By Patrick White
Because of their relatively low cost, effectiveness and ease of transport, portable sawmills have become incredibly popular with loggers, large landowners, farmers, woodworkers, timber framers and others.
The marketplace is now full of manufacturers seeking to fill this demand. Each offers different price points and bells and whistles, but generally utilizes the same approach. Like anything else with a motor (chain saws, trucks, tractors, you name it), people tend to have their favorite brand of portable mill.
Setting aside brand loyalty for a moment, it’s worth noting that at least one portable sawmill out there is a little different. Rather than employing the common band saw approach, Peterson Sawmills takes a “circular” approach.
The company, based in New Zealand, has developed a loyal core of owners in the United States, and is generating interest among others who own band saw-type portable mills and are interested in the circular saw-type setup of the Peterson mills.
Blake, who works a full-time job as a field engineer for General Motors, entered the world of portable sawmills in the same way many others do.
“We moved here, bought some land and needed to clear it in order to build a barn and pastures,” Blake recalls. “It became obvious that I had some beautiful logs out there that I wanted to build the barn with.
So, I priced having the logs sawed with some various mill operators and some various mill operators, and their rates were high, and their schedules were pretty full. So I purchased a chain saw-based sawmill system from Logosol. It was deadly accurate and very nice, but it was slow.
As soon as people found out I had the mill, they kept coming and asking me to saw some logs for them. And I wanted to cut more, but after doing a couple of jobs I realized I couldn’t make any money at that speed.”
Blake went to a few of the sawmill “shoot-outs” held at events such as The Big E. Perhaps swayed by his engineering background, Blake says, “I had always marveled at the concept of the Petersons and decided that’s what I wanted.”
In late 2001, he purchased a Peterson unit as part of a container shipment (the mills are most frequently delivered this way to lower shipping costs and minimize U.S. customs issues) in Maryland. From there, in addition to running his own mill, Blake became more involved with the company by offering training and after-sale technical support to customers.
In the summer of 2004, Blake received a shipment of 12 mills, eight of which had been presold, with the others snapped up in the following months. The Peterson mills from that container went as far as West Virginia and Michigan, but most stayed in New England.
“The thing that makes Peterson different is we’re not a band mill,” explains Blake.
“There’s many band mills out there, but this is a completely different way of cutting lumber. We’ve had a number of band mill owners come to check out our mills because they’re tired of dealing with the blade maintenance. Or they’re looking for something that’s a little less labor-intensive and that will cut larger logs. [The company offers a model capable of cutting logs up to 6 feet in diameter.] Or they want a little more speed and to get away with some of the problems band mill blades can have with dips and waves.”
The Peterson is actually a circular sawmill, and it’s difficult to explain how it works if you have not actually seen one in operation. “There’s a ‘swingblade’ that has two locked positions, one perfectly horizontal and one perfectly vertical,” says Blake.
“It cuts in two directions. So, when the blade is horizontal, you would be cutting by pushing the mill into the log on the right-hand side of the blade. After you make that cut, it cuts in the return position, as well. When the blade is swung, the two cuts intersect. So you just keep repeating that process, taking a piece piece out of the log at a time.”
By cutting in both directions, the mill can produce actual dimensional lumber, whereas a band mill just cuts one slab after another off the top, and the slabs must then be edged to remove the bark and produce actual boards.
Blake admits there is a little more kerf loss, because the circular blade is wider than a band, but he says it also cuts straighter so there are no dips and waves in the lumber that will need to be planed away later.
Another difference between Peterson mills and the typical portable band saw mill is in how the logs are loaded, explains Blake: “Unlike a band mill that has a big carriage, our units have some long rails that set up on the ground, and the logs are actually cut quite close to the ground, sitting up on some bunks that might be 6 to 8 inches in total height.” Nor does the operator ever need to rotate the log, because you can cut in any place on the log that you can make intersect.
The units do not come as a trailer setup, but because of the lower framework and detachable rail system, the entire unit can easily be loaded in the back of a standard pickup truck bed, and can be set up in tight areas with little problem.
“Most of them are manual, but they just started making an automated model this year,” says Blake. “We used it on the show circuit this year, and it is blisteringly fast.”
All units are gas powered, typically with either a Honda or Kohler engine. “We’ve been doing a little more Kohler in this country, just because it’s a little more economical,” says Blake. “And Kohler makes a VTwin, 27 hp, carbureted unit that we’re quite fond of. Nothing against Honda, they’re great, and people who have them love them, but their largest engine at the moment is 24 hp, and that 3 hp can make quite a difference.”
Models are available with what are described as 6, 8 and 10-inch blades (that refers to the cutting depth, not the actually diameter). “But we have the ability to doublecut,” says Blake. “So, in the horizontal position, we can go down one side and come back the other with the blade still flat. That gives us the capacity to double the cut, so the 8- inch blade can actually cut a 16-inch wide board.”
The circular blades technically have an unlimited life expectancy (barring a major metal catastrophe, says Blake). The silver-soldered carbide tips (anywhere from 6 to 10 tips per blade, depending on the size of the blade and species you’re cutting) do wear out, but can be sharpened right on the mill.
Periodically, they need to be completely re-tipped, but generally there’s someone in the local area who can do this. One sawyer who recently purchased a Peterson mill (and wishes to remain anonymous) says he had no problem finding a local shop to re-tip his blades and raves about the mill’s performance. With a son who runs an arborist business, there’s always plenty of lumber to mill.
And, the new Peterson owner says that’s what got him interested in purchasing a mill of his own. “I did the tailing for my son on a band mill—taking the slabs off—so I’m very familiar with the distortion you get, depending on the tension and wood and other factors.”
At the time, the goal was simply to mill lumber for barns and outbuildings, where the roughness wasn’t really a factor. As the demand for more finished boards increased, he began to look at other mill alternatives. He settled on a Peterson after seeing them in action at various New England ag shows and portable mill shoot-outs.
“I bought this thing pretty well outfitted, and I’ve got to say that, in my opinion, it’s pretty much the Cadillac of mills. You can cut really fast, you can cut huge wood. For a guy like me who’s never been around the business and never worked in a sawmill, it was also really easy to pick up how to operate it. I have nothing but good to say about the mill.”
In four months of operation, he’s logged about 60 or 70 hours on the unit. Though not the case for him, he adds, “I recommend it very highly for anyone who makes their living using a portable mill. The quality of the cut, the quality of the lumber and the accuracy of it are as good as it gets. It is dead accurate; if it’s more than 1/16th of an inch off, it’s because the operator is getting sloppy.”
He does recommend that those considering a Peterson mill opt against purchasing the base model. “If you don’t get some of the bells and whistles, you might end up disappointed. The most important feature is the winch production frame. It has an electric lift that lifts the whole frame up. It’s very fast, and it’s very accurate. It makes the whole mill a real pleasurable tool to own and use. You can double your production with that feature. I wouldn’t own one without the electric lift.”
He also purchased a small ATV trailer to transport the unit, and says it can get places even trailer band mill units can be squeezed into. “It goes on the trailer and comes off and sets up very easily with one person,” he says. “It’s always nice to have another pair of hands, but one guy can do it with this mill.”