Making the most out of a few trees

Not sure what to do with that wood? Finding a portable sawmill may offer opportunities to salvage lumber for small or artisan projects.

Portable sawmills are a great option to process just a few trees for quality wood products. (Photo: Don Brown, sawmill operator)
Portable sawmills are a great option to process just a few trees for quality wood products. (Photo: Don Brown, sawmill operator)

Mature trees are an important component of landscapes and small woodlands. They provide aesthetic beauty, shade, wildlife habitat and air, soil and water conservation. If a single or handful of trees die from pest, disease or storm damage, the cost of removal can be daunting.

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ urban forest program, the majority of wood waste, especially from urban or other developed areas, is either chipped for mulch or landfilled. Other times, it can be tempting to take advantage of the summer camping season and carry the dead or dying trees to vacation spots as firewood. Moving firewood is a highly discouraged practice and illegal in some locations. However selling it locally, for local use, is legal.

If the species is of high quality and the wood is reasonably sound (i.e., not significantly decaying), there may be other opportunities to direct this wood toward higher quality uses. Although a commercial timber sale is rarely an option for just a handful of trees, finding a portable sawmill may offer some opportunities to salvage lumber or specialty wood material for small or artisan projects.

Portable sawmills may be owned and operated by small, independent businesses, or may merely be available from a neighbor. The sawmill can be transported directly to the site where the target trees are located. The sawyer, or operator, can discuss the types of materials that can be obtained, based on the wood’s characteristics: log size, shape, condition, etc.

One serious consideration is the presence of any metal or other foreign materials buried in the wood itself. Many times, fencing, nails or other items have been attached to the tree, and over time, the tree will grow around these foreign objects. This undetected metal can cause a great deal of potential harm to the sawmill and/or the operator. It also significantly decreases the value of the wood, introducing defects to the resulting product. Foreign objects and mechanical wounding (including root wounding from machines like lawn mowers) during the life of the tree can also introduce rot and other defects that affect wood quality.

Even with these potential defects, however, landscape or small batches of trees can be used as “character wood” for beautiful custom or craft products. For example, Michigan State University’s Sustainable Wood Recovery Initiative offers a wide range of gift and household wood products designed from salvaged trees from the university’s campus.

Want to see how the portable sawmill process works in action? Enjoy learning about these topics and more, while exploring the Conservation District’s beautiful property in Mason for a Forestry Field Day. Representatives from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan State University Extension will also be on hand to talk about other tree and forest topics. 

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