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How I turned trash destined for the wood chipper into wood slab treasure thanks to a tolerant neighbor and a portable sawmill.
I’ve been meaning to post about this since late last fall. But, as with most crazy stories, this one should be worth the wait! I made both this long post for those of you who love to read the story, and a video recapping the whole thing for YouTube. Read, watch, or both: I’ve got it for you below!
Also, prepare for some goofy as hell photos.
This story begins with the all-too-familiar sounds of neighbors doing yard maintenance. Around here, weekends are filled with the buzzing of mowers, weed/hedge trimmers, and construction. And not just at my house! I have really grown to appreciate these weekend sounds as a sort of melody our neighborhood makes. Miter saws and hammers and leaf blowers in harmony, oh my! 😉
On one such weekend, I was planning to do a video voiceover for my holiday series when I was interrupted by the sound of my neighbor taking out trees. Not really the worst thing in the world, especially considering the pine trees in his yard would sometimes blow needles into my yard. The thought of being annoyed over something that would directly benefit me was absurd, so I switched gears to another project.
Later that afternoon, I happened to be out in the yard to work on something else (I actually forget at this point) and was hit by the lovely smell of fresh-cut wood. A huge pile of pine logs sat on the lawn separating our houses, and I strolled by — mainly out of mild curiosity — to check out how large they were. I counted some of the rings, sort of just admiring them, knowing that they were likely destined for being made into firewood or mulch (pretty common for tree services in this area).
And that’s when I saw it: one of these logs was not like the other. It took me way too long to then notice what was missing in my neighbor’s yard — his magnolia tree! I’ve walked by it countless times on our evening walks with the pups (its seeds have even spread into my yard on a few occasions but never fully established). And now, all that remained in his front yard was a pale stump. Not my yard, of course, but I was sad to see it go!
I’ve been wanting to try more wood carving projects ever since my wall art project last year, but I am still very much a beginner when it comes to wood that isn’t pine, red oak, or poplar (the three species that I can readily get at Lowe’s or Home Depot). I had no idea what magnolia wood might look like, so I did a quick image search. I wondered, was it commonly used for anything? Was it considered rare enough to be of interest for woodworking projects? What have people made with magnolia? What does magnolia wood look like after it’s dried and oiled?
The results pulled up. Holy. Crap. It’s gorgeous. Especially turned or carved bowls. Whether the wood has spalting (aka colorful staining from the growth of fungi) or not, magnolia wood can be so beautiful! It’s very pale, but any kind of staining looks to add lots of dark spots that really make it intriguing.
I convinced myself that simply letting this log become firewood without at least trying to save a few chunks would be an absolute tragedy, so I waited until I spotted my neighbor later in the day to ask if I could come over with my chainsaw. I didn’t know if I could get anything usable, but I was sure going to try! Thankfully, my neighbor is already very familiar with my crazy DIYing and happily told me I could take as much as I wanted. The whole tree, even. I put on my woodcutting chaps and protective gear and headed over to the pile to see what I could save.
This post is sponsored by my awesome friends at STIHL. All opinions and harebrained escapades are 100% my own.
I should mention that my STIHL battery-powered chainsaw is awesome, but it’s also small. I deliberately picked a smaller size at the beginning of my partnership with them because I figured that I would get the most use out of it around the yard (cutting down small trees, firewood, etc). Needing it to cut wood blanks on a large hardwood log wasn’t on the to-do list at the time! I knew I would basically be pushing this tool to its limits to even try to get through this thing, but I had to try. I took my tripod with me to turn it into a video, figuring the process of cutting it off the log to someday make it into a bowl would be an awesome project to share.
As you can see in the video, I cut a few smaller chunks at first and then got a little more aggressive. I really wanted to get as much as I could, but knew there would be a limit to how much I could put in my wheelbarrow and save. It doesn’t help either that I’m still trying to finish my garage workshop and “green” (freshly cut) wood can take months or even years to dry out. I would have to settle for getting a few chunks and sadly say goodbye to the rest, but I could feel some satisfaction of saving a little of it.
Chainsaw safety gear
My STIHL safety chaps and helmet were ridiculously hot in the Georgia weather (even in the fall), but they made this whole process so much easier. I find that when working with power tools, it’s good to have a balance between caution and confidence. Too cautious, and you can be too timid and hold a tool too meekly, leading to less control; too confident, and you can take dumb risks. I knew already that I was pushing this little chainsaw to do some seriously heavy lifting on this log, so my safety gear went a long way to help me stay confident and in control for each cut.
Sealing wood blanks for drying
After cutting off several usable chunks of wood, I sealed all the ends. The exposed ends of a chunk of wood can dry out too fast while the center of the wood dries more slowly, leading to big cracks. To avoid it, there are sealants you can buy that can be painted on the ends (such as Anchorseal), allowing for a more even distribution of moisture in the wood as it dries. Of course, I didn’t have this special sealant, but I read that latex paint can do in a pinch! That, I have plenty of.
But it wasn’t over yet…
I was happy to have my chunks of wood and content with thinking about all the bowls or carved pieces I might make in the future. Still, I felt bad about not doing more to save the rest of the tree. In an ideal scenario, I would take this log to someone who could cut it into long, thick planks (“slabs”), keep the raw edges, and let it dry out over a year or so. “Live edge” wood tables would be gorgeous. Or a headboard for the master bedroom! I’d seen others do it, but they all had big, heavy equipment, lived in more rural areas with more land to dry out the wood, and years more experience than I do. The wood was just sitting there, but this seemed like a very out-there idea. Still, asking some friends in the woodworking community couldn’t hurt, right?
