colonial Timberyard in America, The

Poirier, Noel

(ProQuest Information and Learning: Text missing in the original.)

As one looks at the buildings that made up the colonial cities of America, the amount of building material used to construct such attractive and resilient structures can be awe inspiring. It is a testament to the men who worked so diligently and skillfully to construct those buildings that the homes and public edifices still stand today for thousands upon thousands to enjo While many people, through th visits to Colonial Williamsburg other historic cities throughout t former American colonies, have a c sory knowledge of the trades that bu these monuments, they are rare aware of the work that occurred I fore a house carpenter ever picked u saw or chisel. Obviously, the prepa tion of the raw materials used to co struct America’s colonial cities m lack the drama ofa frame raising. Ho ever, without the raw materials bei produced by the sawyer and squarer at a colonial timberyard, the carpenters, coopers, cabinetmakers, and any other tradespeople that use wood as a medium would find it difficult to compete.

The question of timberyards in the American colonies is one which has never been adequately addressed. What did the operation look like? What was sold in these timberyards? Who worked there? These questions all need to be answered in order to discover what the colonial timberyard offered the eighteenth-century woodworker. Those who worked the pitsaw played as vital a role in the construction of colonial cities, furniture, and wheels as any carpenter, cabinetmaker or wheelwright. Also, all craftspeople who work in wood should be aware of the historic source of their medium, how it was shaped, and what it took to get it into their hands.

One way to illuminate colonial timberyards is to examine the timberyard business throughout Britain and all of her far-flung colonies. There are many physical descriptions of the sawing operations found in British and colonial dockyards and timberyards that mirror what one might find in a timberyard in the American colonies.

These sources paint a picture of what colonial American timberyards may have looked like at the height of their operation. Determining who staffed these timberyards can be accomplished by examining the many runaway advertisements and court records that speak to us about the types of men who labored in them. Yet another valuable source on the laborers of timberyards are the descriptions of sawyers left by writers and diarists. In these, one finds descriptions of not only the sawyer’s methods, but in many cases, their personalities as well. Adding to this knowledge are studies of the use of enslaved labor in the wood trades. These works enlighten the role that those of African descent played in colonial American timberyards.

Without exception, the most important part of any eighteenth-century timberyard was its sawpits. These were the areas where teams of sawyers worked to saw out the various timbers to their finished dimensions. The appearance of these sawpits can be gleaned from a variety of sources. In n 37 Blaise Ollivier, Master Shipwright to the King of France, toured the dockyards of Britain and Holland in an effort to improve French shipbuilding techniques. He made some of the keenest observations about the sawpits found in those shipyards:

They have at their dockyards sawpits which are 22 to 25 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 6 feet deep, situated 3 to 4 feet one from the other … The walls of these sawpits are lined with brick,with two or three small lodging places cut into the walls where the sawyers keep their tools. When they wish to saw up a timber they place it on rollers over one of the pits; the rollers are blocked with wedges; one of the sawyers descends into the pit, the other stands on top of the timber, and after they have sawn the full length afforded by the pit they slide the timber easily on its rollers with no need of a device other than a crow…1

Ollivier was impressed enough by the sawing methods used at these shipyards that he composed a sketch of the pits. There can also be found sawpits of the kind described by Ollivier in the British colony of Antigua, where His Majesty’s ships were often refitted or repaired.2 The sawpits in the painting, Messers. Smith and Co. Ship Yard (Figures 1 and 1 a), although dating from the early nineteenth century, are typical of sawpits that one would find in any timberyard in colonial America.

