Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Prior to the invention of sawmills, boards were rived and planed, or more often sawn by two men with a whipsaw using saddleblocks to hold the log and a pit for the pitman who worked below and got the benefit of the sawdust in his eyes. Sawing was slow and required strong and enduring men. The topsawer had to be the stronger of the two because the saw was pulled in turn by each man, and the lower had the advantage of gravity. The topsawyer also had to guide the saw so the board was of even thickness. This was often done by following a chalkline.
Early sawmills simply adapted the whipsaw to mechanical power, generally driven by a water wheel to speed up the process. The circular motion of the wheel was changed to back-and-forth motion of the saw blade by a pitman thus introducing a term used in many mechanical applications. A pitman is similar to a crankshaft but used in reverse. A crankshaft converts back-and-forth motion to circular motion.
Generally only the saw was powered and the logs had to be loaded and moved by hand. An early improvement was the development of a movable carriage, also water powered, to steadily move the log through the saw blade.
A small mill such as this would be the center of many rural communities in wood-exporting regions such as the Baltic countries and Canada. The output of such mills would be quite low, perhaps only 500 boards per day. They would also generally only operate during the winter, the peak logging season.
In the US, early sawmills were imported, mostly from Holland, where the technology was far ahead of the English. The arrival of a sawmill was a large and stimulative step in the growth of a frontier community.
Early mills were taken to the forest, where a temporary shelter was built, and the logs were skidded to the nearby mill by horse or ox teams, often when there was some snow to provide lubrication for the log movement. As mills grew larger, they were usually established in more permanent facilities on a river, and the logs were floated down to them by log drivers.
The next improvement was the use of circular saw blades, and soon thereafter the use of gangsaws which added additional blades so that a log would be reduced to boards in one quick step. Circular saw blades were extremely expensive and highly subject to damage by overheating or dirty logs. A new kind of technician arose, the sawfiler. Sawfilers were highly skilled in metalworking. Their main job was to set and sharpen teeth. The craft also learned how to hammer a saw, whereby a saw is deformed with a hammer and anvil to counteract the forces of heat and cutting. Modern circular saw blades have replaceable teeth but still need to be hammered.
The introduction of steam power in the 19th century created many new possibilities for mills. They could be built away from water and could be far more mechanized. Efficiency was increased, but the capital cost of a new mill increased dramatically as well.
By 1900, the largest sawmill in the world was operated by the Atlantic Lumber Company in Georgetown, South Carolina using logs floated down the Pee Dee River from as far as the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina.
In the twentieth century the introduction of electricity and high technology furthered this process and now most sawmills are massive and extremely expensive facilities in which almost every aspect of the work is computerized. Today a mill can make many hundreds of thousands of boards per day.
Small gasoline-powered sawmills run by local entrepreneurs served many communities in the early 20th century, and specialty markets still today.
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