What is a Lumber Mill?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 January 2020
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A lumber mill is simply a place in which trees can be processed into lumber, or planks of wood used for construction and other purposes. Also called a sawmill, a lumber mill can range from a large manufacturing plant to a small, simple, hand-operated machine with a blade that can cut long sections of wood and plane them into flat pieces. The lumber mill has been around for centuries, though the technology and efficiency of mills has changed dramatically.

In the United states, the lumber mill was introduced not long after colonization. Skilled European workers set up sawmills in the forests. Oxen and horses were used to pull trees to the lumber mill, and the lumber was processed right then and there. These types of sawmills were small and portable and could be brought into the woods for ease of production. The introduction of the lumber mill into the colonies sped up the development of cities and towns, making settlements easier and quicker to build.


More permanent structures that were built in a fixed spot began to crop up as the demand for lumber increased. In many cases — along the Hudson River in New York state, for example — logs were floated down the river to the mill for processing. The process of sending the logs downstream was called river driving, and it was a particularly hazardous job. Injuries and deaths were not uncommon. As the introduction of the circular blade hit mills, production increased dramatically; the blades, however, were prone to damage, and sawfilers were necessary to keep the blades in working shape.

Some of the earliest lumber mill structures were water-powered. Long, flat blades would move back and forth as powered by the moving water mill, cutting through logs. These types of mills were often used to cut stone, such as marble. Later on, sawmills were powered by wind, and built into windmills to power a crankshaft. With both types of power, only the blades moved; the logs had to be fed through the blade by hand, until a movable feed system was developed.

As technology advanced, so too did the sawing methods. When steam-power became readily available, sawmills moved on to this type of power. Fuel was readily available for such operation, but the cost of operating the machines increased as well. This led to larger sawmills and fewer small, portable, independently-owned mills. Today, mills are powered by many different sources, including electricity. They are largely computerized, making the process more efficient. While small, gasoline-powered mills are still in existence, they are rare and not very cost-effective.


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