George Sturt, a turn-of-the-century British wheelwright, described the local sawpits of his youth as an enclosed pit, “five or six feet” deep, with brick sides. The sides of the pit contained open spaces where the pitman could stash small pots of oil and wedges. Sturt remembered the sawpit fondly, remembering that it provided him with “a sense of great peace.”3 An English chairmaker, Thomas Hudson, described a sawpit as being a “rectangular hole dug in the ground with..a few boards wedged in the ends to keep the earth from falling in” and that the pit was “damp and dark.”4 Sometimes, in the mild English summers, the sawyers would work in sawpits in the woods, which often would have no covering at all (see cover). It was only in the winter months when the sawyers would prefer to work in the shelter of a sawhouse.5

The use of sawpits is also well documented in America as well. In February of 1760, George Washington inscribed in his diary that “Mike and Tom sawed 122 feet of oak” in the sawpit at Mount Vernon.6 Thomas Jefferson built a sawpit on Mulberry Row at Monticello as well, adding a structure for wood storage and drying adjoining the pit.7 In some cases sawpits were enclosed in a house to protect the sawyers, and the pits, from the weather. In March of 1768, a Warwick County, Virginia landowner advertised that he had a saw-house for three pairs of sawyers….”8 The house covering the sawpits in Antigua was simply a post building with a gable roof and open sides.9 In his book, The Village Carpenter, Walter Rose provides a photograph of an old, English sawpit which probably would resemble those found on colonial plantations and in timberyards.10 In the far larger and more industrial dockyards of Britain, the sawpits were often entirely enclosed in large brick buildings.

In addition to the sawpits themselves, one can use accounts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to speculate on how colonial timberyards appeared. At these timberyards, there were found many different species of wood all stacked up in great piles, some still in log form, others squared and ready for the saw (Figure 2). In the case of whole logs, the oak timbers may have been simply piled up, allowed to remain out in the weather uncovered to season.II Meanwhile, “pitch pine” (American longleaf yellow pine) timbers were buried in the ground or left to soak in man-made pools in an effort to keep the resin, or “pitch,” in the heartwood from drying out.12 These two methods of storing pine were in use in British shipyards during the eighteenth-century. There were also alternatives to leaving the material outdoors to season. In 1754 an immigrant sawyer, who had begun a business in New York City, advertised that he had “a good house for keeping timber out of the weather.”13 As we noted above, Thomas Jefferson constructed a storage building at Monticello for the stockpiling of his building materials as well.

Once the material had been sawn out it needed to be stacked and sorted so that it could dry properly. Often sawn plank would be stored by laying down a bed of cinders, then stacking the plank in such a way that air flowed freely between the boards, thus drying them sufficiently.14 This was commonly referred to as “stickering” the plank. There may be found illustrations of this practice in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, showing the top set of planking tilted at an angle to allow the rain to flow off the boards easily.15 A circa 18 10 watercolor of a London dock-side, entitled The Adelphi Terrace and Coal Wharf, clearly shows a timberyard in the background with its inventory stacked in tall, “stickered,” piles and covered with angled boards to shed rainwater and shield the wood from the sun.16 Timber was also stacked in what was called a “timber-perch,” two vertically placed forked posts with a pole running between them, with the sawn timbers rested diagonally on the horizontal pole for storage.17 This type of storage method can be found in a woodcut in Thomas Berwick’s Vignettes” and in a 1765 watercolor painting, The Royal Crescent in the Course ofConstruction by Thomas Malton.19 English carpenter Walter Rose remembered that the perches provided alcoves which “were lofty and cool, even in the hottest weather.”20

The material available in the colonial timberyard varied from region to region, but the material described is similar throughout Britain and her colonies. Timberyards in the British Isles would have contained indigenous woods like oak, ash, elm, sycamore and beech. In the large, urban dockyards there also would have been woods, primarily firs and pines, imported from the continent of Europe and North America.21 As in Britain, colonial timberyards dealt primarily with indigenous woods of their specific region. In 1774, a King William County, Virginia timberyard contained quantities of white oak, black walnut, sweet gum, ash, poplar, birch, longleaf yellow pine and cheaper slash pine.22 Material, including walnut, ceder and white pine, was also exported from the British colonies to the mother country during the eighteenth century.23 It was not until the early half of the nineteenth century that Great Britain saw the value in American longleaf (or “pitch”) yellow pine for shipbuilding. After 1804, the British Navy lost its prejudice against the wood and realized its qualities as a shipbuilding material.24 In general, the British market favored its native woods over those of the colonies. Lloyds of London, in considering a wood’s shipbuilding use, consistently rated American woods lower than their British or European counterparts.25

