After a recent post over on WoodCentral, I thought I would talk of my one and only opportunity to use a pit saw. Back in the 1970’s Frog Tool Company in Chicago sold pit saws. They were 6 feet long, I think and had one tooth per inch. It had a decent tiller, it was an open pit saw (as opposed to a Frame Pit Saw, one contained in a sash frame, usually a thinner blade), but the pit handle (box) was a cheap welded strap iron thing that we found out didn’t work.
A good friend wanted to saw up some lumber from a green pine log for a cabin he was building. Now this was built in the city, so there was no real reason for using the pit saw, other than an exercise in history. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some experience.
The pit saw came in a wooden crate, wrapped in paper and the grease was removed with turpentine, the tiller and pit handle assembled. The log was readied on the ‘trestle’ that was hastily erected to support the log. It was done over a depression in his property, so it wasn’t that high. With skid poles and ropes, the log was easily moved from ground level to the top of the trestle.
Prior to moving the log up we used spuds and a spade to remove the bark. This saves the saw but makes the log slippery to handle and walk on. First he snapped a number of parallel chalk lines along the bottom of the log, turned it over, took a plumb, then snapped corresponding lines on the top. I don’t know if you need both, I didn’t look up much from the pit. The important part was the plumb line and once the saw kerf was established straight, the saw tracked well. Secured with log dogs (my friend was also a blacksmith) the log was ready to be rent asunder.
Then the pit handle repeatedly failed to hold on to the blade, the metal distorted and the handle would not work. A couple of hours later a new wooden handle (called a box) had been turned, then some more time with the kerf and slot for the wedge and everything was ready to go. The new handle held tight and the daylight was fading. He hosed down the log and covered it with a tarp.
Early the next day all was ready. I being an assistant took to the pit and attached the handle. Seeing the old pictures, I had on a broad brimmed hat, long sleeves and had my shirt buttoned all the way up. I soon learned to keep my mouth shut while in the pit. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, a lot of saw dust would fall but most of it was well in front of me. The problem was the multiple cuts and saw dust would continually fall as the log was being cut up.
The morning was good, but a wind picked up about noon and the sawdust was miserable. One thing about the sawdust from green wood is that there is no static electricity so the dust does not cling, like it would if the wood was dry. I don’t know if I can imagine how it would have felt in the pit in the Midwest with the temperature and humidity in the 90’s.
My friend had thought about this a lot before we started and had thought out the entire process. He had dogged the log down with a few feet projecting over the end of the trestle. We then started the 8 cuts that we were making, resulting in 9 planks. The two slabs on the side were used for puncheon benches. We began the cut and when we reached the cross piece of the trestle, we backed out and made the next cut. We continued until all cuts were at the trestle, then the log was undogged, repositioned and dogged down again.
With the kerfs enclosed it was necessary to remove the box and insert the blade into the kerf on each of the cuts. We worked down several feet, then changed kerf until everything advanced to the same point. I did get to spend some time at the tiller. I didn’t like it as the log was not that easy to stand on and I had to lift the saw up for each cut, a whole new set of muscles to get sore. It was not difficult at all to keep the lines straight, the only problem was pitch and pinch. The first dispatched with turpentine and the second with wedges.
I was happy to be back in the pit, well under the trestle as all I had to do was pull the saw down and I had the help of gravity. I am not sure how much different a framed pit saw would be, the much thinner blade has far less weight and the wooden frame probably makes things about equal. I just know that lifting that saw was more work than pulling it down.
With the coarse teeth and large hooked gullets the work went fast after we had developed the sawing rhythm, and there definitely has to be some unison between the sawyers or you work each other to death. It is important at the end of the stroke to let off pressure but keep the tip from whipping. Then the timing to start the cut after the tiller-man has pulled it up, no need to burden them by starting the stroke too early.
I had the same experience on the other end of a bow saw, the initial cutting was rough until the rhythm and cadence was developed. You develop a saw stroke memory and pull the saw down that much each time. On top, the saw is pulled up as much as possible to get the maximum number of teeth involved in each cut.
The only other time the log needed to be moved was for the last couple of feet that were on the trestle. Once it was repositioned with the still uncut end hanging over the trestle cross piece my friend attending the tiller made a few cuts and was standing on the end of the log. He paused and said that the log was longer than necessary, so the end could be just cross cut off freeing the planks.
Here is when the young upstart apprentice opened his mouth, spitting a few wood chips. I asked him why he couldn’t reverse the tiller handle on the top, to crank the other way and stand on the back side of the saw to finish out the cuts? He looked at me, then looked at the tiller handle. He popped out the fastener (but I think it had a square iron bolt with an iron wedge to secure it, like a tusk tenon), reversed the handle and stepped behind the saw.
It was awkward at first for him, my job was the same. The finishing cuts were a bit more vertical and the kerf split off the last inch or so. The first time this happened my friend nearly fell off the trestle as it startled him. He cut one more plank off with a bit more finesse. The remaining kerfs were left a few inches from the end. Removing any more planks completely left nothing to stand on. We finished in the evening and after cleaning the saw I left and don’t know how he separated the planks, next time I was back there they were stacked to dry.
Speaking of that walking around on the top of a log that has been almost cut into boards, the kerfs in the log hold and release sawdust. Pounding wedges into pinching kerfs also release the dust, still a good idea to keep your mouth shut. But the worst was the dust in my eyes, even with glasses, the hat did help.
The pit saw continued even after sawmills were common and were used mainly by shipwrights to cut large knees for stem and stern posts and other large parts. They were also common in underdeveloped countries. In frontier conditions the pit saw provided the initial building material until sawmills could be instructed. In July of 1847 the Mormon Pioneers entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake under the leadership of Brigham Young, himself a carpenter, painter and glazier. The first wooden object built in the valley was made from a log from City Creek Canyon and it was rendered into planks with a pit saw and the boards used to construct a skiff to explore the Jordon River that flows through the valley and empties into the Great Salt Lake.
If one were to do this on a regular basis, digging a pit to work in, greatly reduces the log handling as they can just be rolled over the pit and dogged down. Working on a trestle does require more work in log handling and positioning and its openness helps with ventilation. In either case a peavey, cant hook, log tongs and pikes help in moving the heavy logs around. Block and tackle or at least a couple of ropes to assist for trestle work are necessary.
Everyone should take their turn at a pit saw at least once in their life. Just make sure the logs you are going to saw are green, I would imagine pit sawing dry wood would not be pleasant. To say that they have cut out a board from a log by hand gives a real connection to the past and a real appreciation for saw mills.