Someone Call a Pitsawyer - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Someone Call a Pitsawyer

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Schwarz on Workbenches, Woodworking Blogs

The following is unfiltered, mostly unedited and likely unreadable. But this is what I do.

Today I launched headfirst into building this Roubo workbench. First up: Dress the legs. Well, the four legs look worse now than when I sawed them up. One leg looks OK from the front. On two legs, some checking has progressed to the point that I’m worried about their long-term life. The fourth leg is punky and is likely a loss.

I set the legs aside. I have a plan to replace them with some 4×4 Douglas fir fence posts. I can still make the legs totally by hand with only one glue line to make each 6″ x 3-1/2″ leg. I can manage that.

So I turned my attention to the two pieces for the top slab. They also had checked a little more during the last two weeks, but not to the point where I wanted to make firewood. So I started out dressing the edges to glue up the top. The work was fairly easy. I started with a fore plane and finished up the edges with a jointer plane.

Once they are glued up I plan to surface the entire top.

After dressing up the edges it was obvious I needed to take off a couple inches to remove some punkiness, nasty checking, bark and a little dirt. I got out my coarsest ripsaw and went to work. After 2 feet of ripping the 5″-thick cherry, I gave up. I am generally a stubborn person, but the sawing was too slow-going to be practical. It was going to take an hour of ripping for each slab.

Senior Editor Glen Huey came into the shop. He raised one eyebrow, but he didn’t say anything about the sweat drips all over the slabs.

“I’m gonna cheat,” I said, “and I need your help.”

We humped each slab onto the band saw. In less than five minutes the deed was done. I can rationalize this a million ways: This is work for a pitsawyer. The lumberyard would have dressed these slabs for the pre-industrial woodworker.

But the bottom line was that ripping these slab wasn’t fun. And that’s where I drew the line. The purists can feel free to throw stones now.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 31 comments
  • The dynamite wedge mentioned in this blog is also known as a wood cannon or a splitting gun. It was used in the 18th and 19th century frontiers and only became rare around 1950.

    In rural areas, however, it is still used. We have an article describing its use at

  • Murray

    Your just missing the most important traditional tool in the master Cabinetmakers arsenal, you need an apprentice.
    You could have had the apprentice dig the hole for the pit. You as the master would build the scaffold for the pit while the apprentice was digging. Then when the sawpit is finished, "you know who" gets to stand in the pit and get sawdust in their face while the two of you go to town. Or at least that’s how the Irish Cabinetmaker I apprenticed under described it to me, when he told me I was lucky to be a modern apprentice. Don’t you have any Interns?
    Have a good week.

  • Martin

    I’m stupid like Shannon – and I don’t own any other tool for the job. I ripped a 3"x6.5′ ash edge with my old Disston 5 1/2 pt. I found that a very heathy amount of set is needed to prevent binding and getting off the line in curly grain. Once I adjusted the set, it actually took much less work – less than 3 hours with breaks with minimum downward pressure.

  • Shannon Brown

    I built a workbench based on the design from "The Woodwright’s Apprentice". I used only hand tools. I resawed both the top slab and tool well from a single peice of 3"x9 3/4"x5′ maple using only a Stanley "Handyman" rip saw. It took me 5 hours to do so.

    Throw stones? Nope. Not everyone can be stupid like me.

  • Bob Simmons

    Hats off to Edison!

  • Matt Cianci

    No shame here Chris!

    Last night I tried resawing some 6 in wide cherry to make handsaw blanks. Now, let me say, I’m no lilly….I can bench press 300 lbs. After about a third of the way through the 18in long board, my arm felt like it was gonna fall off!!!!


  • Gye Greene

    Purist thing: In general, I agree: do what it takes to get the job done.

    However, as I recall: Chris self-imposed some parameters as a bit of a ”challenge”: to do it old-school style, to see what it was like, what challenges came up, etc.

    You can’t self-impose a challenge (e.g. "I’m going to record a song using only stringed instruments"; "I’m painting an oil painting using only shades of yellow, orange, and red"), and then "bend the rules" whenever some obstacle comes up. It rather defeats the purpose.

    The more "yes, but…" moments you have where you fudge the process, the more your results/findings are invalidated. You can hardly write an article about what it was like building an old-school workbench the way R-bo would have done it, if you keep fudging the processs. That’s a flawed methodology.



