Sawmilling – The Historic Background

One of the earliest requirements of the colony was timber, both for fuel and building. Tools and technology changed considerably over the first century of settlement to cope with the peculiar demands of Australian timbers. The earliest methods of timber getting involved logs being sawn over pits using cross cut saws (1).

From the 1830s onwards steam power became more common throughout the city and country; sawmills were amongst the first type of mills to use this type of power (2).

Many sawmills were mobile, the cutting equipment, power source and rolling stock being moved to the next location. Some, particularly those associated with water power, were not mobile.

The traditional structure of the mills was in frame and dates back to the 1870s and 1880s. This became the norm although pit sawing did, in some areas, continued into the twentieth century (3). An alternative method employed during the later nineteenth century was the Canadian rig-and-log carriage in which the log was mounted on the carriage and drawn through saw blades (4).

Each state had distinct patterns of timber exploitation for example, in New South Wales, the Australian red cedar was nearly logged to extinction in less than a century because it was easily worked by early tools and provided an attractive finished product.

Depletion of trees and wasteful logging began to be reversed only after WWI when state forestry commissions were established. Since then more careful programmes have attempted to control logging.

The Extended Data Base

The National Trust has classified a number of sawmill sites throughout the state. The earliest of these is the site (only) of the Jamberoo Woodstock Mills of c. 1838. Two sawpits survive on the site of the Eagieton shipyard which date to 1860 – 1886.

At Mount Wilson a rude timber structure is probably one of the original district saw mills dated to c. 1875. It still contains some machinery. The site of the Bezzant sawmills at Deepwater is also classified; the mill was demolished in 1879.

Other sawmill sites classified by the Trust include the Precision Woodware factory at Hunters Hill, the Urbenville sawmill at Urbenville and the Grevillia sawmill, the latter a case which demonstrates a single industry town.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales has a number of sawmilling sites on their Historic Sites Register including a group of saw pits of the 1920s in Royal National Park and an intact alpine saw mill in Kosciusko National Park.


Saw pits were the earliest form of timber getting technology and continued to be used well into this century. Like tannery pits, in many cases they have left indelible marks on the landscape. However, in the cases where mills have been established, except where the structures still survive, archaeological evidence may be elusive.

The plan of the in frame mill was standardised,

“The counter shaft or main driving shaft off the steam engine is usually under the floor, a main cause of fire. It drives first the frame saw or breaking-down saw which cuts the great log into flitches (or squared logs). The flitches then travel on to the breast bench to be cut with a circular saw. There is usually also a docking saw – bench to cut out the knots.” (5)

However, unless the mill stayed in the one place the evidence of its activities could be eventually removed:

“While the process of land clearance together with the specific logging brought widespread changes to the landscape and ecology… which certainly can be traced by the archaeologist, the actual operation of getting timber is one which often leaves remarkably little physical trace. One reason is the migratory nature of the sawmills which usually have a limited life in one location and sooner or later are dismantled, the cutting equipment, power source and rolling stock being readily portable to the next location. All that remains is a set of post holes, a forest clearing with tracks defined by use and sometimes the wooden sleepers and embankments, an Occasional bridge of a logging tramway. Occasionally, a traditional brick sawdust kiln may survive. Logging wharves are another form of archaeological evidence for lumbering.”(6)

In the urban context even less remnant evidence was’ left after the removal of the mill although, like tanneries, roads and tracks which served the site were often given names which reflected the past use.


  1. Birmingham, J. Australian Pioneer Technology, 180
  2. Birmingham, J. Australian Pioneer Technology, 182
  3. Birmingham, J. Australian Pioneer Technology, 182-3
  4. Birmingham, J. Australian Pioneer Technology, 186
  5. Birmingham, J. Australian Pioneer Technology, 184
  6. Birmingham, J. Australian Pioneer Technology, 182