History of Saw Milling

A History of Milling Lumber from Logs

Historical excerpts from across the Internet published around mid 19th century, consolidated to flow in a readable time line.

Sawing is a distinct business from the trades, in which the saw is not only very useful, but a necessary implement such as those of the carpenter, cabinet-maker, cooper, etc.
big logs,logging,forestry,splitting wedges,saw milling history

Woodsmen using wedges and jacks to spilt open a log.

In early periods of society, the trunks of trees were split with wedges, into as many, and as thin pieces as possible and if it was necessary to have them still thinner, they were hewn, by some sharp instrument, on both sides, to the proper size. This simple but wasteful manner of making boards has been still continued in some places, to the present time. Peter the Great, of Russia (early 18th century) endeavoured to put a stop to it, forbidding hewn deals to be transported on the river Neva. The wood-splitters perform their work more expeditiously than sawyers, and split timber is much stronger than that which has been sawed; for the fissure follows the grain of the wood, and leaves it whole; where as the saw, which proceeds in the line chalked out for it, divides the fibers, and by these means lessens its cohesion and strength. Split timber, indeed, turns out often crooked and warped; but, in many purposes to which it is applied, this is ny no means prejudicial; and the fault may sometimes be amended. As the fibres however retain their natural length and direction, thin boards in particular, can be bent much better. This is a great advantage for making pipe staves, and in forming various implements of the like kind.

The saw is an instrument which serves to cut into pieces several solid matters; as wood, stone, ivory, etc. The best saws are of tempered steel, ground bright and smooth; those of iron are only hammer-hardened, hence, the first, besides their being stiffer, are likewise found smoother than the last. They are known to be well hammered by the stiff bending of the blade; and to be well and evenly ground, by their bending equally in a bow. The edge in which are the teeth is always thicker than the back, because the back is to follow the edge. The teeth are cut and sharpened with a triangular file, the blade of the saw being first fixed in a whetting-block. After they have been filed, the teeth are set, that is, turned out of the right line, that they may make the kerf, or fissure, the wider, that the back may follow the better. The teeth are always set ranker for coarse shep stuff than for hard and fine, because the ranker the teeth are set, the more stuff is lost in the kerf. The saws, by which marble and other stones are cut, have no teeth: these are generally very large, and are stretched out and held even by a frame.

The lapidaries, too, have their saw, as well as the wokmen in mosaic, but of all mechanics, none have so many saws as the joiners: the chief are as follows. –

The pit-saw, which is a large two-handed saw, used to saw timber in pits; this is chiefly used by the sawyers.

pit saw,sawyers,history of saw milling

Pit saw work seems to appears in historical records implementing two methods, the log high up on a wood frame, or spanning a trench, as depicted here.

The whip-saw, which is also two handed, used in sawing such large pieces of stuff as the hand-saw will not easily reach.

whip saw sharpening,saw milling history,sawyers

A whip saw is what was used by sawyers on a saw pit trench or elevated frame.

The hand-saw, which is made for a single man’s use, of which there are varous kinds; as the bow, or frame saw, which is furnished with cheeks: by the twisted cords which pass from the upper parts of these cheeks, and the tongue in the middle of them. The upper ends are drawn close together, and the lower set further apart.

saw milling lumber,sawyer history,bow saws,frame saws

A hand-saw (bow saw).

The tenon-saw, which being very thin, has a back to keep it from bending.

saw milling history,tenon saws

A modern tenon saw

The compass-saw, which is very small, and its teeth usually not set; its use is to cut a round, or any other compass-kerf: hence the edge is made broad, and the back thin, that it may have a compass to turn in.

sawmill hostory,compass saw,keyhole saw.

A modern compass saw

The pit-saw, is that which is chiefly used in the employment properly dominated sawing. The teeth are set rank for coarse work, so as to make a fissure of about a quarter inch. To perform the work, the timber is laid on a frame over an oblong pit, called the saw-pit; and it is cut by means of a long saw fastened in a frame, which is worked up and down by two men, the one standing on the wood to be cut, and the other in the pit. As they proceed in their work they drive widges, at proper distances from the saw, to keep the fissure open, which enables the saw to move with freedom. This, though profitable, is a very laborious employment, and hence have been introduced saw-mills, which, in different countries are worked by different means, as by men, by horses, by wind or by steam.

