Frick Sawmill Proven Workhorse

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Chuck Koehler at the helm of a vintage Frick sawmill at the Florida Flywheelers show.
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Setting the teeth on the blade. Members of the sawmill crew are nothing if not deliberate in getting the mill ready for operation.
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Safety is a top concern at the Flywheelers' sawmill. "It's a really dangerous thing to play with," said crew member Alan Rudd.
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Dave Sharp, owner of the James Leffel steam engine that powers the sawmill, applies belt dressing.
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Selectoin of saw teeth offered in an early catalog.
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Dave Sharp's vintage steam engine (manned by Jeff Smith) with the safety released, accomodating the photographer.

The more things change, the more they don’t. And so it is that a nearly 80-year-old Frick sawmill – powered by an equally elderly steam engine – continues to peel planks of lumber from logs at the turn of a new century.

“A lot of mills of this vintage are still being used commercially,” said Chuck Koehler, Williston, Fla. Chuck, a member of the Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club, directs operations at the mill, one of the big draws at Flywheeler Park. “There’s even some made before the Civil War that are still in use.”

The sawmill was donated to the club by Ron Weagraff, Kissimmee. It was purchased at an Ocala auction, and was moved to the showgrounds over a year ago. A small army of club members has worked ever since to get it in good running order.

“It’s an old, worn-out mill,” said Alan Rudd, a member of the sawmill crew. “We’ve rebuilt a lot of it.”

The “to do” list included replacing wood, cleaning up rust, reworking belts, adding steel plates to reinforce the mill, rebuilding the blade and installing new shanks.

The renovation work also required work on the pulley sizes to accomodate both the James Leffel steam engine, and a 1952 8800 Caterpillar diesel used as an alternate power unit.

“Last year, we didn’t get it going real good,” Chuck said. “There were a lot of little bugs. It’s running real well now. It cuts true, but we still need to rebuild the carriage.”

The mill has a 16-foot carriage (and a 60-foot track), a standard size used to cut lumber 16 to 20 feet. The blade is run at 600 rpm, requiring about 100 hp in diesel, or at least 35 to 40 hp in a steam engine.

The different power units give the mill a different feel, Chuck said.

“When you start feeding in a log with steam,” he said, “it comes on slow, until you get the governor to kick in. You’ve got to let the steam engine come up in power. And you use a sawyer’s governor on a steam engine that’s running a sawmill. When you’re threshing, you’d use a straight governor.”

A crew of at least three workers is needed to operate the mill, Chuck said, “but it’s better if we have four or five.”

The sawyer works the stick, with off-bearers on one end, and log rollers on the other. There’s no shortage of volunteers.

“When I saw the mill laying in pieces under the trees,” Alan Rudd recalled, “I said ‘Hey, I want to be a sawmill guy.'”

But those who work with the mill know it’s serious business.

“It’s a really dangerous thing to play with,” Alan said. “If a blade breaks, or if it hits a piece of steel – like a horseshoe or a railroad spike that a tree’s grown around – and you don’t know it’s there … well, pieces of that metal fly everywhere.”

“And a piece of the board can catch and fly the opposite direction,” Chuck added. “That’s why we put that screen up at the end. We just have to make sure it’s safe.”

The emphasis on safety is not only for the workers’ benefit. The sawmill is a big attraction at Flywheeler Park.

“We get a lot of people over here, just watching,” Chuck said. “The old timers, they like to remember when they worked around equipment like this. There’s a lot of nostalgia about it. And they like to tell us stories about sawmills; they provide a lot of information.”

For others, it’s a new experience. “I get such a kick out of the people watching,” Alan said. “A lot of people have never seen a sawmill in operation.”

Not only do they see the mill in action, they see the results: much of the construction at Flywheeler Park has utilized lumber from the vintage mill. Local yellow pine and red hard cedar has been used in the park’s covered bridge, for fencing, framing, small bridges, catwalks and out-buildings. The bark layer is used to fire the steam engine’s boiler (hard oak is used to build up heat).

Once the mill is humming like a top, the sawmill workers will turn their attention to related projects.

“We’re going to put an ell on the building to house planers, a shingle mill and more steam equipment,” Chuck said. “And we have a tomato stake machine we’d like to set up, and a steam engine generator set we want to put in a building. And down the road sometime, we’d like to put in a museum, for antique saws, logging equipment and chains.”

In the meantime, the crew continues fine-tuning the Frick.

“You just can’t spend enough time here,” Alan said.

Portable Leffel Powers Sawmill

The James Leffel steam engine that powers the Florida Flywheelers’ sawmill operation is called a portable, but at 14,000 pounds – seven tons – it doesn’t do too much scooting around.

“She’s a heavy girl,” said owner Dave Sharp, Ft. Myers, Fla., who’s assisted by Jeff Smith, Port St. Lucie, Fla. “She’s a big portable; it would have taken at least four horses to pull this.”

The center crank engine – which has a full 7/16 boiler, and a 42-inch flywheel that runs the mill – is fairly rare. It was built in the late teens in Springfield, Ohio; Dave found it in Alabama.

“They were water turbine builders, and it was a small company,” Dave said. “There’s not too many of these around.”

Dave is an old hand at steam engines: he has four at home (he leaves the Leffel at Flywheeler Park).

“I’ve been playing with steam as a hobby for about 14 years,” he said. “I know enough to be dangerous.” FC

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