Russell’s sawmill is the Bee’s knees

swing blade sawmill

Russell Bee is almost 80 years old and owns a farm near Dannevirke, a small township located on the North Island of New Zealand. For the past 35 years, Russell and his wife Jan have been living in a big old wooden house, which was built in 1868.

Russell had been a commercial fisherman and farmer, and it was while farming that he decided to turn his hand to milling.

Already planting, pruning, felling and cutting trees, Russell felt that he could better utilise the timber on his farm. “Farmers don’t like waste.” So in 1994 he did his research and chose the mill that had the best conversion rate and offered the most flexibility, the Peterson Production Frame (PF) model.

The Production Frame (PF) that Russell got is comparable to the Winch Production Frame (WPF) model available today. Both models comprise of a box-type frame and have single-point sizing. Both models allow an ‘open operator side’ and are operated by a single winch.

The WPF incorporates further improvements, such as a more rigid platform with thicker steel, which results in improved durability and easier maintenance. Most importantly, a winch replaces the old steering wheel for lowering and raising.

“Compared to other brands, a Peterson seemed to be much more versatile and efficient”


Russell’s mill is now 25 years old (not quite the oldest working Peterson around) and has been used very intensively over the years.

In the early 90s portable sawmilling was still a novelty in New Zealand. Through word of mouth and producing great quality lumber, work just started trickling in. In fact they never had to advertise their business at all.

By taking on many milling jobs and often working seven days a week, Russell and Jan managed to pay off their mill in about six months’ time.

Russell has done a lot of farm-related milling over the years. He cut wood for rails, cattle yards, fences, even entire farmhouses. For a while Russell held a licence for cutting down native trees. In New Zealand, where there are 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of privately owned native forest, such a licence is required for harvesting and milling indigenous species.

Russell has worked with many different species of wood and recalls milling Macrocarpa logs that were two metres in diameter, and working with very heavy Matai logs. 

The Matai were 1.8m (5ft9) in diameter and so heavy (weighing in at six tonnes a piece), that they had to dig the ground out from underneath the mill to accommodate them. They simply couldn’t be handled otherwise. The biggest piece of lumber he ever produced was a beam cut from an Elm, measuring a whopping 7.2m x 80cm x 100cm (23ft7 x 2ft7 x 3ft3).

When logging companies finish harvesting pine trees from woodlots, logs are often left behind if they don’t make up a full truckload. This provided a good opportunity for Russell, as the owner of the logs would call him in to mill the timber.

helicopter logging

One of Russell’s most memorable projects involved milling native logs deep in the bush. Unfortunately the authorities didn’t allow him to carve a road to retrieve them, so they ordered a huge Sikorsky helicopter. Russell says it was amazing to watch how the pilot was able to navigate logs dead-straight (within 20-30 mm, about 1 inch) onto the mill.

On another project, the Sikorsky was hired again to lift several Rimu and Matai logs out of the bush. This timber was so valuable, that the owner of the wood was able to pay off this farm in three months with the timber that was milled.

In 25 years of milling, Russell’s sawmill was only out of commission three times, mainly due to general wear and tear. This is not only testament to the product, but also to Russell who has looked after his mill well with regular servicing by Peterson, to his full satisfaction.

“All staff at Peterson’s have been really helpful”

It’s not just Russell and Jan that operated the mill. Their children have milled, and even their granddaughter was able to mill with supervision at the age of 11. This goes to show just how easy it is to operate a Peterson.

logging truck

portable swing blade

Russell is trying to take things a little slower these days but clients keep knocking on his door. Luckily Russell’s love for timber keeps him milling to this day. Just the other day he cut some Macrocarpa slabs for a bar in the local Wimbledon Tavern. Says Russell: “I still enjoy milling, even now that I’m nearly 80 years old. Taking on the challenge of a log feels bloody good”.

FUN FACT: over the years Russell and his partner have housed over 300 overseas WWOOFers (people working on organic farms). A lot of these young students helped with milling as well. During one crazy competition, one little Japanese girl beat an older male student by milling 600 LM of timber in just half a day!

Being the old sawmill hand that he is, we asked Russell for some tips:

TIP 1 “Stack timber on its edge, not on its flat. You can bend the flat backwards and forwards,but you can’t do that with the edge. That’s why it is important to keep the edge straight all the time”

TIP 2 “When making slabs, cut a groove across the underside of each end and glue a timber piece of dowel in it, to prevent the slab from splitting later on”

As you may have gathered by now, at nearly 80 years old, Russell is not quite ready to stop milling just yet. We don’t think he minds, really. Russell just loves timber.

“Peterson is the best mill for the best logs… by miles”


cut boards for houses

6 comments shared

  1. I have several large pine trees on land I manage and was thinking about buyng or hiring a sawmill to mill many or all of my trees some of which are around 80m years old. My needs are to mill 3000 4×4 posts 2 meters long and a stack of 4×2 for top, centre and bottom rails for a 5000 meter deer fence I have plans to build. Many of the trees are very big and only a decent mill would do the job. I will also be sourcing a commercial chipper mulcher to deal with the slab waste to sell as a by product. There are also many trees on other land blocks I manage which could also be milled by us. Be great if you could help with my milling needs!

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Hi Wiremu, thanks for contacting us. We are a portable sawmill manufacturer. Russell Bee is living 500kms away from where you are, therefore I have forwarded your request to someone more local, in Ruatorea. Cheers,

  2. William lagrow says:

    Really cool ,lol I have no idea what your telling me. I’m an American an we don’t use the metric system.. I’m 67 and I’m still interested in a saw mill. I’m on disability and I’m getting ready to buy a chain saw mill .I have a large stilt saw and in the $ 1,200 dollar range is all I have to work with. I think you have the greatest
    Saw that I iknow of I’m building a two story 1000 square feet bldg. By myself out of thrown away steel. And logs in the corners and my floors and beams all milled wood. Roof deck , 2nd floor and lower floor all wood. .guys I have the walls both floors up so this is not a hope to ,I’m doing it. 1 have a total of 500 dollars in all the metal .that I hauled off for free. The way I was raised you work with what you have. .anyways love the story even though I don’t do .

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Thanks for your comments William, sounds like you are building your dream house on the cheap! We took your feedback on board and have now updated the article with feet, inch and acre equivalents. We hope you enjoyed reading Russell’s story. All the best, Maurice

  3. Kevy Sindang says:

    I did not go thoroughly the article but decided to send this comment after the initial intro of the article.

    Suprisingly,I am in the planning stage of going into timber logging & harvesting back here in Lae,Morobe Province of PNG.

    I have engaged a forester who has done an initial forest assessment of the tree stock inventory I possess and is yet to complete the vast rain forest I have.

    I intend to go into chainsaw harvesting and timber cuts first.Then into potable saw milling as a mini village based downstream processing business and sell internally in Lae,Madang & the Highlands regions.My main aim is to export overseas.

    Now is there an opportunity where I can arrange for a Hire Buy Sale of a portable Peterson Saw Mill?
    Is there an opportunity in NZ where I can export to inorder for for to easily arrange Hire Buy Sale of a Saw Mill?This also include chainsaws and other timber logging equipment & tools.Kindly advice me.

    • Maurice van Liempd says:

      Hello Kevy, sounds like you’ve got an exciting saw milling project on your hands there in PNG! One of our sales staff will get in touch with you shortly to discuss possible finance options. Cheers, Maurice

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