I had an oak tree removed from my back yard last year and thought seriously about milling the trunk into boards for future woodworking projects. In the end, I let them carry it off because I wasn’t sure how much effort that would be. But I still wonder: what is required in terms of costs, equipment, steps, and storage space to turn a tree into boards?
There are a couple options.
The first and cheapest (though by far the most work) is to get a chainsaw mill. some of these are a guide you can buy for your existing chain saw and others come with a special bar and chain and others come with the saw.
You will need a fairly powerful saw and I would recommend spending the money on a rip saw chain. A rip chain will save you and your saw a LOT of work it doesn't need to do.
Once you have the equipment all it takes is your time. I would recommend cutting the slabs from the first log or two fairly thick, because it takes a bit of practice and even beyond that the chain marks up the wood pretty good, leaving the need for a lot of planing.
The second option, you have is many places there are people with portable mills that for a fee will come and cut up your trees into lumber. Some offer different levels of service depending on what you are willing to pay for. After they cut it up for you, some have kiln services you can pay for to dry the wood, and sometimes they even have planing services all for other costs.
The place near were I lived had an hourly fee plus a per blade fee, this is because yard trees often have object imbedded in them that can ruin a blade. This is also one of the reasons most regular mills don't accept yard or in town logs, volume and likely chance of damage to equipment.
Final is to have a friend with a portable mill or buy one yourself to mill the trees. The cheapest smallest ones I've seen are around $1200-$1500 dollars, and if I remember right only have about a 12" throat, meaning any tree larger than that in diameter would need to have a chainsaw cut it down to size.
EDT: Note, my dad and I bought a woodmizer portable bandsaw mill and I do cut up dead and recently living trees to make lumber. Then dry it and then mill it for projects.
TL;DR: It is an enormous amount of effort but it can be done. The resulting wood can be prone to cracking.
I've tried to do a bit of this and like most of us here on Stack Exchange, I read a lot of information about it online and offline (dead tree versions: IRONY). Here is a summary of my experience:
- Lesson 1: Buy coating to paint the end grain from Woodcraft.
Several years ago, an ice storm hit my town and many trees were broken and uprooted and so this subject came to a head. A friend lives in an older part of town where a large walnut tree fell. He intended to ask the owner if he could have it but before he could contact her, she had it bucked up into fireplace-length chunks. Nevertheless, she let him have those chunks.
He gave me several of these chunks to experiment with. He bought some special coating to paint the end grain to control the drying and keep the end grain from checking. I don’t know what this stuff was but it was purchased at Woodcraft. I painted the end grain of mine with old latex paint. My wood did not check very badly but it did end up with a number of end-grain splits which prevented me from doing as much as I wanted. He had better luck. FWIW, I made a wooden-bodied Krenov-style hand plane from that wood. I made it by following the procedure in David Finck’s book “Making and Mastering Wooden Planes.”
- Lesson 2: Don’t produce any raw lumber that is bigger than your biggest tool.
Anyway… these chunks were about 6 inches in cross section and the difficulty I had with using them was that I did not have a table saw or band saw that could take this much material. I had to go over to a friend’s home who had a bandsaw with more capacity and cut up the material. I also made extensive use of his powered jointer but one could do a fair job with a hatchet and a hand plane. I could have perhaps split it but I don’t have a froe. I could also have used a hand saw.
As luck would have it, the same thing happened two years later and this time, he caught another owner of a fallen tree (again – walnut) and was given permission to get rid of it by whatever means. In this case, he and another guy used a chainsaw mill that he had purchased for the purpose. He wanted to use the wood for guitar necks and so cut the tree up into 4” thick slabs.
- Lesson 3: Green wood is extremely heavy; make sure you have a truck and/or trailer.
I was not along for that adventure but he told me about it. This size of slab from a freshly fallen tree (slabs were about 12 feet long) are very heavy from all the water still in the wood. Three men could barely move them from the ground to the trailer. Also, slabbing a tree of this size (perhaps 24 inches in diameter) required two sharpenings of the chain – which he had taken to a specialist who filed the teeth for rip-cutting. People with lower back problems beware.
They are still in a shed drying so that adventure is still in progress.
There are easier ways to do this but not much easier. Wood is always heavy when freshly fallen and it must always be stored somewhere while the moisture evaporates.
WoodMizer sells large portable bandsaw mills just for this purpose and on their website, you can search for people in your zip code that might have one and who might come to your property and saw up your wood for a fee.
- Lesson 4: Pay attention to how you stack and dry it.
The end result was that the wood I got from this adventure was usable but I often encountered checks and cracks that I had to work around. I suspect this was due to improper drying since I made no effort to ensure adequate airflow.
One other use of dead-fall tree wood like this is spoon-making. Peter Follansbee has recently popularized this craft and since it only uses a small part of the tree, only requires a hatchet and some knives. This craft is much easier with green wood and so is a great use of storm-damaged tree limbs.
- Lesson 5: Thin wood dries a lot faster so do your woodworking all in one session.
My personal experience with spoon carving is that it is very rewarding; you can produce something in a single sitting and they seem quite popular as gifts. But I think that once you start, you have to go through to completion. Once you hack off a lot of the wood from your final product, it dries pretty fast. You can experience some cracking and also the wood gets much harder. If you put it aside and come back after several days, it can be quite a chore to whittle down the remainder.
Finally, I was able to witness how they used to do this back in the U.S. Colonial period when I visited Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. I actually ran into Roy Underhill while there who happened to be filming an episode of his PBS show, The Woodwright’s Shop, at the time. He showed me the wood yard used by their woodworker (who at the time was the aforementioned Peter Follansbee) which was basically a bunch of oak logs laying on the ground behind the shop. He told me that much of their woodworking during that time period was done while the logs were still pretty green. They were split with wedges and then slabs were split out (the term for that is ‘riving’) with a froe.
So, in almost all cases, it is a gigantic amount of work to get from tree to lumber but can be pretty fun to do once or twice. To do it on a large scale requires space to let the wood dry properly. But you can do some fun projects with tree limbs that are much less effort.