This is the second post of our series celebrating 30 years of portable sawmill innovation. This time our CEO Kerris looks back at the period 1987 to 1991. You can read more about the Peterson story here.
‘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.
Petersons export worldwide from our factory in Rotorua, New Zealand.
Encountering fluctuating freight, raw materials, currencies and export costs, therefore we have tailored pricelists pertaining to each country. We also have over 40 different mill options to suit all applications, so it often helps to call and speak to us about your particular needs.
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What a fantastic story of invention and resilience.
Disapointed that I never got to visit the factory in Rotorua some years ago when visiting NZ.
My milling days are pretty much done now – but I still make furniture and collect timber – but I regret never having had a Peterson Mill – but enjoy the story and emails.
Thanks for your kind words Phil. I had a look on your website, love the All Blacks flag on your About page! You’re most welcome to visit the factory on your next trip to Rotorua, New Zealand. All the best, Maurice
Thanks, for the history. It all sounds matter-of-fact, when, in reality, I’m sure there were many disappointments and set backs that would have caused any “ordinary” person to just walk away from the project. In reality, it is a truly amazing history as unlikely as anyone could imagine…. well done!
Very true Patrick! Here’s what Kerris has to say: “Hahahaha, yes is does sound rather normal, post-journey lol. To be honest, it was more like the eccentric mad-professor who couldn’t see the wood for the trees, and a mum who was tearing her hair out trying to raise four kids with some type of normality…”