Friday, July 6, 2012

A Homesteader with a Sawmill

Building a Self-sufficient Farm and Home without the Lumberyard
by Kevin Kiwak, Wood-Mizer LT40 Super Hydraulic sawmill owner.

“Every wood element in the house – from the frame to the trim, doors, shelves, cabinets, you name it – was milled on the Wood-Mizer [sawmill]. One hundred percent of the wood in the house comes from my property and was processed on my mill.” Kevin Kiwak

"In the summer of 1993, I attended an introductory timber framing class at the Heartwood School in Beckett, Massachusetts. It was during that experience that two significant events occurred - I saw a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill for the first time and I made the acquaintance of Jack Sobon, the well-known timber frame architect and author. For the next decade, I dreamed of building my own house and starting a self-sufficient farm but circumstances always seemed to interfere. I purchased my Wood-Mizer LT40HD Super Remote [sawmill] in 2000 but it still would be another four years before Jack Sobon would design my house and I could chance leaving my career to pursue my dream.

The Learning Curve

"This is my first house, with little previous building experience other than my two weeks at the Heartwood School. It is my very first sawmilling experience. Admittedly, the learning curve was steep when I first started milling, but I soon found the machine design and operation to be intuitively obvious. Proficiency followed quickly. The house plan was taken from a 17th century French Country design. The French call it 'half-timbered,' that is, a timber frame with infill for the enclosure so that the frame remains exposed. I knew when I started the project that it would seem odd covering such a beautiful frame with siding or some other enclosure, so this was the perfect design solution. 

Timber Frame Construction

"As the frame is exposed it would require a rot-resistant species. Living in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts I was limited in choice- white oak, black cherry, and black locust being the available rot-resistant species. My property, quite fortuitously, was heavily populated with wild black cherry. The timbers are heartwood cherry on all exposed exterior surfaces. The wild cherry timbers were milled on my Wood-Mizer and then the frame was assembled using a scribing technique so as to be able to incorporate many unusual and curved members. After milling, not a single power tool was used in the construction of the house. For example, over 600 mortise and tenon joints were hand cut with a mallet and two inch framing chisel. From tree on the stump to assembled frame took the better part of two years. The entire project is now in its sixth year!

"The infill is autoclaved, aerated concrete block, chosen for its high R-value, covered with three coats of aged lime plaster both inside and out. The rafters, roof boards, floor joists, tower members, wane-edged siding, and exterior trim were all milled on the LT40. The interior timbers, also milled on my Wood-Mizer, are an assortment of species- beech, birch, red oak, hard and soft maple, sycamore, dawn redwood, eastern white pine, hemlock, cherry, and apple: in proportion to the timbers on the property, a formula devised by Jack Sobon. The wide variety of species used and the fact that milling occurred throughout the year (from 100 degrees in August to minus 15 degrees in February) required an assortment of sawmill blades. The Wood-Mizer technical staff was central to my sawmill blade education.

"The longest members in the frame are 34 foot 8x9 inch cross ties. The summer beam, cut from eastern white pine, measures 8x24 inches and is 16 feet long. The large hip roof and the other smaller roofs required some 32,000 shingles. These were made from knot-free, heartwood blocks of eastern white pine and milled using the shingle-maker attachment on my Wood-Mizer. I quickly discovered that shingle-making leaves a tremendous amount of ‘scrap’ wood which would generally be considered unusable, but with the Wood-Mizer I could turn even these scraps into valuable lumber.

Making it Work

"Every wood element in the house - from the frame to the trim, doors, shelves, cabinets, you name it - was milled on the LT40. One hundred percent of the wood in the house comes from my property and was processed on my mill. We are still working on the interior finish work on the house but starting this Fall I will begin a 35x50 foot 3-bay timber framed English barn. We would like to eventually house a pair of oxen – which we will use for logging in place of a tractor – in the future barn. All our present outbuildings - chicken coop, garden shed, sheep shed- were made using the Wood-Mizer. All future buildings – barn, bakehouse, and woodshed – will be built using the mill. We had a 6,000 square foot vegetable garden this year, in addition to which we grew broomcorn (for brooms!) and our own wheat. We dug a root cellar this summer and harvested 400 pounds of potatoes in the fall.

A New Horizon

"My Wood-Mizer sawmill has literally opened a new world to me. I am not restricted (financially, aesthetically, or imaginatively) by using a lumberyard or having another sawyer mill my elements. The possibilities seem limitless. For me, there is no turning back."

Kevin Kiwak with his Wood-Mizer LT40 Super Hydraulic portable sawmill

About Portable Sawmills

Small, affordable band sawmills have reduced or eliminated that reliance on box store lumber for thousands of people across North America. In the early 1980’s Wood-Mizer first came out with an affordable sawmill for the average Joe and self reliance for one’s own lumber suddenly became a possibility. Storm damaged timber is one of the most common reasons people first begin considering sawing their own lumber. They know that their trees are much more valuable than just being chopped up for firewood, and the idea of processing those trees into lumber is born.

About the Sawing Process

Wood-Mizer sawmills are based on a very simple, intuitive design. After a log is rolled onto the bed, and clamped firmly, the bandsaw blade is engaged, and the bandsaw head is pushed down the length of the log, sawing off a first board. Then the head is raised up, pulled back, and the whole process starts over again, and the boards begin stacking up. Boards can be stacked vertically on the sawmill, and edged to various desired widths in the same manner. Unlike convention circle sawmills, which remove 1/4” of wood each time the blade saws through the log, the Wood-Mizer ‘thin-kerf’ bandsaw blade removes less than a 1/10” of an inch. This increases the amount of material that each log can produce, and greatly reduces the amount of waste from the process. Hydraulic versions of these sawmills greatly reduce the amount of labor involved and increase production rates.

Studies on the Impact of using a Portable Sawmill

US Forest Service researcher Stephen Bratkovich, has reported that typical sawmills in the US operate at about 50% efficiency in terms of lumber recovery. In a study of a pallet lumber mill in Missouri, Bratkovich demonstrated 69% efficiency for a thin kerf mill with a .050" blade cutting thin lumber. "The US annual cut of timber for lumber products is equivalent to approximately 240 million trees," Bratkovich writes. "We could save the equivalent of 69 million trees annually if our recovery efficiency improved from 50% to 70% in our primary processing industry."

Learn more about portable sawmills and see more success stories at or