The Portable Chainsaw Mill: A Resurgence in DIY Construction

Portable mills are not a new idea. Indeed, many a lumber town started as two men with a few saws and a portable mill. Today, the portable lumber mill falls into the realm of the dedicated do-it-yourselfer.

There are many uses for a chainsaw mill. Recently, two of my family members used a portable chainsaw mill to rough cut enough lumber to frame up and floor a large shop. The timber available was primarily large spruce and pine which provided fantastic options. A major advantage to milling your own construction materials is the ability to create custom sizes not readily available. To help minimize the spring in the floor, the joists were custom cut at over two inches thick, and close to sixteen inches wide. Boards like that would have cost a small fortune if ordered through a normal lumber supplier. I have also seen a jig style chainsaw mill used during construction of a remote, fly-in trapping cabin. The small size and ease of use made this an ideal construction tool in this situation. Lumber was made to exact specifications and within a few days there was enough material to complete the structure. Beyond the practicality from a convenience and financial perspective, the end product was aesthetically pleasing. There is a certain rustic appeal to a building constructed of rough cut lumber nestled into its cozy surroundings.

Jig Mills

When discussing chainsaw mills you are faced with two primary distinctions. The smallest and most portable mills are a jig frame that attaches to your saw bar. In these models the entire mill is only slightly longer than the saw itself. The basic jig includes a slot for the bar with bolts to lock the saw in place. Some models have slots and bolts for both the tip and base of the bar, while others attach only at the base. Those that attach at both ends tend to be stiffer and easier to use. Parallel to the chainsaw bar are the guides. These will rest either on guide boards or directly on the log. The distance between these guides and the chainsaw bar is regulated by a depth gauge that juts out perpendicular to the chainsaw bar. This should be marked with various depths usually from one inch up, depending on your brand and model, and can be quickly adjusted either using an attached knob or simple ratchet or wrench.

granberg portable jigmill
Affordable Chainsaw Jig by Granberg (Click now to buy online)

Using a jig style portable chainsaw mill is relatively simple. Although this can be done by one person, it is often easier to have two people to ensure that jig does not tip towards the body of the saw. To establish a flat surface on a log, you must use guide a board. Screwing a thick, stiff board directly onto the log is the easiest way to make the first cut. Be sure that you set your depth gauge deeper than the length of screws you use or you will spend the next hour cursing over a file! Once the first cut is made, you can use this newly established flat surface as your guide. Set your depth gauge to the width of lumber you desire and fly at it.


Stationary Track Mills

The second major type of portable chainsaw mill relies on an alongside track or guide. There are several popular models that use an extension ladder as a track and guide for the milling assembly. Mills in this category require more parts and assembly and are therefore less portable. However, they are also easier to use and in many cases more stable. Many of these mills come with two steel bases that you set on the ground. Your extension ladder is bolted to one side and the log sits in cradles on the other. A frame is then attached to the extension ladder and the chainsaw is attached in a manner similar to the jig model. There is also a depth gauge and, increasingly, a handle assembly that allows the operator to stand away from the saw and operate it with a remote throttle control. Operators can push the saw along in the same manner you would a lawnmower.

These mills are larger and require more set-up time and space, but they also mean the operator does not have to set up a new guide board for the first cut every time. The saw is operating on a fixed guide that remains in place. Because the jig is not hand-held, there also tends to be greater stability and fewer waves in the finished boards. It should be noted here that, with some practice, this is not a significant issue in the jig model. This guided model may be ideal if you plan on doing a large amount of milling and if you have an area where you plan to set up your mill and then bring the logs to the mill. Both mill styles are excellent for creating rough cut lumber. Deciding between them will largely be based on each individual’s preferences and the conditions under which they will be milling.


Further Reading

chainsaw lumbermaking book
Comes with big & helpful illustrations!

A fantastic resource for both rookie and experienced chainsaw millers is Will Malloff’s Chainsaw Lumbermaking. Published in 1982, new products have replaced the need for some of his homegrown techniques, but this only lends greater credibility to the many tips and tricks that have not been commercialized. Malloff’s focus is on creating unique wood products with a chainsaw mill. He goes well beyond standard boards and planking, exploring the potential for round cuts and rough cutting unique pieces to be used in house construction.


Purchase Considerations

If you want to purchase the best portable chainsaw mill for your money, here are some things to consider:

What size is your chainsaw? Be sure that the jig you select will fit your saw or you will spend a great deal of time and frustration trying to Mickey Mouse your saw into the jig, stabilize suddenly flexible guides, and sharpen rapidly dulling chains. If the saw does not fit you will have problems keeping an even cut and flat surface on your boards.

  • What type of chain do you have? Although you can use a standard cross-cut chisel chain for these mills, they are slower and lose their edge more quickly than a ripping chain in this situation. It may be worth investing in a good ripping chain, especially if you plan to do a large amount of milling.
  • Is your saw big enough for this task? This will depend largely on the size of trees you intend to mill, but many companies recommend that you have at least a 60 cc gas powered saw for a portable mill.
  • Also worth considering is having a few wedges on hand. This is especially useful if you are cutting longer boards. As you near the end you may find that the saw starts to bind. If you can wedge open the cut line behind the bar, this is minimized.

Hopefully you found this article interesting and useful. Remember that this is not an industrial lumber mill. It will take time and practice to perfect and you will make some mistakes. As with all chainsaw work, be sure you have proper safety equipment. Have fun and happy milling!