R.I. Woodworker Hits the Road with Portable Sawmill

Rob Swanson walks behind the blade as it moves along the carriage. His hands are on the controls. (David Smith/ecoRI News photos)

Rob Swanson walks behind the blade as it moves along the carriage. His hands are on the controls. (David Smith/ecoRI News photos)

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

WEST GREENWICH, R.I. — Rob Swanson has a sawmill on wheels, and if you have a favorite tree that must be felled, it doesn’t have to be sawed into firewood. He can come to your property and mill it into boards.

His Woodmizer can mill up to a 20-foot-long, 3-feet-round board. It can cut a board up to 27 inches wide. It takes him about a half-hour to set up and level the 25-horsepower machine, which uses blades similar to those used on band saws. But unlike large sawmills, his blade isn’t stationary. It moves on a track.

“There is something nice about taking big, fat logs and turning them into nice boards,” said the 30-year-old Swanson, who grew up in Richmond but now resides in North Kingstown.

On this day, he is milling logs at Headwater Preserve, a wood supplier on Hopkins Hill Road. He is working on cutting quarter-sawn white oak logs. After that, he has a pile of ash logs to transform from long logs into boards with a distinctively heavy grain. He’ll be working here for three weeks.

Prior to this job, Swanson worked for a month at Camp Yawgoog, a 1,800-acre Boy Scout facility in Rockville.

“My cousin, Tucker Neale, and I bought this machine in May of 2011,” Swanson recalled. “I never expected it to turn into this.”

He wanted to build his own house and his cousin was looking for lumber to build outbuildings. They saw a machine in Maine, “but it was kind of expensive,” about $30,000 new.

“You don’t buy it to set up in the yard,” Swanson said. “You buy it to use it.”

As fate would have it, there was a University of Rhode Island professor in Charlestown named George Tremblay who had a Woodmizer. They went to talk to him about its operation. After meeting him and seeing the machine in action, Tremblay called them back and offered to sell them his machine.

Tremblay went the extra mile, Swanson said, by mentoring them. “He went with us to our first jobs, and was also on call.”

Once they had the machine, they got a few jobs and then referrals began to keep them busy.

“George said he would have paid to (operate the sawmill) because he enjoyed it so much,” Swanson said. “So do I, but charging a fee is a necessity. You can’t eat lumber.”

Rob Swanson moves trimmed logs onto the carriage of the sawmill in preparation for the final cuts into boards.

Rob Swanson moves trimmed logs onto the carriage of the sawmill in preparation for the final cuts into boards.

Swanson is buying out his cousin’s share. He said Neale is moving to Maine and plans to buy his own machine.

The company, New England Portable Sawmilling, averages about 40 jobs a year. Swanson can spend a day to a month on a job. His minimum fee for a one-day job is $325. That work is often for a family that is saving the wood from a favorite tree.

He had a family in Barrington that hired him to mill a dawn redwood, a fast-growing deciduous tree, that was planted when their daughter was born. Years later it became a pile of boards. He said the family didn’t have a plan on what to do with the boards.

“A lot of people like having the tree that grandpa planted,” Swanson said.

The Moses Brown School in Providence hired him to cut oak logs into boards. Some of the trees were at least 186 years old, based on the number of rings he counted. They made some beautiful boards. “It was nice that they were cut into lumber and put into use,” he said. “It’s better than being used as firewood.”

The bane of every sawmill operator is damage to blades caused by nails and other hidden objects, so Swanson carries up to 100 blades at all times. He usually replaces one to two blades a day. He has sawn through hammock hooks, nails, and a rock that was stuck in the crotch of a tree and was covered as the tree grew. He’s also come across bullets, shot-gun slugs anda steel-tip arrow point.

If the logs are dirty, that will also dull a blade rather quickly. To combat that problem, the mill has a de-barker, which is a small blade that cuts a groove in the bark ahead of the main blade.

There also are good surprises when he mills lumber. He recalled milling a maple tree and when he cut a board, it revealed a smiley face. He enjoys cutting white pine because of the nice clear boards that it can produce. Cutting juniper, or what some people call cedar, reveals deep-purple centers that quickly fade as the boards dry. The boards are fragrant.

Swanson graduated from URI in 2009 with a degree in environmental science. If he wasn’t working the mill, he said he would like to work in the field of geographic information systems or environmental conservation work. But for now he is working solo at a profession he loves.

He is busiest in the fall and spring. The work tapers off in the summer.

When he isn’t working the sawmill, he can be found at his aunt’s Windmist Farm in Jamestown selling apple cider and apple doughnuts under the name of the Hard-Pressed Cider Co.

As the sawdust along the side of the mill gets wider and the path compacted, the piles of lumber nearby grow higher.

“There is something gratifying about seeing a job to its completion,” Swanson said.