Sash Sawmill Glossary
Terms used to describe parts and processes in a sash-type sawmill. Some of the specialized terms (eg., ragwheel) seem to have been generally accepted and appear in many 19th century texts (although with variations in spelling); it seems reasonable to conclude they would have been common usage. Others appear infrequently in the writings we have reviewed and it is difficult to know about actual usage by sawyers, mill-men, and millwrights in workday conversation. Additional research of extant sawmill daybooks, account books, and sawyer's diaries would be of great help. Some of the terms included here are not specifically related to sawmills, but are more widely applicable. My personal preference for the specialized mill terms has been to rely on Ellicott and Craik (see 19th century references on sash sawmills) as the key authorities - these references are the most complete and are written by sawmillers/millwrights.
Ellicott, Thomas (1795). Of Sawmills - Their Utility. Article 39 of The Practical Millwright. (Part V in Oliver Evans’ The Young Mill-wrights and Miller’s Guide.) Much of the text refers to Plate XI and XII (these plate numbers refer to the first edition of Evans.)
Craik, David. (1870). The Practical American Millwright and Miller Philadelphia: Henry Baird.
See 19th Century References on Sash Sawmills for more information on these two key references and for other relevant 19th Century texts.
Bail dogs A typical method of fastening the log to the Log carriage. The iron dogs are mounted to the head block and tail block of the carriage with eye bolts to swivel – a blow from a hammer or the end of the Mill bar drives the teeth of the dog into the end of the log. The name likely comes from the similarity to a bail on a bucket – the swiveling handle that is attached at the rim.
There are a pair of bail dogs on the Head block: The saw needs to start in front of the log prior to the cut and fits in a notch cut into the head block. The tail block typically has a single dog; the saw cut is stopped prior to the saw reaching the very end of the log; therefore the saw does not enter the Tail block and there is no need for a two part dog. (The double dogs on the tail block at the Ledyard mill perhaps indicate that they started life as head block dogs on a different carriage.) See also dogs.
Bull wheel A water wheel that supplies power to haul logs into the mill. Also pull wheel. Craik, p. 207. Usually was tub wheel (Whitham p. 57).
Cant hook A 4-5 foot long wood lever with a hinged iron spike to grab and turn over a log. (A cant is a log that has been sawn on two or more sides.) Also can-hook. See also Peavey.
Carriage See Log carriage.
Churning Operate saw without advancing the log carriage in order to clear sawdust from the kerf. Parsons (p. 15) recommends churning when sawing a large logs for which the saw stroke is shorter than the thickness of the log.
Connecting bar See Evener.
Dogs A straight or curved iron spike driven into a log or timber. On a sash sawmill, there typically are dogs are attached to both the Head block and Tail block.
There are many breeds of dogs: curved dogs fastened to the head or tail block, straight spikes let into grooves or going through the body of the head or tail block, straight dogs fastened onto metal plates which are fixed to the blocks. The common theme for the dogs on the log carriage is that they are fixed into the end of the log to hold it.
Spons dictionary (1872, vol. 4, p. 1272) has a vivid description: “an iron with fangs for fastening a log in a saw-pit, or on the carriage of a saw-mill.” See Bail dogs.
Double sawmill Two independent and complete saw mechanisms in a single building.
Drop A long vertical wooden weight attached to the pawl that drives the rag wheel. When the lower end of the drop stands on the floor, the pawls engage the rag wheel and the log carriage can move. When the drop is placed down in a hole in the floor, the pawls are raised up and not engaged in the ratchet of the rag wheel. From Craik (p. 202).
English Gate The term used by Craik and others for a sash-type sawmill. Refers to the likeness of the saw frame to a square-framed gate. A brief survey of the 19th century usage of “English gate” seems to indicate this usage was primarily in Pennsylvania and north through New York to Canada, but not in New England.
Sawmill enthusiast Marilyn Hatch from the Scribner's Mill volunteer group suggests the term “English Gate” came from the walled cities where the entryways had gates which went up to open and down to close.
Evener Craik’s (p. 198) term for the lever that moves the ragwheel. The evener is moved by the connecting bar. On many sash sawmills, the function of the evener and connecting bar are performed by one piece of wood, the feeder.
