The old time saw mill on Briarwood Rd., Marathon County

ThreeHills copy

In June 2010 I was driving around the backsides of what is known as the "Three hills forming a sweeping crescent that encircles Ninemile Swamp," to wit, Rib Mountain, Mosinee Hill (Upper and Lower) and Hardwood Hill, located just outside Wausau to its west. I found the whole thing confusing, have found some good research about it, and will come back to this geography on some other day. In the opening photo, I believe I got all three, with Rib Mountain to the left, Mosinee Hills in the distant center, and Hardwood Hill to the right, I think. Ah, but I digress.

SawmillFront copy

As I was roaming around the area, I came upon what looked to me like a very old and small saw mill on Briarwood Road between CH S and Maple Leaf Road, in the area of Burns Creek.

Aerial copy

I believe I have correctly identified the saw mill on this MapQuest satellite shot.

Well, here again I stumble into something I know nothing about. I loved the place. I believe in one form or another, someone is actively employing this sawmill. There was no body in sight anywhere when I visited, so I went inside and pounded out a bunch of photos. I've brought those back and will show them to you, but I wanted to figure out what I was seeing in the photos so I have done a bunch of research. Hope I can score at least a "d" grade on explaining the equipment.

As an aside, my dad was a self-made carpenter and I was always his "go-fer," and always bore the brunt of the storm when I wasn't holding the wood perfectly correctly as he was sawing it. During those days, I developed a great love for wood, especially the smells associated with it during the production phase. Of course, my dad was buying wood that was already pretty well manufactured. Here in Wisconsin, and most certainly at this saw mill, I was going much closer to the actual tree, and taking that raw tree and making it into something useful for others. I wish my dad had been with me. He would have explained all this with glee.
So, with all that background, let's take a whirl at this.

SawmillFrontLogs copy

So we start here. Someone has delivered cut logs to the saw mill. My guess is that he simply drops them off here. Obviously, they have to be moved. My guess is they must be moved to that building to the left that faces toward the lot in front of the main mill building.

StorageShed copy

The day I was here, this area was not in use. I believe the saw mill operator must use a heavy duty machine, a payloader, to pick up the logs from the front and move them to this building and stack them on those rails.

I want to return to an opening photo of the mill. You just saw the face of the building on the left. While this saw mill sure looked old and beat up to me, it looks like new wood was used to raise the height of the roof and there is a fairly new looking fan in the center.

SawmillFront copy

When I walked inside, frankly it struck me as a bit of a labyrinth inside. That's largely because I knew nothing about these kinds of operations so when I arrived I had no way of knowing what the processes were performed inside. I had to research the problem when I got home. One thing for sure --- There was a lot of equipment in there. I am certain this is a working mill.

I think I walked in through the opening on the left, and was immediately taken by what I saw to the right as I walked in.

Saw copy

I'm going to zoom in on this a few times to point things I, "the rookie without portfolio," found interesting.

The first thing you see is a very large saw blade, center in the photo, and some kind of rail transporter to the left. I have inserted that red arrow to point to a slab of wood they've stuck on the wall. I, and you, can use this as a point of reference as we look at this from different angles. But first, a few zoomers.

RailCarriageSawBlade copy

Here you see the rail carriage to the left of the saw blade. This is a sturdy looking carriage and track in my opinion. I understand some saw mills can really have a gerry-rigged operation here. Such is not the case here. This is cast iron steel and the steel axles are on the order of three inches or so.

The logs are placed on the carriage lengthwise between the horizontal arm of the carriage and the blade. That horizontal arm is adjustable depending on what size log your are dealing with and what kind of cut you want.

RailCarriageSawBlade copy

This is a closer view of the carriage and the saw blade. I understand that the first action with the log is to cut off any side of the log. That first cut is called the "slab." In that case, the width between the carriage horizontal arm and the blade would have be such that only the sides of the log are cut off

The pros say this is essentially wasted wood, often used for firewood for heating the shed. I need to give you a different view of this, however, to help better understand the scale of this carriage-rail scheme. As you'll see in a moment, you are looking at one end of what is a rather long carriage.

CarriageSlabs copy

Far to the left, you see the saw blade and the horizontal arm. Here you see a lot more. First, you see the carriage is long and has four such horizontal arms to hold the long logs steady. You all see a set of rollers to the left that I believe holds the slabs. There is probably another operator who pulls those slabs over the rollers, cuts them into reasonable lengths, and in this case it looks like they are being stored underneath the rollers, bottom right quadrant of the photo.

Canthook copy

I need to pause for a moment. The logs have to be rolled around a bit to get them into the position you want for sawing. This is where the good ol' canthook comes in.

CanthookA copy

The metal hook at the end is known as the "Dog." The canthook is used for lifting, turning, and prying logs and is about as old as the logging industry itself.

Returning to our saw operation, the operator probably uses a canthook to roll the log in order to cut off all the slabs. Quite often there has to be another person there to pick up and move the slabs.

Boards copy

Once the slabs are off, then the operator can start cutting his boards. I have to go back, because I am not sure how these boards got on this set of rollers, which run perpendicular to the rollers that would first receive them from the saw. I understand the boards are cut from a log by running it past the blade and back.

BoardsA copy

I apologize for getting this view of the boards out of focus, but the view gives you a more complete sense for them. Normally, the second operator, who is a real handyman working for the saw operator, moves these boards and stacks them in piles outside by size.

The sawmill produces a good deal of sawdust. I have seen one report that said some 10 percent of the log can be turned into saw dust, perhaps even more. Combine that with the slabs and there is a lot of wood lost.

One report I saw said that that particular sawmill had a chain to pull the sawdust out from under the blade and out of the building. Periodically, the "handyman" has to shovel the dust around to make room for more.

I did not note how the saw dust flowed out, but got photos of two mechanisms employed to move it.

Sawdust copy

Here you see a tube bringing out the sawdust and dumping it outside the building.

SawdustA copy

This gives you a closer look. This sawdust looks fairly course. I wish to point out that this mechanism is on the right of the building when looking at it from the front.

SawdustFine copy

This is a look at the left side of the building. The red arrow points to another mechanism used to move sawdust out. Here are two more photos of this.

SawdustFineA copy

You can see that this sawdust is much more fine than the first batch I showed you. I'm not sure what the processes are or whether the coarse stuff is made more fine as a follow-on step. Back to the saw mill to figure this out as well.

There's a lot more be told about this kind of sawmill to which I am not able to talk. For example, as you might imagine, the saw blade can get very hot. There is always risk of a fire, and special precautions have to be taken. There are also issue related to the blades teeth. The heat can distort them. Newer blades have replaceable teeth, but they can be dicey to operate. More frequently old time sawmill pros prefer just to stop the mill every few hours and manually file the teeth.

You might wonder why anyone would operate this kind of mill. One reason is that there is a market for specially cut wood. I saw one report that said "You just can't walk into Home Depot and buy 3 inch think oak planks, and even if they had it, it would cost an arm and a leg."

As a final note, operating a sawmill like this takes a special breed of man, highly skilled at his profession. Such men have long been part of our history.

I wish to acknowledge a story on the web that helped me out a lot in determining and explaining what I was looking at in the photos I took. It's
"My dad's old sawmill," by Matthias Wandel. I commend it to you. It has some photography and text that are useful. His overall web site is also most interesting.