Bill Waters loves wood. Which is why, many years ago, he purchased a sawmill for his personal use, and why he is still using it. “It’s a Frick,” he says. “It was made in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, probably in the 1930s. Frick made four sizes of sawmills and this is the smallest. When assembled, it’s 45 feet long with a 15-foot carriage. It weighs about 3,500 pounds. It was originally sold to Mizell Lumber Company and they sold it to Edgar Adams. He joined the Navy, so I bought it in 1965. I just liked sawmills.”
Bill was born and raised in Damascus, Md., and is a 1953 graduate of Damascus High School. Prior to retirement he was a heating and air-conditioning engineer, but the interest in working with wood has always been there.
“I got into sawing when I got out of school,” he says. “I learned from older sawyers by watching and asking questions. I’ve always been interested in machinery, and have had as many as four sawmills at one time. Not too many people use a mill as old as this … the new technology has pushed them aside.”
When Bill first got his Frick sawmill, it needed a lot of attention. While the metal parts were mostly in good shape, the wood had rotted away and needed to be replaced.
“It had to be rebuilt completely,” he says. “Replacing the wood is also called restocking. From the factory they generally used fir or Southern pine – I used fir. Some of the metal parts are cast iron and some are steel. I got one or two saws with the mill, but they were worn. The blade is made of high-quality steel, is 52 inches in diameter, and can last 20 years or so, barring accidents. Striking metal, like hardened nails or staples, can be a problem. It has 44 teeth, which are replaceable. There are mills like this still operating in rural areas.”
Companies such as Frick, Farquhar, and Hench and Dromgold of Pennsylvania, DeLoach of Georgia, and Curtis of Missouri, were doing a good business in the sale of portable sawmills by the end of the 19th century. Belt-driven by steam traction engines, or even horse-powered, they were common in many small communities. In the early days, the sawmill crew took them apart and loaded them onto horse-drawn wagons. With the advent of motor vehicles, the flatbed truck became the preferred means of transportation.
“Generally a prosperous farmer had crops and a wood lot,” Bill says. “He’d hold part of the wood in case the barn burned. If that happened, he’d contact the barn builder and the sawmill operator and they’d rebuild the barn. Lightning fires were a problem. They’d move the sawmill in to the timber tract and saw a barn frame. You’d need a minimum of 40,000 board feet for a barn. “Round here they used oak or poplar.”
Bill likes to take his sawmill to shows. Last spring he set up his equipment at the Agricultural History Farm Park in Montgomery County, Md., as part of the park’s annual Gas and Steam Engine Show. Picking the right site for the mill is important.
“You want a location that has a slope so the logs roll down to the mill and it’s easy to get the boards away,” Bill says. “If you’re using a steam engine, you must set up near a water source. And you have to dig a pit for the sawdust drag.”
The sawmill crew is made up of at least four people. The sawyer, who is usually the boss, stands on the frame to hand-operate the lever that controls the carriage carrying the log to be sawed. The off-bearer carries the sawn boards away as they come off the mill. The tail sawyer turns the logs on the carriage. Everyone helps get the logs onto the carriage for sawing. The other important person in the process is the power source operator, who mans the machine and oversees the belt drive that sets the mill in motion.
“The mills started out with steam engines,” Bill says. “Then gas tractors became popular. Diesel tractors are more recent. The speed of the mandrel on the mill is 500 rpm. The belt is 80 feet long and 7 inches wide. You have to adjust the speed of the sawmill depending on whether you use a steam engine or a tractor. You use a smaller pulley for steam engines. At shows I use steam engines when available.”
And then there’s the sawdust pit. In order to keep dust out of the machinery, a three-foot deep pit is dug under the saw blade. A saw drag chain runs from under the saw blade to a 6-foot high tripod about 15 feet away from the mill. The rotating chain carries spoon-like devices that scoop the fallen dust from under the mill, depositing it in a pile away from the work area.
To load the logs (one at a time) onto the carriage, the crew uses cant hooks, long-handled implements with hinged metal devices at the end that grab the log and secure it as the sawyers lift and position it on the carriage. Rising from the mill’s frame are three cast iron ells, each of which carries a “dog” that holds the log in place on the carriage. A taper attachment “trues” the log if one end is thicker than the other. A lever positions the log on the carriage to ensure the first cut is accurate.
“You try to look at the log and see how you can saw it to make the best lumber,” Bill says. “You learn from experience. When I look at a log, I have to calculate ahead how I want to saw it. I do all the calculations in my head, like a computer. One thing about logs is that there are internal stresses. As you saw, you release the stresses, which tends to make the log move. It’s called springing. That’s one of the hardest things to learn is to cope with springing timber because it varies the measurements.”
The first cut removes the outside bark. Traditionally this slab wood was used for domestic fires or for repair chores around the farmyard. Several more boards are sawn off before the log is turned over and the process repeated on the opposite side. The process is repeated for the other two sides, leaving a squared-off log for the final sawing. The unit of measurement used for the boards is a board foot, which is 1 inch by 1 inch by 1 foot.
“I have to calculate ahead how I want to saw,” Bill says. “You’ve got a log 16 feet long. The 8-by-8s come out of the middle. The 2-by-6s and 2-by-4s come off the sides.”
A sawmill crew in action is teamwork at its best. Each member of the crew focuses on his assigned task, while the boss concentrates on the overall picture as he controls the passage of the saw blade through the log. From the position of the log to the speed of the power-driven belts to the working of the sawdust drag chain, all is deftly coordinated in the knowledge that one false step can create a hazardous situation.
“Safety is very important and I do wear safety goggles, but it is mostly common sense,” Bill says. “Logging is more dangerous than sawmills.” FC
For more information: William U. Waters, Jr., 11421 Mountain View Road, Damascus, MD 20872; phone (301) 253-2545.
Jill Teunis is a freelance writer living in Damascus, Md. She is interested in writing about communities, their people and history.