Full Chisel Blog

April 26, 2008

Up-Down Saw Mill

Filed under: Sawing,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 9:35 am

(I hope I am not violating any blogging laws by posting more than once a day, I appologize.)


Up-Down Saw Mill


This is a fairly typical up down saw mill that was common up through the industrial revolution when larger circular saws were available and when trees were much smaller as a lot of original growth had been cut down and burned.


It is a pole type building with its upright posts set in holes in the ground.  Sometimes the wheel would be under the mill as was Mr. Sutter’s Saw Mill on the North fork of the American River in California.  This one is an overshot wheel with an overhead flume to bring water to the top of the wheel.

 Pole barn construction

The bents are constructed flat on the ground and raised up to position and in their holes.  The connecting members are placed and pegged.

 Saw Mechanism

This shows the up-down sash saw mechanism.  The small pulley is a power takeoff for a lifting wench to bring logs up to the working floor of the sawmill.


Saw Irons


A ratchet mechanism advances the log on the carriage, which can travel a foot per stroke with the rip tooth web under tension usually was sharpened 1 tooth per inch with large gullets to remove the sawdust.  The sawdust fell under the mill and was usually shoveled into the tailrace.


The finished mill has no walls as they were only used in the warmer spring months after the thaw during the spring freshet.  This mill has a diversion sluice to allow the water to flow its course and not moving the wheel.  The head of water was diverted while a new log was being dogged to the carriage.


Up-Down Saw Mill


A mill similar to this was built in Utah Territory in about 1850; it had an overhead sluice with a roadway underneath.  This mill was also sided and was used year round.  When no water was available it had large grand wheels to operate the other machinery, namely a planing machine and turning lathe.


With saw webs up to 8 feet long, subtracting a one foot stroke and these saws could handle very large logs.  Most large logs from original growth forests in the nineteenth century and earlier were burned, they were too large for the sawmills to cut up.  Lumberman would cut logs to the length of the carriages of the mills they supplied and also knew the limits of the size of the log the mill could cut up into boards and timbers.


Historic buildings in the local communities will have similar measurements or multiples of those measurements because of the size of lumber and timbers that the local saw mill supplied.  This is an interesting bit of information because it allows us to extrapolate how big the saw mills were as not many originals have remained out here in the West.




  1. Sawmill, similar to Sutter's
    Sawmill similar to Sutter’s which was a flutter wheel rather than overshot.

    1851 in the Territory were the following mills by County:

    4 grain mills 5 saw mills Great Salt Lake County
    2 do 2 do Weber
    1 do 2 do Davis
    2 do 3 do Utah
    1 do 2 do Sanpete
    1 do 1 do Iron
    1 do Tooele
    ___ ___
    11 Grist mills 16 Saw Mills

    1856 Big Cottonwood Lumber Company has 3 sawmills in Big Cottonwood Canyon and ‘designed to build 5 more’, and in that year produced 800,000 feet of lumber.

    High Council meeting in Heber C. Kimball’s Schoolhouse, Nov. 24, 1849:
    ‘voted that no persons, owning a saw mill, be allowed more than one-third of the lumber for sawing & wherein they had taken more than one-third, they should refund the amount to the owner of the logs.”


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 26, 2008 @ 10:16 am

  2. Stephen,

    Is there any use left for the concept of a reciprocating blade in urban logging? I am not a sawyer, but their seem to be two main complaints about urban logs. First of all, the number of knots because of the number of branches. Those aren’t going away. Second, there is the problem of hitting old wire, screwdrivers, nails, and whatever else was left on the tree that has grown into it. Sawyers don’t like to resharpen their blades every log or two.

    It seems that with a few modern adaptations such as more efficient guides and perhaps a thinner blade, this design could be made into something portable and low powered, say to run off household current or possibly even human or “horse” power. It seems that resharpening a reasonably wide blade with, saw 60 teeth wouldn’t be as bad as resharpening or throwing away a bandsaw blade.

