From the National Park Service and Lassen Volcanic National Park, this is The Lavocast.
Lavocast Intro Music
[Sound of saw, percussion music begins]
Dolly: Well, the first crosscut saw I was introduced to belonged to a trail crew who didn’t know much about how to use it. Now, they loved that saw and they respected it, and they packed it from camp to camp, and they hung it in the cook tent, and when they needed to saw trees, they used a chainsaw instead.
Kirk: I’m trying to think back to the first time I ever touched a crosscut saw. And well it was at Mount Rainier National Park. We had a couple token, old crosscuts that had been around in the shop for probably several decades, that were kinda rusty.
Josh: I started crosscut saw work when I was on a wildland fire crew in the Northwest - Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The trails crew wasn’t on yet, but the fire crew was, so they took a group of us ding-dongs out there and they gave us a crosscut saw.
3. Host/Episode Intro
Greg: You’re listening to Episode One of The Lavocast, a podcast featuring stories from Lassen Volcanic National Park. I’m Ranger Greg, a resource interpreter here at Lassen Volcanic.
Steve: And I’m Ranger Steve, the park’s ecologist and botanist. This episode we are talking about the crosscut saw.
Greg: Yeah -- the rise of the crosscut, its decline, and its more recent resurgence as the most appropriate tool for managing wilderness areas on our public lands.
Throughout this episode we’ll be hearing from experts who use crosscut saws in the Lassen wilderness and beyond, and are working to pass on their knowledge of the tool to a new generation of stewards.
Steve: So what is a crosscut saw? Well, it’s pretty much just a long strip of steel with sharp teeth along one edge and handles at one or both ends.
[Guitar music begins]
Greg: This kind of saw has been in use for a couple thousand years, but mostly just to cut already fallen logs into smaller pieces. (This is called “bucking.”) But by the 1880s, the crosscut saw rose to prominence as a highly efficient tool for actually cutting trees down (which is called felling).The crosscut allowed for better control over the directionality of the fall and the combination of the crosscut saw and the double-bit axe -- this is an axe that has blades on two sides instead of just one -- were way more efficient over the use of the axe alone.
Steve: Logging during the 1880s was rapidly spreading from the Great Lakes region into the western United States where there was still vast tracts of timberland. Hundreds of billions of board feet of lumber were felled with this combination of double-bit axe and crosscut. But crosscuts began to disappear once chainsaws were developed and perfected, and were pretty much gone from the forests by the 1950s.
Greg: Today the crosscut saw is seeing a renaissance and finding new supporters and users on trail crews and fire crews in national parks and other public lands all across the country. It turns out there’s a lot of lore and lost knowledge that has to be discovered or re-discovered by everyone who picks up a crosscut saw these days.
Steve: Here at Lassen Volcanic National Park we are fortunate to live near Dolly Chapman. Now retired, Dolly led and worked on Forest Service trail crews for decades and is a true expert in woods work and crosscut saws. For years, she has trained Lassen staff in the use, maintenance, and sharpening of crosscuts. But for her and members of the Lassen trail and fire crews, it’s been a long journey of discovery.
First Experiences with Crosscut
Dolly: Okay well, I’m Dolly Chapman, and when I was seventeen I ran away and joined a trail crew. One of the first tools I was introduced to was a crosscut saw. We went out and used crosscut saws to clear trees off of trails.
Josh: And the tree was bigger than my truck. I mean it was giant. And we climbed all over it and we tried to debark it and we pulled out this saw and we didn’t know what we were doing. Honestly I can’t remember if we ever got the cut finished.
Kirk: We didn’t have a lot of success, and usually it kinda resulted in frustration.
Dolly: We pulled them back and forth and pulled sawdust out onto our toes, and worked and worked and sweated, and thought we were having a great time, but about halfway through the season I began to think “this couldn’t be how the West was won, there must be more to it than this.”
Kirk: Because we didn’t have a lot of training with the tool; the saws weren’t that sharp.
Dolly: This is just really hard work. And then I learned that there was actually a lot to tuning and sharpening crosscut saws to make them work the way that they were intended to. And that’s been a fun learning experience for a long time now.
[Sound of saw being removed from wood, low synth music begins]
4. Mechanics of a Crosscut Saw
Greg: Once chainsaws took over the forests, people began to refer to crosscut saws as the “misery whip”, but that’s because they didn’t really know how to use them. So, how does a crosscut saw actually work and why are they so different from other saws?
[Low synth music fades, sawing sounds]
Steve: Well, crosscut saws can have different tooth patterns. Some might have a classic triangular pattern, while others might include more complex shapes and combinations of shapes. Different tooth patterns were developed to make it easier to cut wood of different hardness.
