19th Century Writings on Sash Sawmills
These (mostly) 19th century references were chosen primarily based on content relevant to operating and maintaining a sash sawmill and are available full-text online (click on the links for individual books). There are multiple copies and editions available for some of these works.
The two most important and most useful writings are listed directly below: Ellicott (In Oliver Evans Young Mill-wright book), and Craik.
Essential reading. Originally published 1795 with 15 editions to 1860. The main part of Oliver Evans' book relates to flour mills and was written by Evans with no information on sawmills. However, as the book was nearly finished, the publisher received a manuscript from a Pennsylvania millwright named Thomas Ellicott. Ellicott’s material was included in the Evans book as Part the Fifth, The Practical Millwright. It is Article 39 (Of Sawmills – Their Utility) of Part V by Ellicott that contains the classic and most frequently cited primary text and diagram of an American sash sawmill. Sawmill parts are named and their purpose explained, and the dimensions are given such that this material could be used to construct a mill.
There is a also page of material by Evans included at the end of Ellicott’s section (page 90 of Part V) with some practical comments including an excellent and concise description of hanging the saw in the saw frame. Evans also has a paragraph on sharpening (“whetting”) the saw with an interesting and puzzling recommendation for tooth angle – he says they should “slope up a little” rather than having the face of the tooth level or “drooping down”. Why not have it drooping down? Because then “it will never saw steady – it is apt to wood too much”. It’s not clear at all what Evans means by this last phrase.
At the end of the book (page 9 of Appendix), there is an additional short section by William French with some practical advice on waterwheels for sawmills.
Various editions of Evans are available as reprints and also are online. The comments above related to the 1st (1795) edition. There are a few changes in later editions that include different chapter and plate numbers for the sash sawmill-related material.
Like Craik, Ellicott's sawmill section in Evans is required for anyone interested in learning about American sash sawmills.
Essential reading. Chapter XXI is an extensive discussion of sash sawmills (called by Craik “English Gate” saws) that is, as the title suggests, practical. Reading Craik is like having a chat with someone running a a water-powered mill just like the Ledyard Up-down Sawmill. Has detailed discussions of the mechanism, mounting the saw in the frame with the correct tension and rake, sharpening and setting the saw. A big disappointment that there are very few figures or plates; a bigger disappointment is that the key drawing of a sawmill (Fig. 34) does not match the text in several key aspects of the mechanism. There are additional discussions of muley and gang saws in chapters XXII and XXIII. A very positive review of Craik appears in Manufacturer and Builder, 1870, vol. 2(9) p. 278 and notes that the price was $5.00.
Craik is must reading if you want to learn about American mid-19th century sash sawmills.
Additional 19th century references to learn about sash sawmills
Bale, M. Powis. (1880). Woodworking Machinery Its Rise Progress and Construction with Hints on the Management of Saw Mills and the Economical Conversion of Timber. 2nd edition. London: Crosby Lockwood and Sons.
Much of the book is a discussion of various of types of saw mill technologies from the point of view of an English wood processing sawmill factory. A lot of the discussion of straight saws (rather than circular or bandsaws) focuses on gang saws and higher speed equipment than was used in a small American mill like the Ledyard sawmill. Also has a fair bit of discussion of non-saw machinery such as planers and molding machines. Has nice quoted description on pp. 36-37 of early sash sawmill technology taken from Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (see entry below), but attributed to only "an old writer".
Written as a companion volume to Bale’s Woodworking Machinery, and like that volume is written from the British point of view and focuses on British sawmills of the time. There are recommended mill layouts that include tenoning machine, shapers, saw benches (tablesaws), etc. Also information on power sources (water and steam) and power transmission. Chapter XI on Straight Saws has information of saw teeth type and cutting angles and includes discussion of results of an experiment in the German engineering journal Der Civilingenieur (1859, vol 35, p 39) of three different shapes of saw teeth on pine, oak, lime-tree and mahogany. Interestingly, Bale's Chapter XIV Setting Saws shows a familiar figure: Fig. 28-Spread Setting (on page 153) is obviously “borrowed” from Holly (which in turn seems to be taken from Scientific American – see comments below for Holly, The Art of Saw-Filing). A review of Bale’s Sawmills appeared in Manufacturer and Builder, 1884, vol. 16(9), p 214.
