Product Review: Granberg Alaskan Mark IV Portable Chain Saw Mill

Granberg Sawmill
Granberg Saw Mill

How cool would it be to mill your own wood directly from the source?  Very cool, indeed.  I had the opportunity to do just that the other day when fellow woodworker, Jacob Hummitzsch, and I tried out the Granberg Mark IV Alaskan Portable Chain Saw Mill to cut some slabs out of a downed white oak nearby.  If you are considering sourcing your own wood, I highly recommend it.  Here is some of the intel on the Granberg:

 

Advantages

White Oak from Sawmill
White Oak from Sawmill

End Result.  As you can see from the picture at the left, there is minimal waviness in the boards we cut.  If you use a large bandsaw, which is typical for this kind of work, there can be some pretty significant waves in the wood to deal with.  The slabs we cut with the Granberg should be very easy to plane.  The boards we cut were as large as 16 inches across and my planer can only handle 12 inches, so if I want to keep the entire width would need to take the boards to a hardwood dealer or sawyer for planing, OR I could build a rig using a router to plane the wood.  I’ll likely go the router route at some point in the future when I get more into making table tops.

Granberg in Action
Granberg in Action

Ease of Use.  Once we got the hang of it, cutting slabs was a breeze.  You just lean forward and rock the saw a bit from side to side, so the entire saw blade is not engaged with the log and it’s easier on the chainsaw to make the cut.  The Granberg can easily be maneuvered by one person, but it’s a good idea to have a Wingman tapping in wedges behind you to keep the void behind the saw open as you cut.  It’s also good to have a Wingman to alternate cutting slabs with you because it does get tiring.

Cost.  In only 2 hours we cut six boards which were 1.5 inches thick, 16 inches wide, and 64 inches long.  That works out to about 65 board feet.  The last time I bought white oak (which I selected and costs more), it was $9.90 per board foot.  Jacob’s and my little expedition netted over $600 in retail white oak with a couple caveats.  One caveat is that our wood is not kiln dried and will require some time and space to dry out.  Another caveat is that the white oak I purchased was S2S grade (read our post here about wood grades), and the slabs we cut will need some additional milling, particularly planing.  However, for the cost of the Granberg and the chain saw we saved hundreds of dollars.  Over several years, this could add up to thousands saved.  If you read our post on pricing your work, you can see that sharply reducing your expenses over the long haul can really add up.  Could Mrs Woodworker be right when she says she saves money when she goes shopping?  Nah.

Controlling entire supply chain.  There is a lot to be said for sourcing your own wood, since you are controlling the level of quality from start to finish.  In addition, you can select trees with unique characteristics, and dry them in a method you know and trust.  You can also be more selective in which boards are used for which purpose which is an important aspect of craftsmanship.  In building our current commission, the black walnut gun cabinet, it was important to have half a dozen raw 8 foot boards to choose from so I could match grain and color for different parts of the cabinet. If you are sourcing your own wood, you will have a much larger selection of grain and color to choose from.

Cons

Stability at Beginning and End of Cut.  One of the disadvantages we saw was that when you first start cutting and when are at the end of the cut, the saw can flop around a bit because there is not as much of the frame to rest on the log.  Once the saw gets going, the entire frame is resting on the log.  There may be extensions available to mitigate this, but we didn’t have any and had to eyeball it a bit to make sure the saw was horizontal.

Sawmill with Chainsaw
Sawmill with Chainsaw

Saw Sharpening.  This is not really the Granberg’s fault, but we had to sharpen the saw after every two boards, or so.  We sharpened it by hand, and can probably speed this up with an electric sharpener.  There are four bolts to loosen, so freeing then tightening the saw did not take too long.  It’s important to take the time to sharpen the saw, or you’ll be wasting your time over the long haul (see our post about efficiency and sharpening the saw here).  Here is a link to some sharpeners available on Amazon.

Storage.  As you can imagine, storing many boards that are around a foot wide and eight feet long will take up a lot of space.  Given that my current shop is in half of the garage, I don’t have much room for storage.  If you have some land, this may not be an issue and you could store your wood in a shed, or outside if it is covered with a tarp.

