Animals and Woodworking
‘There is nothing like the sound of a logging chain snapping taught behind a good team.’
For centuries man has used animals to help in the process of woodworking. If you were lucky you could get a cat to keep rats and mice from the shop, but that is all they will ever do. Dogs can be trained to operate treadmills, which in turn will operate flywheels, jackshafts and tools. Sheep and goats have even been used for similar purposes especially on the frontier or rural locations. Oxen are also used for certain aspects of woodworking. However the most commonly used animals for woodworking are horses and mules.
The most common method of utilizing animals for woodworking is for draft. Animals trained to harness is critical for being able to control them in the work environment. A well-fit harness is necessary so the gear works properly and doesn’t injure the animal.
Oxen are fit with a yoke and are usually used in pairs. The yoke and bows are made of wood. The yoke is fashioned out of a strong yet lightweight wood and from the center is attached a loose ring to attach the yoke to the rest of the harness that does the work. The bows are usually made of green hickory saplings and are bent green using the yoke as a clamp and form to hold the hickory until it dries. These are fairly easy to make, do get damaged and having a few extra bows lying around is a good idea.
Because of their large size and strength horses, mules and oxen were used to snake trees out of the forest to the river and onto the sawmill. Using a choke chain or timber hitch at the end of a stout rope the logs were skidded to their final location. A trip in the river would wash off some debris that the logs may pick up from the ground, but most sawmills removed the bark before sawing the green logs.
When pulling logs with animals, you need to make sure that the logs won’t injure the animals. The harness needs to be properly fit with good traces and a single tree to concentrate the force of pulling. The single tree needs to be balanced to pull equally on both traces and against the rest of the harness and color. Ox yokes with their single pull ring in the middle will pull straight providing the team works well together.
A sufficient length of chain or rope keeps the log well behind the animals and teamster. Wooden stakes are pounded into the ground on the downhill side to keep logs from rolling on hills. The route out of the woods should be as flat as possible. Uphill pulls are better than downhill slides which can be dangerous. Small log rollers and skids can be used in troublesome areas to keep the large log moving along. Paths should be cleared of underbrush to make the work easier on man and beast.
Animals need to be well treated, the harness should fit properly, horses and oxen require proper shoes for the particular work, they need to be watered and fed on a regular schedule. The animals need to be brushed down at the end of the days work and needs adequate rest for the work preformed. Their shoes need to be cleaned and tight and their manes and tails need regular combing. When it is real hot or real cold precautions need to be taken to prevent excess exposure to the elements.
In the past, our ancestors relied exclusively on animals for added moving and working forces, there weren’t any trucks back then and these animals were important and well taken care of. Many barns were nicer than the dwellings for the humans. The animals were always fed and taken care of before the people took care of their own needs.
Whether plowing the back 40 with a wooden moldboard plow, snaking timber from the woods, pulling the wagon to the local saw mill or pulling the sledge through the sugar bush to collect syrup, animals have been involved in woodworking in one way or another for centuries.
He was a strawberry roan from the Navajo reservation in Arizona and had been ridden by Jeff Hengesbaugh from there to Henry’s Fork of the Green River on the 150th anniversary of the first Western Fur Trade Rendezvous held in 1825. It took Jeff, Mike York and Greg Guyman 3 months to make the trip. I first saw the roan on the side of the road in Colorado as the boys were on their way to the AMM Rendezvous. A month later we had a great gathering and celebration in Wyoming.
At the time the only horse related paraphernalia was a pair of hand-forged stirrups. By the end of rendezvous I owned a horse, I even had to borrow a halter. I left the horse at a friends ranch in Wyoming until I could arrange transportation and lodging for the roan. He got his name because that is what the Indians call their horses, by their color, so the name stuck. Within a couple of months I had made a reproduction of the Starks/Grimley 1825 contract saddle. I later picked up a packsaddle and a harness. That led to a Canadian Cariole Cutter sleigh and I broke the roan to harness.
I took the roan to the Midwest when I went there in the late 1970’s and he enjoyed the belly deep bluegrass, a stark contrast from the deserts of the West. He was able to pull a plow, unfortunately their wasn’t any experienced farmers that could handle the plow, so no straight furrows. He handled the sleigh well and was trained to operate a clay mixing pug mill at a living history village.
Mostly I rode him to the village everyday but I did on a several of occasions pull logs around as well as snake fresh cut timbers from the nearby woods. It was an experience, the horse didn’t even work up a froth, barely a sweat, as for me I was yanked around way too much and I did break a sweat. I learned the advantage of a long chains and long reins. The roan liked to work and I had to keep him calm when he got logs behind him because he wanted to see how fast he could get them out of the woods. Once we came to terms it was a joy to work behind the roan, well most of the time, I did watch my step.
When I moved back West I just couldn’t bring myself to transport the roan away from all the attention he got from the visitors to the museum and the deep Kentucky bluegrass. I sold the roan and harness to the museum and have sold off most of the tack, I still have the elk antler quirt that he never needed and I also still have the memories of a great horse. Twenty years later he is no longer working, doing well and enjoying his retirement. That is my horse story.
When writing this article I was struck by the number of animal related terms having to do with woodworking. I have compiled a list with some help from my friends at www.WoodCentral.com, thanks to all of those who contributed.
Crow’s bill plane
Fox tail tenon
Frog (in an iron plane)
Goose wing ax
Mules ear shooting board
Pinch dog (Joiner’s dog)
Ram’s Horn Sweep
Side snipe plane
Snipe bill plane
Swans neck chisel
Termite hollowing gouge
Bees Wing’s Satinwood
Birds Eye Maple
Ball & claw
Bird’s beak (bird’s mouth)
Camel’s back trunk
Hound’s Tooth dovetail
Lion’s paw foot
Wing Back Chair
I am not an advocate of rodeos or horse pulls where the animals are subject to un-natural stresses. I do think animals can be kept if done so properly with the well being of the animal of prime importance. Animals like to work and draft animals love to pull and if done properly all benefit. They are beasts of burden, take care of them and your work will be easier.