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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of Frank's Portable Sawmill

Bigger Isn't Always Better

By Lois Barton

Posted on Feb 28, 2003

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"We arrive with the portable sawmill." Margie stands by log for perspective.

Part I

"Wow, look at that log!" My son-in-law, Frank told me the story. He had stood spellbound in the sorting yard of a big mill where he worked watching the arrival of a huge butt cut off an old-growth Douglas fir being brought in on a lowboy. It had been too heavy, too big to load on a standard log truck. "They don't come in here like that every day," he commented as he turned back to his work.

The log was rolled off in the yard and stayed there for several weeks. They didn't want to put it in the mill pond because they knew that once they dumped it there they couldn't get it to the processing area because it would drag on the bottom.

The barker at that mill will take a six and a half foot log. This was nine feet at the butt. The peeler lathe takes a maximum of sixty inches. The usual procedure with oversize logs was to quarter them with a big chain saw before sending them through the barker. This wasn't a completely satisfactory method on high grade logs for two reasons. The angular quarter-sections would "hang up" in the barker, causing no end of trouble, and sometimes be cut entirely in half by the 1800-pound pressure water jets that were used to remove the bark. and when one did get through without too much trouble the water would bite into the vertical grain and destroy six or eight inches of wood on the cut sides.

This particular log was rated a number one peeler, absolutely top-grade clear lumber. Frank had worked at the mill for twenty years in several departments, including the barker and knew the damage it could do. He thought it would be a shame to reduce hundreds of board feet of clear lumber to chips in the barker, so he suggested to his foreman that they allow him to cut the log with his portable mill.

The boss was skeptical, to say the least. "None of the management believed my little mill could match their million-dollar equipment. They predicted crooked boards and couldn't seem to conceive of tackling that log with a little one-man outfit. Even when the men in the yard were ready to give it a fling indecision in the office held things up," he told me. "Nobody really wanted to make the commitment on a log of that value."

Somewhere along the line the log was pushed into the pond. "When they finally gave me the go-ahead we had to drag it out. It was so big and heavy that when one of the huge stackers tried to get a hold of it he couldn't get enough of a pinch to pull it out. So they got one of the smaller machines that could reach further down into the pond and get around the log. When he got a hold he couldn't back up, so they hitched the bigger stacker on the back of the little one and pulled him and the log out

"One rainy Saturday my wife and I showed up at the mill yard with our portable saw. The supervisor met us there and as I drove up beside the log he apparently assumed we were the setup crew. He kept looking, expecting something else to come around the corner. I'll never forget the shocked look on his face when he realized this was it. He said to me incredulously, "You're going to cut that with this?"
"Frank builds 'set-up' framing."

"Which is just what we did. We cut 3 1/2x12 and 4x12 timbers, depending on the grain. Then they ran those timbers through the resaw in the mill to make the boards, because my saw takes a larger kerf than the resaw.

"That superintendent! He had his measuring tape out as soon as we started to saw. He checked every piece we cut, shaking his head in disbelief. I think I was within closer tolerance than the big mill cuts, within an eighth.

"About noon the superintendent left, telling me he'd be back shortly. He returned a little later with his wife and kids and his dad and mom, brought them to watch. As we sawed his whole attitude toward the project changed. He became very friendly and excited about the whole thing. We cut more than 5000 board feet in about nine hours cutting time with a piece of equipment we pulled behind a pickup truck---a one-man outfit that really could outperform the huge mill in this situation.

"They paid me by the thousand to saw it up. I didn't charge very much. I did it mainly as a demonstration, to prove I could do a good job and save the waste from the barker. In past years, little mills all over this country sawed most of the lumber. Since then things have gotten bigger and bigger till we have these huge complexes that cost a mint and we hardly believe what a simple rig can do.
"The job is half done. Margie stop saw so Frank can remove boards."

This sawmill article was published in Loggers World in April, 1984 and is included here with the editor's gracious approval. To bring things up to date, here is a further report.

Part II

Frank and his sons have been doing custom sawing with his Mobile Dimension portable mill since 1976 all over the Willamette Valley and beyond, including Ohio and Texas. The mill is powered by an adaptation of the Volkswagon motor. He sold the original mill recently for $800 more than its original purchase price, and the buyer is still using it. Frank is now using a new machine purchased about three years ago. Frank said, "I had cut over 4 million board feet with the old mill before I started charging by the hour instead of by the board foot."

He recently explained about the big log included in the previous story. "I know folks would wonder where that big log came from. I talked to the driver who brought it in. He said it was a dead snag. He watched them cut it. The next section above the seventeen foot one I worked up was 34 feet long, and the upper half of it was just powder, all rotted out."

Frank and the boys have participated the last two years in a west coast portable sawmill shoot-out which was part of the Redwood Region Logging Conference. These conferences were held once in Eureka and next in Ukiah, California. Frank's participation was primarily to demonstrate what the Mobile Dimension mill can do. The first year other competing mills included a Peterson mill from New Zealand and an American-made band saw. Last year one other mill was a Logosol from Finland and the third was a Lucas mill from Australia.

The contest had three categories. The contestants had 6 logs to work up. The first category was time. Another was how many board feet they cut. The third figured the cost of the mill, the time for two men to run it, and how many board feet they cut to determine the most economical job.

Frank said, "The first year we didn't have a clue as to what to expect. We had four logs and it took 23 minutes. We took second place, 4 or 5 minutes longer then first place in time. Last year we practiced at home because we knew what to expect. We took first place in the speed category, completing in 44 minutes, and second in the overall category. The Logosol mill was actually a chain saw rig, and it took them 4 and a half hours to finish." Son Steve worked with Frank the first time, but last year the two sons, Jim and Steve, young men in their thirties, did the work. "Mobile Dimension paid our costs of travel, room and board as an advertising expense. Everyone had a good time and having our expenses paid was a bonus."

The lumber from the shoot-out was auctioned off, and the money was donated to a needy children's program. The winners' trophies were toy log trucks. Possibly two hundred spectators watched the show.

Word of mouth referrals keeps Frank Ferguson busy with as much local sawing as he wants. His availability is a real blessing to neighbors with blow down problems.

Visit the Spencer Butte Writers Group at The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Two Winter Tales and Birding on the Butte by Edie Self, Margie Ferguson and Lois Barton

Writer and historian
Lois Barton
Lois Barton is an 84 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil. Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Visit the Sunnyside of Spencer Butte Section in our new format for more of Lois' stories. See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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