    This purist thing really is a burr in my bonnet. I understand if you make a living by being a purist, meaning you sell yourself and products based on a certain set of criteria, i.e. 18th century or the early 1900s like St Roy, I get it. But I have never heard St Roy criticize anyone for their approach to getting the job done. While I have heard that note of snob-dom in the tone when others write about their craft, I view this as elitism and Discriminatory. I enjoy all forms of woodworking, amazed at what the Egyptians could do and what these cool CNC machines can do with a few keystrokes and a piece of wood. I’m more of “I love hand tools and can and do use them, but I have a “day job” and my wife is on my a$$ to get that project done. I enjoy Chris’s copy because like St Roy I don’t feel critiqued if I veer from the “purist” path. Keep up the good work and ignore the purists’ comments. Oh, and by the way thanks for the Step Back photo on the cover of the new magazine. I now have a new project…thank you very much!

  • AAAndrew

    I would be one of the last to throw stones. I have merely cross cut 24" on each side of my 4" thick bench top. Granted it was hard maple, but that was enough. If I had had a band saw, that sucker would have been on it like white on rice. As it was, I just generated a lot of energy and thirst. (hey, Ron, how about a Camelback hydration system with several liters of Mt. Dew inside? Close enough to IV input)

    Since it doesn’t exist without a picture:

  • I hope the guys on woodnet who want to make all sorts of frame saws to resaw much thicker lumber read this.

    I couldn’t believe how many people were advocating such things in the era of bandsaws. No shop ever would’ve done that work by hand unless they were on site somewhere and proper lumber wasn’t available – not when the guy at the mill can get it close in a matter of seconds and charge fairly little for it.

  • Gye Greene

    From the photo, I’m guessing you’re trying to saw off about two inches from the width.

    -Scrub plane? (Still take a while — but possibly more interesting then a big long rip.)

    -Adze, then scrub plane?

    -Looks like it’s running pretty parallel to the grain. Mallet and splitting wedges, then scrub plane?

    Easy for me to say, but: I think you gave up too easily. If your self-imposed ”challenge” is to do it 100% hand tools, then implicit in that challenge is to figure out hand tool-based solutions — even if it’s outside of your usual method of working. Even if it requires taking the afternoon off, and a bit of head-scratching.

    IMO. 🙂

    (Alternative: You rationalize it by saying that you fobbed it off to your apprentice and went out for a beer. You came back later that day and — voila! — it was done.)


  • Bob Rozaieski

    Rip a 5" thick board? Bandsaw it is. You’re trying to use a dovetail saw there, lol. Think about it this way.

    A 5 point rip saw in 5" thick lumber is 25 teeth in the cut if you are sawing perfectly vertical. That’s like using a 25 point razor saw to rip a 4/4 board. Clearly, you just don’t have the right tool for the job; well you do, and you used it ;).

  • Rick

    "But the bottom line was that ripping these slab wasn’t fun. "

    I guess in the olden days there was less entertainment and ripping large slabs of wood was fun or else why would they do it.

    "I am generally a stubborn person, but the sawing was too slow-going to be practical. It was going to take an hour of ripping for each slab."

    Up to two hours stubborn, max!

    Two hours doesn’t sound too bad. Too many irons in the fire to have time to spend on too many things, too bad.

    Here’s two you.


  • Jim

    There’s a saying: "The purist is always wrong". The traditional techniques you discuss in this blog are absolutely fascinating, but it’s the mix of tradition and pragmatism that keeps it real for me. I’m really looking forward to seeing the final result — regardless of how you get there.


  • Micah Abelson

    I am curious why you would glue up 4×4 to get each leg. I am still working on how to make my 1st bench and planned to get some Douglas Fir 6×6 to make legs 5×5 as per the drawings in your book. You can easily get fir in 4×8 to make your 6 x 3 1/2 legs. Since I am making my entire bench out of fir I have been contemplating just getting two 6 x 14 Douglas Fir timbers to make the top with a single glue line like you are doing on this bench.

    Can wait to see what’s next.


  • james

    LOL, Why rationalize? If 18th century cabinetmakers had access to power tools in their day theres absolutely no doubt they would have used them.

