October 21st, 2009

Drag Saw

To accurately imagine the sound of a drag saw, hike into the mountains as far from roads and habitation as you can get, then listen. Eliminate all sound of motor vehicles, airplanes, the hum of rubber tires on paved roads, the drone of factories, and the myriad sounds of human occupation.

A drag saw on Orcas Island, ca. 1917. Orcas Island Historical Museum

A drag saw on Orcas Island, ca. 1917. Orcas Island Historical Museum

Then imagine the steady chug, chug, chug of exploding petroleum in a heavy cast iron single cylinder engine and the shhh, shhh, shhh and ring of the saw slicing away through green wood. Add the clatter of a drive mechanism with a little slack.

Drag saws cross cut big timber. They were replaced sixty or seventy years ago by chainsaws. We had a drag saw on the farm that Grandpa left leaning on a five foot diameter Douglas fir log in the woods the year Dad bought a chainsaw. No one ever fired up the drag saw again. By the time I was old enough to notice it, the drag saw was covered with bright green algae and its wooden rails were beginning to rot. Today, the fir log has rotted down to a little rise on the floor of the woods and the saw is a scarcely recognizable lump of moss-covered iron.

A drag saw blade looked like an old fashioned two man cross cut saw, but heavy enough not to bend when it was pushed through the cut on the forward stroke. Imagine the man on one end of a cross cut saw replaced by a gasoline engine with an eccentric crank like one on the side of a steam locomotive to convert the rotary motion of the engine to the reciprocal motion of the saw blade and you have a drag saw. The single cylinder air-cooled cast iron engine was mounted on a wooden frame that leaned against uncut portion of the log. The saw pivoted downward as it sliced through the log.

Drag saws were impractical for anything but cutting stove wood from logs that only a tall man could see over. Setting up for a cut required stopping the engine, moving the saw, and restarting the engine. Noting the weight and awkward shape of the saw, the altogether cussedness of starting those ancient single cylinder gas engines, and the disappearance of giant trees to cut up for firewood, it does not surprise me in the least that Grandpa left his drag saw to rot the day the chain saw came along.

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