The Efficiency of Hewing

(This post was inspired by a conversation had recently while hewing a timber.)

When Henry David Thoreau built his little cabin on the shores of Walden Pond, he borrowed an axe and started chopping down standing pines at the end of March. By mid-April, Thoreau, a woodworker with average competence and limited experience, had hewn his timbers, cut the joinery, and made ready for the raising. And in his words, “I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it.” Thoreau was endlessly distractible, pursuing clouds and ants and loons in the pond, so one can imagine his workdays being less than rigidly scheduled. And yet, the pines became 6x6 posts, studs, and rafters in just a few weeks, apparently hewn with the same axe with which they were cut down.

This is a fast way to build.

During the CSF timber-frame project here in Maine back in 2019, we ran some rough calculations to find just how fast some of those timbers were being hewn. Working at a fairly casual pace, it was estimated that the hewing proceeded at a rate of 1.19m2/person-hour. So a leisurely 8x8x12' post took around three hours to produce. “It goes through my Wood-Mizer a lot faster than that!” someone might argue. But how much did your mill cost? And how much maintenance does it require? And how much are you relying on massive infrastructure, oil fields and refineries and fuel trucks and filling stations and parts manufacturers, to keep that thing going? Thoreau just used an axe. And he greatly enjoyed the work.

While he was here visiting last week, Will Lisak demonstrated a method of hewing logs just slightly larger than the size of the desired finished timber. The method eliminates the steps of notching and joggling, instead advancing along the log by a series of slicing swings of the axe, shallow at first, but deepening to the chalk lines as the hewer moves along. With little wood to remove, the speed of the work is only limited by the skill of the worker. One of the carpenters in 2019 demonstrated a similar method while hewing a flat the length of a 14' rafter, which took him all of two minutes. There is no faster way to accomplish that task.



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