Saw Mills and Old Saws

This article, by John Y. Dater, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in February 1981.

The saw mill has an interesting history, dating back at least 2000 years in Roman days and even earlier in Egypt, Greece and China. (The early ones were the narrow blade, up and down saws (when they were run by power), and then earlier by pit and also scaffold on ground operated by two men. I have seen them doing pit sawing in Mandeville, Jamaica in 1941 and Mercer* saw them there in 1910. Circular saws arrived 1825-40 and were made in England and Europe.

The earliest iron saw blades were made by blacksmiths, forged and hammered out on an anvil, and then had the teeth filed in. Roman made files dating from first century A.D. have been dug up in Germany; also sets or wrests to slightly offset the teeth so that they would cut better..

The word saw is related to many medieval words meaning cut, also related to section and scythe according to the Oxford Dictionary.

‘The early uses of wood stem from the branch and bark houses before lumber was sawed; also to religious purposes, chairs and tables and devices to make them, looms to make cloth and devices to fashion fabrics, tool handles, boats and ships, carts and wagons.

The earliest sawing device came in about 8000 B.C. and was, of course, stone. Then it progressed to the bronze. age and finally to the age of iron about 500 B.C.

Large timbers were cut from the tree trunk by a broad ax and then we come to smaller frame units. In early days boards were scarce, confined to flooring, inside panelling and partition parts. Finish siding was made, but no sheathing or roof boards. Wood shingles were split by a chisel device called a free. I have seen that done also in Jamaica.

Up and down saws were also made with multiple blades for sawing more than one piece at a time. The earliest hand saws were frame saws and were used in various ways. Most saws used here from the 17th to early 19th century were made in England and Germany. I have one of the earliest Saws made by Disston in Philadelphia.

There are many saw mills shown on early maps such as Baldwin’s on Ramapo Valley Road, built about 1775 next to the Hopper grist mill. Also Sloat’s on the Mahwah River near Island Rd. And there were others along the Ramapo River. One of the earliest mills in this area was near Hackensack. The sawed timber in the Hopper-Van Horn house came from here about 1720; also the Hermitage in Ho-Ho-Kus. Another very early mill was Conklin’s built about 1740 where the county park pond now is on Darlington Avenue. I remember the old building and the dam. I also have walnut: boards that were cut there for my great grandfather. He used them for counter tops in his general store built in 1855 and later moved to the 1876 building. You can easily see the saw marks on the back of the boards and this is true of any up and down saw lumber.

The early power saw mill was a frame saw with one or more vertical blades and was worked by a crank revolving at the end of a horizontal axle of a water wheel. The log was moved against the saw in several ways, and not the saw against the log as in a pit saw. Most of the devices to move the leg were hand operated.

*The early history on this topic came from Mercer’s Ancient Carpenter’s Tools, 1960. It is a wonderfully researched book. Bucks County Historical Society.

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