    How much power does it really take to do the kind of cutting you are talking about anyway? Were there any mills run by horse treadmills? What was the kerf on one of those blades? Was the blade under considerable tension, or just reasonably tight?

    Comment by Luke Townsley — April 26, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

  3. Luke, except for the stray soft lead bullet and a wrought iron nail, metal in trees was not much of a problem in historic times. All wood was cut green and that makes the work much easier as the wood hasn’t hardened up. Water, sap and pitch was a problem and the equipment had to be maintained.

    There are also smaller versions of the sash saw that were in cabinet and other woodworking shops, wheelwright for one and some were powered by overhead jackshaft, grandwheel or treadle. Some could hold large rip blades and others carried fine thin blades for scroll work. I really need to build one of these.

    The tension is enough to hold the blade tight but it is a cut on the pull stroke (that should make Wilbur happy). The blades were thick and the British even mention how wasteful the practices of American lumbering were. Any power source; waterwheel, horses, human, steam were all employed in this period. The horses usually operated a sweep that converted the circular motion into the shop or to the tool. Treadmills were for smaller animals or even humans.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — April 26, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  4. Do you have any idea how a horse powered mill might be set up? We had mills here in Indiana well away from any water source and powered by horses according to the local histories.

    Comment by Wayne Langman — January 3, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  5. Wayne,

    There are a couple of animal powered mills, there is an inclined treadmill, with a large circle made of wood on which animals walk. As they walk uphill they turn the circular treadmill below them. This is transfered through gears to the mill works.

    There are also ones, probably more common that have a large sweep (pole) attached to a gear box in the center. As the animal walks around they pull the sweep behind them and the force is transfered through a shaft (usually under ground) into the mill to operate the machinery of the mill.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — January 4, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  6. I’m writing a novel set in 1809 in which there is an emergency with a runaway saw. That is, the sawmill is water powered and a lever turns it off and on. A man gets trapped between the log and the saw and nobody can get to the lever to shut it off, mainly because everybody is panicking and running around getting in everybody else’s way. Is this possible? Would it be a circular sawblade or an up and down? I had visualized it as a circular blade but my research suggests that at that time it would more likely be an up and down. I don’t think I understand how an up and down would work with water power; it seems to me that using gears, a circular saw would be easier. Does this make sense?

    Comment by Anne Wingate — July 4, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

  7. Anne,

    During the time period of your novel it would have been an up down saw mill. The problem with circular saws is there limited size. The largest available 36 inch in diameter can only cut less than half the diameter, so small logs. Circular saws were used to trim the edges in some cases but its use was more common for veneer and other smaller applications.

    Your character would have to be trapped on top of the log in order to be in harms way, and that would be possible with some scenario of clothing getting stuck on a knot or splinter in the log. The engaging (and reversing) lever would be on one side of the up down saw and you would have to run around the entire log carriage to get to the lever. Or you would have to get to the water control lever to stop or divert the water away from the wheel. Both actions would stop the carriage, the engaging and reversing lever would be instantaneous while the water diversion lever may take a minute or so to actually stop the wheel, hence the saw.

    I hope this helps.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 5, 2009 @ 6:34 am

  8. I just wanted to comment that I happened upon your blog entry and found it very interesting. More than that, it was quite useful! I am building a small diorama of a logging camp, and this helped me very much in fleshing out the concept of the saw mill. Since I did not envision water on the diorama, I was wondering about animal powered sweeps. Your entry cleared that up for me.

    I have a question, somewhat related to Anne’s query: how are the logs pushed into the saw? I do see that water turns the wheel which powers the saw, but I dont see on your diagram a mechanism for pushing the log along the carriage. Is it human powered? Does that make Anne’s scenario a little less plausible?

    Comment by Russell Moses — July 9, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  9. Russell,

    I like dioramas, have you seen my cabinet/chair shop on my old web site? Animal power was used when there wasn’t any water or when it froze in the winter, which it does in the mountains.

