The rolling river hills in Gasconade County provide some beautiful scenic vistas. The forest soil that blankets those hills also grow some tall walnut and white oak trees, that can be made into valuable wood products for construction, furniture and barrel staves. Rural Hermann resident Stan Stevens represents that hardy breed of men that takes to the woods on any day of the week. The ex-Navy aviator and commercial airline pilot is also president of the City of Hermann Tree Commission. He’s the kind of guy that plants trees for the next generation, helps others in the Commission to be an advocate for the beauty and value of trees in Hermann’s neighborhoods and he has a love of working with wood. What many people don’t know about Stan, is that he has been custom sawing trees in the county with a portable saw mill for decades.
About 27 years ago, some friends of his arrived at his house with a pickup loaded with cedar logs. They were headed to a farm near Jefferson City to get them sawed into cedar lumber on a small, portable sawmill.
“It was just the neatest thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “On the way back, they said, ‘Stan, why don’t you buy one of those things and we’ll run it for you.’”
They became partners before they got back. The arrangement worked for a couple of months before other things in life got in the way, so the sawmill business died a quiet death. Stan would pull out the saw every now and then and saw up a log for the neighbors, but it never became more than an inconsistent, if not fun, activity.
At some point, he decided he wanted to pull out the saw on a more regular basis and he wanted to learn about kiln drying lumber. He attended a course in Minn. and came home, more the wiser. It was just the educational push he needed to get serious about cutting, and just as important, treating those fresh cut boards so they would become long-lasting viable lumber.
“I’ve always let my customers know that just getting a board cut is not the end of the process,” he explains. Wood, being an organic product harbors insects in varying degrees of a life cycle.
“I realized I had to treat this wood before I used it, otherwise I’d have bugs coming out of the cabinetry in the kitchen,” he says.
Stan notes that sawn lumber should be heat-treated up to 133 F, for half-an-hour, to kill any insect life within wood. It should be noted that the process is to sterilize lumber, it doesn’t dry it down, which is also an important consideration.
“If you cut up an oak log, the wood can be 80 percent moisture,” he explains. “If you buy kiln-dried lumber at the lumber yard, that’s probably 12 to 15 percent moisture. Wood is just like a sponge.”
Stan says wood absorbs moisture from the atmosphere if it is drier than the air, or vice versa. Recall swelling doors that stick in their frames during wet weather. He notes that furniture makers need to use lumber that has been dried down to eight percent to become stable.
Stan travels from farm-to-farm to saw logs, so his Wood-Mizer rig has to be portable. He describes it as a large band saw laid on its side, so it cuts horizontally, not vertically like a table saw.
“We set the log on a rail deck, clamp it and “level it up,” he explains. “You just run the bandsaw over the top of it [down the distance of the log] and cut off the boards.”
He uses electric-driven hydraulics to move the saw blade assembly down the rail, so the mill operator can cut at his/her own pace. A consistent timing twin-cycle gas-powered motor runs the saw blade.
Simple. Or is it?
First, he has to ensure he’s got a sharp blade. He’ll go through up to five double-hardened blades (which look like a flat belt hoop with teeth), that will later be shipped back to the factory for re-sharpening. They cost between $15 and $25 apiece and can be ruined instantly if the blade hits a nail hidden inside the log.
There is a water reservoir that holds a mix of Dawn dish soap that is tube fed down to the blade as it is cutting. It washes tree sap off the blade as it cuts for more efficient cutting.
Stan estimates he can cut close to 300 board feet (board foot = 12 inches x 12 inches x 1 inch) before he has to change blades. For each pass down the log, there is only 1/8 of an inch of waste, as the blade cuts through the log to make a board. This is known as the “saw kerf.”
“A circle saw has a 1/4 inch kerf [of waste], so for every eight boards I cut, I have one extra board (compared to a circle saw),” he says.
Before Stan cuts lumber from a log, he has to level his log deck to suit the taper of the log. Typically there are two or three logs per tree typically cut into 8 or 16 ft. lengths. Trees grow wider at the base and narrower at the top, so the amount of taper he has to work with, depends on where that log was positioned when the tree was felled. The log closest to the stump has more taper.
To cut grade lumber, Stan says you level your blade cut from the top of the log (i.e. parallel to the tree taper) because “the most desirable slice of wood is parallel to the outside of the log.” Then you flip the log 90 degrees, cut and repeat two more times to get around the four sides of the log. Once you have cut lumber from the four sides that is parallel with the tree’s taper, what you are left with is an ice cream cone-shaped center piece.
Stan levels his log on the deck with an imaginary center line through the middle of the log. So, his first cut off the top of the log will be waste in the form of a tapered slab. He’s not cutting parallel to the log taper. He’ll cut tapered slabs off the other three sides and will be left with a square log to cut grade lumber of the same width. He says the amount of waste is the same with either leveling method.
This sounds simple enough, but logs hide many secrets that don’t transform into good lumber when cut.
“If a tree was grown under tension (grown on a hillside or sporting a one-time heavy branch), you’ll have compressed wood and you’ll see the crack opened up by the kerf when sawing,” he explains. “When you start sawing it, you’re releasing these tensions. Freshly-sawed boards will start to move on you.”
Stan says kiln drying under weight helps keep the wood stable. In essence, you’re training the board to be straight without warping. Cherry and sycamore are “real movers,” but walnut is fairly stable according to Stan.
“I cut about 30 percent for woodworkers and 70 percent for farmers,” he says.
Stan cuts lots of logs for use in post and beam construction for barns and some homes. He can cut a 21 ft. log (his track length) up to 30 in. diameter.
“I look at trees in the way farmers look at their cattle or sheep,” says the sawyer. “They have to be managed. You raise them up to their healthiest condition and then you slaughter them. But with trees, he says you keep them as long as you can, and once they go into growth decline, that’s when the sawmill needs to come in.