A saw-mill, worked by men, consists of several parallel saws, which are made to rise and fall perpendicularly by means of mechanical motion. In this case a very few hands are necessary to carry on the operation, to push forward the pieces of timber, which are either laid on rollers, or suspended by ropes, in proportion as sawing advances.

Grecian times

Our common saw, which needs only to be guided by the hand of the workman, however simple it may be, was not known to the inhabitants of America when they were subdued by the Europeans. The inventor of this instrument has, by the Greeks, been inserted into their mythology, with a place among those whom they have honoured as the greatest benefactors of the earliest ages. By some, he is calle Talus, and, by others, Perdix. Pliny ascribes the invention to Daedalus; but Hardouin, in the passage where he does so, reads Talus rather than Daedalus. Diodorus Siculus, Apollodorus, and others, name the inventor Talus. He was the son of Daedalus’s sister; and was, by his mother, placed under the tuition of her brother, to be instructed in his art. Having, its is said, once found the jaw-bone of a snake, he employed to cut through a small piece of wood; and, by these means, was induced to form a like instrument of iron, that is, a saw. This invention, which greatly facilitates labour, excited the envy of his master, and instigated him to put Talus to death privately. We are told, that of being asked, when he was burying the body, what he was depositing in the earth, he replied, “A serpent.” This suspicious answer discovered the murder; and thus, adds the historian, a snake was the cause of the invention, of the murder, and of its being found out.

frame saws,saw milling lumber,sawmilling history

Two sawyers are clearing seen using a frame saw to cut lumber from a piece of timber.

The saws of the Grecian carpenters had the same form, and were made in the like ingenious manner – as ours are at present. The earliest type of reciprocating saw is the “tension” type. Tension saws are those which have a narrow, thin blade strained in a frame of wood or metal. The oldest and most generally known form of this kind of saw is the Buck or Wood Saw (also called a frame saw).

The origin of the Buck Saw goes back into the very beginning of history. It is claimed by students of antiquity that frame saws were common in Egypt many centuries prior to the executing of the drawing at Herculaneum. There is no doubt that it is one of the oldest forms of saws.

saw milling history,carpenters,Herculaneum

Illustration of carpenters at Herculaneum

This is fully shown by a painting still preserved among the antiquities of Herculaneum (above). Two genii are represented at the end of a bench, which consists of a long table that rests upon two four-footed stools. The piece of wood which is to be sawn through is secured by clamps. The saw, with which the genii are at work, has a perfect resemblance to our frame-saw. It consists of a square frame, having, in the middle, a blade, the teeth of which stand perpendicularly to the plane of the frame. The piece of wood which is to be sawn extends beyond the end of the bench, and one of the workmen appears standing, and the other sitting on the ground. The arms, in which the blade is fastened, have the same form as that given to them as present. In the bench are seen holes, in which the clamps that hold the timber are struck. They are shaped like the figure 7; and the ends of them reach below the boards that form the top of it.

460 B.C.

Hippocrates is said to have invented the first cylinder or drum saw, for use in the operation of trepanning the skull.

The most beneficial and ingenious improvement of this instrument was without doubt, the invention of saw-mills; which are now generally driven either by steam, by water, or by wind.

4th century

Mills of the first kind were erecetd so early as the fourth century, in Germany, on the river Roeur or Ruer, for so Ausonius speaks of water mills for cutting stone, and not timber, it cannot be doubted that these were invented later than mills for cutting out deals, or that both kinds were erected at the same time. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierapolis_sawmill)

saw milling history,Roman,3rd century,sash saw

Illustration of early Roman 3rd century

Historian, Pliny, conjectures that the mill for cutting stone was invented in Caria; at least he knew no building incrusted with marble of greater antiquity than the palace of king Mausolus, at Halicarnassus. This edifice is celebrated by Vitruvius, for the beauty of its marble; and Pliny gives an account of the different kinds of sand used for cutting it, for it is the sand, he says, and not the saw, which produces that effect. The latter presses down on the former, and rubs it against the marble; and the coarser the sand is, the longer will be the time required to polish the marble which has been cut by it. Notwithstanding these facts, there is no account in any of the Greek or Roman writers of a mill for sawing wood; and as the writers of modern timers speak of saw-mills as new and uncommon, it would seem that the oldest construction of them as been lost, or that some important improvement has made them appear entirely new.

