top of page

How is lumber made?

Lumber: You’re probably surrounded by it right now. You’ve probably bought it before. Perhaps you’ve even built something with it.

You know what it is but how is it made?

In the United States, most trees destined to be cut into lumber are grown in managed forests either owned by the lumber company or leased from the government. After the trees have reached an appropriate size, they are cut down and transported to a lumber mill where they are cut into various sizes of lumber.

This is where it gets interesting: the manufacturing part. It’s broken down into steps which we’ll outline below:


  • Selected trees in an area are visually inspected and marked as being ready to be cut down, or felled.

  • Most tree felling is done with chain saws. Two cuts are made near the base, one on each side, to control the direction the tree will fall. Once the tree is down, the limbs are trimmed off with chain saws, and the tree is cut into convenient lengths for transportation.

  • If the terrain is relatively level, diesel-powered tractors, called skidders, are used to drag the fallen tree sections to a cleared area for loading. If the terrain is steep, a self-propelled yarder is used. The yarder has a telescoping hydraulic tower that can be raised to a height of over 100 feet. Guy wires support the tower, and cables are run from the top of the tower down the steep slopes to retrieve the felled trees. The tree sections, or logs, are then loaded on trucks using wheeled log loaders.

  • The trucks make their way down the graded road and onto public highways on their way to the lumber mill. Once at the mill, giant mobile unloaders grab the entire truck load in one bite and stack it in long piles, known as log decks. The decks are periodically sprayed with water to prevent the wood from drying out and shrinking.

Debarking and bucking

  • Logs are picked up from the log deck with rubber-tired loaders and are placed on a chain conveyor that brings them into the mill. In some cases, the outer bark of the log is removed, either with sharp-toothed grinding wheels or with a jet of high-pressure water, while the log is slowly rotated about its long axis. The removed bark is pulverized and may be used as a fuel for the mill's furnaces or may be sold as a decorative garden mulch.

  • The logs are carried into the mill on the chain conveyor, where they stop momentarily as a huge circular saw cuts them into predetermined lengths. This process is called bucking, and the saw is called a bucking saw.

Headrig sawing (large logs)

  • If the log has a diameter larger than 2-3 ft, it is tipped off the conveyor and clamped onto a moveable carriage that slides lengthwise on a set of rails. The carriage can position the log transversely relative to the rails and can also rotate the log 90 or 180 degrees about its length. Optical sensors scan the log and determine its diameter at each end, its length, and any visible defects. Based on this information, a computer then calculates a suggested cutting pattern to maximize the number of pieces of lumber obtainable from the log.

  • The headrig sawyer sits in an enclosed booth next to a large vertical bandsaw called the headrig saw. He reviews the suggested cutting pattern displayed on a television monitor, but relies more on his experience to make the series of cuts. The log is fed lengthwise through the vertical bandsaw. The first cut is made along the side closest to the operator and removes a piece of wood called a slab. The outer surface of the slab has the curvature of the original tree trunk, and this piece is usually discarded and ground to chips for use in paper pulp.

  • The carriage is returned to its original position, and the log is shifted sideways or rotated to make subsequent cuts. The headrig sawyer must constantly review the log for internal defects and modify the cutting pattern accordingly as each successive cut opens the log further. In general, thinner pieces destined to be made into boards are cut from the outer portion of the log where there are fewer knots. Thicker pieces for dimension lumber are cut next, while the center of the log yields stock for heavy timber pieces.