A woodworker wishing to purchase material from a colonial timberyard would be able to select from a variety of sizes and products. In Britain and America, material was available in timber form, as plank, deals, board, and scantling. To a British woodworker, “timber” was the term applied to material which was larger than eight inches in thickness. The term “plank” usually referred to material that was sawn from two to eight inches in thickness. If a piece was thinner than two inches, it was often referred to as “deal.”26 In colonial America one finds the words “board” and “scantling” appearing in the record of timberyard material. In Burlington, New Jersey, a timber merchant referred to pine and cedar pieces that were 1 3/4 inches and 1/2 inch thick as “boards.”27

Forty years later, a Charleston timber merchant used the term “board” to describe material that was 1 1/4 inches thick as well.28 The word “scantling” was used by this same merchant to describe material that was anywhere from 3 inches x 3 inches to 4 inches x 10 inches and larger.29 As both “scantling” and “plank” could be anywhere from twelve to thirty feet in length, the length of the material seemed not to affect the term applied to it. Advertisements for timberyards in South Carolina, New York, Virginia, and New Jersey all seem to include the above terms in their descriptions of their available products.30

It is likely that most colonial timberyards fell somewhere in between the large sawing operations found in British dockyards and the smaller sawhouses found on Virginia plantations. Using the descriptions above, one can piece together a picture of how most colonial timberyards probably looked and the materials they offered. What is harder to discern is who brought these colonial American timberyards to life. Who were the men handling the tiller and box of the pitsaw? Surprisingly, there is considerably more information on this topic than one might expect.

Again, one can gather a great deal of information about the men who worked in colonial American timberyards by examining their British brethren. The use of the pit saw required that men work in teams of two, one to handle the up-stroke, the other to pull down on the saw to make the cut. Sometimes the more skilled man would stand on the top of the log guiding the saw, only referring to his pitman by the title “donkey,” “marrow,” or simply “man.”31 On occasion the top-sawyer was also the owner of the saw, and would “swear down at the man sweating in the saw-pit” if he failed to perform to expectations.32 However, being a sawyer required a great deal of cooperation, and the two men had to get along well enough. If not, the fighting could lead to one man “adjourning to the public-house,” thus spoiling the day’s work.33

While the majority of sawing in Britain was done by the large, semi-skilled population of sawyers, a great deal of labor involved in the timbering process in colonial America would have been done by the large, unskilled enslaved population. Very few in depth studies of the role of African-Americans in the building trades have been written. However the ones that have been written offer insight into the amount of enslaved labor used in timber preparation. In the period from 1760 to 1800, there were over 796 references to slave sawyers operating in the Charleston, South Carolina area alone. These men often were working not only as sawyers but as carpenters, coopers, and shinglemakers as well.34 There are also many Williamsburg, Virginia references to enslaved men being used as labor in the timber business. In 1763 Alexander Craig paid a Thomas Cowles four pounds for the rent of two enslaved sawyers.35 In 1780, Allen Chapmen claimed that he had lost a twenty-five year old slave sawyer to the British army; as a result, he received one hundred and twenty-five pounds in compensation for his loss.36 The location of Jefferson’s sawpit on Mulberry Row indicates that slaves were doing the majority of sawing at Monticello as well.37 This fact is borne out by Jefferson’s renting, at forty pounds a year, of two enslaved sawyers.38 In all, roughly 21 percent of the 302 known African-American building tradesman in Virginia were trained as sawyers.39 Notwithstanding the large number of enslaved sawyers, the evidence demonstrates that white and black labor was called upon to toil together in the colonial timberyards of Virginia.

