Farming Magazine - August, 2012

WOODLOTS

High and Dry

Tips for handling and storing native lumber
By Patrick White

Have a barn to re-side, an animal shelter to build, a woodworking project in the works? The lumber you need may be right in your own woodlot. In an era where we're encouraged to shop locally, it doesn't get much more local than that. Turning trees into usable boards does take a little planning and effort though, from finding someone to saw the boards to drying them properly.


CT Logs to Lumber is one portable sawmill service that travels to customers' locations to mill native lumber.
Photo courtesy of CT Logs to Lumber

Here in the Northeast, there are many portable mill services that can be contracted to come to your site and saw boards to your specifications. Most charge by the board foot and some stipulate a minimum volume, say 1,000 board feet. Peter Nyberg, operator of CT Logs to Lumber (www.ctlogs2lumber.com) in Coventry, Conn., has no minimum board foot requirement and will travel throughout all of Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as parts of Massachusetts, with his Wood-Mizer LT40 portable mill.

He started his traveling milling operation several years ago after searching his area for such a service. "I had some very nice oak trees with straight trunks taken down. Rather than turn them into firewood, I wanted to turn them into lumber. I couldn't find a portable sawmill service nearby, so I started my own company," says Nyberg.

While he can cut logs into a variety of different dimensions, Nyberg says that most of his milling is to produce 1-inch-thick boards. "And customers are usually interested in getting the widest boards that I can get out of a log, versus the highest commercial quality," he explains.

If the trees are being taken down by a logger or tree service company, it may be possible to ask that logs be bucked into specific lengths, based on the intended use of the lumber (a main beam for a barn versus boards for a dining table, for example), as well as the maximum capacity of the portable mill to be used, Nyberg advises.

Nyberg's mill has a lift to bring on heavy logs (up to 4,400 pounds), and he says it's helpful if customers have the logs lined up so he can pull the mill right alongside. "For me, and I think for many of my competitors and compatriots in this business, generally the expectation is that the customer will help out," he says, noting that most people are eager to be involved with the milling process.

For landowners looking for a portable mill service, Nyberg has this basic advice: "There's no licensing or credentialing or anything like that, but if I were hiring someone like me, I would like to know that they have insurance."

Just as important is his advice on drying the lumber once it's cut. While there are some contract kiln services available, most lumber he cuts will be air dried by the customer. "I have some information on air-drying on my website, and also be sure that I have a discussion with the customer about it to be sure they understand the general principles involved," says Nyberg.

This helps counter some popular misperceptions that he has heard. "The most common one is that people want to build a stack of green lumber indoors some place like a garage or a shed," he explains. "Or if they put the lumber outside, they have a tendency to want to cover the entire pile with a tarp. I have to explain that the whole goal is to promote air circulation."

Sarah Smith, forest industry specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, says that the ultimate success of milling native lumber on-site often comes down to proper handling of the wood, both in log and board form. "If you're taking white pine down in the warm weather, for example, it's going to turn black and blue the longer it lays on the ground in an unsawn state. You'll have insects going after it and it will mold," says Smith.

This process can begin in just a few days in hot, humid weather, but depending on the intended application of the lumber it may not matter. "If you're planning to use the lumber for a barn, for example, you're probably not going to be as fussy about a lot of things versus if you're making a piece of furniture for your house," she points out.

Stained wood, Smith says, "may look really bad, but it's still serviceable" for use in building a "rough looking" barn. However, when siding a barn where you want consistent coloring, it's important to process the logs in a timely manner. "If you're talking about pine, it's preferable to do it in the cold weather. And if you do it in the warm weather you want to get it sawn up as quickly as possible," she states. Hemlock does not stain as quickly.

It's not just softwoods that are susceptible: "Red oak can also stain, and even though it's a much harder and denser wood, it can go as quickly as pine," Smith adds. "Sugar maple actually stains faster than anything; red maple less so. Everything goes at a different speed, but all wood will stain if logs are left to sit there in hot, humid weather. And you'll have the same problem in the lumber form if it's not quickly put on 'sticks.'"

Sticks (see illustration) are spacers used to allow airflow between boards once they have been sawn. "You want to be sure the sticks are all lined up and evenly spaced, because that prevents the lumber from drooping or cupping," says Smith. "And you want to set the pile in a high and dry place - not in deep grass that stays moist. You want the boards out in the open so the air can flow through them."


This image from the Vermont Wood Utilization Fact Sheet on "Drying Native Lumber" shows how spacers (called stickers) are placed between the layers of boards to allow airflow through the pile. Stickers should be uniform in thickness and placed across the stack 12 to 18 inches apart and directly over the support beams. Placing stickers at the ends of the boards is also important to keep the boards from warping and to minimize checking.

Photo courtesy of the Vermont Dept. of Forests and Parks

While "checking" is desirable when drying firewood, it's something to try to avoid when drying lumber. "Checking happens when water is trying to move so fast out of the board that it leaves cracks. On firewood you see that mainly on the ends. With boards it happens on the tops of piles," says Smith. "If you have some old corrugated metal, or even old boards, you can make a top cover to prevent the sun from hitting the top of the pile." That can also help shed water a little bit, she adds, while cautioning against the use of a tarp or plastic: "Some people are under the misconception that you need to cover the pile, but if you cover the pile, all you're doing is trapping moisture."

Particular care should be taken if working with particularly wide boards, says Smith. "You may want to consider putting some weight on the top of the pile - old chunks of concrete, or whatever. This helps keep the boards flat and prevents them from cupping or warping or twisting."

While there is some urgency to get logs sawn and boards stacked as quickly as possible, once the lumber is on sticks, it's more of a waiting game. Depending on the time of year, it can take roughly three months to air dry the wood to roughly 20 percent moisture content. "The best you can do with air drying is down to about 20 percent. Some people will claim they can get down to 12 percent, but that would be only after a long, sustained period of sunny, dry weather," says Smith.

At 20 percent moisture, a board is usable for outdoor applications, but if it were to be used indoors would shrink considerably as it dried further. "If you took 20 percent moisture pine boards and laid down a floor, you would come back and find half-inch spaces between the boards," says Smith. If the wood is to be used for such an application, it should be first dried properly outdoors and then brought under cover in a barn or shed for a time and, finally, into a heated environment to acclimate, where eventually moisture levels can be brought down to about 10 to 15 percent.

Given the effort that's required to mill and dry native lumber, Smith advises landowners to fully think through the process before starting. "There are a number of people who are really serious about it; some will even go out and buy a portable mill if they have a barn or house to build, for example," she says. "But there are other people who end up with all this lumber and can't figure out what to do with it."

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.