The famous work from the 18th century French engineer and technical author. Among the works in Bélidor's four volume L'Architecture Hydraulique is a chapter on sawmills.
Chapter II. Des Moulins a Scier le Bois. (Starts on age 321 which is page 437 of online book).
Plate Premiere shows plan and elevation (“profil”) drawings of the building and mechanism of a sash sawmill driven by an undershot wheel. The saw gate, ragwheel drive, and carriage are very similar to 19th century American mills, although the waterwheel shaft and crank are a little more complicated.
Plate 2 is a slightly different sash saw.
Plate 3 shows an early version of a type of muley saw – the bottom of the saw is connected directly to the pitman and the top connected to a small frame that rides in grooves. It would be interesting to know if this was ever put into practice in Europe since the muley saw is generally viewed as an American invention (US patent X4331 granted to Israel Johnson, Jr. Feb 8,1826). Unlike Johnson’s muley saw, the Belidor version does not have guides for the saw that hold it vertical during sawing. The guides are a key part of Johnson’s patent and an unstrained saw (ie. with no saw gate) may not work without them.
An English translation of the section in Architecture hydraulique focusing on mills is available (Bélidor, B. F. de. Ward, O., & Watkins, G. (translators), 2003. The Mills of Belidor. Watford: The International Molinological Society.)
The 1841 3rd edition revised by George Rennie with contributions by additional authors. This book is a nearly 500-page discussion of power transmission in milling mechanisms: wheels, gears, shafts, bearings, couplings, belts, pulleys, clutches. Also covers building framing principles for mills and specific millwork and machinery. Appendices on methods to find center of gravity of wheels and on metal machining. No discussion of saws or sawmills, although many of the more general mill subjects are relevant to sawmills.
The title says it all. No specific information on sawmills, but a lot of information on mill equipment.
A history of Chester, NH that includes a chapter on mills. Pages 222-224 have information on sawmills including the author's recollections about the first mills he saw in the area with various technological improvements like iron friction rods, the "first belted saw-mill", and an iron carriage track. The only reference I have seen using the term "nogs" - the row of rectangular vertical wood pegs set into the floor upon which each side of the log carriage rides. This is the carriage track system used in the Ledyard mill and we now know what to call the pegs!
History of early sawmills in America on pp 320-323. Coffin discusses the 1810 census data published for sawmills and concludes they are “not worth the cost of folding and stitching them” (p 323). For example, there were no sawmills listed for New York, Vermont, New Hampshire or Connecticut. Coffin has more faith in the 1840 census data which indicate 673 sawmills in Connecticut.
Like many of these late 19th century books, the emphasis on circular saws, but Covel also includes a discussing of doctoring gang saws and has few pages on muley saws. Discussion of hanging gang saws that is a little hard to follow. The book concludes with his sales pitch of the Covel Saw-Sharpener and some testimonials from satisfied customers.
See entry at top of page for this important reference.
An overview of saws from the saw manufacturer H. Disston and Sons. Covers all types of saws for the workshop and lumber industry (with the emphasis, naturally, on Disston products). The 1888 edition (p. 10) has a blank for ordering millsaws and circular saws. Republished in multiple editions into the 20th century. Various editions and reprints are available.
See entry at top of page for this important reference.
The entry on sawmills on page 382 begins with a brief overall description of a sash sawmill, although it indicates that the "common saw-mill" is a gang saw (ie., uses multiple straight blades). Perhaps this was true in England - plate XLIII showing a Common reciprocating saw-mill" is an all-iron construction with multiple blades. However, in America in 1845 and later, it was far more typical to have only one blade mounted (or "stretched") in the saw frame for a typical small country mill like the Ledyard sawmill.
