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Of bucks, horses and ponies.

Animals of the flesh and blood kind are often in the first thoughts when one mentions homesteading, but a few of another make were some of the first and most important "animals" on our homestead. Though humble and common, they are deceptively important, and rather inexpensive and easy to acquire. Which isn't something that can be said of their furred counterparts! I'm speaking, of course, of saw bucks, saw horses, and shaving horses--the venerable companions of those who work with wood.


Our first year on the homestead found us learning to use (and enjoy) our "new" old wood cookstove, so we came early to an appreciation of dead, dry poles and branches for stove wood. Readily available, easy to obtain from the woods, and not needing to be split, they became the regular fuel source not only for the cookstove, but for small fuel for the larger heating stove as well. But the pole size firewood was easy (relatively speaking) only with the addition of a saw buck to hold them for sawing to length, whether you were using a chainsaw or buck saw. It didn't take Steve long to make our first saw buck. Made of rough sawn 2 x 4s and scrap boards from our building projects, that hardy buck served us well for 25 years in spite of living out in the weather.

But there came a time when a new one had to be considered. Though still standing, the old buck was getting weak with many nicks and rotting boards. Steve thought carefully before deciding on the design for the replacement, looking for any changes or enhancements that would make it a better tool. But he had to conclude that no changes were needed, except for new wood. It had done its job extremely well all these years. The design is simple and the construction not difficult, and is easy to adapt to your own wood bucking needs.

One of the things to consider when designing your own buck is how tall to make it. There's no one perfect height since most bucks will be used by different sized people and for differing purposes. Steve is the main user of our buck, usually using a chainsaw though both of us use it for hand buck-saw jobs as well. He found a height from ground to the base of the "V" holding area of about 30" comfortable. This height can shorten over time if you don't keep the accumulation of sawdust raked away. Keeping the area clean will also help keep the feet of the buck from rotting off.

The next consideration is what length wood you will be cutting. This determines how far apart to put the arms of your buck. This can make a big difference between making the bucking job pleasant or an irritation. If the arms are not the right spacing, you may find yourself continually nicking or sawing into them, shortening their life.

The main job of our sawbuck is to cut cookstove wood, which, for our stove, needs to be 14" long. Steve piles the poles on the buck with their right hand ends (he's right handed so this discussion is all from a right handed perspective) out past the right hand V of the buck at least 14". He then marks the poles off with a piece of chalk and marking stick at 14" intervals. He starts sawing by evening up the right hand ends, then sawing just to the right of the right-hand leg, leaving the 14" lengths to fall to the ground. Then he goes to the far left and saws every 14" till there is left a small stack of 14" sticks resting nicely on the middle and right Vs.

For this to work, the distance from the right hand edge of the right X, and the left hand edge of the middle X, has to be about 10" to 12", so by sawing an inch or so to either side, you are left with 14" pieces. The distance from the left hand edge of the middle X to the left hand edge of the left X is 28 ", making it easy to saw that section into 14" lengths without sawing into the arms.

If you want, say, 16" lengths, you'll need to space your sections farther apart to accommodate that size. We also use the sawbuck to cut poles for our maple syrup cooker, which comfortably uses 28" lengths so the sawbuck setup works well for that, too.

Our buck is made of six pieces of 48" long rough-sawn 2 x 4s for the three X's, with four 1 x 6 horizontal pieces screwed to the legs top and bottom (two on either side), and one 40" angle brace nailed on the back between the horizontals (see photo). The 2 x 4s are lap jointed for maximum strength, though they could just be nailed or screwed together. We used rough sawn 2 x 4s because they are thicker (being full dimension), but regular lumber yard 2 x 4s could he used.

Thus far our sawbuck is of the very common design and build. But one refinement has made it much easier to use, and I'd highly recommend some version of this jig. If you're sawing one pole by hand it's pretty easy to hold the pole with one hand and saw with the other. But if you are sawing a pile of poles, and/or sawing with the chainsaw, the job is much easier (and probably safer) if you can tie the poles down in some manner. There are many homemade devices for this and the one Steve came up with works as follows.

The key to this hold down is an old over-center boat tie down lever attached to a recycled automotive seat belt strap with its metal floor anchor attached. I realize not everyone will have these in their back shed, but you may be able to come up with something similar. The lever end of the strap is attached to the front bottom of the right leg of the sawbuck. On the front side of the middle leg (facing the sawyer) is a row of sturdy spikes about every 1 or 1-1/2". Poles are piled on the rack, the strap is brought around and over the pile between the middle and right X's (where no sawing is done), the metal end hooked as tight as can be easily pulled on a convenient nail, then tightened further by pushing the lever down with your foot.