Sawyers, Anglo-American or African-American, either learned their trade “on the job” or served a more traditional formal apprenticeship. While the trade of sawing was typically viewed as unskilled, there are a few references in Virginia to young orphans who were apprenticed to learn the trade sawing. One example, found in Lancaster County, Virginia, finds Francis Hattaway (age five) apprenticed to John Davis to “learn the trade of a sawyer.”40 Another young man in Princess Anne County, Virginia was apprenticed to be a sawyer, and to learn “to read the Bible and write in a legible hand.”41 In spite of its unskilled nature, sawing did require specialized skills. George Sturt described the process of sawing as being “full of skill” and that the sawyers were “specialists of no mean order.”42 While Sturt admitted that the sawyers may have looked “stupid,” he argued that their skill was “an organic thing, very different from the organised [sic] effects of commerce.”43 Walter Rose described the sawyers of his community as having “considerable skill and intelligence,” in spite of their apparent “dumb mentality.”44 Simply sharpening the saw was “no mean act of skill,” and required years of practice, being handed down from one generation of sawyers to the next.45

References to sawyers are not limited to the British Isles; sawyers are also found in the records of a number of colonial Virginians. John Mercer paid Peter Murphy, a sawyer, over sixteen pounds for four months of sawing in 1748.46 No reference is given to Murphy’s partner, and one could assume that he was a slave. If Murphy worked at sawing year round his annual income could have been as much as sixty-four pounds! In June 1763, Williamsburg leatherworker Alexander Craig paid a person named Cowles four pounds for the renting of pair of sawyers.47 Virginian Richard Henry Lee paid a sawyer three pounds plus provisions, for twenty-six days work on his plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia.48 Even though he employed many slave sawyers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson also hired white sawyers when needed. In October 1795, Jefferson hired two men to come to Monticello and “saw for me.” The men were paid by the piece and, as in Lee’s case, provided with “provisions.”49

The most interesting aspect of studying the eighteenth-century timberyard is the descriptions of the sawyers and their personalities. The most common thread among observers of sawyers is the description of the drunken sawyer. George Sturt, describing the sawyers he knew, commented that one of the pair might “drift off to a public-house” for four days, thus preventing any work from occurring. Sturt observed that, when need be, the sawyers would determine to drink nothing but tea so as to meet the demands of their employers and to repent for their past absenteeism.”50 Walter Rose observed that “a sawyer’s faith in beer was absolute” and they often found “relaxation at the pub.”51 Wheelwright Percy Wilson noted that the sawyers “lost a lot of sweat,” and that they replaced it with beer because they believed it “was safer than water.”52 Was alcohol the “provision” which Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson supplied their sawyers? While it is true that Jefferson opposed dispensing hard liquor to his workmen, one gets the impression that alcohol and sawing went hand in hand.53

The colonial American timberyard resembled, in many ways, the modern lumberyard. The customer could select from a broad spectrum of products and materials, sawn to specific and reasonably standard dimensions. The material would have been sitting out, probably under some sort of shelter or covered with angled planks. A customer could buy anything from a whole log to a thin plank, and select a wood best suitable to his needs. In the background there would have been the sawpits, along with the colorful men occupying them. The size and number of sawpits would be determined by the ability of the timber merchant to acquire material and employ sawyers. In the south it is doubtless that many of these sawyers would have been enslaved individuals, while in the northern colonies there would have been more free labor. The wood, of all species, would be stacked up in large, stickered piles, or perched on end pointing towards the sky. The buyer could inspect the material, making sure it was of the quality, size, and length needed. The air would be filled with the faint smell of wood, damp sawdust, sweat, and hard alcohol. In the background the customer, instead of hearing the whir of the power saw, would hear the sounds of the pitsaw and the oaths of the sawyer as they reigned down on his unfortunate “donkey.”


1. David Roberts, ed., 1I th Century Shipbuilding: Remarks on the Navies of the English and Dutch from Observations Made at their Dockyards in 17.37 by Blaise Ollivier Master Shipwright to the King of France(East Sussex, England: Jean Boudriot Publications, 1992), p. 75.

2. Jonathan Coad, The Royal Dockyards 1690-1850 (Aldershot, Harts, England and Brookfield, Vermont: Scholar Press, 1989), p. 359.

3. George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 57-58.

4. Elizabeth Seager, ed., The Countryman Book of Village Trades and Crafts (London: David and Charles, 1978), pp. 103-104.