See Ellicott entry at top of page for this important reference.
Part I on the Principles of Mechanism and Prime Movers has chapters on water wheels and turbines; also properties of steam and steam engine and boiler technology. Part II on the Machinery of Transmission and the Construction and Arrangement of Mills (1878 edition) covers wheels, gears, shafts, pulleys, and clutches. Suggested layouts of essentially every mill types excepting sawmills (corn, wool, cotton, silk, flax, paper, powder, iron). No discussion of saws or sawmills.
A late nineteenth century review of water wheel technology that includes discussion of flutter wheels which were the predominant water wheel type used in early American sash sawmills. “The figures of Plate XL show the mechanism of the primitive sawmill now as much an antiquity as the old domestic spinning wheel.” (page 242). Plate XXXIX shows an elevation of flutter wheel.
Gallon’s review of French technological advances published in multiple volumes from 1735 – 1777. Volume one has a section on sawmills with some plates that illustrate a sash-type mill that is supported by wood framing on the ground similar to what was used for pitsawing. The intended source of power is not clear from the plates, but it doesn't seem to be water. Appears to be a conceptual mill that may not have been put into practice. Cited in Gregory’s comments on Gray (see entry for Andrew Gray. The Experienced Millwright).
A British book on water[power and milling that includes a diagram of a sash-type an “American Saw” with flutter wheel (p. 70). Likely to be an idealized mill and not a drawing based on an operating mill, although Glynn states that “A saw-mill on this principle was made by the late Mr. [John] Rennie, of which he has given the following brief description: it appears to have been driven by the water of Leith…”.
John Rennie’s work on waterwheels at the Lieth sawmill was reported by his son George Rennie: Experiments made by the late George Rennie on the power of waterwheels, Quarterly Review of Engineering, 1845, vol. 4, part VIII.
Gray, Andrew. (1806). The Experienced Millwright. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable. (Second edition)
The 1806 second edition of this rare book can be found in academic libraries which have Goldsmiths’-Kress Library of Economic Literature (microfilm or digital versions) The first edition of Gray was published in 1804.
Among the descriptions and plates of many types of mills described by Gray, plate XLIII (and the text description on page 68) shows elevation and plan views of a double frame sawmill – that is, two side-by-side frame (i.e., sash-type) saws with two log carriages powered by a breast waterwheel. This is an early and clear scaled engineering drawing of a sawmill. The overall design of this British sawmill relies on a many manufactured iron parts – very different from the American mill shown in Evans less than a decade earlier which has very few iron parts at all. This general differentiation between British and American frame sawmills continued throughout the 19th century (at least for smaller rural mills).
Although it takes a little effort to obtain access to a copy of Gray’s book, the sawmill material is essentially replicated in several subsequent books by different authors. These other publications includes the text description of sawmills from Gray and figure of the elevation view (the text and figure of Gray’s plan view is not reproduced). Since these subsequent publications don't show the plan view, they hide the fact that Gray's original drawing showed a double frame mill.
Gregory, Olinthus. 1806. A treatise of mechanics, theoretical, practical, and descriptive Volume II. London: Kearsley. Published only two years after the first edition of Gray, but replicates the text (page 324 of volume II) and elevation view of the sawmill from Gray. Gregory notes (p. 324) that the sawmill shown by Gray “but it only differs in a few trifling particulars from some which are described in Belidor's Architecture Hydraulique, and in Gallon's Collection of Machines approved by the French Academy”. The complete three volume1826 (4th) edition of Gregory is available online with sawmill text on page 355 of volume II and sawmill plate XXVIII in volume III.
