Friday, September 23, 2016

Crosscut Memories

This is a long one, folks. Save it until you can sit a few minutes.

Don’t think for a second that I really know what I’m talking about. I’ve probably felled about two trees with a crosscut saw in my entire lifetime, though I HAVE cut THOUSANDS of Christmas trees and similar-sized hardwoods over the years with a bow saw. However, my dad grew up when that was how things were done, and he told me and showed me a few things.

You’ll notice that I speak of “felling” timber instead of “falling;” maybe that was a colloquialism, or maybe it was just a family thing, but the first term was used at least as much as the second. Plus, there were felling axes and felling saws referred to by others, so maybe the usage was more common at one time.
Old photos of my country neighborhood from 1940 and earlier show hills largely denuded of timber to make pasture for milk cows and horses. I know the last time that much of my home farm was mowed was in 1937, by my 12-year-old father, using a one-horse mower and a horse named “Duke.” The hillsides that he mowed then became the second-growth pine woods that I grew up with. Dad, on the other hand grew up with a little virgin timber that NEVER got cut, and the very steepest of hillsides that had returned to second-growth hardwoods (mostly oak) from being cut long before he was born.

Like most farm families back then, my ancestors heated, at least in part, with wood (mostly hardwood) and some coal. That was before the days of chainsaws, so they used axes and crosscuts, naturally—axes for the smaller trees, say six inches and down, and crosscuts for those that were over that size. Of course they used crosscuts for cutting their wood to length, until it got too small to hold still for them. A sawbuck always helped with that task. Smaller diameter limbs and saplings were cut to length with a bucksaw. Really small pieces (kindling) were simply lopped to length with an axe on a stump or wood block. They cut enough firewood that they actually sold some in town during the winter.

crosscut saw

If a tree was perfectly straight and balanced-looking, it could be cut with most any kind of crosscut saw. You just made a level cut for the notch above the worst of the butt-swell, and in the direction that you wanted the tree to fall. Then you chopped out the top of the notch with an axe. OR, you could just chop the entire notch with the axe to save wear on the sharpened saw teeth.

You then went to the opposite side and made another level cut a couple inches or higher above the deepest part of the notch. If you were dead sure that the tree would fall okay, you just kept sawing until the tree started falling. Otherwise, you put a thin felling wedge in the second cut as soon as you could, so the saw wouldn’t get pinched while you were sawing. If the tree wasn’t very large, though, this situation would be where you needed a narrow felling saw. While felling saws came in many lengths and widths, I’ve seen two man felling saws as short as five feet and as narrow as three inches from the gullet to the back of the saw.

felling saw


Once you sawed as close to the notch as you deemed wise, you’d take the handle off one end and slide the saw from the cut. That would leave a “hinge” of wood to control the direction of the fall, in conjunction with the notch. Then, you’d begin driving the felling wedge in until the tree began to fall. If the tree had a back-lean, or heavy limbs to the back, you might have to use a second or third wedge closer to the hinge. Whenever a tree began to fall, you’d take your saw and walk back, at a 45 degree angle, away from the stump. Naturally, you always checked ahead of time to be sure the path was open.

There wasn’t much pulpwood cut in my area before the days of my childhood. Since pine is a pioneer species in my area, the fields that began growing up during the Great Depression were just coming to maturity. I was probably about five years old before Dad began cutting any pulpwood to reclaim some of the fields on our farm that had been lost since the lean years of the depression. By that time, he had a chainsaw but, in the old days, pine trees would have been cut the same way as hardwoods. The buyers around here purchased pulp only in five foot lengths back then, so the crosscut was used to cut the logs to length, until they got down fairly small, then they might have used a bucksaw, since pulpwood was taken down to 3-4 inches in diameter. I remember reading somewhere in the 1949 Yearbook of Agriculture that the BOWSAW revolutionized the pulpwood industry. Can you imagine, then, what the chainsaw did for timbering in all forms?



