Dave Neame: chainsaw milling
Sentimentality and chainsaws don’t usually go hand in hand but Dave Neame uses the machines not to massacre but to preserve pieces of wood for posterity.
The long-time logger, who is based in North Canterbury, uses his prowess with a chainsaw to mill trees into slabs that can be turned into furniture, kitchen benches, or used as building features.
“I get approached by people who’ve got trees that have sentimental value and they want more than firewood or mulch out of them. I come and mill them up and they can get made into something that becomes a family heirloom,” he explains.
Dave’s mobile mill comprises a Kubota tractor and three chainsaws, which he carts around on a trailer behind his Nissan Navara — “That’s my shed. I can take it all round the country.” He stores his gear in a container in Okuku, but has a semi-permanent set-up for bespoke milling in a macrocarpa grove on a friend’s property in nearby Ohoka. A sign nailed high on a tree declares it to be “Dave Neame’s Thinking Forest” and, clad in leather chaps and earmuffs, he is probably the only one who can think above the roar of his saw.
Dave has a range of chainsaws. His “baby saw”, which can cut up to 500mm, is a 92cc Stihl MS661, a fuelefficient saw with an impressive powerto-weight ratio. His big double- end
“That’s my shed. I can take it all round the country”
saw is an Alaskan Mill Mark III. With a contraption with a 92cc Stihl fitted at one end and an MS880 121cc at the other it has a maximum cut of 1.45m. He says, “It was designed for milling in remote places. It needs two people so I usually get my client to help.” His third contraption is a vertical saw, also known as a ‘saw fish’, which has been engineered to cut at 90 degrees to the horizontal.
Old walnut myths
Dave works with a variety of wood, from elm and oak to macrocarpa and windfall natives, but his favourite is walnut. “It always comes up the nicest,” he says of the hardwood fruit timber with its distinctive grain and rich colours. But it has a drawback: “I hit nails all the time with walnut. There was an old myth that the more iron you
put into a walnut tree, the more fruit it would bear so they banged nails and even horseshoes into them. That’s why sawmills won’t touch it.”
Nails aside, sharpening the teeth is a tedious part of the job and the chains have a limited life. “I have to sharpen the saw after every slab on a big cut. It takes me about two minutes with a hand file. I’ve sharpened so many I could do it with a blindfold,” he says. “The chain gets hot and deteriorates quickly with continuous cutting like this, so I’ll only get about two weeks out of a chain.”
In the blood
Dave, born in Greymouth, comes from a family of West Coasters with an affinity for the forest: “My grandad started milling in 1950 at Jacksons doing silver pine for sleepers for New Zealand Rail. It was all done by hand with two-man cross-cut saws in those days.”
His father, a bulldozing contractor from the Taramakau, also loved his wood. When he died two years ago, Dave had a piece of 600-year-old rimu he had heli-logged from the area made into his urn box.
Dave cut his teeth logging in Nelson before taking to the air heli-logging. It was dangerous work and while retrieving pine in the Motueka area, the helicopter crashed and burned, killing
“I’ll only get about two weeks out of a chain”
the pilot, Pete McColl. Dave, who was lucky to have just got out of the machine, milled the timber for Pete’s headstone and his plaque at the crash site.
He then headed to the North Island to do some native-timber contract work before being called up by a Hokitikabased company in 2004.
“I did all their sustainable heli-logging from Nelson Lakes up the Howard Valley through to Maruia.” In between logging contracts and private tree felling, Dave started dabbling in one-off chainsaw slab work about 12 years ago. It proved so rewarding that he decided to turn his hand to it full-time and set up Chainsaw Tree Milling New Zealand in 2016.
Interesting scrap timber
As well as milling private clients’ timber, he keeps his eye out for unwanted trees, windfalls, and standing dead trees to mill into slabs to sell. “DIY people love it,” he says. Wood destined for the firewood heap is often the most interesting. “Logs with a bend in them make fantastic natural bar leaners,” he says. “I cut
10 out of two big pine logs that were otherwise worthless and sold them all to a Christchurch pub.”
Dave has also been called on by people who have lost trees or had to abandon their properties after the Christchurch earthquakes. “I’ve done a few trees in the red zone. People like to take something away with them and use it in their rebuild,” he says. “One lady approached me about a walnut tree the family had grown up with that had been wrecked in the quakes. I milled it up and she was over the moon. She had platter boards made for their daughters as keepsakes and her husband even got a 20-litre bucket of sawdust out of it to smoke his fish. If that’s not sustainable I don’t know what is.”
Wood destined for the firewood heap is often the most interesting
Dave also makes signs out of timber slabs. He uses an electric hand router to cut out the letters and images, which he draws freehand, then paints the grooves
Dave creates replica manuka mining trolleys using coal wagon wheels from abandoned West Coast mines. They are constructed out of long-length manuka firewood and bolted together to form sturdy decorative garden features.