At the closing of the 19th century the rhythms of life on the Gaspé coast were not far removed from those of the preceding two centuries. The rural way of life, like the climate, was hard and only the strong and tenacious survived. Those able to adapt and overcome prospered. For Grandpa this meant hard days in the back woods cutting pine, spruce, cedar, and birch. This bounty of the forest was destined for firewood and board wood for furniture making.
Winter days were long and arduous. At 3:00 a.m. Grandpa would awaken to hitch up the horses and wood-hauling sled. First he would take a hearty breakfast, prepared by Granny who was also beginning an endless number of household chores. Then he would travel up over the snow along the Coteau road, to start work at 5:30 a.m. Grandpa was then a young man in his prime. However, after an exhausting day’s work in the woods he would usually need a short nap behind the stove on his return from work to be able to carry on with his many evening chores.
Winter evenings provided Grandpa with enough spare time to make items of kitchen furniture for his fellow villagers. On one such evening in February, there was a horizontal rush of snow raging up from the Atlantic coast, and past Grandpa’s workshop. Grandpa was safely inside selecting pine to make a dovetailed dough box. As he peered through the window, with a crackling wood stove behind, he was unable to see his house because of the blinding snow. Granny and the two babies were also snug and warm inside. She was busy in the kitchen with one baby in a rocking cradle and the other playing near the step-back cupboard. That evening with the pot-belly stove well fired up, she was baking bread, tourtières, and lemon meringue pies.
Grandpa did not have a dedicated wood shop; he had a large barn-like “store” which housed at least 25 cords of firewood for the winter, his long Conestoga wagon (in storage for the winter), assorted harnesses, plows, and other agricultural implements. Grandpa had built this timber-framed store with help from a few neighbours. The entire structure was based on a traditional English barn with mortise and tenon construction throughout, held together by trunnels (“tree nails” or wooden pegs). He had a small corner next to a window where he was able to situate a joiner’s workbench with leg vise and his cherished tool chest. His workbench consisted of a single 3″ thick maple board.
This workbench had a long and impressive history. The very first woodworker’s vise was invented by Jacques-André Roubo in the 18th century. The leg vise was a long beam of hardwood attached to the leg of a workbench by means of a wooden screw and garter. The Roubo bench was essentially a flush-with-the work surface version of a blacksmith’s vise, similar to today’s machinist’s vise. Everything connected with Grandpa’s workbench was made of wood. There were wooden bench hooks, bench dogs, bench slaves, clamps (or “cramps” as Grandpa called them), and saw horses. The only metal fixture he used was an equally old holdfast. This is a metal hockey stick shaped iron device, pounded with a wooden mallet into pre-drilled holes in the work bench surface. The holdfast was necessary to secure a work piece for planing, chiseling, sawing, or carving.
As Grandpa selected 4/4 pine to make the dough box he reflected on the wood cutting season. In late winter, he would haul the harvest of the forest back to his store: beams, firewood, boards, and hardwood billets. When the snow disappeared in early May, he would stack (or sticker) all of his boards in a covered shed behind the store. These stacks would dry throughout the warm, windy summer. Firewood and board wood would be brought inside towards the end of October for the next winter’s fires and furniture making. The pine boards that Grandpa was about to use to make the dough box, came from Gaspé trees cut down the year before – and so the cycle was completed.
The men of Grandpa’s generation spent a lot of time working in the woods and they knew instinctively how to read a tree. By simply looking at a living tree, a 19th century woodsman could tell what the board wood lying within would be like. For example, if the trunk was straight and of sufficient girth, then the heartwood would produce a certain volume of board footage consisting of wide, straight-grained boards. If the tree was growing on the side of a hill and exposed to the prevailing winds, then there was likely to be tension in the wood and this would make it difficult to split or saw. Often they would search out certain boughs and branch structures such as the crotch of a tree, which would produce an arched triangulation brace for a timber-framed barn. Additionally, these experienced woodsmen would often fell a selected tree on the dry sheltered side because they knew that on the exposed side the grain was tighter and more likely to dull the bit of their felling axe.