Here’s a little story about crosscuts from my paternal grandfather: The two sons of a gentleman he knew had filed their father’s saw “really sharp,” and the guy was impressed. He wanted granddad to see it before they began using it. Granddad said it WAS really sharp, but when the boys tried using it, it wouldn’t go into the wood, but kept jumping all over the place instead. The guy couldn’t figure it out and wanted granddad to look at the saw again. The father and boys were in shock when Granddad ran a file down the length of the saw two or three times, right on the sharp points of the teeth. He then handed the saw back to the boys and told them to try it again. They couldn’t believe how well it cut with dulled teeth. He told them to be sure and stop filing the split second the shiny spot disappeared when they were sharpening a floated (teeth made the same length) saw. Otherwise, the teeth would be all different lengths and the saw would jump around. Incidentally, Granddad always said that the rakers should be filed “the thickness of a thin dime” shorter than the teeth.

As a reminder of the physical condition that folks were in back in the days right after World War II, my dad and a friend used to take the old farm truck (’37 Ford ton-and-a-half) into the woods of a morning, fill it with wood as they cut and split it, eat lunch and deliver it. They’d then return to the woods and load the truck again with wood they cut and split that afternoon, eat supper and deliver that load. All the cutting was done with axes and crosscut saws. They would fall a tree and cut everything possible into firewood, including the larger limbs, before stopping for a breather.  Heck, I had a hard time doing that with a chainsaw!

A funny, but dangerous thing happened on one of those trips to town. Dad was driving and Bill, his friend, was sitting on the passenger side. The latch on the passenger door was getting a little squirrelly, and Bill was sitting with his arm out the window, leaning slightly against the door, as they went down the left-hand bend above the old bass hatchery in town. Suddenly, the latch gave way and Bill caught hold of the door and was swinging out alongside the truck’s cab as it went down around the hill. Dad slowed to a stop and Bill climbed back in. They had a good laugh, but Bill never leaned on the door anymore! © 2016


Chickenmom said...

Wonderful story, Gorges! More!

Sunnybrook Farm said...

Based on my limited experience with crosscut and buck saws, you are very accurate in what you say. I have used them around here just to be prepared in the chance that using a chain saw is not available. I was really surprised at how fast a sharp saw will go through fire wood. I got one of those tools to set the teeth which really helps.
One old guy said that they would carry a little bottle of kerosene to lubricate the saw but I never had to use it. Could be they were cutting pine and the sap was gumming things up.
If you have a good old buck or bow saw it would be worth restoring the blade as the ones that are sold in stores now are Chinese and appear to be stamped out of the same strap metal that is used on shipping crates. Not worth buying a new blade as they are not made the same nor is the metal any good.

Gorges Smythe said...

Well, Cm, there's always chainsaws! (Don't laugh; it's coming.)

You know, SF, I read of a guy who was building a small log cabin in the 30's and had to keep lubing his saw with kerosene. Someone stole his quart jar of kerosene and he had to give up the project. I'm NOT joking, and I don't think he was either, but who knows, times were tough.

Sunnybrook Farm said...

Wow, the guy got his kerosene stolen, you would think he could have scraped up 5 cents for another quart. Maybe he was tired of sawing!
I think I remember seeing a 1918 canteen and was told that it had kerosene in it for use when sawing, I had asked if I could use it so the kerosene pretty much killed that idea. Setting the points out at a good angle might help with the sticking but would make the sawing a little more hard but not setting the point right will make for a long day if they don't cut enough space for the blade. I wonder if they used wooden wedges when felling a tree? They sell plastic ones now.

Ralph Goff said...

I've got examples of all those saws here but the only one I've used much is the bow saw. I'll take it out for a small job where I don't want to start up a chain saw. In the 1930s I've heard guys used to cut a load of firewood for a dollar and think they were making good money. It was all cut by axe, hauled home and cut up with the circular saw and engine. Usually a group of neighbours got together for the job cutting into firewood lengths.

Gorges Smythe said...

SF, I'm sure the old-timers used gluts (wooden wedges). I remember Dad having an aluminum wedge early on, that he could put in the cut without damaging the saw chain if it kicked back on him. When we were ready to fall the tree, we'd usually switch to splitting wedges, though you had to use restraint, or they could pop out on you. If a tree was REALLY stubborn, and we needed more lift, we'd put in a glut and then sit a splitting wedge on top of it and start driving it in.

Around here, Ralph, firewood was pretty much an every man for himself deal. I like a good bow saw myself, but decent blades are nearly impossible to find around here anymore.