hooks’ handles are patched black. Only the rims of the carriage
wheels and the top of the saw tracks are clean of it and worn to
The next day, Steve’s sawing alone. His brother Curt and son
Ray are carrying slabs. It’s dark inside the shed; the shadows are
deep green. It has a somber feel.
At this mill, the sawyer stands at ground level. I’d never been
so close to sawing before.
Steve’s working so intensely that at first he’s seems angry. As if
he is trying to match the saw’s speed. How hard the work is! The
logs they turn and slide down the skids weigh a ton and more.
There’s always the threat that something will go wrong. The saw
can hit metal inside the log – an iron spike, lead shot, pieces of
chain; saw teeth can twist and snap, a cable comes loose from
the carriage and slithers toward the spinning saw. Everything
happens so fast.
I’ve worked with some really good sawyers, so I have a frame
of reference. Watching Steve saw is impressive. He is a really
He’s sawing lumber for a timber frame pavilion at Lockwood
Farm in Hamden, Connecticut. Lockwood Farm is an outdoor
adjunct of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. It
was the first agricultural research station in the country, opened
in 1882 on a spectacular 75 rural acres north of New Haven.
The logs for this project were harvested in the spring from the
1,500-acre Babcock Pond State Forest in Westchester, Connecticut,
about 20 miles from the mill. Over the course of the summer,
Steve, his family, and a couple of friends have sawn out more than
250 pine logs to make some 500 pieces of timber-frame. They’ve
also sawn oak for 800 1-by-14-inch white-oak pegs, 20 white-oak
splines, 35 blocks, and several hundred oak wedges.
Steve and company will also be the ones to build the structure in the fall.
They quit sawing before lunch. Turns out, I’m mistaken: it’s
not anger that’s drives him sawing; it can’t be, because the inten-
sity leaves right away when he stops. He starts talking about
hammering a saw; it’s really interesting to me. Not many sawyers
do it themselves. Hammer a curve into what you think is the flat
steel blade. So when the saw spins 700 times a minute, a little
more, the metal has space to expand, to “stand up to make a
straight cut into the log.”
You wonder how he’s keeping track of it all. All I see are two
small pads of Post-its, one pink and the other yellow, down in
the dark by the engine throttle. Sometimes he writes on pieces
of board, the pine blocks on the ground. I did see some plans on
Plant Science Day at Lockwood Farm last August.
Timbers fresh from the mill are piled near the work shed. A
pink light off its red side makes the new wood seem like flesh;
other timbers already are mortised and trimmed to length,
stained a light brown, and lined straight on wood horses in
shade near the house. Sun through the oak trees lights yellow
circles across them like a scatter of bright gold coins.
Now, in place of the massive saw, the work is being done by
hand with electric tools: a new yellow-and-black Makita chain
mortiser saw made in Japan, a Mafell handheld band saw from
Germany, and a large electric drill manufactured by Milwaukee
Electric Tool Company here in the U.S. He is using that drill,
with a one-inch bit, to cut the peg holes.
The ground around them is a carpet of wood circles and
halves from the drilling, sawdust piles, wood curls from the
chain mortiser. It softens the sound of the sawing and drilling;
even the scream of the big red Makita loses its shrill edge.
You can tell Steve is particularly proud of his older Atkins and
Disston handsaws made in the states. The work also involves the
use of several handmade wood mallets over the course of the
joinery; at the start of the project, one was oak, both head and
handle, and the other had an oak head and a sassafras wood
handle with the bark still on it, which made it distinctive. Both
of them shattered over the length of the build, and new ones
had to be made.
It’s a bright, clear September day when the first load of
timbers is trucked to the building site in Hamden.
A log truck is parked beside the house with a yellow trailer
hitched behind it. The truck’s weight registration is 40 tons;
the trailer’s is just under 30. They joke about weight limits that
they all know perfectly well, the times they’ve been pulled over,
the times they’ve gone around. Ben Hall and his son, Troy, are
the truckers and loggers, sawyers, and landowners here in East
Hampton as well. Besides cutting logs and sawing, both the
Strong and Hall families harvest witch hazel brush, which is
abundant in this part of the state and used for medicinal and
cosmetic products famous worldwide. It’s clear from the way
they talk and joke that they’ve known each other all their lives,
their families going back generations together.
The truck is sparkling, with a newly-painted red cab and
gold-and-black signage on the doors, “B and T Hall, East
Hampton, CT.” All the truck’s lines are tight and wiped clean.
The same care and attention goes into loading the pine. Most
of the load is packed by hand and pried tight with a soft pine-
wood stick, so the job takes most of the morning.
There’s a sense of celebration – jokes about Steve’s tractor
skills, about his constant determination and drive – as he steers
the little orange Kioti down the hill, trying not to bounce the
load off the ground.
On top of the loaded truck, 12 feet off the ground, the sun-
light brightens, the background blends to nothing but the oak
trees’ green canopy, the distant red peak of the work shed, and
the pure, blue sky behind it. Steve is on top of the load, turning
the last timbers off the tractor forks. The wood looks like gold
in the sunlight.
Canvas straps are thrown over the load and tightened; iron
posts ring as they’re dropped into the collars, one at a time. A
summer’s work is done.
Tony Donovan is a writer and photographer who worked most of his life in the New
York film business. His special interests are Ireland and its history, sawmills and
forestry, and city basketball in central Connecticut. Presently, Donovan lives in Ivoryton,
Connecticut. See more of his photos at www.ivorytonstudio.com
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs. www.wagnerforest.com