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Chainsaw Love

David Lee's lavish history of the deafening woodcutter also has echoes.

By Lyle Neff 13 Dec 2006 |

Lyle Neff was born in Prince George and grew up in Smithers. Now resident in Vancouver, he looks forward to never cutting and hauling firewood again.

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Nobody likes the sound of the chainsaw. For some, that two-stroke howl means bitterly hard work -- time to fall and buck and skid trees, and be appalled at the modest size of the pay cheque. For others, this powered tool's whine means the destruction of forests and therefore of nature -- many hear, in the bellowing of Stihl and Husqvarna motors, the soundtrack to our assault on Gaia.

But all British Columbians likely agree: when it comes to wood, nothing cuts it like a chainsaw.

Except a vast infestation of insects, perhaps. David Lee's Chainsaws: A History -- a collection of camp advertisements and reverently photographed classic saws, and also a good read -- arrives at an interesting time in B.C. forestry history. Is it more important, here at the dawn of the pine-beetle era, how we cut down the province's woods rather than whether we do?

If so, Chainsaws illuminates the subject, and explains obliquely how cheap, deafening wood-hewing machines came to be in every rural British Columbian family's hands. The modern chainsaw's history dates back about 100 years, Lee shows. Funnily enough, for a gadget deployed in B.C. mostly against fir, pine and spruce, the chainsaw's family tree branches back and out in a very deciduous fashion. All those local innovations and traditions, such as Canada's mid-century Pioneer Timberhog, funnel down into two dominant European manufacturers and one ubiquitous design.

The long two-man pre-Edwardian crosscut sawblade, or "misery whip," was a labour-intensive labour-saving ancestor of the chainsaw, the author notes. (He doesn't mention that long-preceding metallurgical plateau, where "toothed blade" design went unchanged for centuries.) About 19th-century timbering tech, Lee's book agrees with Canadian schoolkids' general recollection: that men with enormous moustaches pushed giant two-man saws to topple huge black-and-white trees, back then, when the textbooks were written.

Those old "miseries" required a logging method that must've bloodied those loggers' moustaches just as often as ancient axe-and-wedge methods had done, while being slightly more efficient. Similarly, the coal-and-steam-powered cutting machines that B.C. logging shows experimented with well into the 1920s blew up and maimed numerous of their inventors and users. But they kept incrementally decreasing the number of men needed to cut, move and sell a goodly load of wood. As all advances in cutting technology do.

Variations of 'miseries'

Today's rural British Columbians, on each side of the hardhat-Greenpeace divide, share a sentimental wish for a small-holding, axe-powered, less-global economy, I think. But rationally, they have chainsaws. And they can say, "Well, there's a little less workplace death." And maybe even that the forestry economy is better off when there's less people working in it. That seems absurd, though.

As does the 1920s technology Lee's book examines next. There was a generation of semi-portable two-man chainsaws with external power source in use then, the likes of which this Canadian schoolkid has never heard nor seen. Instead of a description of this ancestral chainsaw (you can see the photographs in Lee's book), I'll illustrate it with a brief dialogue:

SCOTTY, a faller: Hello, Olaf, this is the "chainsaw" we're going to use to buck up this big old tree today. You can see it took six horses to drag this automatical cutter into the Harrison Lake cutblock here.

OLAF, another: Yes, my friend. I also see that some kind of coal-fired donkey engine had to be dragged in as well, to power this "chainsaw" you speak of.

SCOTTY: Indeed. Please, say hello to the eight men who helped haul in these machines. And say hello to the two chaps who take care of the horses, the three representatives of the German manufacturers of the machine, the three coal-digging midgets and the six sweaty investors from Vancouver who own our logging company.

OLAF: Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. (Etc.)

SCOTTY: Now, Olaf, as you can see here, the "bar" of this chainsaw is about 12 feet long. And the whirring cutting chain rotates around it quickly. It will cut manfully through wood, if said wood is lying upon the ground, and if the engine does not explode or run out of fuel, and if none of the midgets takes ill. Your job, Olaf, is to hold the other end of the bar while I make the cuts.

OLAF: Grab this other end here...

SCOTTY: Yes. Where the cutters in the chain will be roaring along.

OLAF. Where these tiny handlebars are...

SCOTTY: Yes. It's a two-man Stihl Model B chainsaw, Olaf, and this is 1928. One other thing: it's deafening.

OLAF: Deafening...

Yes, deafening. Even as chainsaw technology inched along up to the Second World War, gaining in portability and approaching the Holy Grail of one-man usability, its small, hard-running engines could cause ear-bleeds within hours, or leave a man dependent on sign language at the end of his shift. There wasn't even the slightest thought about hearing protection for workers at the time.

Nor was there any thought about the violent vibrations of pre- and post-war chainsaw pistons causing, over time, "white finger" nerve wreckage in users' hands. Even after the chainsaw came to assume its quieter, safer, shockproofed modern form in the 1970s, one in four Canadian loggers by 1980 had some hand damage, and some fraction of them were crippled.

They weren't the type for lawsuits, though. And none of their hand spasms or dead fingers was the specific fault of "Huskie" (Husqvarna) or Stihl, the limited-liability saw-making entities that owned the market in 1980 -- and still do today. Thinking of chainsaws the other night, I thought of recommending to old Olaf: "The people who made those chainsaws that paralyzed your hands, you should consider suing them, if you can find them."

OLAF: What?

The unkindest cuts

Driving from the Okanagan up to Prince George last summer, through the rust-red endless plague of the pine beetle, the distant whine of amateur chainsaws seemed to be audible at every lake and town where we stopped. That could have been paranoia, but the reverb and howl of actual 40-man logging shows metres off the highway was real. Outside of Burns Lake, we saw a trucker with a full load of beetle-killed logs burn through a country intersection like the market was about to close. His engine was loud, very loud.

Like most British Columbians, I hate the sound of the chainsaw and love the deep green forest. A long urban residence hasn't made me foolish about our province's sources of wealth, though. Much of my Interior hometown's backcountry was second growth, unpristine countryside. It was wild enough bush, but it's due to become third growth in my grandkids' time, everything else being equal.

Still, each lovingly photographed old-timey chainsaw in David Lee's book does now seem doubly anachronistic. Chainsaws: A History is the document of a global tool for an international audience, but as a B.C. book it can't help but reflect this province's old battle between timbering and conservation. Nor can it avoid the new level of irony forced on us all, by a beetle that cuts through a forest faster than any chainsaw, without making a sound.