Peterson Portable Sawmills, From the Beginning
‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ says Carl Peterson. The fascinating story of the evolution of our sawmills starts in 1987, on the Fiji Islands. Although we were surrounded by 500 acres of hardwood forest, we still had to get timber from town to build our cabin. This oddity pushed my Dad Carl to begin accumulating bits and pieces to design and build his own double-bladed quarter-saw type portable mill from scratch.
The resulting mill was too heavy to transport to the farm. That’s when Dad started thinking about a lighter, single blade design with a smaller engine, which could cut in both directions.
Then in 1987 a military coup hit Fiji. Locals were rioting, minorities were being beaten up, and the military was out of control. We became refugees and fled the country to New Zealand. Dad was not allowed to do any paid work and he grew bored, so he started tinkering with bits and pieces again.
He used his meager refugee’s benefit to see if a single blade mill was even possible. Carl’s first prototype swingblade portable sawmill was made in our backyard from ancient garage-sale treasures! It was a simple box-type frame on fixed tracks and powered by an old chainsaw powerhead.
The next design, the ‘Log Dog’ frame (1988), was considerably wider, with a bed that rolled up and down tracks. The tracks were raised and supported by two cross-members that screwed into the ends of the log to stabilize everything. The tracks were now wide enough to saw very large logs or even two at once. To keep the weight down most of the frame was made of aluminum.
Carl demonstrated his very first Log Dog prototype (which had never sawn with any intent) at the 1988 Rotorua annual agricultural fair. His first sawblade on it had 16 teeth, typical of what sawdoctors insisted was necessary at the time.
Since the mill was still in the developmental stage, just before the show started he thought he’d better put a guard over the sawblade (at the very last minute)…
On the first cut during the demonstration, the guard fell into the sawblade, amid a great grinding sound and public clapping. Instead of showing any panic over the missing teeth he glimpsed, Dad acted like nothing much had happened. He found some #8 wire and tied the guard back in place, hoping the blade would still cut.
He was surprised to feel that it was still cutting, and in fact cutting way faster!
At the end of the day when he took the guard off to inspect the blade, Dad was blown away to find there were only four working tips left. From that day onwards Peterson Swingblades come equipped with either four or six teeth. ‘Sometimes genius is supported by divine intervention’ he now says. The new mill design won an invention award later that year, farmers had never seen anything so portable and functional!
1989 Saw the introduction of the world’s first commercially-available portable sawmill. The Log Dog frame was upgraded to an 8” cut, farmers were now able to saw those giant logs on their property that even the tractor couldn’t move!
The Standard Frame (1990) or tube frame was the next logical design step. The uprights were extended so they could be held together in a sturdy square, which eliminated the need for the log-dog screws. Raising and lowering the track was still fairly labour-intensive. The 8” mill was modified to take an even larger 9” cut blade.
Later in 1990 Dad took his mills to Australia, where he was met with many more keen farmers! The time-consuming track-raising system bothered him, so he began experimenting with the box-type frame again.
The new Production Frame (PF) eliminated the need for moving tracks altogether. This frame was wide enough for the large Australian trees, and the cutting head could be raised and lowered with a single large steering wheel connected to chains.
Stainless steel was chosen for the main frame, so it wouldn’t rust outdoors. This mill was designed with the commercial contractor and farmer in mind. The engine was upgraded to cope with the Australian hardwoods.
Carl took the new PF to Australia, knowing that farmers there badly needed a lightweight, efficient and sturdy sawmill, especially in the remote outback.
1991 Was a very busy year with many mills going to the Solomon Islands and Australia. Experiments with alternative and increased motive power that could still be incorporated into a ‘pivoting unit’ continued. Since farmers in New Zealand already had tractors, it made sense to utilize this existing power source; a few hydraulic pto-powered machines were sold in the local market.
Carl was also experimenting with a separate slabbing chainsaw, which was quite slow to operate. Only several years later was a horizontal slabber fitted to the main sawmill’s engine instead.
Australian hardwoods continued to require more durable motive power. 1992 Saw the introduction of the four-stroke engine, which was mounted on the production frame in a fixed position. The production frame was also changed to allow an ‘open operator side’.
Carl met the Lucas family at a show in 1992. They shook hands on a Peterson distributorship arrangement in Australia whereby Peterson would sell the Lucas Grabber in New Zealand and Lucas would sell the Peterson Sawmills in Australia. Lucas became an overnight success at the show circuit and their sales of Peterson mills in Australia soared.
In 1993 the Hi/Lo track frame was patented, where one or two tracks could be fixed overhead. This made it possible for logs to be rolled under a track into the milling frame without damaging tracks. Sawdust could also be ejected under the higher track, preventing buildup on the runner. After requests from the Australian market the first 10” mill was produced.
Meanwhile Petersons were also busy selling numerous container loads of mills into Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The Peterson mills were found to be a lot more portable than the Zeacan or Mighty Mite of the time, and the use of stainless and aluminium materials made our robust machines a lot more reliable in the harsh Pacific environment.
Petrol was becoming more and more expensive, and many farmers preferred diesel. The hydraulic-powered saw continued to be popular, which could either run off the PTO of a tractor, or a stand-alone hydraulic powerpack as shown here. A new market into Chile loved the diesel powerpack option.
Unbeknown to Petersons, Lucas had begun building their own swingblade portable mill in direct competition with Peterson. This mill used a combination of earlier portable sawmill design elements from Peterson and Lewisaw.
