Family Traditions: Restoring a Portable Sawmill

Fifth generation sawmill tradition still going strong.

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Above: During renovation, spring 2007.

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Wearing a sheepish grin, Donnie Sharp admits he has "wanted a sawmill ever since I was a kid." The fact that several family members had owned and operated portable log-cutting rigs was a likely stimulus for Donnie's youthful yearnings. But only recently has the dream become a reality for the rural Fair Grove, Mo., man.

After instigating a friendly horse trade a couple of years ago, Donnie gained most of the apparatus needed to completely restore a Geiser No. 5 portable sawmill with variable friction feed in exchange for a promised paint-job on an old Diamond T truck owned by his dad's cousin, Charles Sharp.

According to what Donnie could make out on the weld-patched clutch housing after scraping away layers of caked grease, the mill was patented Feb. 1, 1887, by the Geiser Mfg. Co. of Waynesboro, Pa. The parts Donnie obtained were actually leftovers: The best pieces were used by his cousin when he set up his own sawmill operation more than 30 years ago at his farm with a mid-1950s era Case LA tractor as the power unit.

Beginning with Donnie's great-grandpa Waldron, three generations of Sharps hauled portable sawmills around the area, setting them up near stands of oak, hickory, ash, hackberry and walnut. In those early operations, logs were felled and "snaked" in with horses or mules to be cut for framing and siding lumber. When a mill was set up, neighboring landowners often hauled in additional logs from their own woodlots.

True collectors of antiquated contraptions, Donnie and his wife, Melanie, typically concentrate on their tractor restoration business. But family ties made the sawmill restoration project a labor of love. They worked enthusiastically, dragging rusty levers, gears, pulleys and crumbling wood from the dark interiors of a tumbledown chicken house and transporting them home.

George Sharp, Donnie's great-uncle, spent his entire life working with sawmill equipment. Before his death in 1975, he dry-stacked a stockpile of large-dimension ash and yellow pine. Originally cut from 14-foot long beams (each 16-by-16-inch), the pine lumber had been salvaged years earlier from a Kansas City demolition site. When Charles Sharp gave Donnie the big timbers along with the mill, he sweetened the deal considerably.

A friend, Delbert Choate, used a band saw to custom-cut the oversized beams in accordance with dimensions needed for the old sawmill's bracing. According to Donnie, clear-grain lumber of such a large size would be nearly impossible to attain at any price today. His uncle had planned to replace the mill's fatigued framework with the well-cured wood. Grateful for that foresight, Donnie, Melanie and their teenage daughter, Megan, were determined to complete the unfinished task.

The Sharps' premier sawmill re-building project offered plenty of challenges. Finding replacement parts was not one of them. As the project evolved, at least four cast-off mills in various states of disrepair found their way to the Sharps' back 40 bone yard. Without that good fortune, the sawmill restoration project could have stalled for want of parts, as Geiser Mfg. Co. has been defunct since 1912. Donor mills allowed the Sharps to tackle the project by reworking and refitting one piece at a time.

Throughout a cold and unusually icy winter in 2006-'07, restoration work included hand-chiseling mortise-and-tenon joints in large timbers as well as recasting flat rack- and drive-gears made of iron. The Sharps fabricated several bearing oil flipper covers used as sawdust protectors on the carriage. (Some were even used to replace long-missing ones on Charles' sawmill.) Head-block gears, handle castings and gears for retainer dogs to hold logs in place on the carriage were also recast and machined. Donnie fabricated a control device on the geared set-works (a system of ratchets and dogs used to determine cut width) to replace a missing piece. Later, the correct piece was cannibalized from one of the donor mills. A belt-tightening pulley from the same retired mill was substituted for one that played out during initial sawing tryouts.

Megan painted all the sawmill's metal parts black and brushed 6 gallons of custom-mixed "rutabaga red" paint into thirsty frame timbers. Next, Donnie plumbed and aligned the 54-inch circular saw blade with 40 replaceable shanks (or teeth) made to cut softwoods (to cut hardwood, a blade with 44-50 teeth is used).

Almost immediately, the blade began to stray out of adjustment by "dishing" the wrong way or becoming wavy when overheated while cutting. A tedious blade adjustment known as "hammering" seemed a possible remedy, but that process was available only at an off-site facility and at great expense. Instead, Donnie turned to the Internet, where he found a U.S. Forest Service manual, Sawmills and their Efficient Operation, by Stanford J. Lunstrum. By following a series of methodical procedures, Donnie solved the problem.

The sawmill consumed several blades before Donnie finally bought a 54-inch model made by Simonds International, Fitchburg, Mass., with 50 new teeth and holders. Several endless flat belts did temporary duty, running from Melanie's 69 hp John Deere 820 diesel tractor (a Mother's Day gift) to the mill's mandrel pulley, until James Beckner, a friend of Donnie's, came up with an excellent belt that was placed into permanent service.

Another friend, Joel Freese, commissioned the first sawing contract. Cedar trees at his parents' home had been damaged in a devastating ice storm. He wanted them cut into 1-inch slabs to use in making a cedar chest. After a few trial-and-error slices through scrap logs, it was a pleasure for Donnie, Melanie and Megan to peel pungent red-and-white grain rough-cuts from the loudly singing blade. Surprisingly, they didn't hit one nail during the process. With that, the fourth and fifth generation of Sharps put the old sawmill through its paces.

On May 5, 2007, Donnie Sharp marked his 41st birthday. When Melanie asked him what he wanted to do to celebrate, Donnie had a ready answer. "I'd like to saw lumber all day," he said. His wish came true. As he handled the controls, Melanie and Megan worked as off-bearers, piling lumber according to size. After a long day on the job, the whole family was tired and dirty. Supper and hot showers were the first order of business, followed by a different kind of log sawing. FC 

Geiser Mfg. Co. No. 5 Portable SAwmill with Variable Friction Feed by the Numbers 
• Husk frame: 8 feet by 4 feet
• Husk timbers: 4 inches by 13 inches (The husk carries the mandrel and saw, feed works, saw guide and splitter assembly.)
• Mandrel, diameter and length: 2-7/16 inches by 72 inches
• Mandrel pulley: 24 inches by 12 inches
• Carriage: 36 inches wide by 20 feet long
• Carriage timbers: 3-1/2 inches by 5-1/2 inches
• Number of trucks: 6
• Truck wheel size: 7 inches
• Truck axle diameter: 1-3/4 inches
• Set shaft length: 20 feet
• Set shaft diameter: 2-1/4 inches
• Number of head-blocks and dogs: 3
• Head-blocks open from saw: 48 inches
• Track length: 60 feet

For more information: Donnie and Melanie Sharp,  Fair Grove, Mo.; www.oldjd4u.com  

Dan Manning has been an active member of the Fair Grove, Mo., Historical & Preservation Society for 30 years. His dad, a third generation hardware man in Gypsum, Kan., instilled in him a love for early-day machinery.