Chainsaw milling

16 inch wide 12 foot long Chainsaw Milled Pine Slabs

I’ve done a lot of chainsaw milling over the years and made due with the tools I had on hand, it created quite a bit more work for myself in the long run but I got it done and was always impressed with the results.

First and foremost is safety, maybe you’ve just purchased your first chainsaw or you’ve been cutting up branches that have fallen in your yard for firewood, if you’re going up into the woods to slab a down tree or plan to fall one please make sure to take some time looking around you and particularly above you in the tree canopy above first. Trees that have fallen can break branches in other trees and leave hazards overhead that can fall at any time. Chainsaw milling is not fast so it’s pretty likely you’re going to set up in the same spot sometimes for several hours, take the time to look up and around first. I live in bear country, there’s a can of bear spray on my belt anytime I’m out of the truck, just about every time I walk out 100 feet to look at a tree I see another out in the distance and walk further into the forest, plan for your area and surroundings.

New 36 inch mill (top), old Granberg G-777 mill (bottom) which still gets used a lot for smaller slabs

I wrote this to show that you don’t have to have the big powerful saw to get out there, have fun, and mill a log slab. I cut thirty inch plus wide slabs on occasion with a 20 inch bar, the same could be done with a 16″ bar assuming they make a rip chain to fit it or you are able to accurately grind and file one down yourself. To look at a completed project and know that you dropped the tree, milled it in to slabs, cut all the other wood that went with it and was able to make for instance a chair is very satisfying.  I’ve been using a Stihl 029 super with a 25 inch bar for falling and bucking and an ancient Stihl 041 farm boss for milling.  The 041 had a 20″ bar and rip chain with the rakers filed nearly all the way down and used a 24 inch Granberg mill attachment.  The mill only had the clamp on the saw end leaving the other end open which worked great all these years. With this setup I could get a little over half way through the tree in one direction, then wedge up the cut side just over the thickness of the kerf cut, turn around and mill back the other way completing the cut.  (NOTE: you will be cutting with the tip of the bar which can lead to the saw kicking back on you!) This worked OK for the most of the cuts, but only having the Granberg mill clamped on the power head end of the bar there was a tendency to push down or pull up on the power head, especially as I was getting tired and would cut unevenly towards the center of the log with sometimes up to a 1 inch step waving up and down the center of the log. I use the Granberg guide rail setup, so I would usually have to wind up setting up the guide rails for each cut rather than just set the mill guide bars on the cut.  Once all milled, load it all up and head for home.

Router sled set up on 2-22 inch wide joined slabs for kitchen bar top

Then the real work began, that one inch step or so on the slabs? Time to break out the router sled.  My slabs were around 2-1/2 inch thick at this point, my target is 2″.  I laminated 3/4″ plywood and made 3 ” thick rails that were very straight and would clamp them on my sawhorses, then place the slab between them across the sawhorses. The slab rocks on the saw horses at this point, shims were placed underneath the two corners that lifted when rocked splitting the difference in total thickness.   For example, if I pushed down on one corner and measured the distance under the corner now in the air at 1″, I would insert a stack of shims at least a 1/2″ thick each and just enough to stabilize the slab, I don’t want to make it start rocking the other way either.  The router sled is a simple strip of 3/4 ply an inch wider than my router base plate and a foot or so longer than the distance over my slab and laminated plywood rails currently on my saw horses. A 2″ tall strip of 3/4″ ply is glued and screwed to each side of the router sled piece of ply to make sure it stays nice and flat with the weight of my hands and my router pushing down on it.

Once all in place and a 3/4″ router bit installed in my router, I simply cut through the router sled in a couple 1/8″ or so passes.  With the router off and sitting in the jig over the slab I work it back and forth and side to side to find the highest part of the slab and set the router bit to cut 1/8″ deeper.  I cut in repetition across the entire slab an eighth inch deeper each pass until it’s flat. Then I flip it over and milk down to to my target overall thickness. This part gets time consuming, I didn’t have a 1-1/2″ surfacing bit then so it took may passes at different depths of cut to get the slab flattened out.   Most my slabs are pine so I cant speak of other wood species, but pine needs to be cut with the router in a climb cut on the last finishing pass due to tear out and only taking off half the width of the bit in each pass.  This means the router bit spins clockwise and I cut pushing the router away from me with the material being removed to the right and continue moving to the right.  All passes taking off the extra thickness as well as just flattening out the bottom of the slab can be cut in both directions to speed up the process, the amount that tears out is usually only a 1/16″ deep.

I only recently started to streamline the process after having been doing it the other way for almost 9 years, and I’m thrilled that I did.  I upgraded to a Stihl MS390 with a 25 inch bar and ripping chain and is certainly the limit for the saw.  Rather than burn up this saw I set it up for falling and bucking with a 25 inch bar and cross cut chain and ordered  a Stihl MS661, 36 inch knock off mill and 32 and 36 inch bars and ripping chains.  I couldn’t decide between the MS880 or the old 090 so I decided to get the MS661 and see how it did.  I may end up buying one of the bigger saws but for now am loving how this 661 chews through the tree. I have a thing for the old saws and will likely have an 090 when I get some more bigger jobs set up, but I guess we will have to wait and see.  36 inch is about the biggest I’m going to find around here and am looking forward to making some sawdust, I’ll share photos once I get back from cutting.  A bandsaw mill may be in the distant future, I have an 18 foot flatbed trailer with a winch and a log lifting arch similar to what Matt Cremona built for his trailer, I haven’t loaded anything as large as he has/ does but is nice to have the option.  For now I’m happy to head a couple thousand feet higher up the mountain and about 20 degrees cooler. For the time being I will stick with the chainsaw mill, it’s worked great for me all these years and I take my time up and down the mountain roads harvesting pines poles for my furniture.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you.  Please share your thoughts, comments, questions, etc.


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