Proper routine maintenance will extend the life span of your portable sawmill, no matter the make or the model. By maintaining your portable sawmill according to manufacturer’s instructions, it will produce quality lumber productively and safely. With easily replaceable parts, most portable sawmills kept in prime operating condition will remain productive for decades.

“Nearly every part of the mill – even the engine – is designed to be replaced. Therefore, it is possible to keep the mill running indefinitely,” David Boyt, a tree farmer who has over a dozen years of portable sawmill experience, and currently uses a Norwood HD36 portable band saw mill, said. Boyt, the managing editor of Independent Sawmill and Woodlot Management magazine, is recognized as an expert in arena of portable sawmill operations.

Keeping equipment sharp

“Maintaining a sharp blade is the most time-consuming maintenance task on the sawmill. No matter what type of mill you run – band saw, circular, swing blade or chain saw – the No. 1 maintenance issue is keeping the blade sharp and cutting true,” Boyt said. “Most sawyers start out sending their blades to a sharpening service, but eventually get the equipment to sharpen them.”

A blade needs to be sharpened or replaced immediately whenever it is not cutting properly. Depending on mill type, as well as what is being milled, blades can require sharpening after every cut. In a chain saw mill, blades can require sharpening after every cut, particularly when milling large slabs. Swing blade mills are good for 1,000 board feet before needing sharpening, and band saw mills are good for approximately 500 board feet. Any metal or a lot of grit can cause the blade to need sharpening or replacement.

“On portable jobs, I bring at least three replacement blades just in case I hit metal or grit in the log,” Boyt said. “I keep about two dozen blades and sharpen them when about half of them are dull.”

Aligning the blade properly is just as critical as maintaining a sharp blade. Blade alignment should be checked after every session. Blade tension is important, too. Band saw mills producing a wavy cut indicate improper tension. Misalignment in a swing blade mill can cause heating on one side of the blade, causing it to wobble.

Photo courtesy: ErikaMitchell/istock

While blades are important, other parts needing routine maintenance shouldn’t be overlooked. Addressing the day-to-day wear and tear keeps a portable sawmill in operating condition.

“Maintaining a portable sawmill is, in many ways, similar to maintaining other farm equipment,” Boyt said. “Usually this means changing oil, filters, and spark plugs at the designated intervals. As with any engine, check the oil level every day before using it. Routine maintenance means that you will do repairs at a scheduled time, rather than in the field in the middle of a job when that worn-out belt finally breaks.”

Other routine procedures include lubricating chains, sprockets and checking the oil level in the gear box. A mill with hydraulics will need to have the system’s oil and filters changed as per the manufacturer’s schedule. Along with the regular daily maintenance checks, and routine procedures conducted as per the manufacturer’s recommended schedule, make it a habit to check various parts regularly for wear and tear. The clutch, for example, should be routinely assessed to make sure it fully disengages and operates smoothly, with no slipping while cutting.

Boyt recommends that blade height is checked every 10 hours or so, to make sure the gauge is working properly. Replacing the air filter after 10 hours of use is also recommended, to keep it free of dust. The track should be checked with a straight edge or chalk line to verify it remains true, and rails are parallel and not bent. Grease all fittings, check the bearings for excessive heat, and keep the battery charged on electric start mills. Check for wear or stretching on cables or belts.

“Most sawyers keep extra bearings, fuses, solenoids, switches, wire and hose fittings on hand so they can do field repairs with a minimum of downtime,” he said. “The most commonly replaced parts can be purchased at a local farm supply store.”

A mill that can be repaired or adjusted with one or two standard tools is a good bet. Particularly when milling in a remote location, a mill that requires a minimal number of specialty tools is crucial.

“If you are new to milling, look for simplicity in design,” Boyt advised, who can make all routine adjustments to his Norwood HD36 with a 9/16 wrench or an Allen wrench.

Don’t forget the hydraulics system, which needs oil and filter changes, too, and should be checked for abrasion or leaks regularly. While hydraulics ease the workload, repairs can be complex, requiring special knowledge and parts that can keep the mill out of commission.

Photo courtesy: Fertnig/istock

Environmental conditions

It’s prudent to take precautions when operating in adverse conditions. Extremely dusty conditions mean changing the air filter more frequently. If it’s very cold, the battery is going to need extra attention to remain charged. Liquid-cooled mills need antifreeze. Lubrication lines need to be free of ice.

When the mill is not in use, sheltering it from the elements will add four or five years to its life span, Boyt said. Removing the battery and keeping it in a warm place, or using a solar battery charger, are good ideas for periods of inactivity. Add fuel stabilizer if the mill will not be used for a period of time.

The operating environment also includes the immediate area in which the mill is being used. Keep the work area free of debris. Tripping, Boyt said, is a very common cause of portable sawmill injury. Working in the rain, or in low light, is not recommended. And since a chain saw is probably being used on the job, maintain that as well, and consider a chain saw safety class, such as “Game of Logging,” too.

Safety gear

The mill’s safety gear needs maintenance, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Maintain these parts as you do the other working parts, Boyt said. Most importantly, don’t disengage any safety features. Spend time with a sawyer who is using a similar mill, to ascertain that the mill’s features – safety and otherwise – are comfortable for you to use, before purchasing.

“A well-designed mill should automatically stop the blade when the engine is at idle. Otherwise, it is too tempting to make an adjustment or clear debris around the blade while it is still moving,” he said. “Even at an idle speed, the blade cuts flesh and bone much more easily than it cuts wood. If you are looking at a sawmill for which any of the safety features restrict use of the mill, consider a different mill.”

Sawmill maintenance ensures a that the mill remain in operating condition. This not only will produce high-quality lumber, but it will do so efficiently and safely. But no matter how well-maintained, a mill can’t operate without a properly maintained sawyer, too.

“Most, if not all, sawmill manufacturers provide operation and maintenance training at their location. This is typically a hands-on, one-on-one course.” Boyt said. “Appropriate safety gear – to protect eye, ear, head and feet – is important. Stay well hydrated, quit when you’re tired, and save any brew for after the job. Recognize your limits.”

At Hud-Son Forest Equipment, training classes are offered through the dealer, emphasizing proper and safe use of their mills. While Hud-Son Forest mills are simple to use and designed with operator safety in mind, Spadaro said, hands-on training is an added means of ensuring that customers know how to properly maintain and safely operate the mills.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sawmill operations are some of the most dangerous jobs out there. While a farm-scale portable sawmill may not seem as hazardous as larger mill equipment, it can be just as deadly. Properly maintained equipment, along with properly trained personnel and the use of safety gear, go a long way to ensuring a happy and healthy life span for your portable sawmill, as well as the sawyer.

“A well-maintained mill is a pleasure to run,” Boyt said. “When properly cutting, I can focus on the log instead of the mill, and I am in much better shape – both physically and mentally – at the end of the day.”