Steam Power Circular Saw

Rumely steam engine

Barbara De Vault

Content Tools

#1 Princeton, Wisconsin 54968.

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From the time of the first English settlements on our Eastern shores, there was a demand for lumber both here and abroad. England needed lumber, especially timbers for her sailing ships, and she expected the colonists to supply it. To achieve this she set the mark of the 'Board Arrow' on some of the trees to designate them for use by the Royal Navy. As might be expected, the colonists defied the King of England and cut many of the marked trees for their own purposes. They justified their actions on the ancient grounds of making a livelihood.1

When the Revolutionary War terminated shipments from the colonies, the English turned to Canada. Isaac Stephenson described how hewn timbers called tons (twelve inches square and forty feet long) were put aboard ships and sent to England, Ireland and Scotland where they were sawed by hand.2

The production of lumber required saws, consequently they were among the first tools to reach this continent. The saw has been in use for centuries but its origins have been lost to history. The Greeks circulated a story that Talus used 'the jawbone of a snake to cut through a piece of wood, and then formed an instrument of iron like it.' But this was indeed only a story for the saw was used in Egypt before it was in Greece.

The history of the sawmill likewise is obscure. It has been claimed that a mill was in operation in Paris in the 13th century. One was said to have been driven by water power at Augsburg as early as 1322. Sawmills were in use in Norway by 1530 and in Rome by 1555. The attempt to introduce them into England was violently opposed by men who feared for their jobs.3

The first colonial sawmills, if they can be called that, probably were mere sheds in which manpower was used to saw lumber. A log was placed over a pit. The top sawyer stood on the log while the pitman worked from below. Together they operated the hand-powered pit or whip saw. Sometimes logs were placed on trestles and sawed in essentially the same manner.

Saws differed somewhat. Some had a tapered blade equipped with a handle on one end and a thong on the other. Some, called frame saws, had a blade mounted in the middle of a rectangular frame and were operated by grasping the frame.

Pit sawing was difficult and dirty work. Water power, abundant on the East Coast, was immediately harnessed to sawmills. Holbrook asserts that, 'The genesis of the lumber industry in North America was a water driven sawmill on the Salmon Falls River in South Berwick Township near the New Hampshire border. The time was 1631.' Other early mills were built in Massachusetts in 1633, in Connecticut around 1655 and in New Jersey, at Elizabeth-town, in 1666.

Usually a flutter wheel (an undershot wheel) was used to power a saw or a set of saws fixed within a frame and 'activated by a wooden crank on the end of a wooden axle.' The saw blades were about eight feet long, eight inches wide and cut only on the down stroke at the rate of about 120 strokes per minute.

By 1825 the mechanics of a water powered sawmill were thought to be quite satisfactory if the saw was drawn up and down at a regular pace; if the log advanced uniformly to receive the stroke of the saw; and if, when the saw cut through the log the machine would stop automatically.4

Water power had its limits. Mills had to be located at stream side. They could not be operated if the flow of the stream was inadequate for some reason or a raging torrent at flood stage. A more mobile and dependable source of power was needed; and it came into being late in the 18th century and early 19th century in the form of the steam engine.

Steam engines were used in British mines in the days of James Watt and soon were applied to railroad locomotives, steamboats, and mills. Oliver Evans (1755-1819) of New Castle County, Delaware, learned of Watt's work when Evans was about 17 years old. The development and utilization of the steam engine became a burning desire with him, but his desire was hindered at the outset by 'financial limitations' and 'public ridicule.'

When about 30 years of age, he began working on a 'steam carriage' in the city of Philadelphia. He eventually laid this activity aside to concentrate on the stationary steam engine. By 1802 he had an engine in operation. 'It was a high pressure steam engine with a cylinder six inches in diameter and a piston of 18' stroke.' He began building and selling steam engines and is credited as the first man in the United States to make this his specialty. What had been considered a 'folly' became accepted. By 1819 50 of his engines were in use and his patents were being infringed.5

It is not known whether Evans was the first to drive a sawmill with steam. Nevertheless one of his engines may have been. A Mississippi flood in the spring of 1803 carried a steamboat equipped with an Evans engine nearly one half mile inland near New Orleans. It was impossible to get the boat back into the river so the owners sold the steam engine to William Donaldson who installed it at his sawmill. Local sawyers, like the British sawyers before them, were fearful they might be forced out of work and finally burned down the Donaldson mill on the third try.6

The advent of the steam engine did not lead to its immediate use. Writing on early sawmills in New Jersey, Weiss and Weiss show that steam mills were in operation in that state by 1853. 'But what is amazing,' they say, 'is the persistence of the single up-and-down saw for the best part of 200 years, and also the continuance of water powered sawmills into the 1850s when their number was declining.'7 The gradual replacement of water as the chief source of power is confirmed by Rosenberg. Technology is 'shaped and modified in response to a very particular set of needs, goals or resource constraints.' The specific uses to which steam could be put in manufacturing lumber had to be constantly evaluated in terms of the demands for lumber, the cost of operating by steam and the availability of alternative forms of power.

