Field Work: At Work Sawing Timber at Strong Farm and Sawmill

Field Work: At Work Sawing Timber at Strong Farm and Sawmill

Photos by Tony Donovan

East Hampton, Connecticut — To the left of the driveway is a circular steel sawblade hung in an oak-post frame, bearing the name of the family business painted in red: “STRONG FARM AND SAWMILL.” A pile of white pine boards with cross sticks in between is set to one side; a handwritten sign advertising them for “90 cents a board foot.” An old, gnarled white oak stands sentry in front of the house, its scaly bark looking like armor, almost four feet in diameter at the base and more than 250 years old. A wood table leans against the tree, supporting a faded red-and-white cooler, another homemade sign, “fresh chicken eggs 4 dollars a dozen,” and a jelly glass for cash.

Their small house made of stone has an old-world look, a young chestnut tree in the backyard, the faded red shed that’s Steve Strong’s workshop, and barns farther back.

Sawmills have always interested me. There’s so much going on: the motor’s wild roar, the sawblade’s whir and hiss, wood against wood, wood on the iron. And best of all is a family sawmill. With the house and saw on the same piece of land, it’s an easy walk between them. Where you can hear the saw from a chair in the kitchen. That’s how this mill is. Often, they’re small mills. This is a small mill. Just Steve Strong sawing and somebody to help carry slabs – his two sons when they can, his brothers Curt and Don, sometimes a Saturday friend. Because sawmills like this are often passed down from one generation to the next, grandparents live nearby and stop over a lot. That’s the way it is here.

Steve’s father, Curtis Strong Sr., ran this same mill with his brother in the 1970s and into the 1980s. They ran it as a custom mill, not necessarily sawing every day. Before that, Curtis Sr.’s grandfather worked it with a brother, sawing hardwood railroad ties for use in World War II, firewood, fence boards, oak beams for a house.

These days, the mill is set up mostly to saw timber for Steve’s own timber-frame construction jobs. The work’s laid out well – logs before you reach the shed, a sawdust pile in front of the saw, pine slabs on the hill in back. His sons, Ray and Tim, cut up the slab wood and sell it for firewood to summer camps in the area.

The mill’s carriage, setworks, and tracks were all manufactured by the Amidon Manufacturing Company in Willington, Connecticut. Amidon made small portable sawmills from the early 1900s until the 1950s. Amidon mills were considered to be some of the best of their kind in the country. There’s no name on the sawblade, worn away by work and the weather. In fact, Steve is the first to have the saw under any roof at all since it was bought new in the 1930s.

The first day I took pictures, his youngest son, Tim, was helping him saw. Standing at the end of the tracks on the far side of the skids with a wooden-handled cant hook in his hands. He cuts the point of the hook into a log. His father does the same with his hook. With one heave together, they turn the log onto the saw carriage and it slams into the blocks. All the carriage iron rings.

They turn the log, once, twice, as many times as needed to settle it safely onto the carriage. On his father’s sign, Tim pulls out the back taper to align the log with the saw, lifts the saw dog up and out, drives its tooth into the log, tightens the dog and takes a step away as the log starts to the saw; “tail-sawing,” they call it. The log they are cutting is more than 21 feet long, three feet in diameter, and weighs approximately one ton and a quarter.

Sawing out these long pine logs sets the pace of the work here – makes its particular rhythm. First, there’s a period of full, fast effort for both father and son. Forty, fifty seconds? Sometimes more. Rolling the log onto the carriage, turning the log into place. Then it’s the sawyer alone, racking the log in line with the saw. Fifteen, twenty seconds more. The sawyer pulls the saw bar to him and the log starts into the saw. Maybe it takes twelve, fifteen seconds to saw down the length of the pine log.

Sawing makes a soft rippling sound at first, like plastic beads bouncing against something hard – then, listen carefully and you hear a “pop-pop-pop” beneath that as the saw teeth rip the wood fiber. Holding the saw bar almost straight stops the carriage on the far side of the saw. Steve’s oldest son, Ray, grabs hold of the slab as it drops off and pulls it away from the blade. He cuts it in half with a small green chainsaw. “Carrying slabs,” they call it.

Because this is a pine mill – that is, mostly pine is sawn here – the machinery is black with pine pitch; even the wooden cant 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 bright silver.

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 good sawyer.

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 intensity 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 pinewood 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 sunlight 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 on his website.

Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.


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