    Hells Bells, the Shakers, who had some peculiar ideas about modernity & fornicating had the good sense to invent circular saws.

  • Bear

    I think the hand work purists would have trimmed this down by hewing with a broad axe, close enough at least to get at it with a scrub plane. Mind you, hewing is a lot easier to do when the wood is green, but when it is seasoned, it sounds so nice when the chunks slab off.

    Don’t know how much checking is too much, but all that rot in the legs doesn’t sound like fun!

    Keep on with the updates – I have some hard maple logs lying in the snow, waiting for a similar exercise.

  • Joel Jacobson

    Even if you managed to find a pit sawyer, you’d probably be hard pressed to find a working saw pit. According to Roy Underhill, after pit sawing was supplanted by water power and later steam, almost all of the saw pits were cut up and sold as post holes.


  • Jeff Burks

    Splitting logs with black powder is a fairly common form of entertainment…

  • Mike Siemsen

    When my father was around 12 he had a job splitting up some logs with a dynamite wedge. He said it went like this, drive in wedge, insert dynamite, light fuse, get away, watch where wedge landed after explosion, repeat. Sounds like just the ticket for your project. There are no good jobs for kids anymore

  • Steve Mitchell

    I’m surprised you didn’t try another alternative (besides a good Japanese rip kataba). One would be to cross-cut a bunch of kerfs to an appropriate depth and then chisel or axe off the waste. Another would be to drill appropriately spaced holes and split the wood between the holes ala feathers and irons. Easy for me to say, I know, and still a lot of work, but not nearly as hard as using a carpentry hand saw.

    Steve Mitchell

  • Jeff Skory

    I can sympathize. I almost gave up ripping 3.5" cherry. I can’t imagine 5".

    But the bottom line for most of us is just what you stated: If it’s not fun why are you doing it?

  • Jeff Burks

    Chris, you should make a woodworker’s exercise DVD with all these sawing and planing techniques. I don’t think Jane Fonda has anything like it, you could corner the market!

    Speaking of hand tool drudgery, I had been meaning to post something here for a while. I have this article from a 1914 carpentry magazine that your users may enjoy reading, though I have been unable to find the original issue in my storage boxes for a rescan. All I have is a lower resolution pdf for the moment that I made years ago.

  • Ron Herman

    Hey Chris- We here at purist central forgive your sins. Setting up the pitsaw at the mill for two slaps is a lot of trouble this time of the year. With it being seasoned it would a hell of a lot of work compared to green wood. Remember what I cut the log with (Norwood). Had a feeling the legs would end up hotdog heaters. The checking of the slabs give it character and a aged look that I like. On the job, cutting slabs like that I a use a 36" 3pt. docking ripsaw. It takes alot of shoulder and a 12 pack of Mt. Dew(wish I could get it in IV packs). Try to focus on all the things you are going to build on this bench to build up the muscles to build the next bench!—:) Ron Herman

  • As mentioned above, that’s a hell of a job for a regular handsaw. I have resawn 11" beech about 16" long at a time with my frame saw, but it’s still a lot of work. Even SWMBO says that I should consider getting a bandsaw sometime. It’s either that or fooling around with making a much more aggressive frame saw.

  • Ryan Prochaska

    That seems like more of a job for a broad axe or an adz, rather than a saw. Ballistic tools are always more fun, anyway.

  • Tim Williams

    I think work "smarter" not harder was the right play here totally!

    Tim Williams

  • Dave G

    The hardest tumble a man can make is to fall over his own bluff. ~Ambrose Bierce

    Can’t say I blame you though. Work wood for fun and draw your own lines!

  • Dean Jansa

    I don’t think anyone will throw stones. You just don’t have the tools to do that job, and the sawyers of the period would have. 5 inch thick stock requires a heck of a saw to rip, and I’ve seen you rip…

    There is a line between what a cabinet-maker/joiner would have sawn and what they left to the professional sawyers. That line may have varied from shop to shop, for example the Hay shop resaws pine to get 1/2" stock, yet there are records of 1/2" stock being available from the lumber yards in the period. So, don’t feel bad, you just need to dig a pit in the parking lot…


  • well done-
    fu*k the purists….whom-ever they may be.

  • Its nice to know that good sense prevailed. To hell with the purists.


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