I posted about my sudden “find” to a Facebook group for local woodworkers, and I got several recommendations for portable wood milling. I knew this was a thing because K and I had discussed sawmills down in Americus when a storm blew down a bunch of trees on his family’s property, but I had no idea if any would be available to service an Atlanta suburb. Again, this seemed totally crazy and I figured people would laugh at my zany idea.
Instead, within a few hours, I had the number for someone willing to do the job and got a quote from Bruce at Northeast Georgia Sawmilling. Bruce and I discussed my options at length, what I’d need to do to make sure the folks who cut down my neighbor’s tree didn’t take it with the rest of the pine logs, and prepare a spot in the back yard for stacking these wood slabs. I took measurements as well: the log was 14 feet long and up to 21 inches wide. Due to scheduling conflicts, it would be a few weeks, but we scheduled an early Sunday morning (the earliest we were both available).
How does portable wood milling work?
A portable mill is basically a large, sideways bandsaw towed behind a truck. The sawyer (the guy who owns and operates the mill) comes out to the property and handles everything from start to finish. The log(s) are rolled and loaded onto the machine one at a time, which uses clamps to hold the log in place. The blade is very thin, so there is very little waste as it runs through the log to slice it into slabs of consistent thickness. While each piece is cut, the previous piece of lumber is stacked on top of the other with “stickers” for spacing in between. Weights and a tarp cover the top, leaving the sides open for airflow so that the wood can fully dry out over the next 6-12 months (or up to a couple of years, depending on the thickness of each slab).
What prep work is there?
Before the sawyer could come out, I had to get the log over to my yard. Not an easy task at first glance, but I solved that one pretty quickly. The company that cut down my neighbor’s trees would be coming back in the next day or so to pick up all the logs and haul them away. I got up ridiculously early the next morning to watch for them to arrive. When they did, I asked if they wouldn’t mind using the long arm on the truck that they were using to load all the logs to instead move the last tree in the pile one yard over. They obliged and were on their way.
Next, we cut down a 6 x 6 pressure-treated post into chunks that would be wide enough for the slabs. Every 18 inches or so (? trying to remember but I’ll update this if it’s wrong), we spaced these supports out onto the lawn and leveled them all out. It’s important to get this right so that each cut stays flat and dries without warping. The weight of each piece would help keep the pieces under it weighed down, but the last cut on top would need weights. We gathered a stack of landscaping pavers for this task.
You may laugh at this since this is a sponsored post, but in the video, when the sawyer lopped off a few stray areas that were too wide to fit onto the portable mill, he whipped out a Stihl chainsaw. It was perfect. 😂
The first few passes with the saw cut narrow slices (I think an inch each) until we got a nice, flat surface. Then, he switched to slicing 2 inches thick at a time. We had the option to turn the wood and cut off the edges for a more squared-off piece (the way you typically see lumber), but we liked the “live edge” look. We will eventually lose some of that thickness when the wood is planed flat after drying (the wood may still move and have uneven spots despite our efforts), but 2 inches was the maximum he recommended because of the length — they’re crazy heavy!
When we got about halfway through the log, he flipped it over and repeated the same thin slice + thicker slice pattern.
I saved all of the random offcuts as well to use for small projects (or to practice my carving on smaller scrap).
We were also tasked with wiping off the sawdust before stacking to help prevent the surfaces from growing mold.
While K and Bruce carried each piece to the stack, I was tasked with checking that each sticker in between (made from scrap wood strips) was exactly the same thickness to ensure that the lumber would have even spacing (one piece too thick or too narrow could also lead to warping).
It was SO COOL to watch it all go down! And look how much wood we got out of it!!
How much does it cost?
The total cost is based on time and labor — both the total time spent cutting and the mileage to get to our property. Our total cost came in at $400. The cost of actually buying live edge slabs of wood, especially at this length, would be much more than that, so we think we’ll have some pretty awesome options for the money spent. If we wind up with slabs we don’t wind up using, we can also consider selling them since woodworkers enjoy working with these kinds of pieces.
All of this went down right in front of the house, and the log sat on the new grass until it was time to mill. Our neighbors seemed to be ok with the milling, despite how early in the morning we started (our neighborhood seems to have a general “it’s ok if you’re loud sometimes because we were loud 3 weeks ago and you didn’t say anything” policy). Still, it’s best to give your neighbor’s a heads up!
K was VERY concerned about the log and sawdust ruining the grassy patch right at the front of the yard (especially with all the effort we’d just put into it over the summer and reseeding). With good reason, as the sawdust was deep enough to make a sawdust angel (but laying in the street just isn’t my thing).
We had the wood milled in November, so it’s been a few months and we have several more to go. As for the grass, it’s nice and healthy! Phew!
Bruce recommended we purchase a moisture meter to know when the lumber is dry enough (25%? 30%? I can’t recall) and then have it kiln dried to get the moisture level down even further before we turn it into a final project. As for how long that might be, I’ve heard a common rule of thumb for air-drying wood is one year per one inch of thickness, but that is a really rough starting point (we also live in a high humidity area). We’re obviously still months away from that!
(Originally, we thought we needed to cover the whole thing and bought a big tarp, but quickly realized we needed to only cover the top and corrected ourselves!)
Once it’s dried, we’ll hopefully have enough wood for several projects, so I’m excited to see what we make! My top ideas currently are a headboard and/or countertop pieces for Ruby. We’re thinking we’ll also make a cutting board or serving board for our neighbor as a thank-you. And a few smaller pieces, maybe even some wearable art — does anyone want a necklace? 😊 (I know this is completely off-topic, but I’m thinking of doing the same thing with salvaged wood from Ruby.)
K also gifted me a benchtop lathe for Christmas, so I will be using the chunks soon as well to do some woodturning and carving! Stay tuned for that later this year. If you have other ideas for what we should do with this wood, I’d love to hear that too!