Dolly: You know longer, skinnier, noodle-y tooth versus shorter, more rigid teeth – and once you’ve used a bunch of them you can feel the difference and you’ll have a preference for different types of wood, but when you start out you say “well, it’s got teeth, right?”
Steve: Within a given tooth pattern, different types of teeth perform different functions. You have “cutters”, which actually cut the wood fibers, and you have “rakers”, which control how deep the cut goes and clean out the shavings from the space that’s opened in the wood. This space is called the kerf.
Greg: That’s kerf with a “k”, k-e-r-f. The kerf is critical because it is the opening in the tree that ultimately determines the direction the tree will fall.
[Sound of tree falling]
Today’s modern saws are all generally made from stamped steel, and have a uniform thickness -- this means they tend to bind more frequently. They get stuck and pinched as the kerf closes. But the saws manufactured today are very different from the old saws.
Steve: These old antique saws were made out of forged steel and ground to a tapered form. So the saw has the thickest steel at the teeth, and tapers down to thinner steel at the top. This allows for a wider kerf to be cut into the wood and helps to prevent the saw from becoming stuck as the kerf closes.
[Low synth music begins]
Greg: The saws we use here at Lassen are all antiques and have been reconditioned by a small group of highly skilled people, like Dolly Chapman and the Lassen staff that she’s already trained.
5. Refurbishing Vintage Saws
Dolly: Nobody’s making good crosscut saws anymore. Every year another one breaks, another one gets lost – lies in the dirt and rusts somewhere – so they will be disappearing. And it’s not likely that they ever will be made to the quality that they were made a hundred years ago.
Josh: But I think connecting the tools that are over a hundred years old to what we’re doing now is also connecting that kind of wilderness heritage. My name is Joshua Mefford, I’ve been working in trails for over 15 years, and I think it’s particularly important to talk about the vintage saws that we use. Those tools in particular literally were being held and used by people over a hundred years ago, and we get to use them today.
[Synth music builds]
Kirk: Yeah, with the skills that we’ve learned from Dolly Chapman, we can take those old saws and refurbish them and have a beautiful, sharp tool. My name is Kirk Barrett, I’m the trail crew supervisor here at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Even though the highest quality saws are not really being produced anymore, there’s an opportunity to rekindle it and keep good tools coming.
Dolly: Yeah, they won’t last forever. But I feel like I’ve met an awful lot of people who love these old tools and are taking care of them.
[Drums and synth lead begins]
Kirk: I do try to make the training involved with the crosscut saw holistic for my crew, so not only do they just get a crosscut use course on how to safely use it to clear a trail, fall a tree, and buck out a log, I’ve also, year after year, sent a small group of the folks that seem most interested to a crosscut sharpening workshop.
[Synth music builds]
Dolly: Because if you take good care of them, they really do last a long time. And I know the saws I’ve got are going to outlive me, and go to people that they will outlive again.
Kirk: And so once we have a large group of young people that are effective crosscut saw sharpeners, that means that we can find these rusty old crosscuts and refurbish them.
[Sound of saw being removed from a tree, synth music fades]
7. Wilderness Act and the Minimum Tool
Steve: Okay but why exactly do we want to use old crosscut saws? I mean sure, they can be pretty efficient if you know how to maintain and use them, but a chainsaw is definitely faster, right?
Greg: Well yeah, side by side, a crosscut saw cannot beat a chainsaw in a race. But there are a number of really compelling reasons to use these traditional hand tools over motorized, mechanized tools -- the most important of which is that it’s the law.
[Pulsing synth music begins]
Dolly: We use crosscut saws in wilderness areas because the Wilderness Act guides us to use non-mechanized equipment, and that’s a choice we’ve made through our votes and our management decisions, and it’s an appropriate choice.
Steve: The Wilderness Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System and instructed federal land management agencies, including the National Park Service, to manage wilderness areas in order to preserve wilderness character.
Greg: The part of the Wilderness Act that guides us to use tools like the crosscut saw is Section 4(c), the Prohibition of Certain Uses. In this section, the Act specifically excludes the use of motorized equipment, though the law does provide for some exceptions.
Steve: Section 4(c) says specifically that motorized equipment is prohibited, quote, “except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area.”
Greg: Land management agencies are compelled to undertake a minimum requirement analysis before making decisions about the minimum tool. This determines whether a tool is right and acceptable to be used in the wilderness.
[Music transitions to string arrangement]
Kirk: As a trail manager who has trail miles in designated wilderness I am legally obliged to use the minimum tool necessary to get that work done.
Seven years ago I was lucky enough to accept the job as trail supervisor here, and when I arrived, the crew was using chainsaws for trail clearing in all of our wilderness. They had decided that that was the minimum tool to get the trail system cleared in a reasonable amount of time, I think was the justification.
I felt that it was worth a shot to go with just crosscuts for our wilderness trail clearing, and it just so happened that the first year that we made the commitment to just use crosscuts in our wilderness was also a massive blowdown year.
We had some large wind events late that winter, and so several sections of our trail system were just plastered--just tree to tree to tree--lots of trees. But I wanted to at least give it a shot.
We also partnered up with the Pacific Crest Trail Association that year. They have a lot of talented crosscut sawyers. So they came and helped us out on this one big team effort to clear the worst blowdown.
We got all that work done in a quarter of the amount of time that myself and the Pacific Crest Trail Association was estimating. And it all went really quick. You could kind of spread out more with the crosscuts versus the chainsaws, and so before we knew it, it was all done.
[String arrangement fades]
Dolly: Now some people say we can’t use machines in wilderness. I don’t like hearing that, I like to say “we have chosen to manage our wilderness areas with traditional tools rather than mechanized tools.”
Often when you’re clearing trails, it’s just as efficient to use a crosscut saw as it would be to use a chainsaw, because you walk a mile and cut a tree, and walk a half a mile and cut three trees, and maybe none of them are very big. You walk a few more miles, cut another tree, and having a chainsaw really wouldn’t have gotten your work done any quicker than having a crosscut saw.
8. Crosscut versus Chainsaw
[Pulsing synth music resumes]
Josh: There’s a whole process to chainsaw maintenance, and so you’re gonna deal with all kinds of things that are gonna go wrong, you know, all those things that can fall apart will apart, and so with crosscut saws I learned pretty quickly, that you have less to go wrong. You don’t need a whole garage full of mechanic’s tools to deal with it.
Kirk: No necessity for earplugs, no necessity for lugging around fuel into the woods all the time, and chaps, and all things that kind of encumber you and separate you from the environment.
Josh: It’s like imagining my new vehicle versus my old Chevy Silverado, you know where I can actually roll the windows down myself, and that’s the one thing we’re not missing with crosscut saws, is we’re not missing all those plastic pieces going wrong. So without that mechanization, you can still roll down your window, even if the machine doesn’t work.
Kirk: I think a lot of people have just experienced that working with a crosscut can be far more enjoyable than spending all day on a chainsaw.
Josh: I don’t mean to pick on power tools, but if you’ve ever picked up one of those rechargeable hand drills, and you try to hold it up with one wrist, and you're drilling into drywall, and I can’t hold that with my wrist all day. I mean it’s really hard on your body. It’s made for power it’s not made for your body.
Where with traditional tools, even the axes, they were created by engineers that had your elbows and your shoulders and your knees and your neck and your posture in mind.
So that I can use a crosscut saw, and let’s just say I’m bucking a 4-foot diameter round -- I can do it all day, and I know I’m not going to be exhausted. I know I’m not gonna go home and have carpal tunnel and have to go call my doctor. I don’t feel aches and pains at night. I go to bed and sleep good.
[Pulsing synth music fades]
Kirk: One of my favorite things in the world is taking a single bucker -- you know when the average person thinks of a crosscut you always picture a two-man saw, working away in unison, and we do plenty of that, but most of our trees we can tackle with a single-person saw.
And I love chatting with my crew, and then walking down the trail to the next fallen tree, just working on it solo. And I like to hear the birds, I like to feel like I’m doing good work without burning fossil fuels, you know, that just gives me a real great sense of satisfaction.
And so when you use the minimum tool, it reduces the impact that humans can have -- slows us down a little bit more.
[Slow, thoughtful string music begins]
Josh: As soon as I start thinking of crosscut saws, I think it’s a thoughtful person’s tool. And to put thought into something you’re gonna have to slow down.
Dolly: And there are going to be some people who say that the newest, biggest thing is better than the older more traditional thing. But I think we will always have people who have a respect for the traditional tools and want to learn those skills. Some of these traditional tools are more appropriate for the kind of work we do, than something new and shiny and expensive and noisy.
Josh: The whole pleasure of working with traditional tools is that you can think about what you’re doing. In fact it demands that you think about what you’re doing, or else you’re going to get yourself in a situation that you can’t just chainsaw out of.
And so the tool itself requires you to be thoughtful to use it. Where a chainsaw doesn’t require anything. You just press a button……...maybe a little luck.
[String music fades]
Dolly: I don’t think of crosscut saws as a primitive tool, I think of them as a traditional tool, and an appropriate technology for backcountry conditions.
9. Specific Application of Crosscuts in Lassen Wilderness
Steve: In the summer of 2019, Lassen Volcanic National Park began implementing an ecological restoration project to restore natural cycles of fire in some areas of the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. Working with the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment and supported by funding from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, crews are using crosscut saws to prepare a prescribed fireline. The park conducted a minimum requirements analysis and decided that crosscut saws were the most appropriate tool for the work.
[Sound of flowing water, bird calls]
Alex: Using crosscut saws for me, I just think it’s been great. You think of a crosscut saw and you just picture people like, pulling it back and forth through this tree as hard as they can to cut the tree down, but you’re just sliding it back and forth it’s –
Catherine: It is actually pretty effortless.
Allison: I like that you can hear everything with a crosscut.
Kimberly: You know you hear it you think about how it grew, how the fibers are, how you’re gonna cut it; you look at who its neighbors are, like are there firs or pines, like what’s surrounding this. It connects you with the trees again.
Allison: And it’s kind of calming and peaceful just going into the rhythm.
Kimberly: And I just like the tempo and the thinking of it.
Kyle: So, there are two of you right?
Catherine: It’s always nice to have someone to go back and forth with about ideas of how to take a tree, and we’ve all come in with different skill sets.
Kimberly: It takes a lot to trust someone under a tree with you. It can go two ways.
Martha: Depending on the day, and maybe you haven’t worked with the person.
Kimberly: One, you can start and it will cut smoothly and you look at your partner and smile. Or two, the saw gets caught up on the tree and it bumps around and it jumps, and your kerf becomes big.
Martha: It could start very shaky and very wobbly,
Kimberly: And you both just look at each other with this frustrated look of “uggghhh”
Martha: Or you could just start it super smooth, keep the kerf really nice and small from the beginning.
Allison: I also like how easy crosscutting is. People have told me so many times that, “oh, you’re gonna get whipped into shape, it’s so hard,” but if you really find some synchronicity with your partner, and you find the rhythm, and you’re not working against each other but with each other, it’s really very easy.
Catherine: With the crosscut, smooth is fast, fast is smooth.
Kimberly: Once you get it in it’s fine, once the saw creates a healthy kerf, you’re good.
Kyle: The more you work with one partner, the more experience you have, the more that can be just kind of a quick checking-in process.
Kimberly: Like yesterday, Martha and I were cutting a tree and it didn’t go the way we wanted, so we took another, and it also didn’t go the way we wanted. And then we talked and we’re like “Where are you right now?” and I was like “I’m a little fatigued,” and she was like, “Yeah I’m, mentally, I’m not there,” so we just stopped sawing for the day and did axe work because we can’t be distant or distracted when we’re taking a tree.
[Dramatic tree fell]
[Jaunty string music begins]
Kirk: Over the past six or seven years at Lassen, I know we’ve spread the love of the tool to many young people that have come and been employed with us, that were maybe skeptical at first about spending their summer on the “misery whip,” I think that’s a horrible term for a beautiful tool.
Josh: I like Kirk’s word, a “beautiful tool;” better for the environment, no noise pollution, the emission is blood and sweat versus carbon dioxide.
Kirk: Yeah, until some real newfangled silent technology comes out maybe, a laser in the future,
[Laser sword and tree falling sound]
I see no reason why we should ever use any other tool to clear a trail in wilderness.
Dolly: The crosscut saw is very simple, it doesn’t have a lot of moving parts, it doesn’t require continual maintenance or fuel, it doesn’t make noise, it doesn’t scare anybody, it’s a safer tool to use than a chainsaw, which is also important when you’re in a very remote setting. And it’s just a case where I would call it appropriate technology.
Kirk: Through introducing wave after wave of seasonal trail workers to the tool, we’re proliferating the crosscut knowledge out into the park service and other land agencies. I know several of my employees who embraced the tool have gone on and are working in other parks and have influenced their crews.
Dolly: I’ve been really happy at how the park service and the forest service have embraced developing traditional skills with their crews, and keeping this stuff alive. Just as our public lands are part of the public trust, I see the land management agencies as taking a role as sort of the brain trust for traditional methods of managing land and taking care of land, just as they’re the brain trust for taking care of wildlife and taking care of ecosystems. And I think we owe it to the public to keep doing that.
Jim: This episode of the Lavocast was written and produced by Greg Purifoy and Steve Buckley.
Jason: Music and editing by Greg Purifoy.
Ash: Special thanks to Dolly Chapman, Kirk Barrent, Josh Mefford,
Michael: The Flatiron Crosscut Saw Crew,
Jim: the Sierra Nevada Institute for Community and Environment,
Jason: The Sierra Nevada Conservancy,
Ash: And the Lassen Volcanic National Park Management Team for supporting this podcast.
[String music fades, sawing sounds, sound of saw removed from tree]