Old Saw Rings True for Firewood Cutting

Firewood cutting still warms twice.


Left: Jim Turner, Sheldon, Mo., demonstrates the finer art of keeping body parts intact while bucking logs with the buzz saw attachment on his 1949 Cub. The drive for this saw employs the original belt pulley attachment with an extension adapter that locates the gearbox rearward to clear the saw blade. The table on this saw pivots to move the log through the blade.

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Who hasn't heard at least one variation of the old saw about how cutting your own firewood warms you twice? Perhaps your father said it as he sent you off to the woodlot with a handsaw, or off to the woodpile with a wedge and maul. And though Henry David Thoreau penned that saying in its original form before the advent of the internal combustion engine, whether firewood cutting done by hand, or with the help of petroleum power, there is no doubt that the exercise is plenty warming.

In his seminal piece Walden, Thoreau often wrote of time spent in his stump-littered bean field. In one reference Thoreau noted that he had taken several cords of firewood (in the form of stumps) from the field. In another passage, Thoreau writes of plowing that field with another man handling his team, who in passing predicted those stumps-turned-firewood would warm him twice - once through the exercise of splitting them and once in the fireplace. As romantic as Thoreau's prose relating to living and farming in the Massachusetts countryside is, not everyone found the physical demands of life to be as interesting.

In reality, the labor associated with stocking up firewood for heat and cooking was downright burdensome for the average rural family, particularly in the north, where winters are severe. On the farm, technological innovation aimed at reducing the physical efforts associated with routine chores was usually embraced if it was considered moral to do so. When petroleum-fueled engines became readily available and affordable, they were quickly adapted for powering saws in a technological marriage that is fast approaching its 100th anniversary.

Early attempts at mechanizing the portable cordwood saw relied on the same cutting principal of the crosscut saw. These devices were more complicated and cumbersome to use than circular saws, but they required substantially less horsepower to run and were arguably safer to operate. Portable circular bucksaws eventually overtook the powered crosscut saw in popularity, but only for a while. The height of solo sawing development came with the lightweight chainsaw, whose evolution continues today.

Reciprocating relics

In Thoreau's day, one- and two-man crosscut saws, bucksaws and axes were used to fell trees and cut logs into firewood-length billets. Wedges and sledges were used to help split the wood. And with the exception of animal power for hauling the wood, the entire process was powered by human muscle, and the work was as arduous as it was necessary.

However, during the early to mid-19th century, the human quest for tools to make wood-cutting chores easier didn't go completely unanswered. For example, several patents of the early 1800s featured "improved" crosscut saws, which would reduce the amount of effort required to cut logs to length. By the late 1800s, lever- or treadle-powered crosscut saws (often called drag saws) became available. By 1895 the Folding Sawing Machine Co. of Chicago, Ill., listed several human-powered lever-action drag saws. These saws could be carried by one man into the woods, used to fell a tree and then buck the logs.

In the same time frame, stationary drag saws designed to take power from a water wheel, horse-powered treadmill, overhead line shaft or possibly a small steam traction engine were also on the scene. Makers like A.B. Farquhar Co. Ltd., York, Pa., offered a number of belt-driven stationary drag saws, while the St. Albans (Vt.) Foundry Co. offered a complete horse-powered outfit. These devices utilized a frame-guided reciprocating crosscut saw driven by a shaft mounted eccentric - essentially mimicking the motion human sawyers had employed for decades prior.

For the farmer, the early powered drag saw option more than likely was horse-powered or, in rare cases, steam-powered, although both systems were cumbersome to set up, not very portable and expensive. It wasn't until the internal combustion engine became an item of mass production in the early 1900s that the heart-heating labor associated with stocking the woodshed was more generally lessened on farms around the country. From the early 1920s through the 1940s, drag saw-style portable engine-driven log saws were available from makers such as Witte Engine Works of Kansas City, Kan., Ottawa (Kan.) Manufacturing Co., Stover Manufacturing & Engine Co. of Freeport, Ill. and others.

Portable power drag saws typically consisted of a 2-wheeled handcart and saw frame that could at least theoretically be rolled to the vicinity of the felled tree - or, with some models, used to fell the tree. The crosscut-like saw blade was powered directly from an eccentric on the engine's flywheel. This design was taken one step further into at least the 1950s by fitting drag saws to tractors with rear PTO shafts. The farmer needed only drive alongside a felled tree, drop the saw, engage the tractor's PTO, saw the log, lift the saw and move forward to do it all over again.

The reciprocating type of portable saw wasn't the only turn-of-the-20th-century innovation for cutting short a farmer's firewood season. During the same time, the circular saw was also adapted to the task of cutting cordwood.

Widows in the making

The electrically powered circular saw is as ubiquitous today as the carpenter's bow saw was in early American wood shops, and both serve similar purposes - the sawing of lumber for some type of construction. The modern circular saw is most definitely not designed to buck logs into firewood-length pieces. Its roots trace directly to the large steamor water-powered stationary sawmills of the mid-1800s, and to the portable circular bucksaws that came later.

