How Barn Boards Were Historically Milled

Before sawmills, locally sourced trees were hand-hewn and hand-sawn for the construction of barns. The earliest barns were constructed of hand-hewn logs stacked horizontally, but this laborious method called for more efficient means of barn construction which led to the most common saw styles found at Distinguished Boards and Beams.

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Pit Sawn Barn Boards

The need for more efficient and less labor intensive ways of producing lumber called for sawn planks, and later milled planks. The first barn siding boards were often pit-sawn, a process that involved one “top-sawyer” above and one “pit man,” or “bottom-sawyer,” below. The pit-man would stand in a dug pit with supports above holding the top-sawyer and log in place. Top-sawyers had to be especially strong because they were the ones that both guided the saw and pulled upward.

Sawyers took great pride in their ability to produce quality boards. Pit-sawn lumber was traditionally used in shipbuilding and a common trade in Europe. The process, however, was slow and exhausting, producing only six to eight boards per hour, or 100 linear feet on a good day. Pit-sawn boards can be identified by their straight, irregular saw marks.

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Sash Style Sawn Barn Boards

In areas where there was ready access to water, water powered sawmills were one of the first additions to new American settlements. Vast forests, a growing country, and a shortage of labor made sawmills an integral part of local economies.

For this reason, most barn planks produced before the 1850s were made with sash-style blades. Sash Blade barn boards are distinguished by their ragged yet straight saw marks created by the up and down reciprocal motion of the blades. The blades used were similar to pit-saw blades but powered by a water-wheel connected to a "pit-man" crank. Single-blade sash-style watermills could produce roughly 500 linear feet of barn board per day.

Circular Sawn Barn Boards

Circular saw blades began replacing sash-style blades around 1830, and by the 1900s nearly all mills had replaced their reciprocal sash blades with circular blades. The improved efficiency of the 4'-6' diameter circular saws caused the price of barn construction to drop and made it easier for farmers to operate their own small mills. Circular rough sawn boards show the arcs created by the round blade. Large Circular saws are still commonly used for rough-sawn lumber in small New England mills.

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Band Sawn Barn Boards

By the late 1800s, band-saws were milling much of the lumber found in farm structures. Their thin band blades rested and rotated on two large pulleys, a system that required much innovation before making its way into larger mills. Since band-saw blades are designed to be hard yet flexible they require high quality steel that was not available in the United States until the 1870s. Slack and tension within the pulley system caused early designs to make snaked cuts at the ends of boards, a problem which frustrated and encouraged engineers. By the 1890s, band-saw designs were able to cut straight enough to make their way into high production mills.

Band-saws were appreciated by commercial mills for two reasons: they were more accurate than gang sash-saws, and their thin blades create a narrower cut, or kerf, in the logs which led to less waste. Less waste coupled with greater cutting accuracy and a reduced number of culled boards led to band-saws becoming popular with mills. The straight Band-saw marks are very similar to sash-saw marks but much closer together. Imperfections in band-saw blades would often create wavy marks in boards as opposed to the consistently straight marks from sash-saws.

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Saw Marks and Your Order with Distinguished Boards and Beams

Most of our customers prefer a mixture of original saw marks in their reclaimed siding orders. All of our boards come with the original marks and the option to have them re-sawn in our mill shop. We also offer the option to hand pick specific saw mark styles in our yard.

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