13th century

The earliest mills were driven by wind power, but a 13th century manuscript shows a water-wheel saw. [No source of manuscript mentioned.]

14th century

John Joachim Becher says, with his usual confidence, that saw-mills were invented in the seventeenth century. Though this is certainly false, as there were saw-mills in the neighbourhood of Augsburg, Germany, so early as the year 1337, as Von Stetten has discovered around 1779 by the town-books of that place. In his own words, in answer to a request made that he would be so kind as to communicate all the information he knew on that subject:

“You are desirous of reading that passage in our town-books, where saw-mills are first mentioned; but it is of very little importance. There is to be found only under the year 1338 the name of a burgher called Giss Saegemuller; and though it may be objected that one cannot from the name infer the existence of the employment, I am of a different opinion; especially as I have lately been able to obtain a proof much more to be depended on. In the surveyors’ book, which I have often before quoted, and which, perhaps, for many centuries has not been seen or consulted by any one, I find under the year 1322, and several times afterwards, sums disbursed under the following title: "Molitori dicto Hanrey pro asseribus et swaertlingis". Schwartlings, among us, are the outside deals [parts] of the trunk, which in other places are called _Schwarten_. This word, therefore, makes the existence of a saw-mill pretty certain. As a confirmation of this idea, we have still a mill of that kind which is at present called the Hanrey-mill; and the stream which supplies it with water is called the Hanrey-brook. Since the earliest ages, the ground on which this mill, and the colour, stamping, and oil-mills in the neighbourhood are built, was the property of the hospital of the Holy Ghost. By that hospital it was given as a life-rent to a rich burgher named Erlinger, but returned again in 1417 by his daughter Anna Bittingerin, who had, above and under the Hanrey-mill, two other saw-mills, which still exist, and for which, in virtue of an order of council of that year, she entered into a contract with the hospital in regard to the water and mill-dams.” There were saw-mills, therefore, at
 Augsburg so early as 1322. This appears to be highly probable also from the circumstance, that such mills occur very often in the following century in many other countries."
15th century
Madeira,Spain,water powered sawmill

Madeira, Spain: water powered sawmill

When the infant King Henry  VI sent settlers to the island of Madeira, which was discovered in 1420, and caused European fruits of every kind to be carried thither, he ordered saw-mills to be erected also, for the purpose of sawing into deals [parts] the various species of excellent timber with which the island abounded, and which were afterwards transported to Portugal. About the year 1427, the city of Brelau has a saw-mill, which produced a yearly rent of three marks; and, in 1490, the magistrates of Erfurt purchased a forest, in which they caused a saw-mill to be erected, and they rented another mill in the neighbourhood besides.

16th century

Norway, which is covered with forests, had the first saw-mill about the year 1530 (see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norwegian_Sawmill_Museum {‘…the sawmill industry had been powered by water-driven vertical saws. Still it had been one of the country’s largest export industries since the 16th century…’} ). This mode of manufacturing timber was called the new art; and because the exportation of deals was by these means increased, that circumstance gave occasion to the deal-tithe, introduced by Christian III in the year 1545. Soon after, the celebrated Henry Canzau caused the first mill of this kind to be built in Holstein. In 1552 there was a saw-mill at Joachimsthal, which, as we are told, belonged to Jacob Geusen, mathematician. In the year 1555, the bishop of Ely, ambassador from Mary Queen of England to the court of Rome, having seen a sawmill in the neighbourhood of Lyons, the writer of his travels thought it worthy of a particular description. The rapid development of the early saws is seen in the fact that a gang-saw mill was built on the Danube in 1575. Gang-saws, consisting of a number of blades to cut a log into boards with one operation, have been generally regarded as of later origin than this. However, in a work of Jacobi Besony (produced in Lyons, 1878) are illustrating two types of gang-saw mills, the blades in one having teeth on both edges. These were only isolated instances, the average mill of the period having but one blade. In 1596 the first saw-mill was erected in Holland at Saardam and the invention of it is ascribed to Cornelius Cornelissen. Perhaps he was the first person who built a saw mill at that place, which is a village of great trade, and has still a great many saw-mills, though the number of them is becoming daily less; for within the last thirty years a hundred have been given up.

