Who do I call to turn a tree into lumber?
June 1, 2010 4:58 AM   Subscribe

Who do I call to turn a tree into lumber?

I have a tree in my yard that needs to come down. I could call any number of folks that can turn it into firewood and mulch, but the tree is remarkably straight for the first 40-50 feet up, and I'm considering having a decorative beam sawn out of it for my to-be-built house. I know a tree guy can cut it down and a sawmill can cut the beam, but how do the two meet?
posted by kjs3 to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Call a local sawmill and ask them if they have a tree guy they regularly use. Generally, the tree guys are going to cut down trees in sections that will be easy to cart away, so if you want a long beam, you'll want the tree guy to take that into account.
posted by xingcat at 5:08 AM on June 1, 2010

I'd call some tree guys, explain your thinking, and work out a plan with them. They'll know some sawmills they can work with. Or start by calling a sawmill and see if they have a tree guy they like to work with. Either way, it won't be the first time they've run into this, and they can tell you how they'll handle it (and what it will cost you).
posted by beagle at 5:10 AM on June 1, 2010

Your biggest issue is going to be transportation and equipment. You need something to load the trunk into a very large truck and then transport it to the nearest sawmill. This isn't going to be cheap....Call the sawmill first.
posted by HuronBob at 5:29 AM on June 1, 2010

Generally for a one off like this the sawyer comes to you with a portable mill like the wood miser. If there is a dealer in your area they may be able to point to someone who does this work.

Be aware that this can be pretty expensive; urban trees often have embedded metal and if the machine hits metal it'll destroy the blade. Generally the saw's owner will charge you for a new blade. Also the lumber produced will need to be dried and probably planed. Proper air drying takes about 1 year per inch.

What kind of tree is it? Many large urban trees are fast growing varieties that make very poor lumber or have so much internal stress that they twist horribly even when dried properly.
posted by Mitheral at 5:57 AM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

So typically, most mills want nothing to do with trees from yards and developed areas. One nail in the tree that is totally invisible or might have been covered with bark, and you lose a very expensive saw blade. Your best bet is to probably go through 'alternate' means, which might mean historical re-enactors, mountain men, or militants.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:09 AM on June 1, 2010

There are jigs (which I've never used) to use a chainsaw as a (rough-cut) sawmill. They might be worth looking into. Also, as several people have posted, check carefully for metal (perhaps a metal detector will work here) in the tree.

Some species are much better than others, so you'll want to get a consult. Also, where are you located? This might inform some answers. (For example, if you're near S.E. Pennsylvania, I have a name I can send your way.
posted by JMOZ at 7:10 AM on June 1, 2010

I spoke to a friend of mine who works with a lot of reclaimed wood. Takes down barns and such and makes cabinets and furniture. He said that he would contact both a mill and tree guy as mentioned above. He would add a step in between of using a metal detector on the tree. Go around the entire thing once it is on the ground. If you get nothing, you can decide if you want to take the chance at that point of damaging a blade. Just because you find nothing does not mean you didn't miss something. He thinks it is going to be expensive vis a vis buying the beam, but it could totally be worth it in terms of being able to say part of the house came from the property and if the wood is right, it will look great. He noted it could turn out to be a very expensive way to get firewood too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:13 AM on June 1, 2010

I've done this with a neighbor's sycamore tree that I saw lying in his front yard . We have a lumberyard in town that makes posts and beams for southwestern-style ceilings etc and they have a horizontal bandsaw. I paid the tree guy who cut down the tree to quarter it for me lengthwise -- I think he charged me $200 to do this and to haul the quarters about a block to my house. Then I used this tool and a borrowed chainsaw to get one roughly flat surface (the wood will be riding into the saw blade on a conveyer belt, and the flatter you have one surface, the flatter the boards or beams will be when you're done). I also used the chainsaw to slice off sides so that the tree would fit the 12" throat of the bandsaw. The section of tree I was working with was about 12 feet long and that was hard to work with -- if you want longer sections it is going to be hard to move and rotate.

You'll need to check with your lumberyard to see what size limitations there are on their saw. Mine charged me $1 per minute of saw time, and I think I spent about $50 having it sawn into boards, some 1", some 2", some thicker. For what it's worth, they didn't seem overly concerned about nails. I let the wood dry for about a year. I don't have a planer, so I took the boards to a cabinet shop to be surfaced -- maybe another $75. My kitchen island is made of beautiful spalted sycamore, and I am really happy with it. I started yesterday on a coffee table using the same wood, and I'm pretty sure I have enough left for one more piece of furniture. If I could do it over, I wouldn't cut the thin boards, because they twisted quite a bit and aren't that useful for furniture. I've used short pieces of these to make cheese boards so they aren't a total loss.

I bought this book, which isn't great but that can give you some basic ideas about how to select trees and how to cut them up. One of the things they said to look for that I wouldn't have thought of is to check that the tree you're thinking of using is perfectly vertical -- otherwise it has internal tension that will result in bending as the wood dries.

I've also taken some ~10" thick apricot limbs and had them sliced into boards that I planed to 1/4" thickness for cabinet door panels. Also beautiful grain, but really hard on the bandsaw. I offered to pay for a sharpening and the lumberyard added $15 to my bill.

Now when I drive around I keep looking for newly-downed trees. I only wish I had more wood storage space.
posted by Killick at 7:18 AM on June 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you are in the Mid-West/Near-South in the States, especially Northern Ky or Southern IN (Say maybe a 150 mile radius of Louisville) I could probably hook you up both with mills and sawyers. Memail me and I will get the info.
posted by Tchad at 7:43 AM on June 1, 2010

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