The Crosscut Saw

By Dominic Cavilia, CMC Stewardship Crew Member

The crosscut is a unique tool. Seemingly a remnant of days gone, it allows trail personnel to efficiently accomplish goals in wilderness areas that would otherwise be unattainable. In the vein of vinyl records, it’s veracious cult following and utility grows with it’s increasing unavailability.

Pre- chainsaw, it was the only tool colonial America had to settle and effectively manage the huge swaths of old growth forest that existed throughout the American west. Primarily used for bucking (the removal and management of already downed trees) it’s use was widespread in the western world from around 1880 to 1930 (Weinberg 1). The crosscut saw’s ability to take a task that may take hours upon hours with an axe and condense it to a simple and far less arduous 20 minute action made it an indispensable tool for those looking to explore and settle wild terrain.

By the mid 20th century the development and implementation of the gas powered chainsaw rendered the crosscut ostensibly useless. The crosscut remained relic of limited use until the passing of the The Wilderness Act of 1964 written by Howard Zahniser and passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson which stated “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (Wilderness Act 1).” Disallowing the use of mechanized means to manage wilderness areas, agencies and cooperating partners have had to reinstate more primitive means (the crosscut) to remove downed logs that fall on existing trails. This has given new life to the dying art of the crosscut saw.

The populations’ growing interest in wild spaces coupled with a diminishing knowledge base for the use and maintenance of these tools have produced a passionate albeit niche crosscut community. Factors such as the original crosscut saws used to be made of high tempered carbon steel, they are no longer produced as such, making original saws sought after and tenderly cared for once found (Weinberg 1) have contributed to this fact. In wilderness areas where forest health is compromised the crosscut has become an invaluable tool for any trail crew.

The crosscut is a beautiful tool and one that I count myself lucky to be among its small user group. The  body mechanics and methods of using the saw vary in every situation, I often find myself sore in places I’d never expect due to the often strange contortions certain trees or situations require. It also requires clear communication and good teamwork given that it so often is operated by two sawyers. As a part of the CMC Trail Stewardship crew, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with this tool for two years now. It allows us, as a small three person crew,  to cut trees that would otherwise be impossible. As an indelible piece of Americana and an integral part of every wilderness trail crew cache the crosscut lives on. 

Bibliography

Posted by Alex Weinberg and Lisa Romano, et al. “US Forest Service Tool Fells Trees, Slices Through Massive Logs – and Sings.” USDA, 21 Feb. 2017, www.usda.gov/media/blog/2014/09/30/us-forest-service-tool-fells-trees-slices-through-massive-logs-and-sings. 

“Wilderness Act.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Aug. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilderness_Act. 

Picture – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crosscut_saw#/media/File:Two-Man_Felling_Saw_and_Springboard.jpg

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