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The old saw pit at Kennox in North Ayrshire.

A saw pit or sawpit is a pit over which lumber is positioned to be sawed with a long two-handled saw by two men, one standing above the timber and the other below.[1] It was used for producing sawn planks from tree trunks, which could then be cut down into boards, pales, posts, etc. Many towns, villages and country estates had their own saw pits. The greatest user of sawn timber in past centuries was the shipbuilding industry.


Saw pits


Open saw pits

A view of the retaining walls at the Kennox saw pit, built into the bank and higher ground off the Glazert Water.

Many saw pits were built at convenient sites in woodland which provided shelter from the rain as well as the timber for cutting into planks, etc. Best use of the landform would be made when digging the pit, saving on excavation by building into existing earth banks, etc. Many saw pits had wooden shuttering and solid upright posts to take the weight of the log resting on the dogs, others were brick lined with little niches for holding oil to reduce the friction on the cut and others to hold wedges for widening the kerf (the saw cut gap). The example at Kennox in Ayrshire had walls lined with well-made stone blocks. In this case, one side has collapsed, but the side built against the earth bank survives. The width appears to have been at least a metre and the pit would have been several metres long and therefore ditch-like in appearance.

Rackham makes the point that saw-pits, like charcoal-pits, were usually temporary and were filled in immediately after use. They were dug in places which were not likely to flood or have water seepage. The shape was usually rectangular, unlike charcoal-pits which were circular.[2]

Covered saw pits

The Weald and Downland Museum has restored and re-erected a saw-pit shed which originally came from Sheffield Park, Sussex. The covering roof kept the rain water out of the pit and off the saw men, who would also have some protection from sun and wind.[3]


Large logs would be usually hauled to the site by horses.

A sawyer is a person who cuts wood for a job. Sawyers were at one time important members of the rural community, because many implements, as well as buildings, were made of wood. In England, the terms used were 'bottom sawyer', for the man standing in the pit, and 'top sawyer', for the man who balanced on the log.

Together, the sawyers would alternate pulling the two-man saw through the log. If the saw kerf begins closing, it can cause the saw to bind and increase friction. Wedges, most often made of convenient bits of wood, could be inserted in order to keep the kerf open and reduce the friction. Kerf is an Anglo-Saxon word related to our modern day word 'carve'.[4] Two-man saws were designed to cut in both directions and very careful tooth design was necessary to clear the sawdust during the cut. The sawdust accumulated to the extent that it had to be 'dug out' and removed in a bucket. Oak dust could be burned and used in the curing of bacon.[5]

A small two-handled saw.

The two man team would use a two handled saw, called a 'whipsaw', with 'saddleblocks' or 'dogs' to hold the log in position horizontally. Sawing was a slow and exhausting process, requiring strong men with great stamina. The topsawyer had to be especially strong because the saw was pulled in turn by each man, and the lower had the advantage of gravity. The topsawyer also had the important task of guiding the saw so that the board was of even thickness. This was often done by following a chalkline. Is some cases the box handle on one end of the saw could be removed so the saw could be pulled free when the sawyers needed to move the timber to a new position.[6]

The top-sawyer's work had to be very accurate, for as stated it was he who kept a careful balance on the log and guided the long saw, kept the cuts straight or curved as required and estimated the width of the planks. He was the man in charge of the operation, and it wasn't uncommon for nicknames such as 'Williams Top-sawyer' to be common currency in country areas.[7] Great pride was taken in the finished article and the anticipation of the end result tended eased the severity of the labour required.

Shipbuilding was a major user of saw pits, often naval, where the planks of wood were sawn for the construction of all classes of vessels. The logs of wood to be sawn were placed over a pit on planks of wood called "dogs" in naval jargon. The senior sawsman stood on top of the plank and the junior had to go into the pit, often partially filled with water, with sawdust constantly 'raining down' and also he stood in sawdust as a result.[8] One disputed theory of the origin of the terms 'top dog' and 'underdog' is that they come from saw pit work practices; however, dog fighting is quoted as a far more likely source, backed up by some documentary evidence.[9] Cutting from underneath a suspended log is sometimes called "underbucking."

Water-driven power sawing could saw up to 200 boards a day compared to the 12 or so a day by two men in a saw pit. Ten foot logs were sometimes sawn into boards except for about the last two inches, in this way the boards could be more easily handled; when required the boards could be separated by cutting off the end of the log.[10]

Views of the Kennox estate saw pit

The demise of the saw pit

Tree trunks ready for sawing.

Sawmills may well have been developed in the medieval period, as one was sketched by Villard de Honnecourt in c.1250.[11] There are claims to have been introduced to Madeira following its discovery in c. 1420 and spread widely in Europe in the 16th century.[12]

The 'modern' sawmill was invented or perfected by the Dutchman Cornelis Corneliszoon (1550-1607) who applied a pitman arm onto a wind mill, which converted a turning motion into an up-an-down sawing motion. Cornelis took out a patent the sawmill on December 15, 1593 and the pitman on December 6, 1597. Early sawmills adapted the whipsaw to mechanical power, generally driven by a water wheel to speed up the process. The circular motion of the wheel was changed to back-and-forth motion of the saw blade by the pitman rod. A pitman is similar to a crankshaft, but in reverse; for a crankshaft converts back-and-forth motion to circular motion.