Jim Johnson's Rumely steam engine and the sawmill at the steam and gas show at Baraboo, Wisconsin, 1981.Courtesy of Barbara De Vault, Route 2, Box 6968, Lodi, Wisconsin.

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Courtesy of Glen Whaley, 220 Glendora Drive, Bloomington, Indiana 47401.

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Courtesy of Glen Whaley, 220 Glendora Drive, Bloomington,Indiana 47401.

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Courtesy of Glen Whaley, 220 Glendora Drive, Bloomington,Indiana 47401.

The American preference for water power over steam, especially in New England, was not due to a shortage of steam engines. Steam engines were available. It has been estimated that at least 250 small concerns were building them in the United States as early as 1838 and that at least 1800 stationary engines were in operation. What it came down to was that water power was abundant and cheap while steam engines were expensive, subject to breakdown, in need of constant attention when in operation, and 'profligate in their utilization of fuel.' As a result, a wider use of steam depended upon 'the westward movement of population and industry into a geographical region which offered fewer sources of water power.'8

The lumber industry began on a narrow strip of land running along the eastern seaboard. In 1840 Maine led the nation in the production of lumber. Bangor was the state's largest sawmill center. Ten years later New York, with Glen Falls as the sawmill capital, had surpassed Maine. By 1870 the leading producer was Michigan followed by Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin. In 30 years Maine had fallen to the fifth spot. At the turn of the century Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, in that order, led the nation in the production of lumber. It was evident by this time that another shift was occurring as Alabama and Washington had become leading producers.

This territorial shift in the source of the nation's lumber supply, together with the increased demand for it, required that sawmills be erected in places where water power was scarce or absent. This is what made steam power economically feasible. Boiler water was necessary but in limited quantities. Fuel to fire the boilers was at hand in the slabs. At last it made sense to turn to steam!

The earliest sawmills in the lumbering areas around the Great Lakes were quite primitive by contemporary standards and, of course, were powered by water. For example the first sawmill in what is now the state of Wisconsin, was erected by Jacob Franks in 1809. It has been described as 'a very small affair.' Franks' sawmill was situated on land acquired from the Indians and was located on the banks of la Riviere du Diable near Green Bay. He soon built a grist mill and at least two houses on the same property. A fur trader and British sympathizer, he entered into a scheme to circumvent the efforts of the United States to prevent British traders from carrying goods into Indian country within the territory of the United States. When the war of 1812 broke out, Franks sold his property in the Green Bay area to John Lowe, his nephew, and moved to Montreal.9

Another of the early water powered mills in Wisconsin was the Wheeler and Morley Mill in Fond du Lac. It has been described as a 'curosity.' Sometimes the sawyer had to give the wheel a shove to get it going. The saw, the 'ancient 'sash,' the jerking of whose heavy framework kept everything in a shake . . . the wooden carriage ran out over the pond. On this carriage, flocks of shouting children . . . were in the habit of riding, in a slow, hitching manner, out over the pond, to be 'gigged back' with a rush.'10 In 1855 a flood swept the dam and the sawmill was never rebuilt.

The first steam powered sawmill in northern Wisconsin was erected at Fond du Lac in 1846 by Col. Cornelius Davis and A. G. Ruggles. Col. Davis furnished the 'experience' while Ruggles, who became president of the Fond du Lac Bank, furnished the 'money.' Ruggles went East to purchase the engine and machinery. 'These were put on the Hudson at Cleveland ... A terrible storm overtook the boat, and the frightened passengers for a time were determined to heave the heavy mill machinery overboard . . . Mr. Ruggles was far more thoroughly frightened at their threats than at the storm ... for all he had in the world was represented in the machinery.' The mill, frequently called the Col. Davis Mill, was erected during the winter of 1846-47 and became operative in the spring of 1847 or 1848. The steam engine powered a sash, or frame saw, which churned up and down with 'terrific jerks.' Soon the sash saw was replaced with a muley saw which was declared a 'great innovation.' A muley saw was activated by an arrangement of crossheads. With the muley saw running day and night it was possible to saw 8000 feet of lumber in a twenty-four hour period.11

