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There's no tool like an old tool

The unique noise filling our woodlands south of Jacksonville last Sunday morning sounded like a beaver grating his buck teeth against the grain of a tree.

But a visitor would have found no beaver, only Maureen and I pushing and pulling an old crosscut saw across a 20-inch diameter fir log we were bucking up for firewood.

We quickly discovered why they call that type of saw a misery whip.

Your back aches. Your arms feel like lead weights. Sweat flows from every pore.

What led us to be cracking the whip began with a message Medford resident Richard Powers left on the phone.

"I finally found the old saw handles I told you about last year," he said. "I was almost standing on top of them when we were talking about them. I just didn't see 'em. They're yours if you still want them."

To many folks, the old wooden handles would have looked like so much junk. After all, they were simply ancient pieces of wood with some rusting hardware attached. Most people would have chucked them into the garbage.

But we couldn't have been more tickled. We had found an old crosscut saw in an ancient stand-alone garage we were dismantling on our property eight years ago.

We were itching to try the saw out but the 8-foot-long blade had no handles. When I was telling Richard about the old saw last December, he mentioned he had an old pair around somewhere that we could have.

An octogenarian who is a retired building contractor, he appreciates hand tools that have weathered the ages. Over the years, he built up a collection of 35 handsaws.

However, as the stump of a ring finger on his left hand attests, he used power tools while in the trade. The stump was the result of his breaking in one of the first circular power saws on the market, said the Navy veteran.

The old misery whip handles came from the ranch his father bought in the Applegate Valley in 1936, he explained. In fact, they were able to cut enough firewood on the property to pay for the land, he added.

Like Richard, I've always been fascinated by old hand tools.

When King Tut's treasures made their first visit to the New World 30 years ago, I stood for an hour in front of his 3,000-year-old chair trying to figure out how the ancient Egyptian sawyers fashioned it.

If I watched TV, my idea of time well spent would be watching PBS' "The Woodwright's Shop," the one featuring the fellow who works with nothing but people-powered tools. Yankee ingenuity seemed to flow more readily back in the day.

The vintage handles Richard gave us reflected that ingenuity. They are equipped with what are known as the pin-style design with a finger guard and a groove to accept the end of the saw blade. Two steel flanges saddle each side of the wooden handle. A half-inch diameter bolt passing through a hole in the wooden handle is tightened by a wing nut.

It took only a few minutes to attach the handles to our old saw. A perfect tight fit. I liked the fact the wing of one nut had broken off, evidence of years of use.

The literature I found indicates our saw is a bucking saw with a straight back, not a felling saw with the telltale tapered ends. A bucking saw was often used by one person, resulting in a thicker blade that won't bend when it is pushed. It also weighs more than a felling saw because the weight is an asset to the poor sap working by his or her lonesome.

Our saw apparently has what is called a lance tooth pattern. Picture a Klingon blade.

Although the saw is a bit rusty, it appears the teeth were sharpened before the tool was stored for decades. We figured we had to try it out before putting it back into retirement.

That's why the sound of steel teeth grating across the grain filled our woods. No doubt it was a sound not heard for decades in the vicinity.

But about 15 minutes of the sweaty work more than satisfied our masochistic curiosity. Our respect for those who wielded the old saws climbed with each exhausting minute. We were whipped.

The old misery whip is now a conversation piece hanging high over the cabin's deck. We employed an extension ladder to place it high enough so we wouldn't ever be tempted to whip it out again.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.