Old Saw Rings True for Firewood Cutting

Firewood cutting still warms twice.

| October 2005

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.