Evolution of the Early Sawmill

The early sawmill saw many advancements throughout the centuries.

| July 2016

I’ve never worked in a sawmill, but the technology fascinates me. Most tractor shows have an operating sawmill and I enjoy watching as the spinning blade reduces a log into usable lumber in no time. The most elaborate mill I’ve seen is the Briden-Roen steam sawmill at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, Minnesota. A huge, high-production mill, it is powered by a Case 110 hp skid steam engine and several smaller units, including one used to hoist logs into the mill. If you ever get a chance to see it, don’t miss it.

Sawmills are still very much in use (that’s where all those boards for sale in Lowe’s and Home Depot come from, just in case you wondered). There was a portable mill just down the road from me a year or two ago, and lots of permanent mills remain in operation, especially in nearby Holmes County, Ohio.

Water wheels an early power source

No one really knows when the first tree trunk or limb was split into a more-or-less flat plank, shingle or clapboard. The broad axe was used to hew one or more sides of a log into a flat surface. To make a board, a log was laid over a pit or on a raised framework. The tiller man stood atop the log and lifted a long, straight saw on the upstroke, while guiding it along a chalk line. Beneath the log (often wearing a wide-brimmed hat to keep sawdust from falling down his neck) stood the pitman, who pulled the saw down on its cutting stroke.

When water wheels came into being, they were used to power sawmills, among other things. Often a gristmill and a sawmill shared power from a single water wheel. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that Romans used a water-powered saw to cut stone as early as the third century A.D. By the 14th century, water-powered sawmills were common in Europe.

A contemporary account of such a mill was written by an English bishop visiting Lyons, France: “The sawmill is driven with an upright wheel, and the water that maketh it go is turned into a narrow trough which delivereth the same to the wheels. The wheel hath a piece of timber put to the axletree end and fastened to the end of the saw, which, being turned by the force of the water, hoisteth up and down the saw that it continually eateth in... Also the timber lieth as it were upon a ladder, which is brought by little and little to the saw with another device.”

Two styles of early sawmills

The up-and-down sawmills were of two types. A sash mill had one or more straight saw blades stretched under tension inside a rectangular frame (sash or gate) driven by the pitman from the crank on the power source. A sash saw with multiple saw blades could cut several boards from a log at the same time and was called a “gang saw.”