Every part of the furniture making process is truly fascinating. In this section, I’ll take you on a recent trip to a sawmill in Idaho where we’ll be slicing huge black walnut logs. I had the whole family participate, including my granddaughter, Peyton.
There are 1000 “board feet” in this log. (A “board foot” is 12 inches square and 1 inch thick.)
A Trip to the Sawmill – How a Wood Slab is Made
We’re going to an old family run log sawmill in Hagerman, Idaho. It was originally used to build log cabins back in the 40’s. The owner is 65 years old and is the 3rd generation of family running it now. He remembers the sawmill from when he was a youngster. Although they don’t produce log cabin logs anymore, they still cut logs for me.
Back when they were making logs for log cabins, the wood was usually no more than 18 inches in diameter. As you’ll see, my logs are monsters in comparison.
It’s an old-fashioned sawmill with two circular saw blades powered by an old Caterpillar six-cylinder diesel motor. The blades are 48 inches on the bottom and 48 inches on the top and they offset each other a little bit so you can cut a 48-inch diameter log. The log shown in the video is the maximum sized log that can be cut on this sawmill.
The Sawmill Process
The entire process of making slabs from a tree trunk can be summed up into 7 steps. It’s very labor intensive and, when you see the beauty of the slabs, very satisfying.
To put things in perspective, this log weighs about 3500 pounds. That’s more than a ton and a half, and equivalent in weight to a Subaru Outback. A forklift is necessary to move the log off the trailer and onto the carrier. Then it takes all hands on deck to position it properly, to turn it and get it situated just right so it will slide down and cut nicely. You need at least four people to work the sawmill.
Lift – Position – Clamp – Clean
There are knobs and crotches and branches that stick out of a tree need to be cut off so it will fit in the saw. It has to be somewhat aligned up fairly straight so we get a good, nice cut. Roots and samplings of roots and peat moss not only slows down and dulls the saw blade but it also gets the blade hot because of the dirt. The pieces that are cut off can be made into cutting boards, little trinkets, cheese serving platters, and things like that.
There is a big heister that helps put the log on that carriage that slides back and forth in front of the saw.
Once the log is on the carriage and clamped in place, a hydraulic feed runs the carriage back and forth through the sawmill. There are couple of gears and levers on the gantry (carrier) that move the head block forward to adjust for the thickness of the wood that you want sliced. There are two of us on the carriage to move the gears back and forth manually. The rubber flaps are there as a safety measure to prevent the wood chips from flying out.
When the log is finished going through the sawmill, there are two people on the other side with grab hooks. They pull the slab away from the saw blades and lay it down on a conveyor belt so it can slide down on the rollers.
4. MEASURING AND ADMIRING
The wood turns out beautifully once it’s cut. I love this. It’s really fascinating. Every slab from the log looks different and has different coloring. All of the slices are very unique and they can be used for different things, for example, a sideboard.
We measure each slab and make a note of the length, width, and thickness right on the slab. And, depending on who my helpers are that trip, some slabs arrive home with beautiful chalk artwork.
There are basically three layers to any piece of wood.
- The Bark
- The Sapwood which is the white part next to the bark
- And the Heart where you’ll see the most amazing purples and greens and all sorts of colors in the wood itself.
Some of these slabs, when cut, have a straight edge and that is due to the width that the saw can cut. So, if there are two pieces from the same log that have a cut edge, (not a live/natural edge), we can butterfly them – flip them over and put them together and they look twice as big to make a 60-inch wide table.
I’m working with an architect right now to design a conference table with the live edge in the middle and the machine edge on the outside. One end will go straight down to the floor (waterfall effect). The live edges won’t be butted up against each other. We’re going to do something in between. When it butts up against the wall, it will be joined by a vertical slab that runs up the wall. It might be the same wood. It might be a different wood.
The next step is to stack them, putting sticks in between each freshly cut slab so that the air can circulate between them, allowing them room to breathe and dry evenly.
When finished stacking, we put metal bands around the slabs so they’re manageable to move.
7. FORKLIFT to Trailer and then Home Sweet Home
EXPERIENCE IT HERE: