Quartering a huge oak

      Methods for quartering a log too large to fit on the mill. May 9, 2001

I have a 46" diameter red oak log I want to mill. Only problem is it won't fit on my mill. I'm considering quartering it with a chainsaw and guide. Is this the best way?

Forum Responses
That's the way I do it. You can snap a chalk line on it first, and then only take a cut of a few inches deep each pass. This will get you a fairly straight cut.

I hew the log down to a size that the blade guides will pass and the mill will go over the top. If you can get it on the mill and cut a trough for the blade guide and coarsely rip with a chain saw or hew with an ax anything that gets in the way, then you can get it to size pretty quick with only one turning. You really need to be careful with a log that size and I would recommend that you keep it under 12 feet long.

From the original questioner:
I have a Timberking B-20, so if I were to hew it down to fit the mill, I'd be wasting a lot of good lumber. The log is just under ten feet long. The narrow end is 46" in diameter, the thick end is just over 50" in diameter. I also figured, since the log will be quartered, I'd finish it off cutting the boards radially.

There's nothing wrong with the way you want to do it. I just have trouble
1. cutting that straight with a chain saw and
2. handling the quarters on the ground with the flat sides.

I have a Woodmizer and a Baker. The Baker is closer to your design (4 post). I don't really feel I lose anymore by hewing. I raise the head to max. What won't pass through the throat I nibble off. What hits the posts I hew off. I cut boards until the blade guide won't pass the log, then I nibble the log away until the guide will pass. I do this until the height of the cant approximates the width of the throat. Then I turn the cant 90 degrees and take the top off. At this point, you can start cutting for vertical grain if you like by making your second cut 6 or 8 inches deep and cutting it later.

At any rate, I usually find the log manageable at this point. A little artistic license is used to determine how deep to go with the first cut because of the shape of the log.

A lot of talk of hacking this beautiful log down to size to 'fit' the mill. What a waste! Can't you find someone in your area with a Lucas mill or a Peterson who can rough cut the entire log into large cants or slabs for you and then you can resaw them with your band mill as you like? No more than 1 1/2 hours work. Cutting with a chain saw will also lose a heap of time and timber.

I often quarter large logs close to this size with a 36 inch chainsaw that attaches to one of those cheap Haddon sleds that, in turn, slides on a 2x6. It would take about 15 minutes for the Stihl 038M to cut full depth from one side for a ten foot log: then turn it over and cut through from the other side, holding the slabs from closing with a couple of shakes as wedges. It's a messy job, with sawdust thrown all over you, but it preserves almost all the wood.

I know Amish sawmillers that bore into the log with a chainsaw and put black powder in the core and touch it off--works, but probably wastes some nice lumber.

If I can get it up on the mill, I just have at it until the guides won't pass, using the chainsaw to finish the first passes, or to hog out a path if the guides won't pass. With the edging and resawing capabilities of the Woodmizer, very little of the log is wasted. My largest was a 54" 12 foot long maple that gave me many 20" boards.

I have run chalklines on logs and carefully split them with a chainsaw (even with wedges if the grain is real straight) into perfect quarters. Here is where band mills are limited--they can only get 2 quartersawn boards from each of the quarters sections. And they will only be quartered on one face. The rest is rift sawn.

True quartersawn lumber is a very labor-intensive and wasteful process. I am in the process of contemplating a Peterson mill to go along with a special log-holding device so that I can rotate the log a bit at a time while making perfectly quartered wedges, which will yield much more true quartersawn material.

Remember to take at least 1-3" of the pith out, depending on the quality of the log, once you make the quartered sections.

You guys are talking about using a swing circle mill to avoid wasting part of the log, but what about the kerf loss of your mills? And what about the carcass of the log? And what about the very limited width of the boards? Speaking of which, how much would four 20" wide true quartersawn boards sell for? Probably quite a bit more than several narrower ones, on the specialty market, at least.

Do whatever is best for you--if you need all narrow material, get a swing circle sawmill, and avoid the trouble of quartering the log. But if you want or need big wide beautiful quartersawn boards, quarter your log and put it on a band mill, but consider a beam machine or other chainsaw guide setup to minimize loss.

The Peterson will cut up to a 10" x 20" cant or beam, so that is not an issue.

Agreeably, the kerf is a bit more, but this is offset by the smooth finish and extreme accuracy of the cut.

I would not try to sell boards that are wider than 8-10" in today's market, unless a customer orders it way in advance. Most shops don't have planers that wide and many woodworkers are not body builders, so the weight can cause problems as well.

We would all be amazed at the cost of a load of true quarter sawn white oak boards that fell into the 8"-10" spec 8' - 12' long. Even Stickley does not use that type of wood--too unstable. They use 5/4 - 8/4 and resaw to create bookmatched patterns.

Also, a Lucas Mill and a Peterson Mill each make a bar and chain attachment, which allows you to cut slabs up to 60" wide on some models. Yes, I know chain saw mills are slow, but this covers the width problem for those wide cuts.

Unstable? I was under the impression that q-sawn was the most stable cut there is.

Yes, quartersawn is the most stable, but even qtrd boards 20" wide will move, and don't forget they will contain a mix of heartwood and sapwood. That is where I personally have a challenge with trying to get 20" wide boards from a 46" diameter log.

Recently I saw some 30" - 40" white ash all cut up on a Woodmizer to 4/4 with boards 20" wide clear end to end coming off. I know the wood will not be used in this way, it will be ripped and cut up in ways that it did not deserve to die for.

Every log will open up differently, it had a life as a living thing and it will tell you what it wants to be if you look at the cross sections and the bark, and then of course the grain, as you begin cutting. I inherited that philosophy from George Nakashima, I think--the man liked BIG logs.

Another item for discussion is grade. With any large log, there is only a small chance that you will find high-grade material on all 4 sides and right down to the pith.

I have graded many a log and it's the big ones that are the also the biggest risk. If the tree was in a yard, near a road or out in a field by itself, there is a good chance that there will be a bit more common grade. Naturally, the converse is true if it grew deep in the forest in the center of a deep hollow and it went 30, 40 or even 50 ft to the first limb. Then, like the 5' diameter tulip poplar we cut, you can go right down to a 4x4 without a knot.

So, stable is as stable does and if it is red oak, I would prefer cutting this with a Peterson, keeping the boards to a clear face of 8-10". I would take more of a risk with white oak, as it really deserves to go the whole width if at all possible.

To really understand quartersawn lumber, go to the firewood pile. It started way back when all boards were riven (split). Then all boards were quartered. If you go to the firewood pile and split out some quarters and you hit a ray right on, you will get your socks knocked off and want to keep on splitting to find more of that great stuff.

On the rare occasion that I get a special log, I make the wide boards and sell them as such. I know of at least one website selling wide quartered oak lumber (red and white) for big $/bf.

Yes, there are fewer chances to get totally clear boards when quartering, but if you could get just two clear faced 18 to 20 inch wide boards, 6 to 8 feet long from the log, imagine the piece of furniture that could be made from the tree! Maybe more wide q-sawn lumber would get used if people knew they could get it.

Quartered boards almost never cup, they move in width, so ripping a board down and gluing up smaller pieces would be for naught, as you would still have nearly identical movement in the glued up piece.

Band mills, swing saw mills, they each have their own specialty. Both can do their own special thing very well and nearly everything else with a bit of messing about.

The swing saw mills are specifically designed for quarter sawing large logs. And with a 46" log you will get (something less than) a 20" vertical board above and below the horizontal slab. So you end up with slabs and boards. What else do you want? No one has yet shown me how you can get any more than 2 quarter sawn slabs with a through cut.

Enough of this about kerf and wastage. Yes, the swing saw mill has a 6.1 mm against the 2-3 mm kerf of the band mill. But a good operator will lose or win that amount of timber in the blink of an eye on either mill. It's a non-issue when you are talking about large logs and big boards. I have yet to meet a band mill operator who will testify that his band mill will cut absolutely flat and straight with no less than 1mm variation - especially over 46". My Lucas mill will cut with no more than 1 mm variation end to end every time.

I take issue that a crown sawn slab will not cup. I've seen plenty - where the growth rings are crowning, they will shorten as the board dries - therefore it must cup or crack, that's just nature. And then you'll lose the timber that you may have saved with a thinner kerf when you have to plane it flat.

From the original questioner:
Well, I made up my mind. I'm using my Stihl 046, with a 32" bar and my Hadden guide to cut this log into four quarters, then I'll throw it on the mill. I'm going to attempt sawing each quarter by sawing a wedge shaped piece 0" at the pith and maybe 2"(?) at bark, after cutting every two flat boards. I figure this will keep the grain perpendicular to the face on all the flat boards, giving me true quartersawn red oak lumber. Then I can mill the wedged pieces to get usable material out of them with minimal waste.

I still can't imagine hiring another mill to saw my logs.

Cup in q-sawn lumber is the exception, not the rule. If the board is truly quartersawn, there is little or no force to make it cup. If you have seen a lot of defects in q-sawn stock, it was probably due to improper drying (trying to force q-sawn to dry as fast as flatsawn would cause the defects because the outside would dry long before the inside, causing stress, cracking, and even cup if pushed hard enough).

All things being the same, with equally skilled sawyers, over time kerf loss does make a very large difference. Many operations run on a 10% or less profit margin, so if every 32nd of an inch = 2% yield gain, then an 1/8" kerf savings would be 8% yield gain, and the difference between eating and going hungry.

I was talking about crown sawn cupping - the first few slabs of the top and the last few of the bottom.

I quarter saw large oak all the time with my mizer. I just did a 46" w-oak.

Just put the log up on the mill and level the log center with the bed. Then open the top, taking off just below the sapwood so you have a flat area about 8". Rotate the log and do this on four sides. Now you can mark it and cut it right down the center with your chainsaw right on the mill. With the flat sides, you will better judge your cut. It is slow and I stand right on the log.

