Recreating Up-and-Down Sawmill History

Making a portable sawmill

| August 2007

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    Dick and the saw he built from scratch, much as it would have been made in the 1880s.
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    Dick Holcombe’s portable up-and-down sawmill.
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    This 2 HP Fairbanks-Morse handles the power requirements of the portable saw with ease. The belt is real leather; there were miles of leather belting manufactured in Sullivan County, Pa., until the turn of the last century. For backup power, or saw demonstration, a 1 HP electric or a 5 HP Honda gas engine is concealed in the framework.
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    The saw blade cutting an 18-inch poplar log. The saw is mounted in a heavy ash frame called sash. Heavy tension bolts secure the blade and adjustable wooden guides keep the saw aligned. An adjustment, called “kilter,” can be made that allows the top of the saw to tilt slightly forward so that as the blade progresses downward, it advances into the log.
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    The crank arm is counter-weighted with poured lead. The leather hinge provides flexibility to the brass crank bearing and a grease cup provides lubrication.
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    The belt tensioning idler controls the start and stop of the up-and-down motion
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    The ratchet wheel is made from glued wood. Each notch advances the log 1/16-inch. The pawl that turns the ratchet wheel can be adjusted to advance the pawl one, two or three notches, depending on the species, size and end use of the finished board.

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In my 91 years of age I have had an obsession with older mechanical objects that led me to build a portable sawmill. I was always intrigued by steam trains and steam engines, such as those used in an electric plant in Dushore, Pa., in the 1930s. I was born and raised next to the Little Loyalsock Creek and often witnessed the water in the stream rising when the grist mill water turbine was turned on. 

While researching the location of a one-room schoolhouse on an 1872 map of Sullivan County, Pa., I came across the notation "s-mill." Looking further, I counted 42 "s-mills" and seven "steam s-mills." The s-mills were mostly located on a stream. I had heard of up-and-down sawmills for years, but had a hard time making myself believe Sullivan County had 43 of them in 1872, with a population of 6,000.

I searched for hours on the Internet and found information on large up-and-down sawmills preserved around the country. There were large mills in Hillsgrove, Millview, Cherry Mills, Pa., and several other locations. An example of the fine sawing produced by an up-and-down saw can be found in the covered bridge near Hillsgrove. From the location on the map, many of the smaller mills were located on relatively small streams, so I suppose the operation of the mill was limited to periods of sufficient water. All of the mills were permanent, and from the meager local information I have, and what I obtained from the Internet, they were powered mostly by under-shot waterwheels. By the 1880s, steam- and water-powered circular saws were replacing the up-and-down saws. The production of the circular saw was many times that of the up-and-down.

Perhaps I inherited some of my mechanical abilities from my grandfather who was a wagon-maker in Dushore. With the lack of any plans, I decided I would build an up-and-down sawmill and satisfy my curiosity. So, three years ago, I built a trial unit. It was powered by a 1/2 HP electric engine and it worked well, but was not portable. I determined I would build a portable mill, and as much as my limited resources would permit, in a fashion my grandfather would have done in the 1880s. I had to compromise the design of the mill to make it portable, so the working parts of the mill demonstrate the operation of a full-size mill, but the framework is of a much lighter pattern than the stationary mills of the 1880s. It is also powered by an electric or gas engine.



Sawmills were steady, and as long as there was water, they would produce fine boards. The greatest problem was that they were slow. There is an old saying: "Start a cut, go to lunch, and when you come back, the board will be cut." By comparison, just relate that to the number of acres a horse could plow in a day in 1872, and the many, many acres a modern tractor can plow in a day. Until after the Civil War, almost every board used in frame construction was sawn on an up-and-down saw. I hope my portable saw will remind people of the limitations our forefathers experienced in building a house or barn. It might also point out that they took advantage of our water power, as little as it was, to produce find boards. Perhaps we should re-examine the potential of our larger streams - the power is free!

Contact Dick Holcombe Sr. at 1 Cemetery St., R.R. 4 Box 4377A, Dushore, PA 18614; dicke@chilitech.net 

jenny and philip white
2/1/2011 12:12:16 PM

Hi we were reading your article on the saw bench, We live in Dorset UK, We have also got a saw mill that we have refurbished. It is a Denning Horizontal rack bench dated between 1887 and 1936. When we bought it it was a pile of bits in someones garden.At first we assembled it in a barn,but after a few years we were perswaded to make a trailer so that we could take to the Great Dorset Steam Fair. This was no easy task becouse of its size,it will take a stick up to 20' long and 42" diameter!! Our latest find is a 1946 John Deere Lindeman BO crawler but we might needs some tracks any ideas. Jenny and Phil




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