Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon History

For most people not intimately familiar with the logging industry, it’s easy to forget how new an invention the chainsaw is.

In 1947, loggers had basically all the comforts of modern life: they lived in modern homes with their families, commuted to work in reliable cars, lunched on bologna sandwiches wrapped in cellphane and enjoyed hot coffee out of Thermos bottles. But they were still cutting timber the way their grandfathers had back in the late 1800s — with huge crosscut “misery whips,” their giant cutting teeth lovingly filed to razor points, standing on springboards stuck into holes chopped in ten-foot-thick tree trunks.

Three years later, that would no longer be the case, and for good or bad, working in the woods would never be the same.

Because Oregon had more timberlands than any other state (until 1959 when Alaska became a state), it makes sense that some of the major innovations in logging would have come out of the Beaver State. When it comes to chainsaws, though, Oregon people and companies nearly dominate the story.

Mostly, that’s down to two guys: Charles Wolf in 1920, and Joe Cox in 1947.

Wolf invented the first actual usable portable chainsaw. Not the first chainsaw, of course – that honor probably goes to a slow, heavy, fragile contraption invented in 1858 by a New Yorker named Harvey Brown. It was basically a band saw with the blade cut into sections and hinged so that it could rotate flat.

Wolf is a man who really ought to be better known than he is. In the late 1800s he worked with John Holland to design the first American submarine. And in 1911, as chief engineer for the Blackwell company, he partnered up with Frank Redman, a young electrical engineer working for a Washington power company, to design the world’s first electric-powered sawmill in Ione, Washington. Today, of course, nearly all sawmills are electric powered.

Wolf and Redman became the team that would, in 1920, patent the first real portable chainsaw.

They had to overcome some serious challenges to do it. The problem with chainsaws in 1920 was two-fold: a cutting chain had to be designed that worked well under power and a source of power had to be found that weighed less than 100 pounds.

The weight of the power unit was Redman’s department. At the time, small gasoline engines just weren’t a thing. Engines were made of cast iron and they weighed hundreds of pounds. So to power the saw, Redman used a lightweight (for the time) electric motor, with the saw connected by a long cable to a gasoline-powered generator.

The generator, of course, took some lugging around, but once it was set up and running, the sawyer was almost as free to maneuver as he would be using a modern gas chainsaw.

The cutting chain was Wolf’s department. Most attempts to invent a cutting chain had been based on the design of the old faithful two-man crosscut saw (the “misery whip”), and Wolf’s was no exception; but on his, apparently for the first time, the cutting teeth and the rakers were offset so that the forces they applied to the wood balanced each other out – totally eliminating the tendency to “buck” that earlier saws had shown and making the saw cut very clean and straight, like a knife sinking into a cube of butter.

Wolf and Redman went into production, partnering with Peninsula Iron Works in Portland to produce the saws. But their salespeople got laughed out of the woods everywhere they went. They had made the saw for loggers, but most loggers wanted nothing to do with it.

There were many reasons the Wolf electric saw wasn’t popular with loggers. Probably the main one was, they saw it as a solution to a non-problem. Loggers actually liked the misery whip just fine. Its sad-country-song name notwithstanding, the misery whip was a pretty efficient and effective way to cut down a large tree. By the time you factored in all the monkeying around with the generator, Wolf’s electric chainsaw was no faster than a good crosscut team and far less versatile. Plus, its bar length was too short for much of the old-growth timber that was being cut in the 1920s.

And then, too, what did you do if you got all your stuff set up in the woods for a day of work and the generator engine dropped a valve or someone dropped an ax on the electric line?

Thanks, the loggers said —— but, no thanks.

Luckily for Wolf, others were more accepting. Construction contractors found Wolf saws especially useful for precision cuts made to huge beams and rafters, and sawmill operators used them in various places where a huge circular saw blade wouldn’t be convenient.

A model powered by compressed air came out a few years later, which could be used by divers underwater. And in 1930 they made their first attempt at a gasoline-powered saw. It weighed 80 pounds, broke down with depressing regularity, and probably could only be used in an upright position; so nothing came of this.

Meanwhile, Wolf’s number-one competitor was turning out to be Andreas Stihl’s operation in Germany. Using his own patents for a saw chain similar to Wolf’s (but different enough not to infringe), Stihl had built the first gas-powered saw, a 101-pound two-man monster, in 1929. It wasn’t much use, but Stihl refined it and in 1936 introduced a gas-powered saw that weighed only 46 pounds. And it was that saw that now slowly started to percolate into logging operations – although most loggers still preferred their good old misery whips.

Then the Second World War broke out, and Stihl was a military enemy. That effectively made his patents free for anyone to use. Wolf’s competitors suddenly had access to a cutting system that could compete with his own.

Then the Portland factory that Wolf had contracted with to make his saws was called upon to produce more critical war materials. By around 1943 Wolf saws and chain were out of production for the duration of the conflict.

At the end of the war, Wolf looked over the competitive field and decided that with his patents expired, Stihl’s in widespread use, and no good lightweight gasoline engine available to fit to his saws, it wouldn’t make sense to start back up.

History would ratify that as a very good decision. Because three years after the war ended, another Oregon man, watching a nest of wood-boring beetle larvae chew through a log he’d just split open, saw something that would lead him to invent the modern chainsaw.

His name was Joe Cox, and we’ll have his story in an upcoming column.

(Sources: Lucia, Ellis. “A Lesson from Nature: Joe Cox and his Revolutionary Saw Chain,” Journal of Forest History, July 1981; “The Wolf Saga,” Chain Saw Age, Oct. 1965; acresinternet.com/cscc.nsf)

— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

Clarification: A previous version incorrectly noted the year that Alaska became a state. The Spokesman regrets the error.

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