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Sawn logsWhy Did They Pit Saw the Timbers?

For years I had wondered why the builders of the J. Eli Gregg hewn-timber cabins would take hewn 8” x 9” timbers and pit saw them to make two 4” x 9” timbers.  They were not short of trees, and hewers were much easier to find than pit-saw men.  It did not make sense.

John Rice Irvin, of the Museum of Appalachia, said he had never seen a pit-sawed timber.  Boards, yes, but not timbers.

Then one day I had to take a picture of the cabins when they were soaking wet from a recent rain.  I could tell that my picture was not going to come out right—the timbers were covered with orange splotches; the heart- wood showed up that way when wet.

Suddenly I knew why the builders of the cabins had sawed the timbers in half—and why they always put the sawed half to the outside.  That enabled them to get the most rot-resistant wood on the outside of the cabin.  The closer they could get to the very core of the pine tree, the better heartwood they would have, and pit sawing took them to the very center of the log.

If the builders had used those 8" by 9” timbers, without sawing the timbers down the middle and placing the heartwood sides of the 4”x 9” timbers to the outside of the cabin, outside edges of the timbers would be on the outside of the cabin and the entire outside of the cabin would be susceptible to rot. 

John Rice Irvin had never seen a pit-sawed timber because, in the mountains, people built their hewn-timber buildings out of hardwood—wood that was not subject to rot the way pine was.

I am convinced that I have finally found the answer to my question.  Pit sawing enabled the builders of the cabins to place, facing the inside of the cabin, all of the soft wood that was farthest from the heart of the pine.  All of the wood that faced outside, exposed to the weather, was the very center of the pine tree, the part that was the most resistant to rotting.  That is why these cabins have outlasted many others of the same period.


Copyright Amelia Wallace Vernon. All rights reserved, 1998. Revised, 2008.