5. Sturt, p. 29.

6. Donald Jackson, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, Volume I (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), p. 239.

7. Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography ofa Builder (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988), p. 85.

S. Virginia Gazette, 7 March 1768 (Purdie and Dixon). 9. Coad, p. 359.

10. Walter Rose, The Village Carpenter (New York: New Amsterdam, 1987), p. 29.

11. Robert Albion, Forests and Seapower; The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy, 165-1862 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926), p. 70.

12. Ibid., pp. 70-71.

13. New York Gazette and Weekly Post Boy, 6 June 1754, as found in Social History Database (Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).

14. Albion, p. 70.

15. Charles Gillispie, ed. A Diderot Pictoral Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry, Volume Two, (New York: Dover Publications, 1987), plate 292.

16. Celina Fox, Londoners (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987).

17. Rose, p. 3.

18. lain Bain, ed. Thomas Bewick, Vignettes: Being Tail Pieces Engraved Principally for his General History of Quadrupeds and History of British Birds, (London: The Scholar Press, 1978), p. 64.

19. James Ayres, The Building ofan isth Century City; Bath Spa (Bath, England: Bath Preservation Trust, 1991), p. 3.

20. Rose, p. S.

21. Rose, pp. 1-3, 16. Albion, pp. 3-38.

22, Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, 7 April 1774.

23. Virginia Gazette, Rind, 15 November 1766. Virginia Gazette, Rind, 2 December 1766. Albion, p. 31.

24. Albion, p. 325. 25. Albion, pp. 36-38. 26. Albion, pp. 8-10.

27. New York Gazette or Weekly Post Boy, 3 June 17,54, p. 1. 28. South Carolina State Gazette and Timothy&Mason’s Daily Advertiser, 1 December 1797, p. S.

29. Ibid.

30. New York Gazette or Weekly Post Boy, 23 September 1751, p. 1. South Carolina Gazette, 25 September 1736, p. 1. Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, 7 April 1774.

31. Donald Woodward, Men at Work. Labourers and Building Craftsmen in the Towns ofNorthern England, 1450-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 19. 32. Sturt, p. 39.

33. Sturt, p. 39.

34. Mary Allison Carll-White, The Role of the Black Artisan in the Building Trades and the Decorative Arts in South Carolina’s Charleston District, 1760-1800 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982), pp. 112-120.

35. Alexander Craig Account Book, 29 June 1763, as found in Social History Database: M- 153-3.

36. York County Claims for Losses, 1780, as found in Social History Database: M-1.45, 8.

37. McLaughlin, p. 85. 38. McLaughlin, p. 429n.

39. Vanessa E. Patrick, “as good a joiner as any in Virginia”: African-Americans in Eighteenth Century Building Trades (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Research Report, 1995). This work offers the most comprehensive examination of African-Americans in Virginia building trades

to date, and deserves attention.

40 Lancaster County Order Book 1729-1743, 14 July 17;58, as found in Social History Database, p. 209.

41. Princess Anne County Order Book 1728-1738,4 December 1728, as found in Social History Database, p. 6.

42. Sturt, p. 32. 43. Sturt, p. 33. 44. Rose, p. 32. 45. Rose, ). 6.

46. John Mercer Ledger G 1741-1750, 1748, as found in Social History Database.

47. Alexander Craig Account Book, 29 June 1763, Colonial Williamsburg Library Microfilm, M-153-3.

48. Richard Henry Lee Memorandum Book, 1776-1794,7 February 1786, p. 116.

49. McLaughlin, p. 427n. 50. Sturt, p. 39.

51. Rose, p. 33.

52. George Ewart Evans, Tools of Their Trades: Oral History of Men at Work, c. 1900 (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1971), p. 31.

53. McLaughlin, p. 235.


Noel Poirier is a Journeyman Carpenter with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Department of Historic Trades. He is currently researching the appearance of eighteenth century carpentry/joinery shops in preparation for the reconstruction of a shop at Colonial Williamsburg. The Historic Trades Department would be interested in any information The Chronicle readers might have on timberyards.

Copyright Early American Industries Association Jun 2001

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