what on Earth?

Today the kids & I went for a walk, and stumbled upon this scene. They turned to me and said it seemed like something out of a Bruegel painting:

Bruegel, Prudentia, 1559, detail

In reality, it was the museum’s carpenters pitsawing a white oak. I haven’t done much of this sort of work in some years; but used to do a little bit of it frequently.

kids & sawyers
top of stroke

People often surmise that the sawyer underneath has the tougher job. My experience has always been that this position is easier than above. The top sawyer is walking backwards, lifting that heavy saw above his head, and standing on an increasingly unstable surface. And steering.  


The bottom sawyer steers also; but he is standing on firm ground; has gravity to aid him in sawing, and has only to give the saw a boost on the upward stroke. It can be hard to see down there, on a day like this one, with a bright sky behind. The other common rap about the bottom sawyer is that he gets showered with sawdust.

But the sawdust only gets to you if the wind blows wrong. See the dust here; it falls ahead of the bottom sawyer, after all, the teeth of the saw are away from him. You can see in these shots that we keep the saw vertical in the cutting; I’m sure there’s other opinions, but this method has worked for our crew.  


Thanks to Tom, Michael, Rick & Justin for the work. The other day, we took up the challenge of sawing a short section of beech for the planes I want to make. The stock was 5″ thick, by only about 2 feet long. The hard part was holding it down to the cross-timbers. (we ended up clamping it) Michael shot some video, here is the Youtube link.

PF in the pit

15 thoughts on “pitsawing

  1. Peter, I did pit sawing with Daniel O’Hagan in 1981. Daniel was on the top and he did not have to lift the tiller up nearly so high, maybe just to his shoulders or chin. I think I would adjust the box to make the saw a little shorter. Also we sawed at about a 70 degree angle, or a little more, and somewhat more leisurely pace. Daniel was about 58 at the time.


  2. Thanks Warren – I told them there were other opinions out there. I wonder did Daniel learn pitsawing near home, or in England. I remember him telling me he learned a good deal of woodworking in England after the war. It stands to reason that if he was not lifting that high, the stroke would be at an angle. Like I said, this posture & technique is what I have learned with our carpenters. They saw much more than me now, but when I used to do it regularly with them, we still always approached it like this. Remember, that beech we were sawing in the video was only 2 feet long – so the end was in sight, hence we could move along. As it was, during my turn I got well-winded, at 52 and long-out-of-practice.

  3. Peter,
    You have some rare and wonderful kids if they can recognize pit sawing from a Bruegel Painting. Thanks for the great postings.

  4. Hear here on the youngsters recognizing Bruegel scenes!

    Thanks for the pictures and video. The last time I was near that particular pit, no sawyers were working; it was a holiday. It’s good seeing the demo.

    Now, a question…
    Did they have baseball caps in the 17th century? :)

  5. AHHH HAAAA, there are the guys and that’s the tool that put joiners out of the furniture making biz!

    Seriously, what was the reason that furniture making went rather abruptly from panel & stile to single board dovetail construction?

    Was it simply fashion/style change of the jacobean to william & mary period or did tools play an important role?

  6. Thanks Peter! It is good to get back into the rhythm of pitsawing again. As for the technique, there are always differences, but each pair of sawyers will find with practice a technique that works for them both. Tom, as the tiller or top man, and myself, as the pit man, tend to have a long stroke to take advantage of more teeth cutting with each stroke. Depending on the thickness of the wood and species we will vary from a vertical cut, often times used to steer the saw more, and probably about 70 degrees when on a nice straight run. These photos being the 2nd day back into the work since the fall had us a little jazzed up and probably more aggressive. A more tempered pace works better and we last longer in the work then.


  7. How often do you need to stop and file the teeth? Do you find that it helps to use any lubricants?. I imagine the top man gets a pretty strong torso from such work.

  8. Two questions:

    Is it part of the safety technique not to saw a board completely off the log, and thus to leave them all “attached” at the far end, for the top man’s footing?

    Also wondering approximately how long it took your two colleagues to saw that white oak log into those 7 or 8 boards.

    Great winter workout. Sure beats shoveling snow, which I presume the colonials had the good sense *not* to do!


  9. Great post Peter, really enjoyed it as usual.

    From memory, the period saw marks I can recall seeing over the years run at various angles through the board – from pretty ‘vertical’, i.e. 90 degrees, to quite shallow angles; sometimes inconsisently within the same board. So, I would imagine sawyers found what suited them best.

    Not done any pit sawing myself, but I think I would be inclined to cut at a bit more of an angle than you show Peter, to keep my lower regions further away from the teeth!

    Do you also think the thickness of the material being cut might influence the angle of the blade to some degree?

    Re.Jennie’s comment on the trestle, I reckon it stayed out of the water for slightly less time than the house in the picture. What’s that about the prudent man building on rock!


  10. I notice the kids went from “what on earth” standing far away from the action to getting up close & obviously fascinated by the sawyers.

  11. I remember walking with the kids a couple years ago past the saw pit and Rose chiming up with…”What do they make in that hole Papa ?”
    Tell them I’ve been studying Breugel this winter as well and can see how they would love his snow scenes and the occasional zip of red…like a passing cardinal.
    Also like the black dog sweatshirt.
    2 feet and counting here…coming your way this week.

  12. I was reading this article as I was still using a pit saw in the 1960s in Hickory Bay New Zealand. My father, grand farther, great and also Great great grandfather were pit sawing timber in okains Bay fro 1852. You can see why i was interested. I have loaned all our gear to be displayed in the Akaroa mueseum. I have many photos and am compiling a story about pit sawing. Thankyou.

  13. I guess followers have moved on but John, did you saw in the manner shown in the video? I’m just up the road from you (Loburn) and have seen old pit-sawn timber in buildings. The finish looks like band sawn but has an extra set of widely spaced tooth marks on an angle which I was told by a historian came from the saw being lifted up on an angle, of course those old first growth trees were a tad bigger than the one in the video.

  14. It is actually a great and helpful piece off
    info. I am happy that you simply shared this useful info with us.

    Please stay us informedd like this. Thank you for sharing.

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