The evolution of the chainsaw

In the forests of the Northwestern United States, one technological innovation has greatly impacted the logging industry: the chainsaw. Up next, our environmental reporting partner Earthfix looks at how this mechanical tool evolved to transform the timber industry.


In the forests of the Northwestern United States, one technological innovation has greatly impacted the logging industry -- the chainsaw.

Up next, our environmental-reporting partner, EarthFix, looks at how this mechanical tool evolved to transform the timber industry.

Take a look.

The chainsaw.

[ Chainsaw buzzing ] The most iconic modern symbol of logging.

But it wasn't always the case.

For a century in the Northwest, men in the woods labored with axes and handsaws, launching a massive industry.

The timber brought capital.

The timber brought a transportation network.

Timber brought people.

The beginning of the Northwest as a region had everything to do with timber.

But cutting and preparing trees for transport to the mills was slow, needing large crews.

As demand grew, companies quickly cut through all the easy-to-access forests.

Timber bosses looked to innovation to move deeper into the woods and speed up the cut.

But it took a great war to push the iconic chainsaw into the hands of the Northwest logger.

[ '40s-era big band plays ]

We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin.

The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

The war and the chainsaw set the industry up for the largest timber harvest in modern U.S.


Timber was a major commodity of war.

Wood was needed for every aspect of the war effort -- for airplanes and hangars... barracks and buildings... trucks, bridges... warships and barges... and shipping crates.

The acute need for wood prompted the United States to exempt loggers from the draft.

A timber-industry workforce that was decimated by the Great Depression suddenly had more work than it could handle but still some of the most clunky and rudimentary tools available to get the job done.

At Wayne's Sutton's Chainsaw Museum, the entire history of the saw is on display.

If you were talking the chainsaws prior to the war, you would be someplace where they had typically an electric machine, they had big generators mounted on crawlers or tractors of some sort, and the cords were the size of a garden hose.

These were two-man monstrosities, and there was some hesitation on the part of loggers to take them on.

One of the things they complained about was the noise.

The early chainsaws were loud, they were nasty, they spit oil, they spit gas.

But the war helped change that mentality.

And those people that went into the war, the young guys, came off of farms.

They've been working with horses and many of them -- very little knowledge of equipment, machines.

But when the war came along, they were exposed to other kinds of equipment beyond what their wildest dreams were.

Some men were even given chainsaws to use in the war effort, clearing paths through European and Asian forests for troops and equipment.

At the request of the military, a small Wisconsin company called Mercury built that saw using a German saw as a model.

They went into the civilian market as soon as the war was over, and he sold piles of them.

The technology and manufacturing capacity was improving because of the war effort.

The two-man chainsaws were giving way to lighter, one-man versions, thanks to the development of aluminum and magnesium alloys -- strong, light materials.

But the fact that a chainsaw now becomes a lot cheaper and a lot more easy to manufacture has to do with this new industrial infrastructure created as a consequence of the war.

With a trained workforce, the chainsaw, and other technology, the timber industry was primed and prepared for the postwar economic boom.

Paul Skirvin had been too young to enlist, but when World War II ended, he started a logging company that was in business for a half-century.

He got his first chainsaw in the late 1940s.

Doing it this way, you got tired.

The sweat rolled off, too.

[ Laughs ] After you got a power saw, man, just zip it a lot faster -- 10, 5, 8 times faster.

The timber boom was huge in the prosperity that followed the war.

Some businesses are moving to the low-rent outskirts... and so are families which can afford houses in the country.

They hollered about progress, you know, but they kept building more houses, and you had to keep producing more 'cause they'd build more houses.

And the saws come into existence, well, man, it made you even more productive.

Yeah, you could do a lot more, shorter length of time.

Billions of board-feet were being cut from Northwest forests.

If you live in a house made in the 1950s, 1960s, could almost guarantee it's Washington or Oregon lumber that built that house.

And those forests have paid an ecological price for the heavy harvest of the postwar era.

Fish and wildlife habitat was decimated.

By the mid 1990s, as much as 90% of old-growth forests were gone.

Now the cut is lower and much more regulated.

As a result, an industry that transformed itself with the chainsaw is once again looking to technology to adapt to new environmental expectations.

And there's still room for newcomers to make their mark.

Matt Hegerberg is the newest generation of logger.

Essentially, what we do are the more sensitive and more difficult jobs.

These thinning, restoration, and fire-treatment jobs are available, and it's innovative equipment that makes his business work.

Because we do deal with smaller timber, we aren't dealing with great, big trees with no limbs on them.

It takes a lot of work to get the volume.

One man can cut down a tree in just a few seconds, then it only takes a few more to shear off the limbs and cut it to length.

But, still, it's a man with a chainsaw that's called in when the ground is too steep, the brush is too thick, or the ecosystem too fragile for large machines.

It plays a very important role in what we do.

We keep one in every single one of our pickups.

We use them almost daily.

And even today, when logging is more hands-off than ever before, no self-respecting logger would go to a jobsite without a chainsaw in tow.