17th century

America’s first saw-mill was built at the Falls of Piscatauqua, on the line between Maine and New Hampshire, in 1634. Unauthenticated records, however, claim that as early as 1633 several mills were operating in New York State.

A mill in Sweden was erected in the year 1653. At present, that kingdom possess the largest perhaps ever constructed in Europe, where a waterwheel, twelve feet broad, drives at the same time seventy-two saws.

In England saw-mills had at first the same fate that printing had in Turkey, the ribbon-loom in the dominions of the church, and the crane at Strasburg. When attempts were made to introduce them, they were violently opposed, becasue it was apprehended that the hand sawyers would be deprived by them their means of getting a subsistence. For this reason, it was found necessary to abandon a saw-mill erected by a Dutchman near London, in 1663.

Before the arrival of William Penn in 1681 saw-mills had already been erected along the Delaware by the Dutch and Swedes.

18th century

In the year 1700, when one Houghton laid before the nation the advantages of such a mill, he expressed his apprehension that it might excite the rage of the populace. What he dreaded was actaully the case in 1767 or 1768, when an opulent timber-merchant, by the desire and aprobation of the Society of Arts, caused a saw-mill, driven by wind, to be erected at Limehouse, under the direction of James Hansfield, who had learned, in Holland and Norway, the art of constructing and managing machines of that kind. A mob assembled, and pulled the mill to pieces; but the damage was mae good by the nation, and some of the rioters were punished. A new mill was afterwards erected, which was suffered to work without any molestation, and which gave occasion to the erection of others. It appears, however, that this was not the only mill of the kind in Britian; for one driven also by wind had been built in Leith, in Scotland, some years before.

The next great progressive step was the invention (or re-invention) of the circular saw. While the hand-saw is as old as history itself, the circular saw, as now used, is a comparatively recent innovation. Circular saws were used for cutting the spaces between the teeth of clock wheels long before they were used for cutting is Patent No. 1152, granted to Samuel Miller in England, August 5, 1777, although it is claimed that similar saws were in use in Holland nearly a century before. In any event, circular saws are believed to have been introduced into England for practical wood-cutting purposes about 1790.

Sir Samuel Bentham is credited with helping to revolutionise the production of the wooden pulley blocks used in ships’ rigging, devising woodworking machinery to improve production efficiency. Bentham’s 1793 patent for woodworking machinery has been called “one of the most remarkable patents ever issued by the British Patent Office”. Fifty years later in a woodworking machinery patent case the Crown Judges said “the specification of his patent of 1793 is a perfect treatise on the subject; indeed the only one worth quoting that has to this day been written on the subject”.

19th century

In 1803 there was a steam saw-mill in New Orleans, which met the fate of the early English mills, being burned by hand-sawyers.

In 1804 a man named Trotter secured a patent on a circular saw, and Sir Samuel Bentham (who later invented a circular saw made in segments) made a circular saw for the British Admiralty prior to 1800. Historians credit T. Brunei with first bringing circular saws into important service. He employed them for cutting ship’s blocks an application adopted by the British Admiralty Board in 1804 for the Portsmouth Yard. Brunei patented a veneer-saw in 1805, marking another advance.

The first circular Veneering Saw to run by power was that invented by Isambard M. Brunei about 1805. He introduced it in the Chatham (England) dock yards and later in his works at Battersea, where it aroused great wonder among visitors. The speed of two-thirds of a mile a minute, which these saws attained, was considered marvelous in those days. It is interesting to note that the Egyptians, whose primitive saws we have described, practised the art of veneering as early as 1490 B. C., during the reign of Thothmes III, who is believed by antiquarians to have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

While a successful saw-mill was built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1834, and others were established at subsequent dates, little progress was made in wood-cutting machinery until John McDowell put up a plant at Johnstown. He at once gained prominence by making the first frame-saws supplied to Glasgow, as well as England, including the British Government.

