Choosing a Portable Sawmill

You’ve decided to take advantage of your woodlot and invest in a portable sawmill, allowing you to build some farm infrastructure or offer your milled wood products for sale. Perhaps providing sawmill services to other woodlot owners is part of your plan, and the ability to take the sawmill off-site, possibly to remote locations, is important.

There are a variety of mills on the market, and understanding how to make the most of your investment means deciding which features best suit your needs.

Theresa Maida of Hud-Son Forest Equipment ( suggested first asking yourself what you expect from the sawmill.

David Boyt, manager of Pottershop Hollow Tree Farm & Sawmill in Missouri, offered a list of basic considerations: the type and size of wood to be milled; the products you want to make; whether the mill is primarily for income or personal use; the support equipment required (trailer, truck, tractor with front – end loader); ease of use; and the desired features above and beyond the basics.

You should also factor in your budget and anticipated return on investment. Portable sawmills have a wide range of output capacity, from 800 board feet per eight-hour day for the most basic manual sawmills to over 4,000 board feet per day. Boyt advised determining what your production needs are, whether you’ll be working alone or with a partner, and how much to invest for add-ons that make the process less labor-intensive.

The selection process

The first step in the sawmill selection process is knowing the diameter and length of the logs you’ll be cutting; the quantity of logs; the types of wood; and the location of the lumber. If you select a model with more capacity than you need, you might not get a good return on your investment. Conversely, if you choose one that can’t handle the load, the job won’t be easy.

Mike Spadaro, sales manager for Hud-Son Forest Equipment, asked, “Is this mill something you are using for a hobby, for your personal needs, or are you looking, perhaps, for commercial use and sawing for other people?”

Wood-Mizer ( pioneered portable sawmills in the early 1980s, introducing the concept of passing a band saw blade horizontally through a log to make boards. The concept remains the same today, with thin-kerf blades allowing sawyers to get more lumber from the wood with less sawdust waste than circular sawmills.

“Band sawmills have several advantages: low power requirements; low fuel consumption; about 14 percent more recovery from each log; and [they] can cut everything from guitar parts to bridge timbers,” Boyt explained. “This makes them the most common type of portable sawmill. There are several dozen manufacturers, and it is fairly easy to find one to meet any specific need, but circular mills also have their place.”

Circular sawmills have more production capacity than band sawmills. Traditionally, these are fixed-blade mills, where the log moves down the track.

“They are practical for cutting large beams, such as railroad ties on a production basis, and are generally faster than band mills, but require three to four times the horsepower, waste more wood due to the wider kerf, and even the ‘portable’ circular mills are heavy and difficult to move,” Boyt noted. “Finally, most of the used ones on the market were built before safety was considered an issue. Many sawyers have lost fingers, hands and even their life to the exposed spinning blade.”

Peterson Portable Sawmills (, based in New Zealand, is said to have introduced the first swing-blade circular saw model to the portable market. These mills use a circular saw that can swing from a horizontal to a vertical position, offering increased productivity. This type of mill is designed for large-diameter logs and is portable. According to Boyt, the swing-blade mills are excellent for cutting logs over 30 inches in diameter, particularly when cut for dimensional lumber. However, they don’t do well on smaller-diameter logs.

“Swing-blade mills are interesting machines. They use a smaller circular blade. The log is stationary, and the engine and blade travel down a track. The blade only cuts into the log for the desired width of the board during one pass down the log, then rotates 90 degrees to cut the thickness of the board on the return pass,” Boyt explained. “Consider a swing-blade mill, especially if you will be producing standard sizes of lumber for construction, fencing, trailer decking and railroad ties.”

Another portable sawmill option is a chain saw mill. Typically the simplest and least expensive option, they’re usually recommended for limited use, remote locations, and portability by ATV or boat, and are limited to milling smaller logs. Norwood Industries’ ( PortaMill, for example, is designed for use with a basic chain saw as the saw head and a household extension ladder as the sawmill track.

Ease of portability is a key feature of some band saw and swing-blade mills. Transporting to remote locations, even by canoe, mule or floatplane, is possible with swing-blade mills, Boyt said, although they do take time to set up once on-site.

Just the basics?

Many portable mills aren’t necessarily portable when purchased with the basic package. You might buy a sawmill now for stationary on-farm use and consider adding a towing package in the future to enhance its versatility.

The basic mill is manually operated. Boyt said, “These mills rely on muscle power to load and turn the logs.” The manual option saves money, but consider the output you need.

The height of the mill bed can vary by model and manufacturer. If the mill bed is waist-high, manually lifting the logs can be strenuous. Available options may include a winch to raise the logs, while some companies offer a hydraulic lift option. Low beds require bending to handle the logs and lumber and may not be a comfortable fit for some.

Other add-ons can provide the ability to mill longer log lengths. Debarkers clean up the log before each cut, helping to keep blades sharper longer. Adding features such as power feed systems, rollers, sawdust removal systems and log decks can keep things running smoothly.

“Anything to take the work out of milling and increase production will help increase the bottom line,” Boyt said. “Debarker, board drag-back, toe rollers/log leveler and power clamps speed up production. Hydraulic log handling will increase output by about 50 percent and decrease your physical workload dramatically.”

The Turner Mills ( hydraulic model offers hydraulic backstops, log loaders, leveling jacks, power head lift, hydraulic controls and a remote that won’t interfere with board handling. Hud-Son offers options with hydraulic and log handling features for ease of use. Norwood offers a model that can initially be purchased as a manual machine and upgraded later with hydraulics.

Other considerations

Maida said farmers should consider where the sawmill will be stored. Compact, lightweight models can be rolled into a barn or garage. Fuel use is another consideration. Portable sawmills operate on gas, diesel or electric power. Some models are powered by PTO (power takeoff) from a farm tractor.

Make sure you have enough engine horsepower to get the job done. Maintenance, the cost and availability of parts and labor, and ease of repair are other things to consider. Having replacement saw blades readily available reduces downtime, and having a local dealer may be key to getting repairs done quickly.

“Ease of use, ease of repair, and availability of repair services” are factors to consider before making a purchase, Spadaro said. “Local dealers can help you learn your mill and offer demos.”

Having a warranty on the mill and the motor, as well as the shaft and bearings, is another consideration. Services such as blade sharpening are also available through some companies. No matter which brand or model you choose, adhering to the manufacturer’s recommendations on lubrication, part replacement and proper mill use will keep your portable sawmill in top condition.

The location of the operator station can be important for safety and operator comfort. Most portable sawmills, Boyt said, “are no more complicated than a hay baler.” Still, proper training in safe use of the mill is crucial.

Selecting the right portable sawmill for your needs requires taking a good look at what you want to do now, as well as considering potential future use.