Other books that replicated Gregory (and therefore Gray) include:
A standard late 19th century reference on saws referred to as “Grimshaw on Saws”. Unfortunately, not much of practical interest regarding straight mill saws, although there is a lot of discussion for various saw types of tooth form, filing, setting, etc. Page 12 has a reproduction of Holtzapffel’s figure of different forms of saw teeth including straight mill saw teeth. A review of Grimshaw appeared in Manufacturer and Builder, 1880 vol. 12(5) p. 118 indicates that Grimshaw was priced at $2.50.
Interestingly, some of Grimshaw’s contemporaries seem not to have the highest opinion of his writings see two reviews of Grimshaw’s Miller, Millwright and Mill Furnisher from the Northwestern Miller, Volume 14, 1882, p 37 and also p 318 in the same volume.
A companion text “Grimshaw on Saws”, and covers a lot of the same material with advice on circular mill saws, band saws, two-man crosscut saws, and handsaws mixed throughout. Not really any practical information on straight mill saws, but this quote from page 10 hits the mark: “The sash-saw for ripping, (mill-saw) is about the most abused tool that man uses, getting the worst shaped teeth, and being allowed to get the dullest, because the operator does not feel that it runs hard; nor does he see if it is wrongly toothed, as the mulay, the circular, or the band would clearly show by running crooked. The teeth have seldom enough "rake" or front pitch, nor enough gullet; they are, too, frequently given excessive and irregular set.”
Several editions published beginning in 1882 with the 1912 3rd edition available online.
Subtitled: Scientifically treated and explained on philosophical principles, with full and explicit directions for putting in order all kinds of saws, from a jeweller's saw to a steam saw-mill. Four editions from 1864 to 1882 -- the 1st and 3rd editions are online.
Information on sharpening “The Vertical Mill Saw” on pp. 40-45. This material appears first, however, in an earlier article --- “Messrs. Hoe & Co., of this city, (a firm which has been long known as comprising within itself mechanics of no common order, and a particularly successful in the manufacture of saws,) furnish the following directions for setting and sharpening circular saws...“(Scientific American, 1857, Sept 19, vol 13(2), p. 16). The text in Holly is only slightly different than the Sci Amer article and Holly Figs. 34-36 are only changed slightly from Figs. 4–6 of the Sci Amer article. Not clear if Holly or his book were associated with Messrs. Hoe & Co. In any event, these pages discuss advantages of specific tooth configurations and swage-setting for straight saws.
Thank you to Tom Kelleher at Old Sturbridge Village for bringing Holly to our attention.
Explanations and hundreds of illustrations of cutting tools including chisels, turning tools, planes screw cutting, saws and saw teeth, and filing. Second of five volumes published from about 1850 to 1900 by Holtzapffel & Co. that deal with cutting different types of materials, but with emphasis on woodworking. Figures 640-653 on page 684 of the Vol. II 1856 edition show different forms of saw teeth including straight mill saws with discussion on the subsequent pages. Various editions were published.
Several editions from 1850-1856. Chapters on general aspects of water-powered mills and various mill types (grist, fulling etc). Very brief chapter on sawmills (pp 184-188) is not overly useful.
Published by the turbine manufacturer James Leffel & Co. Many chapters on various types of mill dams. Also has a miscellany of information on equipment and calculations with lots of tables (no calculators!) in the Bookwalters section. A few pages (189-194) on setting and sharpening saws with a focus on circular saws, but some relevance to straight saws. Reprinted a few years ago by SPOOM - The Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, but now also available online.
Subtitled: A Treatise on Hammering and Straightening Long and Circular Saws. This is more of a pamphlet than book being only 24 pages. Instructions for straightening and tensioning saws with hammer and anvil. Straight saws discussed on pp 21-23. (Millsaws should be regluarly tensioned to work optimally, but no one at the Ledyard mill has the nerve to start hammering on our saws.)
Full of practical information for circular and band saw mills, but no mention of straight saws.
No specific discussion of single sash saws. However, pp. 53-56 has information on setting and troubleshooting the overhang on straight gang saws that is applicable to a single sash saw as well.