Feeder The wood pole attached to the rocker that pushes the ragwheel (Ellicott, p 80). Also called hand-pole; feed bar.
Feed pole Craik’s term for the wood pole that translates vertical movement of the saw sash to the rocker. (Craik p.197). In other writings called a sweep.
Fender beam and sill The main beams above (beam) and below (sill) the saw frame. See fender post.
Fender posts An important sash sawmill term. Refers to the massive vertical wooden posts attached to the mill structure that support and guide the saw frame in a sash-type sawmill. The tops of the fender post are attached to the fender beam; the bottoms are supported by the fender sill – these joints are wedged to allow adjustment of the fender posts to plumb. see Ellicott (p. 82), Craik (p. 179).
Flash boards Planks set across a spillway to adjust the water level behind a mill dam. For example see Woodbury, G. (1948). John Goffe’s Mill. New York: Waterbury, p. 75.
Flume A channel (sometimes fully enclosed) directing water to a waterwheel or turbine.
Flutter wheel A type of undershot water wheel which was the typical water wheel used in 18th and early 19th century sash sawmills. Ellicott (pp. 77-78) has a table recommending flutter wheels sized for different heads of water.
Note that there is some misinformation in a couple of early 20th century mill writings – eg., Hiscox p 132 labels a horizontal gig back wheel as a flutter wheel – This mislabeling is also found in Safford and Hamilton figures 5 (p. 1245) and 6 (p. 1247).
Learn more about flutter wheels.
Flywheel A heavy wheel on shaft that maintains inertia of the rotary motion of the shaft. On the Ledyard mill, a crank on the iron flywheel is connected to the saw frame by the pitman arm. The flywheel and crank therefore transfer rotary motion to up and down motion of the saw frame, but also help maintain the motion by virtue of the heavy weight of the flywheel (which on the Ledyard mill we estimate to be about 600 lbs.)
Frame saw An alternate name for sash saw.
Friction rod Vertical iron guides fastened to the fender posts upon which the saw frame rides. The friction rods in the Ledyard mill are round lengths of iron about 2 inches in diameter, but friction rods are square on some mills. (Craik, p. 196). Also called guide rods, slide rods, or slides.
The four wooden bearings on the saw frame that hold the frame to the friction rods are called “boxes” by Craik (p. 196).
Gang saw A sash or frame sawmill that uses multiple straight blades to make many parallel cuts in a single pass. Some of the very early sawmills in America were gang saws in Maine in the mid-late 1600s.
Gigging back Moving the log carriage in reverse after a cut is made the length of the log. On some sash sawmills, the power is provided by a separate gigging (or go-back) waterwheel (Craik p. 203). The gig wheel was frequently a tub-wheel – a simple horizontal wheel enclosed in a round wood tub.
Gudgeon An iron insert in the end of a wooden shaft that is supported by a bearing. A typical wooden shaft in a mill has iron gudgeons on the ends which will not wear out as rapidly as wood. Some gudgeons have wings that insert into the end of the wooden shaft.
Gullet The space between saw teeth. The size of the gullet needs to be large enough to carry away sawdust during each cut or the kerf will jam with sawdust. Several 19th century mechanical dictionaries (including Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary, 1877 vol III, p. 2036) use the rather urbane phrase “interdental spaces”.
Gumming Process of enlarging a saw gullet. Typically done with a metal punch, file, or a cutting or abrasive wheel. A large gullet is important so as to sufficiently carry the sawdust out of the kerf while the saw is cutting.
Hand The iron pawl that fits over the ratchets on the ragwheel and imparts motion to the rag wheel (which in turn moves the log carriage). Ellicott p. 80, Craik, p. 198. Also see J. Franklin Inst, 1829 vol 69, p. 195.
Head block The primary definition as relating to sash sawmills is the forward support for the log on a log carriage. There is a slot in the head block in which the saw rests in front of the log prior to the cut. It is typical for the head block to be adjustable for the length of the log (with the tail block fixed on the carriage.) Somewhat unusually, both the head block and tail block on the Ledyard log carriage are adjustable. In practice at the Ledyard sawmill, we move the tail block to adjust for the length of the log.
