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Chainsaw and Alaska mill recommendations?  RSS feed

 
Jesse Grimes
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In my dreaming and scheming for the ant village challenge at Paul's place this year, I have come to the conclusion that I will need to purchase a chainsaw and alaska mill. Mostly I am thinking of cutting 2 inch by 10-12 inch boards for use as shoring in a Mike Ohler type underground home. Also, I will be using it for felling/limbing trees and notching for roundwood construction. I've never bought a chainsaw before, but have operated one a few times. I tried a few of the cordless electric ones that Paul had during the Wofati workshop, and they were cool, but not powerful enough for what I want to do.

So, wise gear heads of permies.com, what would be a good all around saw for me to purchase? What would be a good Alaska mill? I will likely be buying a used saw, so what are some things I should look for?

A farm i worked at on Vancouver island had one of these Alaska mills, and it cut some pretty decent 2 inch thick slabs from red cedar. - Alaskan MK III Portable Lumber Mill

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Michael Newby
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If you're planning on using the Alaskan Mill for any real production you're going to need a pretty powerful saw to avoid prematurely wearing out the saw. I personally have used my Stihl 660 on some 30" slabs and it was okay but if I was going to be doing a lot of it then I would really try to get my hands on an 880 or older 088. Better yet if you can snatch up one of the old gear driven 090G's. Those are all expensive professional saws, even used, but that's what it takes to rip those big slabs with that thick chainsaw chain.

As far as mills themselves go I've only used the Granberg Mill and I really felt like with a decent welder and basic metal shaping tools I could build a better one in less than a day.
 
Will Meginley
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Short answer: based on what you've said you want to use it for you'd be better off with two saws. One for the Alaska mill and a smaller one for all the other stuff. If you really can only afford to buy and/or rent ONE saw I'd go with something like a Stihl 460, but know that it will be the worst of both worlds - too small for serious production with the Alaska mill but really too bulky and consumptive of fuel and oil for most of the other stuff.

Long answer: Michael is right - if you plan to make more than just a few boards you'll need a large-displacement powerhead to avoid destroying the saw. Most of the recommendations I've seen suggest something with at LEAST 50cc displacement. So that 660 he was talking about would be nearer the low end of what you'd want.

BUT

Such a large powerhead is extremely heavy and cumbersome to work with, and uses a lot more gas than necessary for most other applications. For cutting down most trees in the Missoula area you can get away with a much smaller saw, and you'll want one anyway for working on the cabin. An old Stihl 360 or 361 in good condition or one of the new 362s would do just fine.

Maybe you can compromise: buy the smaller saw that you'll have more use for but arrange to rent or borrow a larger saw more suitable for milling. (Just be sure to procure some properly-sized ripper chain ahead of time.)

Some general recommendations: Stihl or Husqvarna would be the best brands to look for. I prefer Stihl, personally. It's a bit pricier, but it's more solidly constructed than Husqvarna. Look for something that's marketed as being for professional use. Such a saw will be more likely to stand up to harder use without breaking than saws marketed to homeowners, which you may be tempted to buy because they're cheaper. As far as what to look for with used saws: I assume if you're asking that you probably don't know much about maintaining saws. If that's the case the best advice I can offer is look for a saw that runs and that appears to be clean and well-kept. See if the owner will let you have it looked at by a small engine mechanic to find anything wrong before you buy. Also, be wary of buying saws that it's no longer possible to get spare parts for. Even if nothing breaks you'll have to replace the drive sprocket every two or three chains - and something will break, even on professional grade saws. Once a model is discontinued they usually stop making spare parts available after five years or so. Visit your local Stihl or Husqvarna dealer and find out what models they can still get parts for and shop accordingly.

Hope that helps. Good luck.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Jesse, et al,

Chainsaw milling is a very enticing and captivating notion for many DIYers. There have been those "very motivated" DIYers with great support skills and knowledge that have built entire homes with these devices, I have seen these structures, and helped with a few. I have been lucky along the way to meet some great people that really are some founding users of these adapted tools back in the 80's. From Ed Levin and Will Maloff among others, I learned a great deal about what works and what really doesn't. (If you can get a copy of Will's book: Chainsaw Lumbermaking you will learn a great deal from it.)

For the last 22 years I have owned as many as 4 at one time, depending on the project from "electric chain mills" for cutting tenons on timber frames, to our "chain mortisers" which is a staple device in most Timberwright shops.

I couldn't really support Michael Newby's comments enough. At the heart of his comment is the work these machines have to do. If you are making any cuts larger than 200 to 300 mm on a regular basis, you will burn most smaller saws up. For the last 28 years virtually 100% of my chainsaw "timber and slab wood" milling is only done with a Husqvarna 3120 XP, any smaller saw is a waste of time and puts to much burden on the saw.