Partly due to portability needs, and partly due to the cheaper Lucas mill now on the market, Dad went back to his earlier ‘tube frame’ design and experimented with first a cable, and then a chain track-raising system. The resulting Islander model offered a highly-portable design that didn’t need flat terrain. In 1994 it took off in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
In 1995 Chris Browne started working full time for the company. He made improvements to existing mills and designed the ‘Little Greenie’, to meet the needs of a lower-priced competitive machine beside the Lucas. The design made it easy to lower and raise from one position and consisted of split end-frames, where the chains were contained on the end-frame only. This made the unit much easier to pack and reassemble. The Greenie had the same cutting head as the other mills, but the frame was powdercoated mild steel rather than costly stainless steel. The New Zealand market snapped them up.
Meanwhile the fencing industry in New Zealand was in full swing, along with kiwifruit exports. Both markets required substantial supplies of 2”x2” battens, and sawing one at a time was very tedious work. Carl was keen to see if he could re-design a double-bladed mill to get away from the pivot requirement. He set about building the Quantum Leap mill, sporting two vertically mounted blades and a single blade mounted horizontally.
Only one plane was sawn in each direction (the other blade moved out of the way). This design allowed the operator to cut two battens at once and existing motor power was utilized, as only one direction was sawing at a time. The Quantum Leap was demonstrated at the Mystery Creek Fieldays amid a fair amount of interest and hopes for sales.
However the design had a lot of moving parts and the price wasn’t justified by the performance. Very shortly afterwards, the boys reverted back to the swingblade system with a split collar. The next Batten Mill allowed two blades mounted on the pivot unit, which in fact could now cut four small boards at once. Several Batten Mills were sold, until the market demand for battens died down.C
In 1996 Chris re-engineered the 6” mill swing guard to eliminate the pivoting guard system. Not only was it cumbersome for operators, it was also time-consuming to build. The new ‘half-moon’ pivot device allowed just the blade and gearbox unit to pivot, and a fixed guard was mounted over the vertical blade. This also allowed for the water supply to be mounted much closer to the blade, positioned directly on the guard.
Chris upgraded the 8” mill to split-ends and fixed-guard pivoting systems. A boat winch replaced the old steering wheel for lowering and raising via chains, plus a rotating cross-shaft. The bed was attached to the separate end-frames via specially molded aluminum half-sheathes. These mills were now called ‘Winch’ Production Frames.
This was also the year that Lucas took Peterson to court, for copying their patent. Dad of course didn’t believe their patent was worth the paper it was written on, and didn’t put much effort into a defense. So began ten years of court battles between Carl and the Lucas brothers. Unbeknown to us all at the time this was the beginning of the end for Carl’s business, unfortunately.
Today, the business is run by Carl’s daughter Kerris and husband Chris. With qualifications in Management, Marketing & Accounting, and having helped her father initially build Petersons, Kerris knows what works for customers and what doesn’t. She and Chris have built their own company from the ground up, expanding the Peterson range and creating a brand that is synonymous with high quality, reliable, functional and innovative machinery.
“Today we promote a range of the most versatile portable sawmills in the world. From the highlands of Papua New Guinea to the snow peaks of Alaska, we make machines that are versatile, practical and efficient. And we continue to lead the world in innovation, listening to our customers’ needs and making it easier than ever to achieve them”, says Kerris.
Happy miller Gary Basher from Nelson, New Zealand, can certainly testify to the durability of Peterson Portable Sawmills. Gary purchased the Standard Frame model in May 1990. It was only the 33rd Peterson mill ever made. In 2019 he is still operating this sawmill, and says simplicity and accuracy are his favourite features.
“In this time, we have had to do very little maintenance on the Peterson, with just a few adjustments here and there and sharpening the blades, which I do myself”, says Gary. “During all those years of use, I have only had to purchase two new blades, which are re-tipped by a saw doctor when necessary.”
Simplicity, accuracy and cost-efficiency are only a few of the many remarkable product design features that set Peterson apart from other brands.
Our sawmills are a product of 30 years of creative design and practical know-how. Chris has a great insight to the uses and practicalities of machinery for a purpose.
When Kerris ‘discovered’ Chris and invited him into the Peterson business, his skills fit like a glove and Chris promptly set to work making the machines more user-friendly, stronger, more reliable, and simpler to build. Listening to customer feedback and with a stringent R&D process, the result is our current range of products, with five top-of-the-line models catering for a wide range of users, from hobby millers to professional lumbermen.
We use quality materials for a more robust machine and can custom build to suit any application. Our versatile mills do not require flat ground and can be set up on almost any terrain in between 5-45 minutes.
Millers appreciate that both our manual and automated models can effectively be operated by just one person, keeping operation costs down. Compared to a bandsaw, the Peterson swingblade range is much more accurate and can handle large logs and abrasive logs with ease.
All Peterson mills are manufactured at our New Zealand plant. We operate an international network of agents who are there to offer local service and support.
If you’re researching a sawmill purchase, the best people to speak to are those who operate the machines on a regular basis.
The millers in our Owner’s Network have made themselves available to answer your questions by phone or email, and some of them even offer private demonstrations and open days at their milling sites.
Our company motto is simple: ‘To make a difference to our customers and staff’. With Peterson, it’s all about relationships. We listen, care, help, encourage, show gratitude, and even apologise when we make a mistake. Going by customer feedback, our reputation for pre- and post-sales and service is exceptional. Read the testimonials for proof that we have some of the best portable sawmill products available worldwide.