On Saturday I took a little break from incessant writing to participate in a saw training workshop operated by the US Forest Service in coordination with our local trail maintenance volunteer association. Shameless plug here: if you love to hike and live near a National Forest in the United States, please, PLEASE volunteer with your local trail maintenance volunteer association. It doesn’t matter where you are in the US; right now funds and staffing are low for all national forests. Even a couple of hours helping to brush, trim, and stabilize trail makes a difference. Not sure who your local volunteer folks are? Check with your local National Forest.
Okay. Enough of the PSA.
We went out to a nearby city to be certified because, while the husband is an experienced chainsaw hand, a lot of the trail maintenance work we’ve done has, at some point, involved saws, usually long folding saws or crosscut saws. And crosscut saws are a bit different in handling from other saws, including the need to learn how to coordinate with another person. Plus the more people with saw certification on the trail maintenance crews, the better things run. It looks good when our organization is applying for grants if they can quantify the number of trained volunteers out there.
So a bunch of us from around the region showed up at a centrally-located sawmill conference room on this rainy April Saturday to get classroom hours and some hands-on experience working with crosscut saws and, for a handful of participants, chainsaw certification.
From my perspective a lot of this course was simple common sense; then again, I’ve been around various saws for most of my life. I lived with a woodstove since about age ten when my parents moved to the farm and used it as primary heat. My father and middle brother used handsaws and power saws for assorted carpentry projects around the farm. We used a bow saw to cut firewood when we went camping. I’ve cut wood with my husband — and while he operates the chainsaw, I learned a lot about trying to predict tree lean and cutting behavior while out in the woods.
This class helped clarify a lot of things I had learned by osmosis over the years, though darned if I’m going to be able to articulate the reasons why I would make the cutting choices and analyze the situation just yet. Figuring out the nature of ‘bind’ — heck, even the formal definition of it — is a challenge and marks me as a beginning sawyer.
Still, any time you’re playing with saws, whether manual or powered, learning more about safety and constructing plans is always a good thing. Injury can happen with any sharp tool, and when you add in the mixture of forest conditions — hanging trees, widowmaker branches and trees, brush, rocks, terrain, and weather — recognition of the inherent danger in cutting situations is paramount.
Besides, you never know. I might just be able to work this information into a story.
After a morning of going over processes, how-to, and lunch, we got to the actual crosscutting. I had known from previous trail work that the crosscut saw is a highly prized, sharp, and carefully managed tool. The teeth are covered with a heavy shield and if the saw goes on pack stock, it often has its own scabbard. Then again, when working with a crosscut, you’re handling a sharp instrument with teeth that are an inch and a half to two inches long (and possibly longer) that can run anywhere from four feet to seven feet long (sometimes longer) and at least four to six inches wide. This means it can wobble and flex. The saw can be oddly brittle if handled incorrectly. It just takes one raker tooth going askew to mess it up. And it can hurt the handler if you’re not careful working around the teeth.
The techniques I learned focused on bucking, which is cutting up downed trees in order to clear a trail. Falling is the actual act of cutting standing trees, though sometimes the line between bucking and falling can get kind of thin, depending on a tree’s lie (the resting position when you go out to cut it).
Of course, before you start cutting you make a plan, based on what you intend to do, how the tree lie is going to affect your cut, potential hazards around the work area, escape routes, and so on. Then you’re ready to cut.
First of all, you debark the tree around the area you plan to saw. This is meant to preserve the crosscut saw’s teeth, since bark of a downed tree can contain rocks and sand, which dulls the saw after a while. Protecting the integrity of the teeth is crucial. Since we’re looking to clear trails, not cut firewood, we’re looking for the safest and easiest way to get a fallen tree out of the trail right-of-way so our focus is not on cutting small lengths that are firewood size. The biggest limitation is keeping the cuts to a size that can be moved — and since most of us on trail crew are retirees, the weight and awkwardness of the lengths we cut become a factor.
However, since we’re not cutting firewood, that means we can optimize our cuts by looking to avoid knots and other considerations which make the tree difficult to saw through. The density of different species, the greenness of the tree, and the impact of bark injuries on wood growth can affect how the cut works.
And, of course, there are different kinds of cuts. I’m not advanced enough to explain those, though watching people do them and hearing the explanation for the reasons you would do the other cuts made sense.