Cut a bit over half way and rotate the log 180 degrees and cut through the rest of the way. Make sure you're off the log when you finish, because the outside piece will crash down, so make sure your lifting arms are up. I usually only have to trim 1/2" off each side to get flat again after the half section is milled.

Leave the one half standing where it is and drop the saw one cut above center and cut the top quarter off. Flip this piece off and continue milling off 2 to 3 boards until you lose the ray fleck. Then take the quartered piece and stand it up on the deck with the point towards the log clamp. It has v notches cut into the face, so raise it until the top "v" contacts the point of the quartered piece.

Unless you have a 45-degree piece to wedge under the first piece you mill, it's hard to balance the quartered piece while you move the clamp into position. Once you have cut off the top 45-degree piece, you will have it to do all the rest of the quartered pieces. I hope this makes sense. Once you mill down to the center without hitting the clamp, rotate the piece 180 degrees and mill the other side. Sometimes you have to flip it vertical to mill off the point because it will not hit the stops on the bed. I always mill using the rays as my guide when opening up a log or the other half of the log that you just cut off. Just get it back up on the mill and stand it up.

That's why I mill 4 flat spots first before I cut a log in half. Don't cut much below the sapwood. Once the other half is up on the mill, repeat the whole process. Keep in mind that this is very slow compared to flat sawing. I have spent 5 hours milling one log this size working by myself and I get excellent ray in 60 percent of the boards.

5 hours for a log that size is a lot. A swing blade would take no more than 1 hour. And the big heavy thing - the log does not move. Because every time it moves, it takes an enormous amount of energy and effort. This ain't nothing - it (should) nearly 2 tones, or possibly more.

We have sawed lumber out of bigger logs in this country for more than 100 years without any of this. And for everyone who wants to talk kerf, it has never been about less sawdust, it has always been about more money.

That said, go find someone with an old white pine mill with a 50-54 inch circle saw. Cant it and resaw it on the band mill. A person needs to know their limits. If you are just at it for fun, that is one thing, but if you are trying to make a buck you have to have a reality check now and then to make sure you are not going down the wrong road.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
I have used most of the above methods on my Wood-Mizer. In order to get more cutting width on my first cut on these oversized logs, one thing I've done is lift the log one inch off the bed and place 1" X 4"s on top of each bed rail. By carefully lowering the backstops part way, the log can be slid over to the operator side further. All of these methods will work but are slow and labor intensive. I have had to deal with many logs that were too big for the Wood-Mizer, several over six feet across. I finally decided to purchase a Lucas swing blade mill to go along with the Wood-Mizer. The very best of both worlds in sawing! I had to modify the 8" Lucas mill to deal with some of the logs that were even too big for it. The Lucas mills are quite affordable for anyone who wants to invest in one to have as a companion to their band saw mill.

Comment from contributor V:
I once had a 72 inch cottonwood log 21ft long out of Hillsdale Resevoir. We cut down with a rip chain on a P100 Partner about 30 inches deep. Packed the cut with bacon grease and nitrate fertilizer, set it off with an oily rag. The old man that did it for me used to work in the big logs out west. Said they did it a lot. Lot of smoke, but not much bang, and it worked.

Comment from contributor G:
I quarter big ol' oak logs with a chainsaw all the time. Oddly enough, I've had the best luck with an old chain with stubby teeth, freshly sharpened and the depth rakers ground to .25", just like the book says. It takes some time and there is some waste, but the outcome is undeniable.

I start by hoisting the quarters onto my Wood-Mizer, and then cleaning up the chainsawed face, then knocking off a couple of 5/4 boards and going to the other face. Sometimes it's a challenge to clamp it in place, but it's doable. After I get away from that perpendicular grain pattern, I'll rotate the piece until the pattern is just beyond the sweet spot and then saw down to where I'll yield a 4" board and then I saw until there's no more fleck showing. Repeat until boards coming off will be around 4" and that's about all you're gonna get. I just sold a guy 400 bd/ft of quartersawn and rift sawn oak - all from the same log, which measured about 40" at the small end and was just under 10' long. It measured approximately 435' on the doyle scale, so as you can see, there was some waste from the chainsaw cuts and the edging of the boards, which have to be edged on two sides.

I obtain a straight cut by starting at each end of the log and cutting straight down, nearly all the way through. I do this because the chain will tear through the wood as it's parallel to the grain. When you're going through the body of the log, you're just knocking the ends off of the wood cells and the sawdust comes out like powder. After the ends are done, I use the cut on one end to get started and I cut a shallow groove (1/2") to use as a reference going from one end cut to the other. Then I insert the entire bar and chain (20") into one end cut and start sawing. I'll angle the bar at about 30 degrees from perpendicular, cut about eight inches, and then use the felling dogs on the saw as a pivot. Cut until the bar is perpendicular to the log (90 degrees) and then tilt, cut another eight inches, and repeat until you meet up with the other end cut. I amazed myself with how straight I could get my cut this way. It takes some time and will burn some fuel, but if you want some awesome quarter-sawn oak, this is one way to get it.

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