This is a post about the marks that saws leave behind…
…not handsaws or thwart (bucking) saws, that’s another post–but the big, ripping variety which turn trees into timbers and planks and boards. With a little practice, a discerning eye can learn to tell the difference between a board made by a portable band saw, one made with a chain saw mill, and one which is made by a water-powered sash saw. When you visit the recreated English Village at Plimoth Plantation, you will find boards made in a variety of ways–not all of which we wish to have prominently displayed or interpreted. That said, we are slowly but inevitably replacing the old boards processed with modern machinery, with new boards made using ancient techniques. See if you can spot the difference…
Above is a standard board lately come from the saw mill. Such “rough-sawn” material is the kind you can find at great local mills like Gurney’s Sawmill https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gurneys-Saw-Mill-Inc/224333047596021 Rough-sawn material from the mill has very characteristic arcs across its face, which are the product of a large diameter circular saw and some amazing deftness on the part of the saw’s operators. It’s the raw material for do-it-yourselfers making garden beds or building a shed. But here in Pilgrim-Towne, it makes our eyes bleed! There was no circular sawing in our period. Such saw marks in the pilgrim village are the equivalent of Myles Standish wearing Chuck Taylor High Tops–it just doesn’t fit the milieu.
Through the years, efforts were made to improve the overall appearance of sawn stuff in the pilgrim village. This led to various attempts at replicating pit-sawn material, using everything from portable band saws to chain saw mills. (I’ve even heard of some old gaffers taking a couple of teeth off of their band saw blades to simulate the irregularities of hand-sawn work, though I’m not sure whether or not this is apocryphal). While neither method leaves characteristic circular arcs, they are still not pit-sawn, and to the discerning eye, they leave marks which are just as anachronistic as Chuck Taylors on The Captain.
Occasionally, when we have a high demand for boards and planks, we will hire our friend Bob Reimels to band saw up some of our stock. This material, expertly processed by Bob, is never used in our new houses. It’s typically used for repair of the fort floor (a building sub-contracted in the 80′s and whose timber was processed via machines) and for palisade repair. We strive to keep such machine processed material to a minimum in our recreated village.The band saw leaves a subtle mark on the face of the material, which is, from a distance, difficult to discern from pit-sawn stuff.
The marks are shallow, closely spaced, and regular. They are also uniformly perpendicular to the material. Chain saw milling, on the other hand…
The marks left by a chain saw mill, a filling-loosening, hand-numbing endeavor, are more irregular than a band saw and leave much deeper hollows between the upright marks:
There was a time when we’d fire up a chain-saw mill fairly regularly. We used it to saw out hundreds of rails for our palisade. As the user walks the saw along the timber, he will sometimes vary the the angle of the saw to the stock, to give it some irregularity, a-la the pit-saw. The weathering of the timber, as in the example below, tends to soften the mechanized appearance of chainsaw-milled stuff:
Materials from water driven saw mills, specifically sash-sawn stuff, have their own unique appearance, but they’re still not pit-sawn and such mills didn’t begin to show up locally until the 1630s. I visited Michael Burrey the other day and took pictures of some salvaged 18th century sash-sawn boards he had in his yard.
These particular boards, reclaimed from an 18th-century house in Bridgwater, MA, were covered with limewash pigmented pleasantly yellow with ochre.
One of the tell-tale marks left by a water-driven sash saw is the distance between the raking vertical cuts–a half inch plus, in this case.
The vertical marks also tend to march along more consistently than on pit-sawn stuff. This method, however, is still a step removed from the sweat and dust of a saw-pit.
For a little primer on water driven sawmills, check out: http://www.ledyardsawmill.org/sawmill-history
Back to pit-sawing:
There are really no viable ways to replicate pit-sawn material using machines. And that’s just as well. It is indeed labor intensive, and it takes a real investment of time to bring a novice up to speed, but once we’ve developed some proficiency, we can actually be fairly productive.
Pit-sawn marks can vary greatly, depending on who’s sawing. The tiller man (top man) will sometimes angle the saw back towards himself as much as 20 degrees. Other sawyers will saw almost upright. Marks can also vary when sawyers are going through a knot, or if they are steering the saw. Our pine saw has a greater set than our oak saw, and that tends to leave a rougher surface. Compare the bottom pit-sawn face of the oak joist in the picture above to the pit-sawn pine floor boards.
Perhaps the single most distinctive characteristic left by pit-sawing is the angle of split grain (above) when the sawyers come to the end of their kerf. The timber is supported above the pit by bauks which, of course, cannot be sawn through. We saw until the saw is just about to touch the bauk then angle the saw to continue cutting down the end grain of the log while not sawing through the bauk. Self-preservation was not invented in the 20th century!
I’ve often wondered if this split grain at the end of a sawn board or timber is one of the “irregularities” that Moxon meant the adze to take off in his chapter on house-carpentry:
“It is most used for the taking off the Irregularities on the framed Work of a Floor, when it is framed and pin’d together, and laid on its place…”
(Mechanic Exercises or the Doctrine of Hand-Works by Joseph Moxon)
Occasionally, a split–or riven–pale will look almost circular sawn (below) from the ripple effect of its natural grain. Grasses and weeds will also sometimes leave graceful, arcing marks across the face of split stock making it look uncannily like it had newly come from the mill. Don’t be fooled!
We’ll be in the pit again over the next few weeks sawing out rafters, purlins, sills, and other scantling for the new Francis Cooke House. Not only are we getting that much closer to framing the house, but we’re also producing that many more appropriate saw marks in the pilgrim village.
And for a musical diversion for those of us of a certain vintage, hit the following link and all your questions about planks–and the 70′s–will be answered:
Work basket from Dunbar Gardens
Great work on our new, period-appropriate willow work basket, Katherine Lewis of Dunbar Gardens! We plan on using it to lug many pounds of edged tools all around the 17th-century and we know it’ll be up to the task! http://www.dunbargardens.com/ We’ll post more basket action shots in the future. Props also to Malka Benjamin who made some serious, yet comfy straps!