What’s a sawmill?

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Sawmills process raw lumber into dimension lumber for shipment and sale. They were centralized in the 1600s and now use highly automated systems. Lumber is graded, debarked, and passed through a face saw before being finished and packaged. Working in a sawmill can be dangerous, but smaller sawmills exist for individual use. Many old sawmills are located near rivers and some have improved their environmental record.

A sawmill is a facility that processes raw lumber into dimension lumber for shipment and eventual sale. Before the development of the sawmill, people harvested lumber and hand-hewn the resulting logs into planks, an often painstaking process. Sawmills centralized lumber processing in the 1600s, allowing a high volume of lumber to be processed in one central location, initially powered by water and later by steam and electricity. Modern high-volume sawmills are radically different from 17th-century sawmills, with highly automated systems that rely heavily on computers.

Before being processed, lumber must be graded and sorted. Sometimes this is done on the site of a lumber harvest, and other times grading is handled at the sawmill itself. After grading, the logs are debarked and then passed through the face saw, also known as the primary deck. The face saw roughly splits the lumber into planks, which are finished with trimming, drying, and planing to ensure even pieces of lumber are cut. Once the lumber has fully dried, it can be packaged for shipment or stored on-site at the sawmill until more is required. Waste products such as sawdust and wood chips can be pulped for papermaking or burned to generate energy.

Working in a sawmill can be dangerous, especially if the sawmill handles a high volume of lumber. Different types of saws are used, along with other heavy equipment, and operators can easily be injured, especially along the green chain, the conveyor belt system that runs through a sawmill to carry lumber and lumber while it’s finished. In the most modern sawmills, operations along the green chain are managed by computer programs capable of recognizing the various types of timber and routing them correctly.

In smaller sawmills a much smaller volume of lumber is handled and the employees are generally not as hasty. Small sawmills may belong to small logging companies, but they might also agree to handle milling for individual citizens. People can also rent or buy portable sawmills to work on their land. For example, someone who wants to build a cabin with clapboards of his own could rent a sawmill to handle the harvesting and processing of lumber on the land, making it much less expensive.

Many old sawmills are located near rivers, because the water was used to float logs downstream from logging sites. The tradition of using water to move logs around persists at many sawmills, some of which create man-made streams on site to move unfinished lumber. Some sawmills have also improved their environmental record by focusing on using a high percentage of the total volume of raw logs they carry and finding efficient and environmentally friendly ways to manage the inevitable waste of the milling process.

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