    The carriage that holds the log runs along rails on wheels. It was powered by ropes, pulleys and weights in some early mills, but most carriages were propelled along with cog gears. These could be iron or made entirely of wood. There was additional gearing involved and were equipped with a reversing gear that allowed the carriage to return to its starting position, the log reset and the next cut made.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 9, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

  10. A good book on the subject is The Young Millwright’s and Miller’s Guide by Oliver Evans, the bible for mill builders in America.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 9, 2009 @ 7:17 pm

  11. I am a barn consultant and I am writing a short history on the history of barns. Part of what I do is age barns by using saw kerfs. I am haveing trouble finding pictures of antique saws such as the water powered up-and-down saw. I would like to have permission to use your illustration shown above to help illustrate my book.

    I have enjoyed your blog.

    Thanks so much for your help.


    Comment by Pamela Whitney Gray — August 23, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  12. Pam,

    Thank you and you are welcome to use the illustrations. I of course would like a credit. I would like to see your short history on the history of barns.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 23, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  13. Thank you Steven, and it would be my pleasure to send you a copy.


    Comment by Pamela Whitney Gray — August 25, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  14. Pam,

    Thank you and my name is spelled Stephen A. Shepherd, for the record.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 25, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  15. There is an operating up and down mill in Ledyard, CT. Water powered by turbine: capable of cutting logs up to 30″ in diameter. Mill is operated by volunteers and open to public in Oct-Nov on Saturday afternoons 1 to 4 and in April-May.

    Comment by Warren Dolphin — November 18, 2009 @ 10:57 am

  16. Warren,

    Welcome and thanks for your comment. When I make it to the East coast, I will definitely have to visit that site.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — November 18, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

  17. The Ledyard Up and Down Sawmill has startwd a www site at http://sites.google.com/site/ledyardsawmill/ . Check it out for photos and video. It will change as more is added over next few mpnths.

    Comment by Warren DOLPHIN — December 8, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  18. For some reason the last post didn’t get posted, please resubmit, thank you


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 26, 2010 @ 6:12 am

  19. Found this in my email

    I built a gristmill on the Brewster River in 1978-1985 on the old foundation.3 stories with large cupola.Powred by a Frick locomative boiler and 85 hp. engine, wood fired.We ground flour for 15 years and had a store and restaurant, Also a 14 ft. overshot waterwheel 16 in. wide metal buckets 7.5 hp. at 14 rpm. We have sold the mill and moved on to set up our sugarplace and boil with steam. We have 2000 maple trees.We are thinking about it now.I want to build a steam powered up and sawmill.I have an old blade and a pitsaw. David Albright 7450 vt rt 15 Jeffersonville Vt 05464

    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 26, 2010 @ 6:21 am

  20. Did they ever build these sawmills with more than one blade to cut multiple boards in one pass?

    Comment by Rick Secrist — December 5, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  21. Rick,

    Yes I have seen them with up to 10 blades in a frame. Three or five are more common.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — December 5, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

  22. My ancestor’s bio says he operated a “churn dash” sawmill.
    Do you suppose that is the same as an “up and down” one?

    Comment by Cindy — September 3, 2012 @ 10:59 pm

  23. Cindy,

    The ‘churn dash’ sawmill, was either an up down sawmill or a circular saw mill depending on the time period. What ‘churn dash’ means is that it was not powered by a traditional waterwheel but a ‘turbine wheel’ the insides look like a butter churn dasher, hence the name churn dash.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 4, 2012 @ 7:34 am

  24. Thanks for the great information Stephen, we are researching overshot
    waterwheels and came across your blog. Really helpful, now I want to build a Mill!

    Comment by Travis Gray — August 26, 2013 @ 9:01 pm

  25. How can you increase the mechanical advantage of the mill? Perhaps if the moment arm is increased or increasing the torque of the wheel. A physicist or mechanical engineer could advise.

    Comment by Thomas Loo — February 8, 2014 @ 3:39 am

  26. Great website, Stephen! I had ancestors who were millers starting in 1826 and your illustrations help me understand how they must have worked. How long would it take for them to cut a single board using an up-and-down mill?

    Comment by Sharon Cook — November 6, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

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