Though hardy woodsmen, like their ancestors, they had little or no formal schooling. As young boys they were needed to assist in running the farm and from the age of 10 onwards were given a full day of chores to do. And heaven help them if those jobs were not completed to the very highest of standards. In terms of life skills they all had a wealth of knowledge either passed on to them by their fathers or uncles or acquired through what we now refer to as on-the-job-training. None of these highly productive woodsmen had any scientific training but they could immediately tell you the exact species of any tree in the forest. They could also list the strengths, weaknesses, and workability of the wood, the other products from the tree (oak and elm bark for leather tanning, edible nuts from the butternut tree, medicines from the sassafras tree), the moisture content of the live tree, and the amount of time needed to dry out the boards. They also knew exactly where to place their mauls or wedges to cleanly split a tree to obtain dimensionally stable wood, which would be less prone to cupping or warping during the drying process.
Sharpening was another key life skill possessed by our early Canadian woodsmen. The quality of 19th century carbon steel was not what it is today, but every cutting edge was razor sharp. Every woodsman had a few basic whetstones and mill files. Grandpa also had a grinding wheel rotated by boy power (one of those boys being my uncle) This was one of uncle’s many jobs around the farm. The men took their sharpening stones and files with them into the woods as it was necessary to sharpen axes and draw knives frequently throughout the workday.
At the end of the 19th century there very few water powered saw mills on the Gaspé coast. If boards were required, Grandpa and his team would manually saw each board from a squared log.
Unquestionably, the saw, like the humble screw, was and still is a marvel of technology, and significantly outclasses the ancient axe. In addition to greater precision in cutting, the saw produces far less waste than the axe. For ripping and cross cutting logs Grandpa used a variety of saws. He had a framed pit saw (a thin narrow blade stretched on a rectangular frame) used to rip boards from a squared log supported either on trestles or makeshift sawyer’s props. Before the industrial revolution when harder steel was developed, saws without supporting frames, would require a set which would only cut on the pull stroke, because of the softness of the steel. The saws would almost always bind in the cut on the push stroke. Some improvement came with the framed saw, which allowed the soft blade to be stiffened. However, the wooden frame would often get in the way further into the cut.
Grandpa was at the receiving end of advances in steel technology at the end of the 19th century. His pride and joy was an open pit saw. This was a thick long tapering two man saw without a frame; with a handle at the top known as a tiller and a lower removable handle known as a box. The open pit saw was much like a larger version of today’s carpenter’s saw. In the middle of the 18th century, hand tempered steel was replaced by rolled steel. With the introduction of rolled steel, saws were now sufficiently hardened and robust enough to receive a push set that permitted the cutting of wood in both directions without binding. Today’s saws are a good example of this revolutionary development in technology; but it is a relatively recent innovation.
In the woods Grandpa was an expert at using and maintaining his open pit saw and, therefore, was always at the top of the log during cutting. He also had other useful saws: the cross cut or thwart saw, and it’s smaller cousin the buck saw, (usually made with a bow made from a spruce bough). These saws were less wasteful alternatives to the felling axe and were used to either cross cut or buck logs into more manageable lengths for further processing.
In the back woods the cutting of boards using pit saws was an efficient but labour intensive method of obtaining rough-milled wood stock. In Europe, for centuries, this had been accomplished by digging a man-sized pit and laying the log over it. The master sawyer would climb up on top of the log and then guide the long two-man rip saw (often a wooden frame pit saw). The apprentice would crawl into the pit and provide the physical manpower for each cut, in addition to getting a face full of sawdust with each stroke. In the Canadian back woods the log would be supported on a makeshift sawyer’s prop and would be cut in a similar fashion, after marking the line of each board with a snapped charcoal line. In those days a 1″ board before planing was rough cut at 1 3/8″. All of Grandpa’s wood stock was cut this way until the beginning of WW II when gas powered saw mills arrived in Gaspé.
In the next article we will take a more detailed look at axes, adzes, draw knives, and froes; tools used for chopping, splitting, and hewing in the back woods.