Also called head stock.
There is another mill-related definition for head block: the support for the end of a shaft. This usage applies to various mill types, not just sawmills.
Hand pole See Feeder. From Ellicott (p. 80).
Head sawyer The sawyer working at the head block end of the saw carriage. His partner was the tail sawyer.
Head gate The main gate controlling the flow of water from the head-race or pond to the water channel that supplies the mill penstock or tank. (Craik, p. 185). Also control gate, sluice gate, flume gate.
Head race The upstream water channel from the pond that directs water into the mill. The downstream channel is the tail race.
Hook pin Described (but not named) by Ellicott to hold the saw frame to the Fender posts. The term hook pin is from Chase (p. 222).
Hook tenon The tenon at the top of the Fender posts that fits into a mortise in the top of the Fender beam. This joint is adjustable by means of wedges so that the fender posts can be adjusted to plumb Craik (p. 197). Ellicott (p. 82) simply says the fender posts are "hung by hooked tenons". The fender posts at the Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill are held by this very cool joint.
Kerf The slit made in a log or board after cutting with a saw. The kerf made by the mill saws we use in the Ledyard sawmill is about ¼ inch. More Set will result in a wider kerf (more work for the saw, more of the log converted to sawdust and shavings).
Lever A general term, but used specifically in Ellicott (p. 80) to refer to the Sweep.
Log carriage The movable wood frame that rides on guides or rollers on the mill floor and supports the log to be sawn. Moves forward with each upstroke of the saw.
Long Saw Another name for millsaw. The ~six foot long straight saws used in sash sawmills.
Lug pin Pins slipped through holes in the top and bottom of the saw which are held by the stirrups on the saw frame. Called tug pins by Ellicott in Evans first edition, but changed to lug-pins in later editions. Grimshaw (p. 216) uses “tug-pin” to refer to the pins that hold the saws in a gang saw.
Mill bar. Long iron pry bar used to move logs and also to hammer in the dogs on each end of the log as it sits on the log carriage.
Mill race A water channel directing water to or away from a mill. See head race or tail race. Also called sluice.
Mill saw In 19th century writings “mill saw” usually refers to a straight saw blade used in up-down, muley, or gang saws. Also called straight saw or long saw. (Also mill web saw which usually refers to multiple straight blades used in a gang saw). Often written without the space so as to be one word: millsaw.
Mill seat The site upon which a mill is located.
Muley saw A type of up-down saw, but the saw itself is not hung in a frame. Rather, the straight saw blade slides between wood guides at the top and bottom. Muley saw blades are made from a heavier gauge steel than sash sawmill blades.
The 19th century lumber industry historian George Hotchkiss (History of the Lumber and Forest Industry of the Northwest, 1898, p. 656) suggests two possibilities for the origin of the term. One is that the name comes from the German mühl-sage, or mill saw. This seems plausible, however since the conventional history is that the muley saw was an American, not European, development then presumably the term came from a part of the country influenced by German immigrants*. Further, straight mill saw blades were in use in sash type saws for several hundred years prior to the invention of the muley saw: the differentiating feature in the muley saw is not the mill saw blade.
The second proposal is that it comes from that fact that a muley saw does not have a frame and is therefore “hornless”. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1888. Vol 21. G. W. Hotchkiss, Entry on Saws, p. 343. ) The horns of a sash saw refer to the sides of the saw frame that project up past the top crosspiece. An old term for cows without horns is a muley (also mooley or moiley). A 19th century Dictionary of Americanisms specifies that this was a common term in New England. (Interesting to note that this text specifies that muley saw comes from mühl-sage.) A story (very likely apocryphal) that has all the details of the muley cow theory is on p. 656 of the Hotchkiss book.
Also spelled mulay; mullay, mully, mulley (Craik p 190); moiley, muhley (which perhaps supports the muhl-sage theory), mooly.
*The conventional history, of course, may be wrong for the invention and use of a muley-type up-down saw. See Bélidor listing in 19th Century references on this website. A 1777 drawing in a London publication appears to show a muley saw - decades earlier than the typical date range of 1825-1850 for the invention and popularization discussed in sawmill literature.
