If you are a woodworker and live in an area with access to quality hardwoods like maples, walnut, elm, oak, cherry, etc then you may want to look into getting started with milling your own lumber. One of the quickest ways to get started milling wood is with a chainsaw mill, or Alaskan mill, as they are often called.
Chainsaw mills are simply a guide that attaches to a straight edge on the top of a log and holds the chainsaw so it can make a straight cut. Choosing the best chainsaw for milling will make this a fast and easy process.
I love picking up turning blanks from folks that run their own chainsaw mills. Often they are milling up tress that have been taken down in people’s backyards or that cities have taken town from areas around town like parks or along city streets.
These trees will often have metal in them from screws, nails, bolts, etc so they are not a popular choice for commercial lumber operations. Because of the metal, many of the slabs will get broken down into smaller pieces which make for great turning blanks or lumber shorts at an affordable price.
What is a Chainsaw Mill?
Chainsaw mills, or Alaskan mills, are a relatively inexpensive tool for cutting wood slabs. Most versions of these mills are simply a pair of guide rails attached to a chainsaw. The guide rails can then be run along a flat surface, often a ladder is used to make the first cut on a log, to cut a flat slab. Each subsequent cut can be referenced off the previous cut surface.
The benefits of a chainsaw mill are that they are extremely portable, inexpensive, and can be operated by only one person.
This is great for situations where someone may have a log in their backyard or other remote location where it cannot be removed or sawn with a traditional mill.
What to Look for with a Chainsaw
Choosing the best chainsaw for milling your own lumber will really come down to how large of trees you’ll be working with.
Chainsaw Power and Bar Length
The wider and harder the tree the more power and the longer the bar you’ll need on your saw.
The chainsaw I use, a Stihl MS310, for breaking down wood for turning blanks comes from the factory with a 16-inch bar, but I keep a 20-inch bar on hand as well. I wouldn’t mill wood with the 20-inch bar, though, as it is a bit near the high end of what the saw can handle. Especially for long continuous cuts like milling requires.
My saw also doesn’t have nearly enough power for the sustained cuts required in milling. While I may be comfortable doing one or two cuts on a smaller tree of softer wood like big leaf maple I would never mill with it on an 18-inch wide oak tree.
A lot of people who do their own chainsaw milling on a regular basis will keep a few saws on hand. One for making cuts to get the logs ready to mill then another one or two of different lengths depending on the size of the tree.
Note that the words “best chainsaw for milling” and “inexpensive” do not go together…at all.
A lot of other sites will throw out recommendations based on what can easily be bought online. If you’re clicking on links that take you to a big box lumber store or Amazon, then you’re not going to be buying a chainsaw capable of milling lumber. Period.
Most big-box retail stores will not even carry the chainsaws we’ll be recommending below as they are a class above what any homeowner needs for chores around the house.
Luckily, a few online retailers, like Northern Tool, sell top-of-the-line Husqvarna and Stihl chainsaws.
The Best Chainsaw for Milling
Here area few of our recommendations broken down by the types of milling typically done by hobbyist or part time wood millers.
Best Chainsaw for Milling Small Logs: Stihl MS 311
Engine Size: 59cc
Bar Length: 13″ – 24″
About the Stihl MS 311 Chainsaw
The Stihl MS 311 is a great, medium-sized chainsaw that is small enough to use both on and off the mill. This chainsaw would struggle with milling harder woods like oak but should work just fine for a hobbyist looking to occasionally mill smaller logs and softer woods.
The 59cc engine should provide plenty of power for shorter cuts and will be a huge upgrade if you are moving up from a homeowner level saw. Those saws usually max out at around 45cc to 50cc.
Keeping an extra bar and chain on hand is a great way to maximize the versatility of this saw. A smaller bar is perfect for chores around the house or preparing the log for milling. Then the longer bar and chain can be dedicated to milling.
You can find this saw online at Northern Tool or at a Stihl dealer.
Best Mid-Range Chainsaw for an Alaskan Mill: Stihl MS 661 Magnum
Engine Size: 91cc
Bar Length: 16″ – 32″
About the Stihl MS 661 Magnum Chainsaw
The Stihl 661 chainsaw is a huge step up in power and size from the last saw.
With a 91cc engine this saw packs a ton of power and can handle the workload of milling larger logs. With its 32″ max bar length you can begin milling up some serious slabs with this saw.
With this increase in power comes a big increase in cost though. Where the Husqvarna retails for between $600 – $700, you’ll be looking at over $1,200 for the Stihl.
If milling slabs is more than just a hobby, or you’re looking to mill up a large amount of wood, this is a worthwhile investment.
Top of the Line Chainsaw for Milling: Stihl MS 880 Magnum
Engine Size: 120cc
Bar Length: 17″ – 59″
About the Stihl MS 880 Magnum Chainsaw
The Stihl 880 Magnum is the best of the best when it comes to chainsaws. And at a price tag topping $2,000 you would certainly expect to be receiving a beast than can tackle almost any milling job.
The huge 120cc engine on this saw can power bars up to 59″ in length. At that size, you’ll be capable of milling up some huge logs which can be the start of a very profitable milling business.
Almost anyone who has spent a decent amount of time milling their own logs will quickly tell you that this is the saw you should go with from day one if you’ll be milling with any consistency. The power and speed are unmatched and you’ll almost never risk destroying the motor with longer cuts in hardwoods.
Chainsaw Milling FAQ
Go with a chainsaw that can handle a bar that is at least 3 inches longer than the width of the log you’ll be milling. Most Alaskan mills require at least 3 inches extra at the end of the bar for attachment. I also recommend going with a saw with an engine size of at least 60cc for smaller logs and softer woods. A minimum of 90cc would be best though.
Ripping chains are helpful as they leave a better finish on the wood slabs but are not necessary. Most folks report that ripping chains don’t cut any faster that regular chains.
Not likely. The electric chainsaws you’ll find at big box stores are woefully undersized and underpowered for milling logs. There are some larger, commercial style electric chainsaws available but they are definitely not cheap!
On average, if you’re not running a dull chain or underpowered saw, is about a foot of cut per minute. So an 8 ft long log will take around 8 minutes per slab.
Wood mills run a blade like you’ll find on a bandsaw. This blade has a far thinner kerf so you can cut faster and will lose a lot less wood to waste. Chainsaw mills use a standard chainsaw with a mill attachment. The trade-off for the material loss and slower speed of a chainsaw mill is that it is extremely portable and more versatile as you can use the chainsaw independently as well.
Final Thoughts on the Best Chainsaw for Milling Lumber
Milling your own lumber can be an extremely fun and addictive hobby or side business. Many people have used this method to mill up enough lumber to make their own hardwood floors for their homes! Just take your time, keep your chains sharp, and your saws in good working order.
And stay safe!