With two people on the saw, you start establishing your rhythm in the air just above where you plan to start cutting. As the teeth bite into the wood, you try to keep the cut mostly in the center, but it’s also important to communicate with your partner and work together to establish a rhythm. At some point, using wedges to keep the saw from binding up and/or breaking the saw is often necessary, because as you cut the angle of the trunk will change, sometimes pressing into the cut and trapping your saw. Sometimes wedging isn’t enough and you have to use kerosene or water to lubricate it.
Before you reach the bottom it’s a good idea to have bark or something like that underneath to keep the teeth out of the dirt and to saw slowly so that the saw doesn’t fall with the cut section of tree. And since you’re working with a saw anywhere from four to seven feet (or more) long, keeping it straight while cutting is important.
Solo cutting is similar, except that you don’t start the cut in the air.
Several of us older women going through the class clustered together to start out, some of us with spouses, some not. We chose to start with the smaller saw, about four feet long, cutting a pretty straightforward tree about twelve inches in diameter. My partner and I were pretty well matched in height, though it seemed to be hard for us to get exactly into sync at first. All the same learning to control the wobble, use both hands, and figure out when we needed to start using the wedge took a little bit of practice. I was pleased that I seemed to naturally fall into something close to an efficient cutting posture, and it sure was easier than some of my past saw experiences.
Then we moved on to a different tree, and our instructor encouraged us to try sawing solo. Cutting by myself, it was easier to fall into the rhythm of push and pull, cut and clear, rocking the saw as it cut deeper into the wood. Except. Unlike the first tree, this one had a slightly different cutting profile, with denser wood and a greater likelihood of binding up. This tree required lubrication to get the saw to the depth where wedging was possible, even for the bigger men — and even judicious trickles of kerosene into the cut didn’t always last.
My right shoulder and arthritic right thumb were aching by the time I balanced the saw in the center and handed it over to someone else — the expected reaction when you start taking up this sort of thing in your early sixties. But I was still eager to tackle the big crosscut saw — the seven-footer.
That saw was being used on a twenty-four inch diameter tree with thicker bark, generous knots, softer spots, and a few other challenges we learned about as we worked.
Two other women started our group. My partner and I watched as they worked rhythmically, falling into a smooth saw pattern and cutting much faster than we could have done with the smaller saw and tree. The saw flexed and sung, a metallic vibrato combined with the swish-swish of teeth cutting through wood fiber and sending noodles of cut wood flying. Then they ran into tough spots, needing wedging and lubrication. At about three-quarters through, they turned the saw over to two other folks.
At last, it was our turn. My partner and I set a rhythm in the air above our barked section. Then the teeth bit into the wood.
Right away I felt the difference between large and small saws. The large saw came to life as it chewed through the log, its greater center length flowing smooth as it sent noodles of cut wood flying. We made the saw sing as we pulled and followed, pulled and followed. I got a sense of what it meant to be an old-time logger in the groove as he (mostly likely always “he” in that era) wielded a great saw almost living itself in the way it sang and quivered in the wielder’s hands.
And then we learned the meaning of the phrase “misery whip,” the old-time logger term for the big crosscut saw. I first sensed it as something softer and more brittle on my partner’s side, a feeling that instead of cutting smoothly, it was crushing and tearing.
“Getting punky over on your side?” I asked (“punky” is a term for rotten wood).
Then the saw bound up as the teeth transitioned from punky wood to harder wood and the bind put more pressure on the saw, making it difficult to move. A wedge later, we were back in business, but not for long. It hung up again, requiring kerosene. A few more strokes, and it bound up again.
We struggled with it until we were about three-quarters through, and then turned it over to another team. But as I straightened up, now aware of what a misery whip was about, my right arm aching as a cloudburst blew through, I still felt pretty darn good about what I had done.
Not every woman learns crosscut sawing in her sixties.
And afterwards, when looking at the cut log, we could see where the softer wood made things more difficult, especially since it was followed by harder wood complicated by a line of freeze damage that acted a little bit like a knot. There were knots that hadn’t worked all the way out to the bark, and other complications.
As we retreated back to the warmth of the conference room while the deluge continued, I still remembered that moment when that big saw came alive in my hands.
Might be a story in that someday.