Gangs of ‘bushmen’ felled trees using axes and two-man crosscut saws. A scarf (wedge-shaped cut) was chopped in the trunk, on the side where the tree was expected to fall. The tree was then sawn through from the other side. Usually trees were cut singly, but a skilled bushman could fell several at a time in a ‘drive’. He did this by chopping scarfs in a line of trees up a hill, and then felling the highest tree, which took down the others like a row of dominoes.
Man of the bush
In 1911 travel writer W. H. Koebel described the New Zealand bushman: ‘Clad in blue “dungaree” trousers and coarse grey shirt, with clasp-knife in his belt, he plies his long-handled, keen-bladed axe with lithe, supple movements …He is of spare rather than of heavy build, but every muscle in his frame is of iron blended with elasticity. His arms and bearded face are tanned to dark mahogany, and his eye glows with the steady, keen light that only those who live their lives with nature possess.’ 1
Bushmen sometimes admired their beautiful surroundings, even though their work eventually destroyed many native forests. They learned bush lore, such as how to extract ‘mataī beer’ – drinkable sap – from mataī trees.
Trees were sawn into logs before being taken to the mill. During this process the logs were moved using the timber jack (a New Zealand adaptation of a screw jack). Teams of bullocks hauled logs to the mill, and in rugged areas, chutes, rolling and skidding roads and bush tramways were used. Driving dams helped float kauri, the only buoyant native timber, down rivers – when water was released from behind the dam, the logs cascaded downstream with it.
Close-knit teams of bushmen often lived in remote camps, working up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sunday jobs included sharpening tools and doing laundry. Alcohol was usually forbidden, but the men relaxed by smoking pipes, playing cards and holding men-only ‘buck dances’.
The all-important cook was up at 4 a.m. to prepare a huge breakfast of porridge and meat stew. The men had jam sandwiches for lunch, but expected a dinner of soup, meat and vegetables, and pudding. The cook announced meals by blowing on a bullock horn, which also raised the alarm if there was an accident. Injured men could face slow death or a painful trip to reach medical help.
Most bush camps were all-male, but sometimes the wife and children of the boss lived there too, the woman cooking for the men.
Felling trees with wood
The hard wood of one native tree, the rātā, was used to help fell other trees. Early bushmen made strong axe handles from rātā, and it was also used to build sawmills and sawmilling machinery. The sleepers of tramways made to transport logs out of the bush were often rātā.
Some timber was milled near the logging site. Logs were jacked into position on a platform over a pit. They were then cut up by two men using a crosscut saw, one standing on top of the log and one beneath.
Pit-sawing could not keep up with the demand for timber, and from the 1840s, water-powered sawmills were built. After 1865 steam-powered mills appeared.
Sawmilling was skilled work. Sawyers had to judge how to cut a log to get the correct size and grade of timber. Like logging, milling was risky. Early machinery lacked safety guards, and there were some gruesome accidents. From the 1890s sawmill and timber workers’ unions helped improve conditions of work.
Towns grew up around the back-country sawmills. Often they were temporary, without piped water, sewers or sealed roads. Once the nearby bush had been cut, the town simply vanished. One that survived was the aptly named Woodville, sited at the centre of the Seventy Mile Bush in southern Hawke’s Bay. Between 1895 and 1910, Woodville sawmills produced great quantities of sawn timber and firewood.
Many of the men in mill towns were keen sportsmen who excelled in sawing and chopping competitions.