Old Saw Rings True for Firewood Cutting

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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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Left: Tony Woodrum refurbished this unnamed belt-driven circular bucksaw to cut kindling in the West Virginia woods. Power for the saw is provided by a 1970s vintage International Harvester Cub Cadet equipped with a rear PTO fitted with the belt pulley attachment from a Farmall Cub. Four 2-foot long stakes keep the saw firmly footed on the ground.
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Below: Mike Ireland, Plymouth, N.H., makes his living with wood. By day he works the family sawmill and when he is off duty, he cuts, splits and delivers cordwood to folks in the area. Mike uses this Farmall Super C mounted saw and conveyor to cut and load seasoned split firewood.
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Above: John Hanson’s Craftsman Model U-4, a heavy-duty gear-drive model, was built in the late 1950s by David Bradley for Sears Roebuck & Co.
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Right: Drag saw collector Chuck Simmons, Sioux Falls, S.D., makes short work of a cedar log with his 1920s vintage Witte saw. This Witte drag saw offers a fine example of the portable style drag saws. The wheels are currently mounted at a right angle to the saw, which facilitates its movement down the log. When in transport mode, the same wheels would be mounted on the other set of axles, and the saw could be moved wheel-barrow-like by lifting on the wooden handles visible near the tip of the saw blade.
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Above: The Stihl Model 07 (owned by John Hanson) was introduced in 1961 with 4-1/2 hp at 7,500 rpm. The high performance saw weighed only 22 pounds with the 17-inch bar.
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Left: John’s Pioneer Super 6-20 chainsaw is equipped with an after-market performance Windsor bar.
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Left: This beautiful original condition 1961 McCulloch Model Mac 15 chainsaw with extra NOS bar and oil is central to John Hanson’s collection.
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Above right: David Heller’s late 1870s drag saw design featured a lawn glider-like system for power.
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Above left: Mall’s Model 7 Bow chainsaw represents a typical early variation of the solid bar chainsaw. The cutting edge of the chain was only exposed on the bottom – when one man operated the machine, the top of the blade guide could be used as a handle. The power-head was interchangeable with Mall’s other saws.
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Above: Even the Remington Arms Co. bought its way into the chainsaw business. The company, better known for the production of firearms, catered to the consumer saw market.
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Right: Lombard’s Super 6 chainsaw was produced in Ashland, Mass., in 1958. It featured direct drive with a centrifugal clutch and weighed only 24 pounds, which made it a perfect one-man saw.
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Left: Frank Strobl’s variation on the hand-powered 1881 drag saw employs a crankshaft whose rotation is aided by a flywheel. It doesn’t take much to imagine this machine with an engine belted to the flywheel.

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

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

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

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

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:

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