After the first lengths are sawed, the poles generally loosen up, but the lever is easily flicked up with a toe, the strap moved down a nail or two, and the lever pushed back down with the foot. Easier to do than to describe. It's a great improvement over the regular bare sawbuck.

Our sawbuck is positioned beside our woodshed, with a rack for poles opposite the buck, which is a great system. When we cut firewood, we cut and haul back appropriate poles and branches and pile them on the rack (along with other odds and ends of small wood that come along now and then). Dry wood in one bin, green in another. When the pile is full, or our cookstove wood stack needs replenishing, Steve spends an hour or so cutting up the supply of dry pole wood. It's a fairly quick job since everything is near at hand. In the early spring during maple sap boiling (which is done in the woodshed), we often cut wood off the stack by hand with the bucksaw, as it seems to fit the hands-on nature of maple syrup making and the wonderful quiet of late winter/ early spring.

The pole rack is a recent, and great, improvement--one of those many "can't believe we're finally getting around to building this" jobs that do finally get done. For 20 years the poles were simply piled on the ground on some old logs, which worked fine, if not as neat or elegant.

Peeling buck

When we needed to peel a number of not too large logs for a couple of projects, Steve scrounged up some scraps and made a quick and easy buck that was more open to leave room for the drawknife work. Since I was the main peeler, it was made to be a comfortable height for me (about 30" from ground to bottom of V). The job isn't nearly as much fun if the log is too high or too low. If you're peeling large logs it's not practical to lift them up onto a peeling buck, so that is usually ground work, often done with a long handled peeler or on hands and knees with the drawknife. But for smaller diameter logs or poles, a peeling buck is nice. Though not as sturdy as the everyday sawbuck, ours has worked fine for a number of peeling jobs.

The peeling buck pictured was made for a job of peeling relatively short and not too large diameter poplar logs--four to six feet long--which could be lifted up onto the buck without too much trouble. Some were to be split in half for benches and a shaving horse, the others were to be sawn up for a temporary log end wall. The trees were cut in late spring when the sap was still running which made for very wet but easy peeling! As I finished each one the slippery logs were stacked carefully beside the buck. Within a short time I noticed the bright cream colored wood was turning pink. The next day we came out to find a stack of very bright pink wood! It was quite a sight. Thankfully, the pink faded in a few days to its natural mellow color. Pink benches weren't exactly what we had in mind.

This simple buck was made of two pairs of 40" long 2 x 4s, bolted together about 8" down from the top. The near side legs (without the braces) are placed on the inside so they can be easily folded in for storage. There are two 40" long horizontal rough 1 x 4s nailed on the outer 2 x 4s (the back side), the top one about 10" down, the bottom one several inches up, with a 45" long diagonal brace between them (see photo).

The buck worked well for short logs, but when I needed to peel some 20' long fir poles for an extension to our shop roof it wasn't wide enough to balance the poles on, so we set one end of the poles on a tall sawhorse and the other in the peeling buck. With some temporary cleats nailed to the sawhorse to keep the pole from falling off, the combination worked fine.

The only trouble I had with the peeling buck was the nature of spring peeled logs, which can be very slippery. Peeling the first half is fine, but when you turn the log over to peel the other side, the slippery wood doesn't want to stay put. If I were going to peel very many poles, I'd come up with a log dog or a strap to help hold the log in place. For just a few poles, various versions of body holds worked fine.

Saw ponies

Many years ago when we were living and working in our rather small cabin, a picture of a sawhorse caught my eye. Ah hah! That was what I would make Steve for Christmas. Not your everyday knock together construction sawhorses (we already had several sets of those). I had in mind a pair of sturdy horses sized to our tight quarters, something we could easily use inside that would look nice, since everything in the cabin was considered more or less "furniture." The fact that I had never made anything on my own before didn't raze me. How hard could it be to make a small pair of saw "ponies"? I had learned to use saw and hammer while helping to build our cabin, I figured I could handle this job.

Mmm, well, I did get them done before Christmas, but I won't say it was just a piece of cake. Thankfully, I had a pattern to start with, nicely laid out in the book, Build It Better Yourself. The design is rather common and not too complicated. But it was a challenge for me to scale the plans down to fit the size I wanted and the wood I had on hand. With the overall design in mind, and the changes I wanted to make, I mainly built them by trial and error, and enough drywall screws tO hold together a project 10 times that size! But 25 years later, these ponies are still going strong in spite of years of use.

Though originally the saw ponies were made small because of our tight quarters, they turned out to be a good size for many jobs. The 22" height is particularly handy for hand sawing a board since it's easy to heft a knee up on top to hold it down, or to lean on it with the non-sawing hand. They've also done double duty as a base for a low work table.

My version of the saw pony was made with dimension lumber, a 22" long 2 x 6 for the top, four 24" long 1 x 3s for the legs, two 16.5" long 1 x 2s for upper horizontal braces, and two 10" long 1 x 6s for the ends (cut to fit the angle of the legs).

Notches were sawn and chiseled in the top board so the legs are set in flush. The legs angle out to the side about 110 degrees (which makes the outer tops of the legs 5-1/2" apart (the width of the top board), and the outer bottoms of the legs about 24" apart. The legs also angle toward the ends about 100 degrees. This is how they turned out, but when I made them, I simply held the legs up at what looked like a good angle (based more or less on the standard construction sawhorses we had) then marked, sawed, fitted and chiseled the cutout to fit the leg. The top of the legs are 3" in from the end of the board.

The legs are drilled and screwed into the top, but you could nail them as well. The end boards were set in place snug under the top, marked and sawed to the leg angles, then screwed to the legs. Then 1 x 2 cross pieces were sawn to length to fit in between the end boards, then screwed to the inside of the legs. The legs were then sawed at an angle to sit flat on the floor (set your horse on a fiat surface, hold a pencil flat on the surface and draw a line around the bottom of the legs, then saw to that line).

A bit of rounding with a spoke-shave and sandpaper, and a coat of oil, and you have a real nice set of saw ponies.

Shaving horse

A less common (today) but,every bit as useful bench-type tool is the shaving horse. As woodworkers, this was one of the first pieces of "furniture" in our cabin and still holds top honors in our workshop today. Steve made the first shaving horse our first winter on the homestead, sledding the heavy beech log it is made from on the freight sled in heavy snow from the far side of our property. Though we live in the midst of a forest, there was, of course, no ideal tree for the purpose nearby!

Since we were both making spoons and sharing the horse, it wasn't long before Steve made another, and I had my own shaving horse. Mine is of tamarack and maple, and is of a different design. Steve prefers his, I mine, as is the way with long used tools. He has since made several more shaving horses of both rough sawn and dimension softwood, as well as one split out of poplar. These are easily adapted benches that can be made out of pretty much any wood. There are numerable designs, as most artisans make their benches to suit themselves and their purposes, though a few patterns are the most common.

You don't need to be a spoon-maker to make use of a shaving horse. It is in essence a foot vice, and is handy for any number of holding jobs. It is the ideal tool for use with the drawknife or spokeshave, and is most used in that fashion. But many other crafts have their own versions and adaptations.

There are good instructions for making a shaving horse in both Drew Langsner's Country Woodcraft book and Rodale's Build It Better Yourself, as well as Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Shop. Though possibly out of print, these books are usually readily available through the library or interlibrary loan.

One major adaption Steve made to our horses from the original plan was to shorten them to about 44" long. This suits our tight quarters better. Two working shaving horses in one shop take up quite a bit of room! The shorter size is fine for most work, though a longer length might be more convenient if working on long pieces such as a canoe paddles or walking sticks. Steve also eventually hollowed out the underside of the benches to make them lighter, which was a great improvement for carrying (we periodically set up a portable shop at events for demonstrating traditional woodworking).

Our shaving horses are three legged which is best for uneven ground (such as when working outside), but they are not as stable as a four legged bench. If you will be using your horse mainly inside on a flat floor, four legs would probably be best. It is less likely to tip over when you overreach for a tool you really should have gotten up to get.

Adaptable benches

All of these simple tools can make everyday life and working life easier and more pleasant, which is probably why they've all been around since people started working wood with tools eons ago. And once a part of your homestead, you will find numerous other uses for them. They have a way of being there when you need them, and doing the job reliably without complaint. It's nice to have friends like that around, whether they be of the human, the animal, or the wooden kind.


770N Fox RD.

COOKS MI 49817


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Title Annotation:Notes from the Northwoods
Author:Robishaw, Sue
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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