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What is a Sawpit?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen

A sawpit is an earthen dugout that can be used to cut logs into boards. In order to operate a sawpit, one man stands beneath a log and another above it, so they could work a two person saw. Some sawpits were dug out of the earth from scratch, while others repurposed a natural feature such as a ditch or embankment. Regardless of how the pit was made, it would often be covered to keep it from filling with water. Sawpits were common prior to the invention of lumber mills, and they have since fallen into disuse.

Before the invention and widespread use of lumber mills, sawpits were used to create hand-sawed planks. These pits were often dug out of the earth, though in other cases a natural depression in the ground was built up and taken advantage of. During the time they were widely used, many towns and other locations had a sawpit to create planks and boards for local construction. It was also common for a sawpit to be dug out near a logging operation to reduce the distance felled trees had to be carried.

Man with a drill
Man with a drill

Each sawpit was typically operated by at least two workers known as sawyers. One man would work the saw from the bottom of the pit, while the other would pull from above the log. Each worker would typically use a variety of wedges to keep the cut open as well as oils to reduce friction if it began to pinch shut. The man on top was usually responsible for the integrity of each cut, as boards and planks created in this manner were usually made freehand.

Since sawpits are dug out of the ground, they tend to fill up with rainwater and runoff fairly easily. Many of these structures were built in areas that had natural cover from nearby trees and hard packed soil that could prevent runoff, since a flooded sawpit typically could not be used. In other cases, these issues were avoided by covering the sawpit with some sort of roof. Roofs also provided the workers with some level of protection from the elements.

After the introduction of lumber mills, the practice of cutting boards and planks at sawpits fell out of favor. Early sawmills that used saws driven by water wheels could often create as many as 200 boards in a day. A well trained pair of sawyers was typically limited to around a dozen boards a day, so the lumber mill process was substantially more efficient and less labor intensive.

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      Man with a drill