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I tried to translate the word to my native language in online translators and they say that sawmill is either something like just cutting the trees or a factory where the trees are cut. But all four online dictionaries I know (Camridge, Oxford, MacMillan, Collins) say that it's a factory/building where trees are cut.

So my Q is whether the sawmill is necessarily a building where the trees are cut or it also can be just cutting the trees?

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    Several answers and comments touch on the history and semantics of "sawmill'. But in your question, you ask "where the trees are cut". A "tree" stands in the ground attached to its roots. Once the trunk is cut (ie: felled) from the base / root systems and stripped of extraneous foliage (ie: branches), what was the tree is now a "log". It's the "log" that is processed by a sawmill, generally to be cut into dimensional lumber or chips. There's also a planer mill, which can take a log and "cut it" into sheets to make plywood and veneers. There, the blade is fixed and the logs rotate
    – Ian W
    May 2, 2023 at 0:38
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    It's a great example of how dictionaries are, in short, sometimes quite wrong.
    – Fattie
    May 2, 2023 at 13:03
  • @IanW Having just looked up some Wikipedia articles about logging (not my area of expertise!), it would seem your terminology is correct. In simple layman’s terms, however, I have not heard, and would not myself use, the term ‘log’ to refer to a felled tree stripped of its branches – at that point, it’s just a trunk lying on the ground to me. Logs, inasmuch as I’ve heard the term used with any specificity at all, are what you get once the trunk is bucked. I think the primary distinction to me is that logs are stackable, which whole tree trunks aren’t (not very efficiently, at least). May 2, 2023 at 21:19

6 Answers 6

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A sawmill is a facility, which might be housed in a building. For example a web search returns this picture of a portable sawmill

enter image description here (image from https://woodlandmills.com/portable-sawmills)

So a sawmill is the thing that cuts logs into planks. Although this small sawmill is portable, larger sawmills would be permanently housed in buildings.

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    Some sawmill 'buildings' are simple, e.g. a roof supported by columns and open on all sides, others have walls, big doors for the incoming logs and outgoing planks. Apr 30, 2023 at 12:19
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    Also a sawmill might be a big area with many buildings where lots of people work. Not just the one building.
    – RedSonja
    May 1, 2023 at 11:23
  • As a casual interpretation, I'd say that a "sawmill" strictly refers to the actual facility/machinery that processes the wood into planks, but for colloquial usage, a sawmill can also refer to the building it is housed in.
    – Abion47
    May 2, 2023 at 19:32
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The word mill has an interesting history. In the tenth century, it was used exclusively to describe a building where grain was ground: it didn't come to mean a machine for grinding food until the 15th century. That said, in the tenth century, most mills were powered by water or by wind, so the building was effectively the machine.

The word sawmill originated in 1550, and they were still powered by wind or water, so the building was the machine. The first steam powered sawmill was built by Henry Yesler in Seattle in 1853: the sawmill was just a machine that was housed in a building. It wasn't until the early twentieth century that it became possible to build a truly portable, gasoline powered sawmill- one that really didn't need a building. That said, it is still relatively unusual to have a mill that is not housed in a building.

Just to be clear: the function of a sawmill is to cut logs into planks: it is never used for cutting trees.

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  • I wonder about Etymonline's history. It seems a bit strange to me that the Latin etymon's meaning of milling equipment ("Latin mola 'mill, millstone'") would be lost in OE/ME and then reappear in the 1550s. That's certainly possible, though. However, UM's ME dictionary specifically mentions "a hand mill, a quern", so I doubt that it was ever lost. Apr 30, 2023 at 21:43
  • @MarcInManhattan Fair comment. Note that the hand mill/quern definition occurs fifth in the list, and the building is first. Meanings do change over time- think of nice- and, over hundreds of years, there's no reason that a word can't change back and forth.
    – JavaLatte
    May 1, 2023 at 3:21
  • @JavaLatte Yes, it's certainly possible. Perhaps the OED or some other source would have a more detailed etymology. May 1, 2023 at 19:31
  • @MarcInManhattan - agreed; Chaucer specifically refers to a "miller" as an occupation in c1380 so it was in common use then (since Chaucer wrote in the common tongue of 14th C. London) and, presumably, hadn't sprung from nothing at that time - that would have been a bit of a coincidence.
    – Spratty
    May 2, 2023 at 13:23
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    The industrial revolution in the UK popularised the term mill as a building for industry (e.g. textile production), so it's not a simple case of moving from building to machinery, but also reflects the changing nature of production.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 30 at 9:53
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Strictly speaking the sawmill is the apparatus. If there's a dedicated building, the meaning of the word extends to the building.

A sawmill is definitely not the act of cutting trees into pieces. If you do it with hand saws, you don't have a sawmill.

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Not "cut", but "processed". A sawmill is a facility which may or may not be a single building where trees are processed. By "processed", I mean a place where trees that have already been cut are changed into wood products.

If we were talking about metal, digging out the ore out of the ground would be like cutting trees, and what a sawmill does would be like what a smelter does. If we were talking about oil, drilling for oil would be like cutting the trees, and what a sawmill does would be like what a refinery does.

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    "cut up" (or "cut into planks", etc.) would be quite reasonable. It's just that "cut" in the context of trees normally means "cut down" or "fell"
    – Chris H
    May 2, 2023 at 10:52
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    @ChrisH You cut down trees only to then cut them up into boards :S
    – DKNguyen
    May 2, 2023 at 14:11
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    ... as @DKNguyen demonstrates another meaning of "cutting up".
    – keshlam
    May 2, 2023 at 14:33
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This is one of those words whose meaning is altering - most people would still assume that a sawmill was a building, hence why you will find the qualifier "portable" widely used (where appropriate) but rarely hear/see "fixed" used in the same way.

In the olden-days, a Mill was almost certainly a flour mill, hence either a Water-Mill or a Wind-Mill omit the purpose of the mill from the name. These days they are getting rarer, and more and more people will recognise a milling-machine as being a power-tool, and I would expect this to be gradually taking over as the primary meaning.

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    It is perhaps misleading to use the term milling-machine in this context. A milling machine has a completely different function to a saw mill. The former is used to remove material from the surface of a work piece in order to change the shape of the surface, whereas the latter is used to remove material from inside a work piece in order to cut it into thick slices. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milling_(machining)
    – JavaLatte
    May 2, 2023 at 9:58
  • ... hence, milling wood (without context) mostly means cutting it to a standard shape or size. First step in woodworking it often to mill the boards to something close to their final dimensions.
    – keshlam
    May 2, 2023 at 14:35
  • @keshlam / Java From the tone, I think you are disagreeing with my post, but for the life of me I can't see what bit you think is wrong. I am only taking about a milling-machine as a comparison, as probably the most well known modern "mill".
    – MikeB
    May 2, 2023 at 14:49
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    @MikeB "most well known mill" is going to be very culture dependent. If you asked me, I suspect I'd think of the pepper mill. It appears that's even more modern (1840s versus 1810s).
    – origimbo
    May 2, 2023 at 15:35
  • I believe woodworking.stackexchange.com would say that yours is the usage most non-woodworkers are familiar with, and is indeed correct for a "milling machine" -- but that within the woodworking community that's a special case of milling wood, and as @origimbo points out there are other uses of this sense of the word.
    – keshlam
    May 2, 2023 at 15:58
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Sawmill’ is actually a compound word, just like ‘windmill’. Both can refer to buildings.

Saw’ refers to a tool used for cutting wood, and ‘mill’ can refer to a factory or equipment. Perhaps ‘sawmill’ gradually developed this way, especially in portable usage, describing a device for processing raw logs.

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