If you’re looking to mill a lot of wood, for example to build a house, a larger portable saw mill like a Wood Mizer might be more appropriate.  Jesse and Alyssa at Pure Living For Life have a great video on their experience with using one of these larger mills (in this case, the Wood Mizer LT15).  Click here for the video.  We referenced their journey in our post on the RSS hack and they seem to be making a lot of progress in their journey to living off-grid and debt free.

Overall, I’d give a “buy” recommendation for the Granberg.  It was a lot of fun to use and can save a serious woodworker hundreds, and maybe thousands, of dollars in the long run.

Our First Commission of 2017! Black Walnut Gun Cabinet

black walnut gun cabinet
Black Walnut Gun Cabinet

We were very excited to receive the deposit for our first commission of 2017 only 9 days into the new year and we’re jazzed about sharing philosophical musings regarding our maker journey as we build the piece.  This commission is for another black walnut gun cabinet which we’ve made before (see picture), but we’ll be making subtle design changes in this version.  Also, the last one took approximately 100 hours to make, so we’ll be very interested to see how far up the learning curve we’ve gone.  For example, we’ll be putting that fairing stick to work that we wrote about in September to streamline making the curve at the top of the door.  Several additional techniques we’ve learned since then should speed up the work.  Then again, the design changes will add some time to the project so it may be a wash to the overall hours count.  As we mentioned in our post on moving the shop, we’re a bit under the gun since we’d like to complete this piece before the wood shop move this summer.  A little pressure is good : )

We picked up the raw lumber from Dunlap Woodcrafts yesterday (for tips on buying lumber, read our post here). One of the most fun parts of the process was chatting with some of the other woodworkers and the owner.  There was a young guy there looking at a board and I asked him what he was making.  He was making a coffee table for his wife.  Another guy walked in and said I should buy all the boards I was gazing at (which I did) and said he was making a guitar for his son.  We just have a great woodworking community here in Northern VA.

The walnut we purchased is S2S cut and we’ll square it up in the shop with the planer, tracksaw, and mitre saw.  Carefully cutting all the pieces with precision will take a long time.  We tracked all of our hours on the last cabinet and have a pretty good feel for how long each operation will take.  That’s why it’s so important to always document your hours.  Then you can more actually predict how long future projects will take.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.  The first step is to to stand the wood up, take a look at it for awhile, and listen to what the wood tells us it wants to be.  For example, we need to think about what the most visible parts of this piece are and where it is going to sit in the client’s house.  In this case, I’ve talked with the client and have a good idea where it is going to be and how people are going to see it.  In this case, the door, face frame, and crown moulding at the top will be the most visible parts so I’ll look at the raw wood to see which boards are knot free, have matching color, and pleasing wood grain.  I need to ensure the opposing sides of the glass door and opposing sides of the face frame have not only matching color, but matching grain.  That means I’ll cut those pieces immediately next to each other from the same board.  Likewise, I need a long enough board that will allow the entire crown moulding pieces to be cut from it, so the grain flows all the way from the top left to the front to the top right of the piece in one seamless flow.

We’ll keep you updated how it goes.  As I stand in the shop looking at the boards, I’m thinking I have 100 hours of joyful creating in front of me.  As I wrote about in blog post #1, this is a part-time business for now so I’ll continue to follow the time management framework I laid out in the post on making versus managing.  Working 6 days per week with Sundays off, we’ll make good progress.  As I mentioned in the last post, we’re also getting ready to move:  talk about a self-inflicted time management challenge!  Ay caramba!

Stay tuned.  We have several more interviews with entrepreneurs queued up, some random thought pieces, and a couple other potential commissions we may be writing about soon!

Entrepreneurship and Woodworking Require a Community

military challenge coin display black walnut
Military Challenge Coin Display in Black Walnut

I was messing around in the wood shop over the holidays and created the military challenge coin display shown in the picture with a piece of scrap black walnut.  During the process, I was thinking how many people are necessary to pursue a creative endeavor like this (woodworking) and what a terrific community we have.  Some people may have the mistaken impression that woodworking consists of toiling away solo in a wood shop, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  There is a large network of people who are generous in sharing their wisdom and help make that woodworker or entrepreneur successful.  One way to frame it is by considering three groups:  artisans, enablers, and clients.