Like the portable, farm-sized petroleum-powered drag saws, the infamous "Widow-Maker" circular saws were widely available in the early 1900s as internal combustion engines reached farms across the country. The handy tools initially consisted of a wooden frame or table supporting a shaft with a belt pulley and flywheel on one end, and an arbor to support the saw blade at the other end. Once the unit was belted to a suitable power source, the operator needed only push the log against the exposed blade, which made short work of cutting firewood-length billets. Unfortunately, those saws also often made short work of the operator by grabbing hold of loose clothing with a disastrous outcome, tipping when under load (if not properly staked down), and causing general carnage with the exposed blade - thus the moniker Widow-Maker.

Danger notwithstanding, the circular bucksaw was a real hit on the farm because of its huge labor saving potential, simplicity of operation and adaptability to a number of different power sources. Although sliding tables, tilting hinged tables, shaft and blade guards and other safety devices were added over the years, cutting firewood with a circular saw always required the operator's full attention. A number of manufacturers produced such log cutters by the 1920s, including New Holland (Pa.) Machine Co.; Appleton (Ill.) Manufacturing Co.; New Winona (Minn.) Manufacturing Co.; and St. Albans Foundry, among many others. Many of these units are still in regular use today.

Circular bucksaws also evolved into tractor-mounted units much like their drag saw counterparts, but they were far superior in their portability. Most early tractor-mounted units were bolted to the front of the tractor and received power directly from its side-mounted belt pulley. For example Stover offered a front-mounted saw frame for the McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor. This saw employed a hinged tilting table to ferry the log to the blade. Other manufacturers adopted other carriage types, but most of them used a hinged table. On many farms around the country, the front-mounted saw frame was installed on the tractor and never removed, although the large circular blade was generally only mounted during firewood season.

For later tractors with rear PTO shafts, or even rear-mounted belt pulleys, a number of manufacturers offered rear-mounted circular saws. Unlike their front-mounted counterparts, these saws were generally mounted only during firewood season. The PTO and drawbar of the tractor were far too valuable to tie up year 'round.

Due to the simplicity of their design, even more saw frames and tables were cobbled together in farm shops around the country. These homemade devices made use of whatever the farm's junk pile had to offer and often employed wooden pillow blocks to support the shaft's ends. Many of these devices lacked any form of operator protection and lived up to their nickname quite nicely.

Even as farmers continued to use their powered drag saws and circular saws up to World War II, the timber industry was hard at work developing what has now become the pinnacle of personal portable firewood cutting equipment - the chainsaw.

Chains for sawing

It may well be impossible to know exactly when and where the chainsaw was invented, but it surely had to begin with the chain. R.L. Muir is often credited with being the first to install wood cutting blades on a chain and build a powered chainsaw in the late 1880s. Muir's device, however, was reputed to be large and heavy - requiring a crane to move it about. The Ashland (Ore.) Iron Works may have been next with their circa 1905 air-powered chainsaw, also cumbersome and largely unsuccessful. By 1920, Oregon engineer Charles Wolf had designed and produced a successful sawing chain, and quite possibly the world's first commercially viable portable chainsaw to make use of it.

Wolf's Portable Timber Sawing Machine was powered by a 1-1/2-hp electric motor and could be purchased with 24-inch, 36-inch and 48-inch cutting capacities weighing from 70 to 90 pounds - plenty light for two people to operate. The saw was ideally suited to the logging industry, but Wolf found it easier initially to sell it to the construction industry - particularly to those involved in heavy timber-frame construction and ship building. The saw was released with a pneumatic power head in 1927, and a gasoline powered version followed in 1931. By then the idea of chainsaws had caught on in the woods.

During the same time Wolf was perfecting his portable design, German mechanical engineer Andreas Stihl designed an electric chainsaw in Stuttgart, Germany, that weighed about 140 pounds in 1926. Stihl introduced his first gasoline-powered felling chainsaw in 1929, and by 1931, his gasoline-powered saws were imported into North America.

Industry insiders suggest Stihl's greatest early contribution was the development of lightweight gasoline engines to power his chainsaws. By 1936, Stihl offered the Model A, 2-person chainsaw weighing a mere 46 pounds.

As the world turned its attention to the growing threat of an aggressive Nazi Germany, Stihl imports into North America dwindled, but domestic companies picked up the slack, ultimately leading to a post World War II explosion in chainsaw manufacturers and technology. Well-known makers such as McCulloch, Poulan, Homelite and Mall produced chainsaws by the mid-to late 1940s, and many others followed. After the war, imported saws again became available, and scores of companies were in the business of manufacturing chainsaws by the late 1950s. Literally millions of the machines found significant duty on the farm, which continues to be the case.


The powered portable drag saw has largely joined the ranks of wood-cutting collectibles, but some, particularly tractor-powered units, remain in limited use. The portable circular bucksaw continues to be produced by at least one manufacturer, and many tractor-mounted units are still in regular use. Remnants of the belt-driven Widow-Maker can be found abandoned on farmsteads all over the country, although some have attained "collectible" status. The firewood-cutting tool of choice today is the chainsaw, and plenty of 30-year-old units are still in use. With newer, lighter, cleaner, quieter and safer models coming out each year, the chainsaws of the 1970s and earlier are now sought by collectors.

Thoreau's old saw, as limited in scope as it was, rings true to this day: Producing firewood is a physically warming activity. And critics of Thoreau's words were right to point out that working in the woodlot offers many more opportunities for warmth than were noted in Walden. However, what no one could have predicted is that tools designed to reduce the labor involved with making firewood would end up warming hearts of old saw fanciers in the 21st century.

- Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer and photographer who retired from farming in 1999. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu