From tree to shelf

You will see a replica of a 'sawing rack' next to the Lommel-Kattenbos barn. It was used for sawing tree trunks. How did that work? First, a tree had to be felled, before its trunk came to the sawing rack. How did the process from tree to shelf work in the past in the Kempen region, and which craftsmen played a role?

Tree cultivation and forestry

The Kempen forest stock began to decrease sharply from the eleventh century. The causes were population growth, the use of fertile forestland as agricultural land and frequent use of wood. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the forests remained sparce in the Kempen region. Then there were government measures to promote afforestation.

In 1794, sixty-seven hectares was woodland in the Lommel municipality, not even one per cent of the total area. In addition, there were small parcels with low-level scrub wood, with trees such as oak, birch, willow and elder, and the edges around some fields and hay meadows were planted with timber crops.

Felling/grubbing out/cutting down trees

There were three methods of tree felling: with axes and felling wedges, using a felling saw or digging a pit and detaching the roots. The woodcutter had to estimate whether there was enough space to drop the tree in its full length at one time or not, and in what direction it had to be felled. A good woodcutter could fell and clear two to three trees a day. Woodcutters usually felled trees in winter because the ground was more likely to be firm enough then.

The crane

Woodworkers developed a range of tools and implements for lifting heavy tree trunks. The crane was one widely used construction. The crane 'frame' consisted of a wooden beam with an elongated opening in the middle, with rows of holes in each sidewall at stepped heights.

The crane arm rested on two rods that stuck through the frame next to each other but at different heights. They could then attach the load, for example a tree trunk, to the arm with chains. By moving the two rods alternately a hole higher, the load was incrementally raised higher and higher. They often used two cranes to lift a whole tree trunk.


The woodworkers had to remove the bark from deciduous trees immediately after felling to prevent insects from destroying the wood. However, the opposite was necessary with coniferous trees; they had to keep the bark on the trunk for as long as possible. Otherwise, the resin would drain out, causing the wood to become porous and lose its resilience and weight-bearing capacity. To remove the bark from the tree, the woodworker could use a saw (trimming) or axe (adzing).

Transporting the timber

Sawing the timber often occurred at the place of use. Apart from when they felled the wood on site, the woodworkers had to carry the trunks to the place of use. They had several useful tools for that such as the lever, crane, roller, wooden screw jack, jack, capstan, windlass, winch, tackles, tree trunk trolley, etc. And they could transport the trunks by water if there was a waterway going in the right direction. Other solutions were using horses to drag the trunks or sawing them into shorter lengths and carrying them on carts.

The sawing rack

Some woodworkers were sawing specialists and they travelled around to offer their services. Others sawed for themselves the wood they were going to work on.

The sawing rack was either a fixed installation that was on the ground above a pit, (sometimes called a sawpit), some of which were under a roof, or it was a movable installation consisting of two man-height trestles with height-adjustable crossbeams. A sawpit had the great advantage that the people sawing the wood did not have to lift the tree trunk. Yet in many cases, they used a movable sawing rack so that they could saw the timber on the construction or felling site. They laid the trunk low on the ground on trestles, which they raised in steps. And they eventually got the trunk onto the sawing rack that way.

Two men - one above and one under the trunk - used a long two-man ripsaw to saw the trunk lengthwise, and to remove offcuts (trimming the round trunk on four sides straight to make a square beam).

The two-man ripsaw

Woodworkers only had the possibility to use a saw long enough to cut through the length of thick tree trunks since the seventeenth century. The two-man rip saw was about 2.2 meters long and only came into use then. Before that, woodworkers could only cut trunks with axes or cleave them.

The man standing above the pit or on top of the sawing rack pulled the ripsaw upwards. He did that using the upper handle, a piece of iron about 45 centimetres long with a ring that carried an inserted wooden handle perpendicular to the saw blade. The man standing in the pit or under the sawing rack pulled the ripsaw downwards. He was the one that became covered in sawdust. His handle was a wooden block with a slot in which he could clamp the saw blade with a wedge. The wooden block had two sticks in it that served as a handle. Sawing timber was hard labour. To cut an ash trunk one and a half meters in circumference and five meters long took them about twelve hours!

Outdoor work

The carpenter needed a lot of space and tools for his work. He worked a lot outdoors, for example on house construction or repair work. But he needed a workshop for the preparatory work. For example, he would make the joints of the timber framework there. Although, certainly a lot of the work was done on the spot when building a house. For that, the carpenter had to bring the necessary tools, such as a hammer, saw, chisel, axe, drawknife, hand drill and a supply of nails. In addition, he also needed a ladder and possibly a number of trestles. He would probably use a handcart or cart to transport it all.

A full workshop

The carpenter's workshop was full of tools and wood spread out all over the space.

 Carpenters had one or more very long workbenches to work the wood. A vice could fit on the edge for clamping the wood. The carpenter's tools mainly hung on the walls. They had wooden bars fixed a few centimetres off the wall so that tools hung between them and the walls. Typically, those would include hammers, hand drills and set squares. Round tools such as chisels went backwards in holes in a wooden bar. Another method of hanging tools on a wall was using two nails hammered in next to each other with the tool suspended between them. Larger tools were probably spread around the workshop.

The carpenter stored the wood between the ceiling and beams, which hung a little bit lower. Usually, he only bought the wood when he got an assignment, so his stock was limited. Besides the wood, he would store his ladder there too.