Do not get sucked into the hype of "tandem power heads" or other gimmicks. Only use ripping chain, and learn how to sharpen this with a jig (power diamond jigs are better.) You must have a perfectly "edged and dressed" bar with zero burr. The chain must be SHARP!! at all times or you will wipe out yourself and the saw. Learn to take really good maintenance care of your saws including stripping down to the pistons and carb for cleaning and rebuilds. As for fuel...IT HAS TO BE FRESH, and high octane only (94 minimum) with an oil rich mix of 40:1 at all times...I even run this mix in my climbing saws and other "oil mix" engines. Yes there is more smoke, but the engine is better lubricated and will not burn up on you which will happen in seconds even on a new saw if the mix is too lean. 50:1 is TOO LEAN...!! I have a pine down now that over the summer/fall I was hoping to do a post on chainsaw milling...Hope I get the time...

Let me know if I can answer any specifics...

Regards,

j
 
Jesse Grimes
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Thank you all for your very excellent replies. You really helped give me a starting point for researching saws. I'm signed up for the Ant village now, and getting ready to move up to Montana. Looking at my budget I will probably have to hold off on buying a big saw for milling, and just go with a small saw for felling and limbing trees, and doing the notching on my roundpole construction. So I guess my question now is what is a good commercial grade smaller saw for this type of work?
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hey Jesse,

Well that is exciting...your going to be an Ant!! Say hello to Evan for me and tell him that New England wants him back....

I am sure you will get all kinds of advice from many people about "what is the best saw." I would say most of these opinions (including mine..) are subjective at best. Getting parts and being able to service your own saw is pretty important and whether you go with Sthil, Husqvarna (Husky,) or some other brand doesn't matter too much if you can't get parts fast and inexpensively. I like Sthil and used them for decades...I don't like the way the treat rep's in North America and some of there other practices so stopped buying them. Are they better made than Husky...probably yes, on average, but not that much better. Husky actually makes several saw and for other companies as well like Makita and the like.

One of my go to suppliers for tools like this is Bailey's. They supply loggers and timber folks all over North and South America. They have always been really helpful to folk that I send their way that are new to the craft. I would like to see you with something over 50cc if possible as a good all round saw. Smaller if all you are doing is limbing, but no smaller if you are going to be felling and bucking up bolts.

As for milling, you can "hand mill" by eye pretty well with practice if it is a real need, but I don't recommend it to most folk as a steady way to make lumber and timber.

...go with a small saw for felling and limbing trees, and doing the notching on my roundpole construction...


For rough in work, if you must, this can be done. I strongly recommend a good set of hand tools as Paul et al are discussing on the What eight tools make a "Proenneke Package"? These are "minimum" to have" tools for the kind of work folks want to achieve with homesteading. For example, I probably have a mallet and 30 mm gouge in my hand more than any other tool for most jointing tasks. Straight chisels have become the "I think I need it," tool for most but they cut slow and can't do what a gouge does, but a gouge can do what a flat chisel can in almost all cases. Plus!! they cut joints 10 times faster... Learn to use these tools and sharpen them and you will get more done than with a chainsaw. Actually I limb with an ax or machete much faster than with a chainsaw in most projects, especially with smaller limbs and conifer species. Power tools may delude one into thinking they are faster...often that is an illusion.

Let me know if I can help further...

Regards,

j
 
Will Meginley
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Jay C. White Cloud wrote:
I am sure you will get all kinds of advice from many people about "what is the best saw." I would say most of these opinions (including mine..) are subjective at best. Getting parts and being able to service your own saw is pretty important and whether you go with Sthil, Husqvarna (Husky,) or some other brand doesn't matter too much if you can't get parts fast and inexpensively. I like Sthil and used them for decades...I don't like the way the treat rep's in North America and some of there other practices so stopped buying them. Are they better made than Husky...probably yes, on average, but not that much better. Husky actually makes several saw and for other companies as well like Makita and the like.


The part that I bolded in Jay C.'s comment above is the crux of it. Learning to service and repair your own saw will save you a LOT of money and lost time in the long run. As I mentioned in my previous comment, even if nothing on your saw "breaks" you'll still need to replace parts fairly often just due to normal wear and tear. Knowing how - and, more importantly, when - to do that could mean the difference between spending 10 minutes and $20 to replace ONE part versus letting that one part fail and spending hundreds of dollars paying a mechanic to fix the damage. That's one of the main reasons Husky and Stihl are the most highly recommended brands. Most towns of any size have a dealer for at least one, if not both brands - making it easy to acquire parts. By all means, check out other brands, but be sure you have access to spare parts for an "off brand" saw before buying one. And by "spare parts" I mean more than just spark plugs, air filters, and the like. You should be able to buy every single part from the piston to the trigger assembly down to the smallest bolt. Beware that if you're buying it from a big box home improvement type store there's a very real possibility that it may not be designed to be repairable. In which case, avoid it like the plague.