These mills were all of the vertical reciprocating type, the saws being strained along a strong rectangular frame driven along suitable guides by a crank on a revolving shaft, usually below the frame.

sash saws,saw milling history

An up and down Sash Saw.

A sliding carriage, which automatically moved a certain distance at each stroke, carried the log. After each cut the log was moved laterally, the distance corresponding to the thickness of the lumber being cut. Old-time sawyers will remember when logs had to be moved with a bar after each cut.

Saw-mills, as they are now constructed are of two kinds, according as the saws employed effect their operation by a circular or by a reciprocating motion. Circular saw-mills are the most simple in their construction. Mr George Smart, at his manufactory for hollow masts, on the Surrey side of the Westminster Bridge, had several of these. In one of the simplest, a wheel is turned by a horse, which gives motion to a pionion on a horizontal shaft; a spur-wheel is fixed on the shaft, and turns a pinion on another horizontal shaft, on which a wheel is fixed in the room above the machine, and the bearings for the gudgeons of the shaft are supported by the joists on the floor: by means of an endless strap passing around the wheel, and round a pulley on the spindle of the circular saw, a rapid motion is given to the saw: it is fixed on its spindle by a shoulder, against which it is held by another moveable shoulder pressed tight by a nut, on the end of the spindles which is tapped into a screw to receive it. The saw has a circular hole through the middle, fitting tight upon the spindle, so as to cause them to turn together.

The ends of the spindle are pointed, and that point nearest the saw works in a hole made in the end of a screw, screwed in a bench of stout planks, and well braced together; the other turns in a similar screw passed through a cross beam mortised between two vertical beams extending from the floor to the ceiling: one of the beams can be raised or lowered in its mortises by wedged put above both above and below its tenons. In order to adjust the plane of the saw to the plane of the bench, there is a long parallel ruler, which can be set at any distance from the saw, and fixed by means of grooves going through circular grooves cut through the bench. In using the machine, the ruler is to be set the proper distance from the saw of the piece of wood to be cut, and as the saw turns round, a workman slides the end of a piece of wood to it, keeping its edge against the guide or ruler, that it may cut straight. We have witnessed the operation, which is as neat as it is expeditious and ingenious.

At this time saw sharpening was a secret process. The sharpener worked in an isolated room and sawyers were required to ring a bell before being permitted to speak to him. When a saw requires sharpening, one of the screws at the end of the spindle must be turned back: the spindle and saw can then be removed, and may be fixed in a common vice to whet it, in the same manner as a common saw; the outsides of the teeth are not filed to leave a surface perpendicular to the plane of the saw, but inclined to it, and in the same direction that each tooth so filed is bent in the setting: by this means, the saw, when cutting, first takes away the wood at the two sides of the kerf, leaving a ridge in the middle of it, that it may not have a tendency to get out of the straight line in any place where the wood is harder at one side than on the other.

The most important machinery of this kind was unquestionably at Portsmouth for the manufacturing of ship’s blocks; a full account of the machines is given in Dr. Ree’s most valuable New Cyclopedia, to which we refer our redaers, and from which we shall extract a brief description of one or two of the saws.

