Sawing and Hewing Timbers in the Bush

For a project in Africa, advice about working timbers for framing. November 25, 2008

In June, I will be going to Africa for a couple of weeks to work with pastors and child soldiers. Our goal is to reintegrate these kids back into their society. We want to help them learn a trade. Congo is a tropical climate, and as you might guess, has plenty of African mahogany. It was amazing to see how much ribbon striped mahogany was everywhere. They use it like we use pine.

Anyway, I have one week to teach these guys how to use primitive tools like handsaws, chisels, and brace and bit to make timber frame/post and beam buildings. I have owned and operated a millwork shop for many years. I have some, but little, experience making trees into lumber.

If you had 40 hours, how would you teach young adults and older teens to go from tree to lumber? Again, we will be using hand tools, as gas is very expensive... even more than here!

Forum Responses
(Sawing and Drying Forum)
From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Sawing a log without electricity or gasoline power is next to impossible. The only option I know of is called a pit saw. Google it. It is not very effective and is not kind to the operator under the saw.

From contributor M:
There are some books called Foxfire that show a lot of info on building the way they did years back, before there was any power source.

From contributor S:

That sounds like a worthwhile project. Fox Maple School of traditional building in Maine runs workshops in post and beam construction. They have a program where they go to Costa Rica and help people down there. Maybe call them and explain your project...

Also, it might be a good thing to round up as many hand tools here in the US as you can afford to ship over there (don't forget sharpening stones and files). Going to the hardware store and getting anything we need is something we take for granted, but may not be possible in Africa.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. What about prepping this wood prior to dimensioning? We will more than likely be using African mahogany. In the mountains, it is tropical. Without the use of moisture meters, how will they know when it is dry enough to use? Should they dimension the beams first, then stack to dry? Do they need to condition the ends with anything? Any suggestions for moving the logs to a sawing area? No trucks, horses.

Again, thanks. I will check Foxfire and Fox Maple. And members of our group are active in Costa Rica, too. They saw people replanting with pine trees. They said that they grow quickly in the tropical climate.

From contributor B:
Good project, but very difficult. Been working for the Danish Government Aid Programme in Eastern Africa. I have quite a lot of material concerning basic logging, transport and sawing, which have been used on steep slopes in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, most, if not all, is in English, but with good, clear drawings.

Gene is right, the only way without gas will be the pitsaw. Did you mean, "No trucks, but horses," or "No trucks or horses." If the latter is the situation, I reckon you are facing Mission Impossible. On the other hand, if horses or oxen are available, I have a few ideas.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. We will have translators, and even then I am sure that many if not most of these guys are not literate. We can have people help us translate into Swahili before we go. I am anxious to hear how you all are doing it.

Sorry about the confusion - no horses that I know of.

I sure would like to find a way so that they could slab where it falls. I wonder if you could rig up a jig like they use for chainsaws that follow a 2x guide? I am thinking of capturing the blade like the old miter boxes used to hold a backsaw. If there is a way to hold the saw on both sides of the log, then they could saw horizontally and not need a pit. What about drying the timbers? How did they know when it was dry enough to use 200 years ago?

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Timbers were seldom dried until they were in place.

From contributor O:
I think it is very important that you get your hands on the Dec 2007/Jan 2008 Sawmill and Woodlot Management magazine. On page 10 it describes the harvesting and transport of hardwoods in Peru using chainsaws on site.

From contributor T:
Sounds like you are mostly working with beams for structural elements, so your most cost effective method is going to be hand hewing. This way all the work is by man power, no fuel costs, it's primitive, very simple, and very cost effective. Very hard work, but this is how this country was built. There are many good articles, and one of the hardcover new Fine Woodworking books goes into a little detail about the process.

I have not read this but I believe the pit saw was used only on logs that had already been hand hewn into a beam. This is because the pit saw is based off of a saw captured within a frame, and the frame rides on the two outside faces of the beam that the blade is within.

All the tools back from these days are very primitive, so there are many versions and varieties, simply whatever worked and got the job done. The basic tools you need are crosscut two man saws, axes, double bit would be nice, broad axes - with the correct bent offset handle, and a variety of adzes. You can find all these tools affordable at the right places, but the original tools pop up on eBay all the time, and very affordable prices. Two man log carrying tongs would be very handy also.

Just my opinion, but if you compare our country with theirs, they are something like where we were 300 years ago, just settling into the wilderness of this country, with the bare essentials. You're looking at a once in a lifetime opportunity to put an axe to ribbon mahogany, and justify it!

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
A pit saw can indeed saw lumber form a log.

There is a short description of a pit saw at Wikipedia. It states that the pit sawyers were some of the highest paid people in Colonial America. Note that seldom was a pit saw in a frame... That was a later patented idea, but it really never was popular, as it was too heavy and too hard to steer and handle.

From contributor S:
The job at the bottom of the pit was usually given to an indentured servant or a slave. The guy who owned the pitsaw operation was the highest paid.

From contributor D:
I spent three months in Tanzania a few winters ago. The farm I was helping out on hired a pit sawyer while I was there. It didn't seem like brutal work, just steady. I was amazed at how accurate they could cut. The saw looked like a 2 man crosscut, but of course the teeth were different.

I remember being impressed with the accuracy of the lumber. It was some kind of pine. We were right next to a huge government plantation. I watched a logging crew one afternoon. The only mechanization they had was a chainsaw. They let me cut a tree down. I tried to swing it a bit, but there was no strength in the wood compared to the wood we have in BC. They were impressed that I could do it. I made a big print of one of the pictures I took and sent it to them. I'd have loved to send them some of the big wood I've felled.

From contributor N:
I remember a picture in an old Nat'l Geographic of an Indian gang rip. There were 4 men sitting on each side of a log on the ground. Each pair of opposing men worked a two handled rip saw between them. The next pair of men was cutting a line 2" down, the next pair was 2" below that. I don't know if they scooted along or passed saws.

From contributor A:
Timbers were hewed more than sawed in early times. A man with a sharp cross cut saw and a broad axe or adze can chip out some nice beams pretty quick and true. I would think a frame that was, say, 3 ft wide and 8 ft long with several band blades strung between them and mounted on a jig so that a pump lever would raise and lower it could rip boards pretty fast with manual labor.

I met a guy one time that was overseas with a WM mill and they broke a blade. Some young guys were there and asked for the blade. They made a bow saw out of it and were cutting logs into boards with it.

Whatever tools you take, remember you have to be able to sharpen them on site.

From contributor N:
If you're doing beams in the bush, I agree with contributor A. This is one I did to match an existing rotten one. I shimmed it level, and using a level I drew a crosshair centered on each end. Measuring out from that, I projected a level line the width of my face on each end. I then snapped a chalk line down each side where the line hit the edge. By then chopping cross grain down to the lines, first the one away from me, then about 4" down the one toward me, back and forth down the log scoring to the depth lines. Then the broadax is used to pop those chunks off, working like a plane at a skew angle. Then since I'm a hack, as a tiehack I used the slick and drawknife to clean up. An adze would work as well. If you're good, the broadaxe can leave a finely rippled surface. I hope not to get that good.