Other than that, it's pretty hard to go wrong. Like Jay C. mentioned, the difference between Stihl and Husky is not terribly important. I've used both and liked each. The main difference is Husky tends to use plastic in places where Stihl would use metal, making Stihls heavier and a bit more expensive, but also a bit more durable. If you don't run your saw 60+ hours per week for 5 months of the year like we tend to do in my profession it probably won't be a big concern for you. I'd probably pick the brand with the closest/best repair shop for your area over most other criteria.



...go with a small saw for felling and limbing trees, and doing the notching on my roundpole construction...


For rough in work, if you must, this can be done. I strongly recommend a good set of hand tools as Paul et al are discussing on the What eight tools make a "Proenneke Package"? These are "minimum" to have" tools for the kind of work folks want to achieve with homesteading. For example, I probably have a mallet and 30 mm gouge in my hand more than any other tool for most jointing tasks. Straight chisels have become the "I think I need it," tool for most but they cut slow and can't do what a gouge does, but a gouge can do what a flat chisel can in almost all cases. Plus!! they cut joints 10 times faster... Learn to use these tools and sharpen them and you will get more done than with a chainsaw. Actually I limb with an ax or machete much faster than with a chainsaw in most projects, especially with smaller limbs and conifer species. Power tools may delude one into thinking they are faster...often that is an illusion.
j


If you opt to go this route I'd suggest getting a bit beefier chainsaw so that as your skills and comfort level improve you'll be able to cut bigger trees without getting bogged down. A Stihl MS 460/461 Magnum or the Husqvarna equivalent with a 24" or 28" bar should be more than adequate for anyone but a professional logger in the Oregon/Washington coastal forests.

If you do foresee yourself using the saw a lot in construction type situations you might want to go with something smaller and more maneuverable instead like an MS 360/361/362 (same saw, just progressively newer versions). Get a 24" bar for felling and limbing trees and a 20" or maybe even 16" bar for the construction stuff. This sized powerhead would be about the smallest I'd go if you plan to fell trees with it on a regular basis. With a powerhead this size I'd stick to trees of no more than 20" diameter for softwoods, less for dense hardwoods, to avoid overstraining the motor.

Either way, if you buy a new saw get one with a full-wrap handle. (They seldom come like that stock so you'll have to ask for it. You can also buy the handle by itself from a dealer for a used saw.) This allows you to make all your cuts when felling a tree from one side of the tree, which is safer than walking back and forth behind it (and NEVER in front of it). It also will make it easier for you to hold the saw for whatever reason in positions that would be really awkward with the standard half-wrap grip.
 
Will Meginley
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Also, no matter what saw you buy get your hands on the repair manual. This is different from the "owner's" manual that comes with the saw, which covers only basic preventive maintenance and troubleshooting. What I'm talking about is usually called a repair or shop manual, and it's the equivalent of a Chilton's manual for your car - giving step by step instructions for everything from changing a spark plug to adjusting the magneto or rebuilding the cylinder, including parts lists and tools needed. It's what the repair shops use when working on new, unfamiliar models or dealing with relatively unusual repairs. If you're on good terms with your local dealer you can often sweet talk them into letting you have a copy. Technically they aren't supposed to, but they often don't care, especially if all you want is a PDF copy via thumb drive or email. Failing that you can buy them online for a nominal fee.

Over the life of your saw even a paper copy of the repair manual could save you more than its weight in gold. Most repair shops charge $70-100 per hour for labor these days. I would strongly suggest considering the lack or unavailability of a repair manual to be a strong "do not buy" signal when you're considering possibilities.
 
Jesse Grimes
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Thank you, thank you, chainsaw gurus! Such valuable advice.

Will Meginley wrote:Also, no matter what saw you buy get your hands on the repair manual. This is different from the "owner's" manual that comes with the saw, which covers only basic preventive maintenance and troubleshooting. What I'm talking about is usually called a repair or shop manual, and it's the equivalent of a Chilton's manual for your car - giving step by step instructions for everything from changing a spark plug to adjusting the magneto or rebuilding the cylinder, including parts lists and tools needed.


I am well familiar with the Chilton's manuals, I've always done most of my own car repairs and used these a lot, definitely worth every penny. (Thanks, Dad, for making me get you wrenches while you were under the truck). I've never worked on two strokes or small engines, but I imagine I will would do fine with the right instructions.

I am in the process of looking for a small used truck to drive out to Montana, it sounds like looking for a used chainsaw is a similar experience.
 
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