Back in the early 80's I was hauling logs to a local sawmill for a friend. He introduced me to the sawyer. And this sawyer had many years of experience cutting logs to lumber and harvesting trees to make logs.
While we were waiting for the heater to warm up the hydraulic tank so we could run the mill during the winter time when it was fairly cold at the mill, we’d sit in the ‘tool room’ around the wood stove and wait. During these times I’d ask him to “tell me a story.”
He would tell about getting his truck stuck in the mud and how he and his brother would pull it out.
He’d talk about driving his truck to Boston to deliver three by planks for the forms for building Logan Airport before highway Route 95 was built.
But most of all, I liked the stories he’d tell about harvesting logs before chain saws and using heavy equipment that had hydraulics.
One story that is my favorite to tell is when I asked him to describe to me step by step how they did it.
He said that they’d go to the woodlot and pick out the tree that they wanted to fell. They didn’t have a chain saw so they would chop with an axe the felling wedge area. This would allow the tree the space it needs to fall off the stump.
To make the back cuts; they’d use a two-man cross cut saw.
Lining up they’d saw the back cut and put in wedges to hold the tree from “sitting back down” on their saw.
Once the “hinge wood” was reached, they pound in the wedges and the tree would fall over.
These were eastern white pine trees.
I asked: “ok, so now it’s on the ground, what did you do next?”
He said they’d “limb it out.” That is chop off all the limbs until they reached the top of the tree to an area where the trunk was about 8" in diameter. Most of these limbs would be dead branches and that they would pop off with a single blow with a sharp axe. Now they didn’t use a regular axe, but they used a double bladed axe.
I have heard that some people sharpen their double bladed axe heads differently. That is one cutting edge is sharpened for one use and the other is sharpened differently for another use. I’m not sure if his was this way or not.
He mentioned that with the right sharpening and a good swing you could chop off one of these dead branches with a single blow. And then follow through just like a golfer would do. But instead of ending at the top of the back swing; you’d then continue to swing down to the next neighboring branch. And that you would kind of rock your body left and right; as well as side step to advance up the log from the stump to the tip.
After he described this to me, I went to my tool shed and found one of my father’s double bladed axes and sharpened it up. During one of our regular harvesting jobs I decided I’d give it a try. And I laid down a nice big white pine and then I limbed it out using a double bladed axe using the double chop method. And within a few minutes I was swinging and side stepping my way down the log chopping off all the dead branches. Most of them with a single blow of the axe. It was fast and it did work. I was very proud of myself for learning the old way of doing things.
Chopping off a green live branch was a different story. As they don’t usually chop off with a single blow, depending on the size.
I said: “ok, so now you have it all “limbed out” what did you do next.”
He said that they’d then site it to see where the bends in the tree were so that they could figure on cutting the straightest logs. They would site it from stump end known as the butt to the top. Then they’d site it from the top to the butt. While walking back and forth they’d pick up a small chip or branch piece and place it on top of the log where they think they’d like to make the cut to make the logs. Kind of like a marker. They’d move them as they view the log and see where they’d be best for making the most out of the tree.
Back then they didn’t use a “logger’s tape” like we have today. They’d layout the lengths of the logs using a “layout stick” and a hatchet to mark the spots. A “layout stick” was a small round branch 4' long. Just small enough so you could hold it in your left hand and light enough to carry easily. The stick would have a ring carved into it at the middle, 2' mark. The ends would both have a ring carved into them 4" from the end. That was so that if they wanted a ten-foot log you’d layout two sticks and a half. The four-inch ring was the added “trim” that every log will have in order to have the extra required by most mills.
So starting at the butt end, you’d lay the stick onto the log and chop a small cut at the end of the stick. Just one wack to create a line. Then move up the log and place the end of the stick at this line and make the next line. Move over four inches and make a cut through mark. A cut through mark would be made by making two wacks removing a small piece of bark and exposing the white sapwood against the dark bark, which was very easy to see.
I used the stick to layout logs for many years until we were taught by forester how much wood we were actually wasting using this method. Once logger tapes were used then the stick was ‘retired’.
“Ok” I said, “now you’ve got it marked where you’re going to cut it to lengths. How do you cut it to length without a chain saw?”
He said that they used the “two man” cross cut saw again.
Ok, well. I could see that.
But, I asked: “when cutting down through a log, and the log is held up at each end the saw kerf would close on the saw blade. Using a chain saw, when we see this we’d stop cutting down, and reach the bar under and cut up with the top of the bar.” “How do you do that with a two man cross-cut saw? You can’t cut up the handles would be in the dirt and too long to allow you so pull it back and forth?”
He said that I was right that they couldn’t saw up. What they had were small, sometimes wooden, wedges in one pocket and a small hammer in the other pants pocket and that they’d saw down from the top on their mark and if the log started to close up on their blade that they insert the wedge and pound it in to hold the kerf open so that they could saw down through and not get their two man cross cut saw stuck in the log.
“Ok, so now you’ve got the log sawn into two pieces and the log dropped a bit when it was cut through and released. This dropping may have shifted the log and you can’t get your saw out because it has the handles on each end. How do you get your saw out?” I asked.
He said that most two man cross cut saws have one handle on one end held on with a bolt and a wing nut. They would turn out the wing nut, slide the bolt(s) out and take the handle off. Then the thin blade could be pulled through the logs and released to cut again.
So when you’re in one of those restaurants that have old long two man cross-cut saws hanging on the wall, take a look at the handles. I’ll bet one of them has a wing nut on the bolt. I have seen some, some do not, so I don’t know if the wing nut is on the back side against the wall or whether these weren’t used in the woods.
Well that my favorite “sitting around the wood stove story.”