Well, Mr. Moore is not a big fan of the up and down sawmill: "Having tried the up and down saw and the circular saw also, we would again repeat our conviction that the last mentioned is the best for manufacturing lumber, and should any person act on this expression of opinion, let in them first place be very careful to get if possible the best machine, bring it to the mill, and set it perfectly level and true. When you get it in operation, see that you handle it carefully. If you have been used to running the up and down saw only, you will soon find out that your former experience avails almost nothing in the management of the rotary machine; but when you get the hang of running it, the compensation in the way of convenience, rapidity, and quantity of work is immense" (p. 168). See pp. 167-173 for other sawmill-related information, and pp. 217-220 for saw-filing hints (including mill saws).
Nicholson, John. (1825). The Millwright's Guide : A practical treatise on the construction of all kinds of mill work and the application of the power of wind and water. London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper
Engineering work focused on mill gearing and water wheels. Includes discussions of (then) existing English water-powered mills and windmills. Reference list is mainly French and German works, although Evans is cited. See comments above for Gray, The Experienced Millwright.
American editions of Nicholson were also published. The second American edition (1831) is available online.
General discussion of milling and millwrighting with emphasis on gristmills. The few pages of discussion of sawmills ought to be taken somewhat skeptically since “Not having much experience in this branch of business myself, I have consulted with several practical millwrights and sawyers...” (p. 119). One of the millwrights with whom Pallet ‘consulted’ seems to be Evans since there is at least one minimally changed (and unattributed) quote on saw sharpening (p. 122) from The Young Mill-Wright and Millers Guide. (Lack of citing sources was a common 19th century practice.)
Sawmill discussion on pp. 119-124.
Highly Recommended. One of the most comprehensive and earliest published sources available regarding straight saws for sash sawmills. Pages 9-32 directed to the sash sawmill operator. Very practical advice with troubleshooting tips on topics such as mounting the saw in the frame at the correct rake or cant. Also covers jointing, gumming, setting and filing straight saws. Several useful jigs are described and illustrated including a jointing jig, a gauge for judging the amount of set, and a file jig to even out the set. Discusses different forms of straight saw teeth. All of this available free on the internet today, but cost $1.00 in 1856 (Sci Amer, 1856, 12(14), 111), with a price increase to $1.50 a few years later (Sci Amer, 1865, new series 12(6), 92). Part IV is 12 pages with similar tips for circular saws. Not clear how widely known this publication was, but there are at least a couple of brief mentions in notes to correspondents in Scientific American (Sci Amer, 1866 new series 15(7), 101); Sci Amer, 1868, new series 18(22), 343) in addition to the sale advertisements.
A general history of woodworking machines including saw machinery and sawmills. Discussion of reciprocating sawmills begins on p. 115. Not much information about sash sawmills, but a nice discussion (pp. 125-127) of advantages of the muley saw which in Richards' view includes not only an increase of speed of cutting, but also an improved cut owing to the wooden blade guides "immediately above and below the log".
Richards also authored a briefer version of this historical review focusing on sawmills and saws: Richards, John. The development of wood-working machinery. 1899. The Engineering Magazine. vol. XVI. 932-946.
A companion volume to Richards’ Treatise that focuses on a manufacturing setting for wood machinery.
More discussion by Richards of the 1870s industrial setting for turning logs to lumber. Practices in Europe and America are discussed. Not really intended for the small mill operator.
Scientific American (see below for specific issues)
Highly Recommended. The Hathi Trust Digital Library has full-text Scientific American available starting with issues from the mid-19th century. Doing some text searching turned up several articles of interest regarding sash sawmills. (The text searches were not comprehensive.)
A general overview of saw technology of the day.
Correspondent M. English asks the question “Which is the Best Saw Mill?” and answers “unhesitatingly the Mulley saw mill”. Of course, improvements in circular saws ultimately won out, but it’s interesting to read this note from a sawyer who lived during this sawmill technology transition period.