"The great cross-cutting Saw. - The tree subjected to the action of this machine is placed on a long frame or bench raised a little from the floor, and at the end of it is erected a frame, composed of vertical posts and cross timber, in the manner of a small and low door-way: through this frame the end of the tree is drawn by the capstand above mentioned, its end projecting as much from the surface of the frame as is intended to be cut off; and it is fastened in the frame from rolling sideways, by a lever, which can be readily made to press it and hold it down. The saw itself is a straight blade, fixed to a wooden handle or pole at each end, to lengthen it: one of these handles is connected to a joint to the upper end of a lever, bent like an L, and having its center beneath the floor: the horizontal arm of the lever is connected by a spear rod, with a crank on the end of a spindle near the ceiling of the room, the motion of which is regulated by a flywheel. By this means the saw has a reciprocating motion from right to left, nearly in a horizontal position, and exactly across the log it is to cut off, imitating in its motion the carpenter's hand saw, considering his arm of the bent or L lever. The teeth of the saw are of course on the lower side of the blade, and are sloped so as to cut in drawing towards the lever. It rises and falls freely upon its joint at the end of the lever, and can be lifted up by the handle, at the opposite end of the blade, to take it off its works, which it follows up by its own weight. The machine being at rest, is prepared for work, by fixing the log in the frame as before mentioned, so that the surface of the frame intersects at the place where it is intended to be cross-cut. The saw, which was before lifted up by its handle, to be clear above the log, is now suffered to rest upon it, in the place where the cut is to made; and to guide it at first setting in, the back of the saw is received in a saw kerf, made in the end of a piece of baord, which is attached to the frame over the saw, but slides up and down in a groove to reach the saw at any height, according to the thickness of the log lying beneath it. Being thus prepared, the machine is put in action by a rope or strap which turns the fly-wheel and its crank. This giving a vibration to the bent or L lever, causes the saw to reciprocate horizontally across the tree, until it cuts through it: it follows up its cut by its own weight alone, but the attendent can at any time lift up the saw from its work, though its motion continues, by means of a rope which suspends the handle of the saw when required. As the saw gets into the tree it quits the guide above mentioned, which becomes the less necessary as the saw goes deeper; a saw having no tendency to alter its first course, when cutting across the grain of the wood. We admire the simplicity of this machine, which nevertheless executes its work with much accuracy and expedition. It might be very usefully employed in many situations where great manual labour is spent in cross-cutting large logs of timber."
"The cross-cutting circular saw. - This machine is for similar purposes, and stands close by the former. It isa circular saw, whose spindle is so mounted, as to move in any direction parallel to itself; the saw all the while continuing in the same plane, and revolving rapidly upon its axis, cuts the wood it is presented to, and as it admits of being applied at first on one side, and then on the other side of the tree, a saw of moderate dimensions will be sufficient to divide larger trees, than could otherwise by done by it."

"The great reciprocating saw for cutting up trees lengthwise. In this machine the works vertically: it has an horizontal carriage, on which th etimber is fastened, this passes thorugh a vertical frame which grooves, in which another frame slides up and down in the manner of a window sash, and has the saw stretched in it. The saw-frame is moved up an down by means of a crack on an axis beneath the floor, which is turned by means of an endless rope. At every time the saw rises and falls, it turns a ratchet wheel round, by means of a lcick, a few teeth; and this has on its axis a pinion, working a rack attached to the carriage of the tree, which by this means is advanced: at every stroke, the saw makes a proper quantity of another cut. The saw-frame is adapted to hold several saws parallel to each other, for sawing a tree into several boards at once, when required."

William Newberry of London, England, patented the first endless band-saw in 1808, although his machine was never developed further than the model submitted to the Patent Office. Although Newberry was the first of modern times to see the possibilities of the band-saw, he cannot justly be said to have originated it.

The first circular saw in the US is supposed to have been produced by Benjamin Cummins, about 1814, at Bentonsville, N. Y. his facilities consisting solely of the ordinary tools and equipment of a blacksmith’s shop. The fate so often accorded great men was his, for he now lies in a lonely, secluded spot in the northwest corner of the cemetery of the little village of Richmond, Kalamazoo County, Michigan. Half concealed from view by lilac bushes is a marble slab bearing only this simple inscription: “Benjamin Cummins, born 1772; died A. D. 1843.”

Water and, later, steam was the motive power of these saws. Many years ago, 48-inch circular saws  driven by “four horses walking around,” were used in the Western States. The output of these was from 500 to 1200 feet of lumber per day, depending upon the kind and quality of logs.

The general use of circular saws for manufacturing lumber is supposed to have originated in a patent granted March 16, 1820, to Robert Eastman and J. Jaquith of Brunswick. Me. Since then countless other circular saw-mill patents have been granted.

The early circular saws were very crude, with square mandrel holes, and were made only to special order. From 1840, however, progress was rapid the development of the inserted tooth at about this time being one of the greatest progressive strides ever taken in saw-making.

For the band mills, the great difficulty, however, in making a smooth, strong joint in the steel band was a stumbling-block which arrested practical development until Newberry’s time. The next important improvements were by Thouard, also of France, in 1842, when he put the band-saw on a commercially practical form, but it was not until Perine’s final improvements were made that it became profitable. Ferine, of Paris, is due the credit for the improvements which made the general use of the band-saw possible. The old difficulty in joining the blade so that it would run over the wheels without breaking was not overcome until nearly forty years after Newberry gave this type of saw to the world.

Then, about 1846, Ms. Crepin, a French woman of great mechanical genius, secured in France a patent on a machine similar to Newberry’s.

This patent was later obtained by Ferine, and the saw greatly improved by him a suitable joint was perfected and the band-saw became a practical reality.

No really satisfactory method of holding the teeth in place was devised until 1859, when a man named Spaulding, while experimenting in Sacramento, CA, discovered that curved sockets would hold the teeth firmly and securely. This method protects the plate also by reducing the tendency to crack.

sawmilling history,circular gang saws

1899 Illustration of patent applied for a circular gang saw mill by Alpheus E. Roe of New Whatcom, WA, USA, whos invention provides the means whereby circular saws may be successfully operated in numbers of one or more saws mounted on the same arbor.

These old band-saws, although giving increased output over the up-and-down gang saws and circular saws of the day, were quite small, crude and limited in their work. The following typical incident shows the skepticism with which they were received:

“About 1860 a man named McCormick purchased a band-saw in England. After a very short while in service it was removed because it did not do the work expected ( probably because of unskillful management). For many years afterward it surmounted the McCormick garden fence as a pointed reminder to unruly boys to keep out of the melon patch. One feature of the band-saw which rapidly popularized it with the mill-men was its thinness, which meant smaller kerf and more boards from a log than with any other type of saw. The fear at first felt by the operators of this type of saw soon passed, and as its use extended, improvements came rapidly. The large proportions and perfection of form of the present-day band-saws are strikingly shown in comparison with those.”

In 1876 a 6-inch band-saw exhibited then at the Centennial Exposition by Henry Disston & Sons was considered a wonder ; today the same firm is regularly making 18-inch band-saws, many of them toothed on both edges to cut the log coming and going. This up-to-date, speedy band-saw has increased the productivity of mills to a point never dreamed of by the mill-man.

One of the first Horizontal band-saws of bygone days goes to Henry Disston & Sons, due in no small part to their improved equipment and methods of manufacture, have added much to the efficiency of the saw. Through the medium of Disston band-saws the heavy demands on a modern lumber mill are easily met, and so the old-time quest for a more efficient type of saw has ended.

The Modern (mid 19th century) Saw

We have now reached the point where the modern saws, the saws we know today, stand out as the most useul, the most necessary, the most wonderful of all man’s aids in conquering nature and furthering the needs and comforts of present-day civilization.

A comparison of the saws of ancient times and the saws of to-day is startling to the average man who has not paid close attention to the saw in its present state of perfection. From the primitive stone implements illustrated in the early part of this article to the multitudinous variety of saws employed today, many of which we purpose illustrating and describing, is a tremendous advance. It shows clearly the extraordinary progress made by man in the comparatively short time he has inhabited the earth as compared with its reputed 100,000,000 years of existence.

It is universally acknowledged that the standard modern saws for the entire world are those made by Disston. Therefore a description of the saws they manufacture for various purposes especially the saws they make for millmen, upon whom rests the burden of supplying the lumber requirements of the world will give the broadest conception of the saw as it is known to-day.

In an earlier part we stated that saws came principally under two heads; that is, reciprocating and continuous. These again may be divided into other classes.

First, we will consider those saws which come under the type of reciprocating, for saws of this kind are the more generally used.

The hand-saw, of which the Disston No. 7 and D-8 are distinctively the representative types, is now the companion of every mechanic who has anything to do with wood in his
daily work. We may safely say that it is also found in a vast majority of the homes of the entire world.

Broadly speaking, the term hand-saws includes such saws as buck, hack, keyhole, plumber’s, back, pruning saws in different forms, and many others for special purposes. The cross-cut or long saw and pit saw may also be included under this head.

Although each of these types is of essentially different construction from the others, because of the nature of the work it is called upon to do, the principal and common origin
are the same.

In general, modern handsaws cut on the “push” – Japanese and some other Oriental saws are constructed to cut on the “pull.” A Japanese saw, similar in appearance to a butcher’s cleaver, with a long straight handle into which the shank or tang is driven and secured by wrapping with finely split cane. While different in shape, the metal is much the same as that used in other countries. To rip a plank, the Japanese carpenter places the end across a support, stands on the plank and operates the saw with both hands in a series of quick pulls.

Japan sawyer,saw milling lumber,sawyers

1914 Japan sawyer.

While the oldest civilized peoples in the world the Egyptians, the Chinese and the Japanese used a form of saw having the teeth inclined toward the handle, this form was not universal, as is evidenced by the saws exhumed from the ruins of Pompeii, and now preserved in the museum there. These saws cut on the thrust, just as those in use in Europe and America to-day.

Reference to old-time pit saws, as previously illustrated, show that this saw, as used today, has made little progress, in form at least, over the type used before power-mills came into existence. Quality of steel, style of teeth aid improved methods of tempering and sharpening have, of course, made it a more efficient saw, but these embrace about the only changes made since the days when King Solomon’s temple builders employed it in their work. Naturally, there is not much call for a saw of this kind now and it is almost obsolete.

The cross-cut or long saw fells the trees, cuts them to desired lengths, and then the circular or band-saw transforms them into lumber more quickly and uniformly than two men and an old-time pit saw could.

With a modern mill of even medium capacity the output will be more in one day than these two men in bygone days could have done in months with their old-ashioned pit saw.

The demand for something better and more efficient, whicn the world’s progress has constantly created, was the source of all great inventions and improvements. The felling of timber by the axe, with its resultant waste, great expenditure of labor and loss of time, led inevitably to the development of cross-cut saws.

cross cutting saws,Hamilton's patent,saw milling history

Hamilton’s Patent Tree-Felling and Cross Cutting Machine.

To the old up-and-down saw and the still earlier pit saw can probably be ascribed the direct inspiration.

Though saw-makers remember cross-cut saws as far back as they can recollect, the saws were always made of untempered steel. Henry Disston added their manufacture to his business. He, the first to give real strength and efficiency, also actually gave the cross-cut saw its first great start.

women sawyers,WLA,women's lumber army

Using a cross-cut saw. “Pull, don’t push.”

To-day the immense plant which Henry Disston founded is sending the cross-cut saws they manufacture, with teeth adapted for every sort of wood, to all the inhabitable parts of the earth, where there are forests to cut or lumber to be made.

One of the most important of the advances in cross-cut or long saw making was the introduction of the raker tooth. While many cross-cut saws are still made without the raker, it is really so necessary for quick clearing action that its use will probably become much more general. On green timber especially it insures faster cutting.


Making lumber from boards has been around for many millenia. Using logs to make shelter is probably one of the earliest tasks that the people of the African plains ever did. Leap forward to the last two hundred years, based on the number of patents filed worldwide from the late 1800’s into the first half of the 20th century, the saw milling business was a part of the industrial revolution. Inventions still come around and certainly there may be more to see in the future. What remains is the purpose, the efficiently and safely make a board from a log.

portable saw mills,sawmill history

Portable without penalty – One reason why good sawyers have given this new Enterprise a real welcome. – A moveable saw mill with all the features usually expected only on stationary mills. Handy, fast, accurate, nothing left out – absolutely nothing. Time or tractor never hangs heavily with an Enterprise around. – Catalog gladly mailed – The Enterprise Company, 1050 Main, Columbiana, Ohio (now Reichard Industries)

Keep logging on safely and responsibly! I welcome your comments below with additional comments and corrections where necessary.