Noddle pin From Craik (p. 195). Pin on the bottom of the saw frame to which the pitman is attached.
Nog One in a series of short perpendicular boards lined up along the length of the mill upon which the log carriage is guided. From Chase (p. 222). Also used as a more general term for a wood block or peg, or blocking in walls.
Parbuckling To roll a log by looping one or more ropes or cables around the log. One end of the rope is fixed and the log can be moved by pulling the other end of the rope. More generally, a method to move something round (a log, cask, or cannon) up an inclined ramp.
Pawl An iron bar that fits in the notches in a ratchet to move the ratchet forward or prevent backward motion. A common use in sash sawmills for the feed mechanism that pushes the ragwheel and therefore the saw carriage forward.
Peavey Similar to a cant hook, but with a steel spike (or pike) on the lower end. Named after inventor Joseph Peavey.
Penstock A water channel, tank, or tube leading to the water power source (water wheel or turbine). The term penstock is typically used for an enclosed channel. A related term is flume which usually designates a wooden water channel above ground or supported by scaffolding.
Pillow block A bearing for a shaft. The pillow is fixed to a cast iron block that is therefore the pillow block. Also called plumb block; plumber block; plummer block. Pillows are sometimes referred to as brasses when that is the bearing material (Buchanan, Practical essays on mill work and other machinery, 1841, p. 344).
Pitman The connection from the crank on the waterwheel or flywheel to the saw frame. Analogous to the literal “pit man” on the bottom of a two-man pit saw crew. Sometimes spelled pittman. Ellicott's description is on p. 83; Craik's description with dimensions on p. 193.
Privilege Use for sawmills refers to water privilege – the rights and restrictions to damming and using water in a stream or river.
Race See mill race.
Rack and pinion Two toothed gears that mesh – one straight and one round. Typically used to convert rotary to linear motion.
Rake A general term meaning that an object is at angle, but used specifically in sash sawmills to refer to the forward tilt of the mill saw in the direction of the tail block. The top of the blade is slightly forward (3/8 to 3/4 inches) of the bottom of the blade. The proper amount of rake is critical for efficient sawing: after the downward cutting stroke, the teeth of the saw must be clear of the log as the saw frame goes up and the log moves forward. Stated best by Evans: “…this is to give the saw liberty to rise without cutting; and the log room to push forward as it rises.” (The Young Millwright & Miller’s Guide, 1795. part the Fifth, article 40, p. 90).
“The forward inclination of a mill-saw.” (Webster's An American dictionary of the English Language, 1846, p. 987).
Perhaps related to use as a nautical term referring to the tilt or angle of a mast or stern. Also called lead; overhang (Parsons, p 14).
Ragwheel The feed wheel for the log carriage. The wheel the moves the log carriage – the ratchet notches on the outside of the ragwheel transfer the movement of the feed pole to the log carriage. On many ragwheels there are two sets of ratchets – one on the circumference for log carriage advance, and a second on the outside flat face for gigging back. Ragwheels that lack the second ratchet system don’t have a system for powering the carriage return, rather there is a series of wood pegs protruding from the outside of the wheel. The sawyer thus can step on the pegs and walk the carriage back. Craik uses a different spelling – wrag wheel (e.g., see p 197) – and calls the iron ratchet on the circumference the wrag iron (p. 219). The "wrag" spelling appears in various modern day writings and websites - I suspect that Craik is the original source of this particular spelling.
Ellicott describes a ragwheel on p. 80.
Also called a ratchet wheel or rack wheel. The term ragwheel may be a derivation of ratchet wheel; interestingly, there are definitions of both terms in Allen's 1829 Science of Mechanics, p. 267.
Ribbons Craik p. 198 used this to refer to a track (made from wood or iron) upon which the log carriage is guided.
Rip To saw in the direction of the grain of a log or board. In contrast to cross-cutting which is across the grain. When sawing a log into boards on a sash sawmill, we are ripping the log into boards.
Rocker Term in Craik (p. 197) for the shaft that translates up and down sash movement to horizontal movement of the feeder (hand-pole). Called a roller by Ellicott (p. 80).
Round Cogs on ragwheel shaft that engage the cog (mortise) on the log carriage.