In less than ten years a sawmill at Fond du Lac installed two circular saws. This mill was eventually purchased by Alexander McDonald, whose brother John, was also in the lumber business and, at one time, manufactured threshing machinery at Fond du Lac.12

Larson describes two early Minnesota steam mills. In 1855 James Highland and James Wycoff of Winona equipped a mill with steam power, a muley and a circular saw. This mill could produce up to 30,000 feet of lumber a day, 'a quantity heretofore unheard of in the frontier country.' The next year Joel Bassett of St. Anthony Falls installed a circular sawmill powered by steam. The machinery for this mill came from Northampton, Massachusetts and was brought by team from Dubuque, Iowa.13

Four years later, at Rock Island, Illinois, Weyerhaeuser and Denkman purchased a steam driven sawmill. The basic units were '... a muley saw, which squared the logs on the down stroke, and a circular saws for cutting cants into boards. Shingles and lath were made with hand machines. Estimated capacity ranged from 6000 to 10,000 board feet per day.' This mill has been described as a typical mill in the Middle West around 1860 and was the beginning of what became the famous Weyerhaeuser firm.14

If the introduction of steam power was important, so was that of the circular saw. These two in combination made possible the sawing of vast quantities of lumber which could be floated down river from the areas where it was produced or shipped by boat or railroad to urban areas. Fries estimates that 'with the introduction of the rotary or circular saw the production of sawmills increased nearly ten percent with the same amount of power.'15

The origin of the circular saw is obscure. Holbrook states that the circular saw was 'one of the greatest single advances in the technology of making lumber.' He credits Benjamin Cummings (sic) of Bentonville, New York with the first American patent.16 He may be correct on both matters, however, there is compelling evidence that the circular saw was probably developed in Europe. One source asserts that the circular saw was first practically used in Holland but that its development was due to English, and especially American efforts.17

Sir Marc Isambard Brunei (1769-1849) is often credited with the development of the circular saw. He was born in England, migrated to America and became chief engineer for the city of New York. Among other things, he invented a 'writing and drawing machine,' machines for winding cotton thread and knitting apparatus. 'Between the years 1805 and 1812 Brunei was occupied in perfecting various machines for sawing, cutting and bending timber as well as for cutting staves.' He erected sawmills for the British government and operated a mill of his own at Battersea. Eventually he went broke and served a prison sentence for failure to meet his financial obligations. When released, he devoted his later years to the construction of a tunnel under the Thames River.18

Usher credits Brunei with an ingenious scheme for manufacturing blocks for the British Navy. 'The complete outfit of machinery embraced 44 machines . . . sawing machines, both reciprocating and circular.' He continues, 'Brunei devised other woodworking machines, but they were not financially successful, and the example he set by the block manufacturing was without immediate consequence in England.'19

The first circular saws were made 'flat and heavy' of number 3 or 4 gauge metal. These crude round sheets of heavy metal were hammered out on the anvil and had roughly punched out teeth. These first saws had to be run at a relatively slow speed. Otherwise they wobbled so much that the lumber produced was so crooked that it was almost useless. Obviously the circular saw was greatly improved. But as timber became scarce, its wide kerf was considered wasteful and the band saw was adopted. The band saw, also of European origin, took its place beside the circular saw, just as the circular saw had been a companion of the muley saw.

The steam powered circular sawmill was a reality by 1850. The steam engine and the circular saw were brought together when their use became economically feasible and the demand for lumber was increasing. Their combined usage was attendant upon certain related developments and associated consequences. Only a few will be mentioned here.

As seen in retrospect, one of the simplest was the drive belt by which power from the bandwheel of a steam engine could be applied directly to the main shaft of a circular saw. In 1812, Richard Trevithick, credited with the first steam engine to power a thresher, used a rope to transmit the power from the V-shaped flywheel of his engine. About this same time belts were used to transmit power from shafts which were driven by gears connected to water wheels. It was Paul Moody of Lowell, Massachusetts who has been credited with first conveying power directly from a drive shaft to a machine shaft by means of a drive belt. This was accomplished about 1828.20