The huge ponderosa pine lay in the trail in front of us. A good four feet through and on steep ground, there was no way to get our pack string around this monster in the Hells Canyon Wilderness, where chain saws are prohibited.
We tied up our stock and unloaded the two-man crosscut saw we had bent over the packs on our largest mule and got to work. Luckily, my husband had been a logger for decades and knew where to cut the precariously balanced tree, but it still took an hour and a lot of sweat to get that giant p-pine out of our way.
Such is the challenge of traveling the wilds of Idaho and Montana.
Crosscut saws were first made in Europe in the middle ages. They’re called crosscut because the saw is designed to cut across, not with, the grain of the tree. These are felling saws and are designed to bring a tree down.
Typically, a two-man crosscut is used for felling. These saws efficiently cut when pulled or pushed in either direction. In the heyday of logging in California and the coastal forests of Oregon and Washington, huge saws with 16-foot blades were used to bring down the iconic redwoods, sequoias, and centuries-old cedar and Douglas fir.
It was in America that the crosscut got its second name, “the misery whip,” as day-long sawing was truly a misery. Most crosscut saws range between 4 and 12 feet.
A two-man crosscut has a handle on either end. Shorter 3- to 4-foot saws can be used by one person and can be strapped to a saddle or pack mule, to easily allow a traveler to cut smaller trees out of trails.
Bucking saws, often used to cut up trees once down, have a wider, thicker, stiffer blade that keeps it from buckling when pushed into the wood.
Crosscut saws for one person have a completely different shape than a two-man saw. The one-person saw is asymmetrical with a D-shaped handle at one end but with holes on either end, to which additional straight handles can be added if needed. The butt end, near the handle, is wider than the tip, and these saws typically run 3- to 4-½-feet long.
Crosscut saws have a long tradition of representing the countries and regions they were made in. Each region or country made different styles of saw patterns and specific saws were developed to fell and buck specific tree species.
The finest saw blades were taper-ground, reflecting a differing thickness across the saw to ease cutting. Today, taper-ground crosscut saws are no longer made.
Finding a quality, well-cared for vintage saw is a real treasure. And anyone traveling in wilderness areas needs to have one on hand and know how to use it.
Luckily, an organization trains a new cadre of crosscut sawyers to help clear trails the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the time to tackle.
Idaho Trails Association has 47 trail clearing and maintenance projects this summer. One of the most important skills they teach people is how to use a crosscut saw.
ITA spends three days teaching volunteers about the correct and safe use of crosscut saws. One day is spent in a classroom setting, and the next two days are in the field working with an experienced, USFS-certified sawyer.
Jeff Halligan, Executive Director of the organization, explains the type of saw he prefers.
“We like to use a four-cutter-per-rake saw,” he said. “This type of saw works best with the trees we need to cut, typically ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. These soft woods compress after the first cutter goes through, and, if you only have two cutters, the saw doesn’t cut to the depth you need. And, it sure wears the sawyers out fast, too.”
The cutters in a blade slice the wood fibers, which break loose and fall in the gullet—the depression between the cutters and rakers.
The rakers then pull the debris out to clear the wood for the next cut. In green or wet wood, the rakers pull out strings of wood fiber while in dead trees you’ll get a lot of fine sawdust. So, a saw blade has a series of cutters, gullet, rakers, gullet, cutters, rakers.
Halligan also explained even where a trail crew could use a chain saw, a crosscut is often more practical.
“When I carry a chain saw, I also have to take along five gallons of fuel, two gallons of bar oil, an extra bar and chains, and all the safety equipment required. Basically, it’s a full mule load. With a crosscut I don’t have fuel, oil, safety chaps, ear protections, etc., so the load is easy to carry in a backpack. We don’t need nearly as much stock support using crosscuts.”
Filing and repairing crosscut saws are skills few people today have. The guru of crosscut saws, their use, and maintenance was Warren Miller of the USFS.
He wrote the 1978 Crosscut Saw Manual for the Forest Service. Since Warren’s passing, another guide, Saws That Sing: A Guide to Using Crosscut Saws was published by the USFS Technical and Development Program and co-authored by David E. Michael and Brian Vachowski.
But finding an actual person who can make those saws sing is a challenge.
“John Starling in Randall, Wash., is a great saw filer and metallurgist,” said Halligan. “He can file blades and also repair broken rakers with welding techniques he’s developed. The welding temperature has to be just right, or the rakers will snap off under pressure.”
When Starling is too busy to help, Halligan said another excellent filer is Art McCory of Springfield, Ore.
“Art’s a steelhead guide now, but he was a world champion crosscut sawyer,” Halligan said. “He can really do a great job on saws for us.”
If you’re interested in trail maintenance and might want to learn how to use a crosscut saw this summer, check out the Idaho Trails Association website where all their trips are listed.
And while we cut our yearly stove wood supply with a chain saw, it’s hard to beat the quiet efficiency—and history—of a traditional crosscut saw in the backcountry of the West. ISI