Crosscut-Sawing Contest Proves the Importance of Well-Maintained Equipment

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The 1/2-scale Keck-Gonnerman built by Jim Coyle.

Several years ago, I started attending the Illiana show in Boswell, Ind., (now located in Rainsville, just south of Boswell). At that time they were using the local county fairgrounds for the show. The grounds had plenty of shade and lots of space for exhibits as the show grew.

There were years they would have two or three steam engines, counting our 1/2-scale Keck-Gonnerman. We would saw wood on our 1/2-scale sawmill, though once or twice I recall cooking sweet corn for the club. My grandpa Jim Coyle had modified a large, steel horse trough with lids and an inlet hose so we could use it to boil large amounts of corn quickly.

Early on, the show was held in conjunction with Boswell’s Fun Days, so there were many different activities in addition to the normal things. It was one of the other activities that caught Grandpa’s attention that first year.

Crosscut-sawing contest

They were having a crosscut-sawing contest. For those who have not had the opportunity to see a crosscut-sawing contest, it is a lot of fun. Two people take one of those old saws where you are facing the other person holding the saw, and the saw is pulled back and forth as it cuts through the log. In such a contest, the stopwatch starts when you begin sawing and ends when the section of log hits the ground.

They had a youth bracket that I competed in; I was only 14 or so at the time. Grandpa ended up coming in second in his bracket, and I managed to win mine, due mainly to lack of any competition. For a man who was nearly born in a sawmill and had spent a good part of his life sawing wood, second did not sit well with Grandpa.

He commented several times on the way home how dull the crosscut saw was. It really bothered him to use equipment that he knew was not at its best, and to him, keeping a saw sharp was akin to an Old West gunslinger keeping his weapon clean.

Proving importance of a well-maintained saw

The next year when the show posted its bulletins announcing all the activities, the crosscut saw contest was again listed. Seeing this, Grandpa went to work on his plan. He inventoried his crosscut saws and picked out the one that he knew from experience would do the best job under the conditions of the contest.

He then proceeded to sharpen the saw like it had never been sharpened before, making sure each and every tooth was razor sharp to cut at its very best. If you’ve ever seen a cartoon where someone tests a sharp edge by dropping a hair on it to split it in two, then you have an idea of how sharp that saw was.

The next problem to be solved was that he needed a good partner. There were not many old-time sawyers around who would be available at the time of the contest, so he decided to settle for me. I guess he figured if he couldn’t find someone, he would train someone.

Grandpa’s plan, outrageous as it was, was to team up with me, a raw rookie in the crosscut saw business, and try to win the contest with his secret weapon – his own saw. Apparently, the judges had no preference on whether you used their saw or your saw.

Well, if you’re thinking by now that we went over to Boswell and won that contest – you’re right. Grandpa drilled me several times during the weeks preceding the show on the etiquette of crosscut sawing, and although I must confess I’m no expert, I’d like to believe I was not so bad that Grandpa could not overcome my inadequacies. And the prize for winning such a prestigious contest? A wooden plaque, bragging rights – and some great memories. ST

Read more about Jim Coyle and his 1/2-scale Keck-Gonnerman steam engine: “How to Remove a Tree Stump with a 1/2-Scale Steam Engine.”

Contact steam enthusiast Travis Brown at 120 Tanner Court, Rockvale, TN 37153-4063.
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