching gobs of goo. In my experience, full length creosote treated poles are good as poles only and are best not sawn, as they are messy and make short work of a sharp blade for some reason. Poles harvested from urban areas are almost always peppered with small staples and nails at reachable height; the upper portion is usually easily cleaned up as the hardware was attached with 5/8" bolts. If you find a fencing staple, check upward in a straight line for others as the staples held a ground wire in place for much of the poles length.

Comment from contributor B:
I have worked in the pole business for 28 years, the last four concentrating on disposal of out of service poles. Every one of the messages contained in this thread has correct information as well as incorrect information. Poles older than 30 to 40 years tend to be creosote treated. "Newer" old poles contain a larger percentage of penta treated poles. CCA poles (green ones) are a more recent addition to the industry. Cedar and fir can be used to remanufacture something much easier than southern pine as SP tends to rot more than the western species over time. Sawing is not a problem if you take the health precautions (clothing, masks, etc) and watch for metal on or in the poles. Sawing treated wood will use up your blades quickly. Bottom line: do not use resawn treated wood of any kind for interior applications. Utilities are beginning to understand that true disposal of their old poles will soon be the only way they can go - the process of selling or giving the old poles away will eventually be curtailed due to potential liability.

Comment from contributor C:
Use a chainsaw and wear a mask, preferably a respirator. You should get many cuts out of a chainsaw blade, provided you do not hit metal. Watch out near where the ground line was for a pesticide treatment that may have been put into the pole after it was installed. This is called MITC-FUME. There may be a tag on the pole indicating that. You will see where a hole - .75" diameter bored and plugged near the ground line. MITC-FUME will make you very sick quickly, and a mask will probably not help. As for why the utility retired the pole, sometimes the poles need to be upsized to accommodate more plant/additional utilities. Sometimes these poles are just fine as most utility companies do not reuse poles.

Comment from contributor D:
As a lineman for the power company for twenty five years, and a sawmill owner for five, the creosote poles are by far my favorite to climb as well as saw. They are easier to climb and this makes this line of work safer. The creosote is much easier to saw than penta or cca, not to mention the wood looks better. I've have sawed all the lumber for my house, and have sided it with creosote board and batten. I even used creosote inside for my doors and step treads, hand-rails and 3X3 spindles going up my stairs.

After you plane and poly the wood it shines and sills the smell. Wear glasses and gloves and don't saw when the winds is not at your back, as you must breathe occasionally. I have sawed all summer and every summer at times with no shirt as I tan easily and the croesote doesn’t bother me unless while sweating I rub the sweat away, which rubs it into my skin and that burns a little. Creosote has been and will always be the best treatment for wood.

There are power poles in the Atlanta area that were set in the 1920's according to their birth mark, that are still standing carrying power lines that I would rather climb than a brand new green pole. Remember they are softer and safer, and last longer than the hard green (cca) that are saturated with cyanide and arsenate.