Modern carpenters would not know what cracking a log was

Posted by | February 26, 2014

Those who never lived in a mountainous country are often surprised at the sight of what we call sleds, slides or sledges, made of the bodies of small trees with crooked ends, turning upward like those of sleigh runners, though much more clumsy and heavy.

As these runners wore down they were “shod” by tacking split saplings under them. Sleds can be hauled on steep hill-sides where wheeled vehicles would turn over or get beyond control going down hill. Our “Union” carpenters of this day could not build a house with the materials and tools of their pioneer ancestors, nearly all of whom were carpenters.

Modern carpenters would not know what “cracking” a log was, for instance; and yet, the pioneer artisans of old had to make their boards by that method. It consisted in driving the blade of an ax or hatchet into the small end of a log by means of a maul, and inserting wooden wedges, called “gluts.” On either side of this first central “crack” another crack was made, and gluts placed therein.

cross-tie maker working a logPhoto caption reads: “Mr. Stewart, cross-tie maker, working a log in Brasstown, NC.” (about 1932)

There were usually two gluts placed in each crack and each was tapped in turn, thus splitting the log uniformly. These two riven pieces were next placed in a “snatch-block,” which were two parallel logs into which notches had been cut deep enough to hold the ends of these pieces, which were held in position with “keys” or wedges. The upper side of this riven piece was then “scored” with a broad ax and then “dressed” with the same tool, the under edges being beveled.

The length of these pieces, now become puncheons, was usually half the length of the floor to be covered, the two ends resting on the sleeper running across the middle of the room. The beveled edges were placed as near together as possible, after which a saw was run between them, thus reducing the uneven edges so that they came snugly together, and were air tight when pinned into place with wooden pegs driven through augur holes into the sills and sleepers.

Hewed logs were first “scalped,” that is the bark was removed with an ax, after which the trunk was “lined” with a woolen cord dipped in moist charcoal, powdered, which had been made from locust bark. This corresponded to what is now called a chalk line. Then four of these lines were made down the length of the log, each pair being as far apart as the hewed log was to be thick-usually four to six inches-one pair being above and the other pair below; after which the log was “blocked” with an ax, by cutting deep notches on each side about four feet apart. These sections were then split from the sides of the log, thus reducing its thickness to nearly that desired. Then these sides were “scored” and then dressed till they were smooth.

The block on which the “Liberty Bell” of Philadelphia rests still shows this “scoring” or hacks made by the broad-ax. Houses were framed on the ground by cutting the ends of the logs into notches called “saddles” which, when placed in position, fitted like joiner work–each log having been numbered while still on the ground. When the logs were being placed in position they were lifted into place on the higher courses by means of what were called “bull’s eyes.” These were made of hickory saplings whose branches had been plaited into rings and then slipped over the logs, their stems serving as handles for pulling.

source: Western North Carolina, A History (1730-1913), by John Preston Arthur, published by National Society Daughters of the American Revolution of North Carolina, Edward Buncombe Chapter, 1914

4 Responses

  • Tom Paine says:

    This is a very interesting and informative article, but I have two quibbles with it. The vast overuse of “quotes” was very “annoying” and made it “harder to read”, in my opinion. Also, while true, the tone of the headline and references to modern carpenters not knowing how to employ these ancient techniques was unnecessary and condescending. Those wise old carpenters wouldn’t know how to use a circular saw or a laser level either, but how is any of that relevant to an otherwise very interesting article about old methods of carpentry?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Tom, your quibbles are well taken, and I in fact agree with you on both points. This article is an exact rendering, quotes and condescension intact, from “Western North Carolina, A History (1730-1913)”, by John Preston Arthur. So perhaps your quibble should be that I haven’t made clear enough that the words are John P Arthur’s, and not mine.

  • Amanda Dymacek says:

    This is a fascinating read! Thanks for sharing. It was great to meet you at the alumni event in Naples, I have sent a few notes to make connections. Stay tuned and keep up the great work with your blog!

  • Tom Paine says:

    Thanks for the response, Dave. It was still a great read and I did enjoy reading about how they used to do it.

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