Saw gate See sash saw. The wood frame that supports the saw and moves up and done during sawing in a sash-type sawmill. See also English gate.
Sawmill irons. Or mill irons. Quite literally the iron parts of a sash sawmill. Includes the stirrups, dogs, crank, pitman connectors, shaft gudgeons, ragwheel pieces, etc. Usage examples include George Vail catalog pp. 11-15 and Geneological and historical sketch of the Ross family (pp.8,36,73).
Sash saw The general name for a sawmill like the Ledyard Up-Down Sawmill. Named for the fact that a single straight saw blade is held inside a wood sash (or frame) that is driven up and down by the mill. The saw is said to be hung, or stretched, in the sash frame. See What is a sash sawmill? on this website.
The term was not needed prior to the advent and later widespread use of circular and bandsaws in the middle of the 19th century. All early sawmills were sash-type, so they were simply called sawmills.
Also called gate saw, English gate, up-down or up-and-down saw, upright saw, frame saw. Not to be confused with an additional usage: a small handsaw or manufactory used to make components for window sashes.
Set As in “saw set”. Refers to each saw tooth being bent out to the side so that the slit that is cut by the saw (the kerf) is wider than the blade. The blade is less likely therefore to bind in the kerf as sawing progresses.
Slides See friction rod.
Sluice. A pipe or channel that drains the millpond when opened. Opened or closed with sluice gate so the pond level can be lowered to allow maintenance of the mill or dam. The term is also occasionally used (probably incorrectly) to apply to the head race. Sometimes used interchangeably with flume – a raised wooden channel for water.
Stirrup The looped metal supports attached to saw frame at bottom and top that are the mounts for the saw. Called staples by Ellicott, p. 82.
Stub shot The end of a log supported by the tail block and which is not cut through by the saw. The presence of the broken-off stub shot is an obvious signature of a board sawn on a sash sawmill. Also called stub short, stump shot.
Swage A V-shaped metal punch used to straighten and re-form the worn tip of a saw tooth. Other names for this tool are upset or jumper (Disston Lumberman Handbook, 1912, p. 49, Craik, p. 213; “Canadians and Americans jump their saws” Blackmur, Sawmill Work and Practice, p. 9), and the wince-inducing name “crotch punch”.
Usually pronounced (and occasionally spelled) “swedge”.
Sweep The wood bar attached to the top of the saw sash (frame) that imparts the movement of the frame to the rocker (roller). Also called a lever by Ellicott (p. 80).
Tail block The crosspiece support on a log carriage which carriage the end of the log furthest from the saw. The tail block can be moved on the Ledyard mill to accommodate different length logs (more commonly the tail block was fixed and the head block was instead adjusted).
Also called tail stock; hinder head block (Forman, Mill Sawing in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts, p. 113); hind-most head block (Ellicott, p. 85)
Tail race The water channel exiting the mill. Directs the water that has already passed through the waterwheel or turbine out of the mill.
Tail sawyer The sawyer working at the tail block end of the log carriage.
Trash screen A screen or grate located in the head race that prevents debris in the pond from entering the penstock and fouling the turbine or water wheel. Also called trash rack.
Tub wheel See gigging back,
Tumbling vent A spillway that regulates the pond level. Accommodates overflow of a mill dam by preventing breaching of the entire dam by high water levels. From Woodbury, John Goffe’s Mill
Turbine A shaft with rotor blades inside a case (typically fabricated from cast iron). Water entering into the case forces the rotor and its shaft to turn to power the mill. Turbines came into use around 1830-1840 in Europe and then were introduced into the U.S. Gradually replaced wood water wheels in small sawmills over the next 30-40 years (and then were in turn were replaced by steam power). The Ledyard sawmill is powered by a scroll-type turbine made by John Tyler.
Learn more about water turbines.
Up-down sawmill Also called frame saw, sash saw, gate saw, English Gate (by Craik). Muley saws and gang saws are also a type of up and down saws; that is, they have straight saw blades that reciprocate vertically to cut. See sash saw.
Whet To sharpen the saw with a file. The similarity of the call to filing, or whetting a saw is, of course, the origin of the name for the saw-whet owl.