Artisans

The Traughber Tribe recently went to Canaan Valley WV for our annual cross country ski vacation.  This year we went over Christmas and planned to open some of our gifts there.  As a gift, my daughter gave me an allowance to spend in the resort gift shop.  Since we enjoy candlelight dinners, I thought I’d buy a locally made candle.  But then I got to thinking…for the price I’d pay for the candle in the gift shop, I could get two or three times as much candle at a discount store back home.  I tossed the idea out to our daughter and she said “Dad, is that even a question?”  Her meaning was, how could I NOT buy the candle from the local artisan, which is what we did.

I receive so much inspiration from my fellow makers.  On a recent business trip, after hours a colleague and I went on a photo shoot since he’s big into photography.  We were in San Francisco and he knew a particular location where he wanted to take the perfect photo of the Golden Gate Bridge.  We spent hours taking photos in different locations, with different lighting, with different camera settings.  I know nothing about photography, but it was inspirational to see another craftsman spending so much time to create something beautiful.  We’ll have a post soon covering an interview with the photographer and you’ll see the results from the photo shoot.

Fellow artisans are also terrific mentors.  They don’t necessarily even need to be skilled in your particular craft.  For example, the author (Lawrence Colby author of The Devil Dragon Pilot) we interviewed recently and I chat often about blog ideas, writing and our craft.  In almost every conversation he gives me some pearl of wisdom that helps me in Traughber Design.  Fellow craftsmen are great for helping keep things in alignment with the business’ vision and goals as we wrote about in our post on glue technique.

Lastly, craftsmen provide fellowship.  Recently we spent Christmas with my pal Steve’s family; Steve is also a Festool fanatic (see our post about Festool here).  He gets it.  He fully understands why someone would spend an exorbitant amount on a power tool and think of it as value.  Hanging out with like-minded people is part of the great fun of being an entrepreneur and craftsman.

Enablers

Woodworkers could not do what they do without hardwood dealers, specialty suppliers, and tool experts.  I was up at Colonial Hardwoods recently to buy some wood for our windowsill commission, and the dealer pointed out some wonderful white oak they had recently received.  We took a look and I ended up buying some and using it in a recent commission.  Where else would a salesperson consider what you are making and make suggestions beyond what you said you came to buy? And where else would they let you wander around the warehouse and pick the pieces you like?  Our community is so giving.

Gun Cabinet in Black Walnut

Another key enabler is the specialty supplier.  In my case, one of these consists of glass suppliers.  Del Ray Glass was a company I used for the black walnut gun cabinet (pictured).  I don’t know much about glass (in addition to photography), but they walked me through thicknesses, types of glass, frostings available, etc. and delivered on time and at a fair price.  They are on my short list the next time I need some glass.

Last there are the tool guys.  It would have been very difficult to learn Festool so quickly without Brian Graham’s tutelage at the Festool Ubershop on Baltimore.  He set up the equipment before I arrived, gave a demo, I played around with it, then we boxed it up to take home.  It’s so much easier to learn a tool hands-on like that.

Clients

military challenge coin display in black walnut
Military Challenge Coin Display in Black Walnut – Angle View

One of the great things I love about our clients is they reveal the art of the possible.  When a client asks “can you build that?” I almost always say yes.  I’ve usually got a general idea to begin with, but sometimes get to experiment in the shop with alternate ways of making something.  For example, with the military challenge coin holder I could have cut the slots from the bottom with the router table.  I also could have cut them from the top using a rail guide and the router.  I could have also used a jig.  That’s part of the fun in creating is experimenting and mulling over what works best.

Our client network continues to grow.  A client may have a piece in their home, then other people see it and word gets around.  Most of our business so far has been from referrals.  For example, a kitchen cabinet panel commission came about from a Facebook conversation (see our post: How to Make a Kitchen Cabinet Door:  Flat Panel Construction).  I love the serendipity of where our projects come from.

