The Stone Saw

by Norm Kidder



Most people are familiar with stone axes and celts for cutting down trees. In central California neither of these tools are found in the archeological record, and most of the houses built were framed with relatively small diameter trees (1 - 3 inches). My experience of trying to cut down springy willows with a stone axe led me to believe there must be a better way.

After asking local archaeologists to no avail, I called Craig Bates, Curator of the Indian Museum in Yosemite, who told me about the historic use of a stone slab as a crosscut saw. Later I found documentation describing a group of four Indian men cutting down a tree. Two men used their carrying nets hooked together to catch and bend down the tree, the other two used a stone slab as a saw to cut the tree in about a minute. Working alone, I found it took me three to five minutes to cut down a willow 1.5 - 2 inches thick, bending it over with one hand and cutting with the other.

Over the past two summers I have undertaken the construction of a thatched central California Indian-style house using all stone age tools and materials. Using a straight 6 inch-long flake of metabasalt I had been given by a knapper friend, I created a stone saw. It was used to cut a one inch thick oak branch and split it part way. I inserted the flake into the split, creating a large "Hoko knife". (see photo)

The entire tool kit used to create the shelter frame:
Abalone shell, basalt flakes, obsidian chopper, wooden maul, and hafted saw.

Then, with a group of volunteers, I set out to cut down a dozen 2 inch diameter willows for house poles. Using the hafted saw, we could cut down a tree in just over a minute with four people as in the ethnographic account. Other members of the group created some crude edged tools that we also tried. These took about three minutes or so, because of the difficulty in holding onto them. Some trees took longer simply because of their position, and the difficulty of getting them properly bent over. The largest size that would be practical to cut seems to be about 3 to 4 inches in diameter, at which size an axe begins to work more efficiently.

The stone saw works only on green wood, and only when the tree is bent over sharply. This allows the saw to cut without side friction and jamming. It cuts about an eighth of an inch per motion. If proper pressure is not applied to the base of the tree, a series of splits will form in the end of the piece. Pushing down on the end above the cut moves the splits down to the stump, or eliminates them altogether. When the position of the tree permits, it can be cut half way through and then bent back the other way for a final cut. Where the second bend was not practical, I found I could cut most of the way through and then simply stomp down above the cut and peel it away from the stump, or pull up on the pole and peel it away. Smaller poles for binding on the thatch took about 30 seconds to cut. The saw's efficiency was quite gratifying to all of us, as we got our poles cut and carried them back to the building site in about two hours, less than the time it would take me with a steel saw working alone (hauling would take longer).

The severe bend in the trunk facilitates a better cut with the simple flake saw.

This exercise was the first of many in which the importance of the community became apparent. It would be very unlikely for a lone person to be building a house, and would indeed be very hard. The presence of a community provides a broader knowledge base as well as work force when needed. The additional time needed for the four person crew was made up for by the time saved in carrying and cleaning the poles, and in constructing the frame. As we got better at using the stone saws (and the bone saws for cutting the tule thatch), it became apparent that the use of stone tools within the context of a knowledgeable group was highly practical and did not add significantly to the time involved in house construction.

The completed frame.



This article was first published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (Fall 2000, #20)
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