Information from Messrs Hoe & Co. about setting and filing circular and straight mill saws. This information from Hoe & Co. apparently was influential (or at least widespread) in the literature. See annotations above for Holly, The Art of Saw-Filing, and Bale, Saw-mills: their Arrangement and Management. Also note that "Grimshaw on Saws" Fig. 20 (p. 21) shows a form of straight mill-saw tooth attributed to Hoe & Co. Interestingly, the text from this article and what looks to be very similar figures are also reproduced in the 1859 and 1860 catalogs from Wheeler Madden & Bakewell’s / Monhagen Saw Works.
Scientific American correspondence from readers on balancing flywheels of reciprocating saws, 1859-1862.
These issues have correspondence from readers questioning and giving some differing opinions of balancing flywheels of reciprocating saws (without resolution of the question). Some of the discussion is theoretical, but correspondent Oliver Prentiss writes that “Philosophy is a good thing, but facts, learned from experience, sometimes works better in saw-mills than some philosophy” (vol 14, issue 25, p. 204). (note: The flywheel in the Ledyard mill has several holes opposite the crank that we surmised were there to give the option for adding weight to balance the mechanism – although we have played a bit with different weights it has not been clear how to optimally balance things.)
Copies of these notes from Scientific American are collated in a pdf here.
Scientific American, 1859, Jan 29, vol 14(21), 169
Scientific American, 1859, Feb 26, vol 14(25), 204
Scientific American, 1859, April 16, vol 14(32), 270
Scientific American, 1862, June 14, new series v. 6(24), 374
Scientific American, 1862, July 5, new series vol 7(1), 7
Scientific American, 1862, July 12, new series vol 7(2), 22
Scientific American, 1866, Nov 24, new series v. 15(22), 357
Scientific American correspondence from readers on filing, setting, and hanging a sash saw, 1860.
Correspondence from Wm. Buxton in the July 28 issue describes his experiences in filing, setting, and hanging a sash saw. Followed in the other three issues by disagreements regarding Buxton’s original letter and with each other. Very useful for the modern sash sawmill operator to see these different viewpoints about sash sawmills.
Copies of Buxton's note and replies are here.
Scientific American, 1860, July 28, new series vol 3(5), 66
Scientific American, 1860, Aug 18, new series vol 3(8), 117
Scientific American, 1860, Sept 1, new series vol 3(10), 148
Scientific American, 1860, Dec 1, new series vol 3(23), 356
A couple of additional notes on filing and setting millsaws here.
Scientific American, 1862, Jan 11, new series vol 6(2), 21
Scientific American, 1869, Dec 11, new series v. 21(24), 374
"The mill-owner's best friend is a true working saw.” (p. 4). Only one page (p. 25) and one figure on Long Saws discussing tensioning. Most of the text relates to circular saws (with some information on bandsaws).
Yes, not 19th century, but the discussion of old sawmills on pages 56-65 cites several relevant 19th century sources. Discussion of speeds of sash, muley, gang and circular saws and power and water requirements.
A report from an 1867 meetings of the Society of Engineers (London). Similar to other British publications in this list (Bale; Richards), the focus is on an English factory setting for a sawmill, but still some very useful discussion of late 19th century sawmill technology. Has information on saw tooth configurations for different woods and includes discussion of straight mill saws with examples in Plate 1. Very practical advice on filing and setting including the use of a “snake set” that allows adjustment of a straight saw (in a gang saw set-up) while still mounted in a frame. Discussions of several different saw-sharpening machines.
There are multiple copies available online(one from U Michigan ; from Univ. Calif.). Unfortunately, the fold-out plates are not reproduced correctly in either of these online copies. Worssam Plate 1 which shows various saw tooth shapes is also printed as a frontispiece in the Glen Moor Press reprint of MP Bale Woodworking Machinery, but not scanned correctly in these online copies of Worssam.