Speaking of clients, I’m currently reading a book for my day job called The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross.  Ross is analyzing which industries will be replaced by robots.  One of the beauties of the artisanal movement is our works are not likely to be outsourced.  Sure, you can buy mass-produced furniture from overseas, but that’s not the market we’re in.  We do custom woodworking which doesn’t lend itself to outsourcing.  Our local clients are buying from us, not some company overseas.

We’re very fortunate to have such a great woodworking and entrepreneurial community and look forward to spending time with that community in the new year.

How to Buy Lumber: A Trip to the Hardwood Dealer

woodworking grain patterns
Quartersawn, riftsawn, and flatsawn grain patterns

A woodworker walks into a hardwood dealer and the owner says “Say, I’ve got a special on some S2S six quarter white oak.  Are you interested?”  Do you respond with “A”, the deer-in-the-headlights look or “B”, “riftsawn or quartersawn?”  “B” is the correct answer.

 

One of the most daunting aspects of getting into woodworking is buying the lumber.  Sure, you can buy wood at the big box stores, but eventually you’ll want to make something using premium hardwoods that aren’t available in the big box store.  In that case you need to seek out your local hardwood dealer.  I recommend Googling “hardwood dealer” and see which ones are closest to you and then doing some homework before going to visit. In my case, there are several dealers within about 45 minutes that have met all my needs so far and the service has been excellent.  You need to go armed with a few pieces of information, though.  As we talk about in another post, learn to fish before going fishing.

Before you start the project, ask the client (or whoever you are building the project for) a lot of questions such as: What color do you want?  What type of wood?  What is your budget?  Answers to those questions may drive you to a big box store if they are on a tight budget.  If they want something a little more heirloom-quality, you probably want to hit a hardwood dealer.

Wood dealers measure wood in something called “board feet” which is often abbreviated “BF” on their price sheets.  The cost per BF is the cost for a 1 foot by 1 foot by one inch thick piece of wood.  This equates to 144 cubic inches.  You’ll need to calculate the volume of wood for your project in order to get a rough estimate before you go to the dealer so you know how many board feet you will need.  For example, multiply the length and width and height of the wood for your project in inches and divide by 144 which will give you the estimated board feet.  You may be able to look up the wood dealer’s price sheet online in some cases and estimate the cost before you go.  In addition, dealers don’t measure thickness in inches they measure in quarters.  For example, an inch thick piece of lumber is called “4/4” or “four quarter” and a 2 inch thick piece of wood is “8/4”, or “eight-quarter.”  The nice thing about going to a dealer is when you buy 4/4 wood it’s usually very close (measure before you buy) to an inch thick, whereas if you go to a box store, an inch thick means 3/4″.

Before I lose that train of thought, take advantage of the tremendous selection of wood sizes at the dealer and design using non-traditional thicknesses.  It will make your piece stand out.  Anyone can buy 3/4″ lumber.

A couple more things you need to know are how milled wood is described and the description of grain patterns.

Milled wood is described as S2S, S3S, or S4S, which stands for Surface ___ Sides.  For example, S2S is planed on the two flat sides and the edges are rough.  I prefer this type of cut since I like to cut the edges at home.

The last thing you need to be aware of is the difference between flatsawn, riftsawn and quartersawn boards (see picture at top).  The rectangles in the picture represent where the various types of boards are taken from the log.  Quartersawn grain runs vertically when looking at the board’s end grain and is best because it is more stable, but it is also more expensive.  Flatsawn grain runs horizontally (more or less) when looking at the board’s end, is the least expensive, but expands and contracts the most.  Riftsawn is a compromise between the two and the grain pattern is approximately 45 degrees when looking at the end grain.

One more note for you…if you’re not buying a lot of wood, Woodcraft (www.woodcraft.com) can be a good option.  It’s a little more expensive, but for single boards may be more convenient.  In addition, the staff is very knowledgeable.  Most of the employees have been woodworking for decades and will help you do things the right way (more on that in another post).

Best of luck on your hardwood buying journey!  Let me know how it goes.