A partnership of the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service.

Cross Cut Sawing in the Sierra Wilderness

  • A. Ramsey
  • Dec. 26, 2013

Imagine hiking through a pristine mountain forest, hearing dozens of different bird songs, many of which you have never heard before. Squirrels skitter through leaf litter; lizards dart off the trail away from your footfalls, rustling through the brush. As you walk along, a constant droning sound gradually drowns out the beautiful bird calls until they are all but inaudible. Hiking further, the mechanical sound becomes a roar, and you soon see smoke rising through the trees. You smell engine exhaust, and spot a worker with a chainsaw, tearing through a fallen log on the trail, sawdust ripping through the smoky air.

If this doesn't seem like the wild and natural experience you were seeking, then consider visiting an area officially set aside as wilderness. Wilderness designation prevents the use of any motorized equipment by visitors and even limits use by land managers. This means all work is done the hard way: with old-school hand tools.

cut1A wilderness volunteer practicing the ancient art of cross cut sawing in Yosemite National Park.

Wilderness is a landscape in which humanity has had little interference. However, wilderness still needs to be looked after by people in order to ensure its protection, and to make sure everyone can experience such wild places. Rangers, foresters, firefighters, trail crews, and volunteers all put forth a lot of human effort in the wilderness. Although signs of their work may not, and should not, be obvious, such work is necessary and is usually difficult. Whether the job is patrolling for visitor and resource protection, maintaining trails, or studying the local ecosystem, people working in the wilderness must be careful to leave as little of an impact on the land as possible, and must follow specific guidelines established by law to minimize human influence over wilderness areas.

Trails are built and maintained as a service to visitors, and to aid in the protection of such areas. However, keeping wilderness open to the public doesn’t necessarily require trails be built and maintained. Maintaining trails in the wilderness requires quite a bit of extra effort on the part of wilderness managers to comply with legal guidelines. The Wilderness Act, the law that establishes official wilderness areas, also sets forth regulations as far as what sorts of tools are allowed to be used in those areas.

In wilderness, removing fallen trees from trails is an exercise in living history. Instead of chain saws, rangers and trail crews must use old style human-powered tools like two-person cross cut saws, axes, sledgehammers, and wedges. Log sections must also be rolled free of the trail by human power. All transport is done on foot, or for more extensive trail projects, on hoof, with mule teams carrying tools and supplies.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the tools being used to maintain wilderness trails: the two-person cross cut saw.

A cross cut saw is any saw that cuts across, or perpendicular to, the grain of the wood, as opposed to a rip saw which is used to cut along, or parallel to, the grain. Cross cut saws can have a variety of tooth patterns to suit different types of wood and sawing styles, but all-in-all, cross cut tooth patterns are distinct from rip saw teeth. More advanced cross cut saws are designed with bladed teeth for cutting through wood, and between every few blades or so there are rakers. Rakers scoop out the fresh saw dust, removing it to keep the cut from getting clogged up with saw dust.

A two person cross cut saw requires workers stand at opposite ends of a long saw blade, with the wood to be cut in between them. The sawyers take turns pulling, (not pushing) the blade across the wood, the teeth gradually cutting through it. A bucking saw is used to cut logs on the ground, as opposed to a felling saw, which is the style used to cut down standing trees. A bucking saw is of a typically heavier build than a felling saw, the added weight aiding the straight-down cutting process.

cut2 Park rangers in Yosemite National Park clearing a trail with two-person cross cut saws.

Saws are ancient technology, having aided human industry for millennia. The earliest saws were made of stone, such as flint or obsidian. Saws made of various metals, like copper, bronze, or iron came later. Human-powered saws can be operated by one or two people, the most familiar style being the common hand saw. The Ancient Romans invented the two-person saw for wood cutting; however, these didn’t see widespread use in Europe until the 1400s. These types of saws were widely used to cut lumber for construction before the invention of the sawmill.

Two-person saws were first used in North America during the 1600s, but were not widely used here until the 1800s. By that time, advances in manufacturing techniques allowed saws to be vastly more efficient than their predecessors. Technological improvements such as varying blade thickness and new tooth patterns allowed for faster construction with less work. During the mid-1800s in the United States, cross cut saws first started being used to fell trees instead of just splitting them up into lumber once they had been chopped down with axes. Pioneers cleared and developed the American West so effectively with these saws that by 1890 the frontier was considered to be a thing of the past. Cross cut saws helped build America and contributed significantly to shaping the landscape into what is is today. Two-person saws, some longer than 16 feet, were even used to fell Giant Sequoias throughout the Sierra Nevada during the latter half of the 19th Century.

cut3Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1930s Yosemite National Park head out for a day’s work.

Two-person saws for forestry and industrial work, like so many other tools, were eventually replaced by power tools. The gasoline-powered chainsaw was invented in the 1920s and made highly portable by the late 1940s, spelling the end of cross cut saw use for felling and splitting trees. By that time, most industries had already replaced human-powered saws with the circular saw, band saw, and other motorized cutting implements in lumber mills. Almost no one in North America used, or manufactured, two-person saws for decades. Not until the Wilderness Act of 1964 did such saws prove to be useful once more.

In the intervening years, the technology and techniques used to manufacture two-person saws was forgotten and many of the saws themselves were recycled for scrap, ultimately discarded for the convenience of the chainsaw. The skills and knowledge became obsolete, including finely-honed practices such as what alloys to use, the angle of the cutting teeth, the thickness of the metal blade, and how to sharpen them. Such fine details maximized saw efficiency, to the point that even modern manufactured cross cut saws are not as easy to use as antique saws. Two-person cross cut saws from before the 1940s are highly sought after, not as wall decorations or showroom antiques, but as field tools, still the best of their kind. Many of these saws are older than the combined ages of the team using them.

Wilderness workers hike the saws and other necessary gear into the back country. When the team encounters a fallen tree across a trail, they assess the scene for safety, and prepare the site and tools. One of the first things to be done is to clear the area of debris, and to remove any limbs that will get in the way of cutting the trunk into movable segments.

Bark is removed from the area to be cut to allow wedges to be placed directly into the wood. The sawyers then work together sawing through the log. Once the saw is deep enough inside the trunk, plastic or metal wedges may need to be hammered into the cut above the saw to prevent the sides of the cut from closing in on the saw blade and pinching it. Being in a pinch can be a real drag, that is to say pinching can significantly increase friction on the saw, and can make the work a lot more difficult. This pinching (referred to in the business as “binding”) can stop the sawing altogether, and can lead to a stuck saw if wedges aren't applied to keep the cut open. Wedges ensure smooth sawing.

cut4Bark is removed from the area to be cut with an ax before sawing begins to clear debris and allow better wedge placement.

cut5Wedges, like the yellow one in this photo, keep the cut open to prevent the saw from being pinched by the wood.

After the cut is completed, the workers will roll, pivot, or lift the log segment free from the trail through the power of teamwork. The wood cuttings, large and small, are left in the wilderness to decompose. The nutrients that helped build the once towering trunk will eventually return to the forest soil, giving nourishment to new generations of giants.

The next time you hike through a wilderness area, be on the lookout for cut logs next to the trail. Take a close look at the cut. You’re looking at a difficult day’s work for a team of people dedicated to preserving your wilderness experience. You are also seeing, up-close and in-person, one of the last remnants of a dying art: the handiwork of the last cross cut sawyers.

cut6This ski trail is now clear and ready for business. All it needs now is some snow!