Several early sawmills in England were burned by sawyers who were fearful of loosing there livelyhoods.

The increased efficiency of the sawmill and the back-breaking nature of the work mean that saw pits generally went out of use in the United Kingdom at the time of the industrial revolution. Old OS maps circa 1860 often show the location of saw pits, but by the start of the 20th century very few remain and most are no longer shown to be in use.

Micro history

Q-pits, used to make White coal, are often found associated with saw pits.[13]

William Shakespeare refers to saw pits in the Merry Wives of Windsor..[9]

Greater Woodrush (Luzula sylvatica) in Spring. A common plant at kennox.

Philip 'Sawpit' Wharton was born in 1613 and in 1625 he became the fourth Lord Wharton. In 1642 Lord Wharton raised a regiment of foot and a troop of horse to fight in the Battle of Edgehill. They behaved less than gloriously - "Before there were any near excuse three or four of our regiments fairly ran away - Sir William Fairfax's, Sir Henry Cholmley's, my Lord Kimbolton's and to say the plain truth my own." Wharton not only ran away but is said to have hidden in a saw pit, thus earning for himself the parliamentary nickname.[14]

The settlement of Saw Pit in the United States of America eventually outgrew this name and became Port Chester by incorporating as a village in 1868.

The Town of Sawpit, Colorado is a statutory town located in San Miguel County, Colorado, United States of America.

Roy Underhill tells the story that, after the development of steam-powered sawing machines, the saw pits were unnecessary, and therefore were cut up and sold as post-holes.

Sites of old saw pits

  • Cotehele, Cornwall. Preserved by the National Trust in working order.
  • Elvet, County Durham.
  • Haltwhistle, Northumberland. A saw pit is located beside the Haltwhistle burn.
  • Haswell, County Durham.
  • Kibblesworth, County Durham.
  • Little Lumley, County Durham.
  • Quarrington, County Durham. A saw pit near Quarrington Hall.
  • Marble Head, Restronguet Point, near Falmouth, Cornwall. There is a trench there - now stone-clad - which is thought to have once been the site of a saw pit, but this has not been confirmed.
  • Singleton, Chichester, West Sussex. A covered saw pit at the Weald and Downland Museum.
  • Broomhill, map reference: NH 611 516; Parish of Knockbain in the Highland Council area.
  • Cadham, map reference: NO 3298 7240; Parish of Cortachy and Clova in Angus Council area.
  • Charlie's Sike, map reference: NY 4805 8770; Parish of Castleton in Scottish Borders Council area.
  • Kennox estate, map reference: NS 386 448; Parish of Dreghorn in the North Ayrshire Council area. 55°40′11″N 4°34′00″W / 55.6698°N 4.5666°W / 55.6698; -4.5666
  • Kirkton Muir, map reference: NH 602 435, Parish of Kirkhill in the Highland Council area.
  • Pennyseorach, map reference: NR 7127 0778; Parish of Southend in Argyll And Bute Council area.
  • Strathallan Wood, map reference: NN 9420 1797, Parish of Trinity Gask in Perth And Kinross. Two parallel grass-grown hollows mark the site of a disused saw pit on the edge of a forestry plantation 950 m ESE of Raith farmstead (NN91 NW61). They are set about 1 m apart.[15]
  • Woolforddyke, map reference: NT 0075 5590; Parish of Carnwath in South Lanarkshire Council area. The visible remains are of an oval pit, measuring 2 m by 1.6 m across and 0.4 m in depth, situated within a shelter belt.[15]


  1. ^ "sawpit" and "saw pit" at
  2. ^ Rackham, Oliver (1976). Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Pub. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0-460-04183-5. P. 118.
  3. ^ Sheffield Park saw-pit shelter
  4. ^ The word Kerf
  5. ^ Sturt, George (1963). The Wheelwright's Shop.. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521091950.
  6. ^ A detachable end to the saw.
  7. ^ Memoirs of Country life.
  8. ^ Brixham Museum model
  9. ^ a b Dog fighting and the origin of Topdog, etc.
  10. ^ Number of boards cut in a day.
  11. ^ C. Singer et at., History of Technology II (Oxford 1956), P. 643 - 4.
  12. ^ Charles E. Peterson, 'Sawdust Trail: Annals of Sawmilling and the Lumber Trade' Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology Vol. 5, No. 2. (1973), pp. 84-5.
  13. ^ Muir, Richard (2008). Woods, Hedgerows and Leafy Lanes. Pub. Tempus, Stroud. ISBN 0-7524-4615-8. P. 91 - 92.
  14. ^ Sawpit Wharton.
  15. ^ a b RCAHMS Canmore site

External links


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