POWELL RANGER STATION, Idaho — Bob Beckley loves his work.
“There’s not many places I can get a job blowing things up, cutting things down and occasionally going on a pack trip,” the self-described “low-tech guy” at the Forest Service Technology Development Center admitted. Much of his time is spent writing lesson plans for using traditional tools like crosscut saws and axes. But every so often, he gets to confirm his cutting edges and skills remain sharp.
“I grew up in San Francisco, watching 'Lassie' when I was a kid,” Beckley said of the 1960s TV show about a boy and his redoubtable collie. “Timmy’s dad was a forest ranger, and that’s what I wanted to be.”
But when he got to the Forest Service, the age of chainsaws had erased the legacy of Paul Bunyan and his lumberjacks of legend.
“I had to convince old timers to show me how to use those tools, and they were reluctant to do so,” Beckley said. “Why would you want to use a crosscut or an ax? When we got motors, those things got left behind.”
Beckley spent seven years as a ground-pounding firefighter followed by three years in the Forest Service’s elite smokejumper corps. A parachute hang-up in a tree followed by an 80-foot fall left him with a broken back and a desk job.
Nevertheless, he remained dedicated to the traditional tools that defined generations of woodworking. Although sometimes referred to as “primitive” tools, Beckley explained the deep experience and science embedded in something as simple as an ax head.
“It’s not just a stick with wedge of metal on it,” he said. “You can’t just put a file to it. It has two cutting edges; the main edge and a micro-bevel which adds strength and durability to the ax.”
That can take 20 hours of work to get the shape just right, assuming you start with an ax worth the trouble. Such axes carry price tags of $100 to $300, although Beckley warned many are still what he called “boutique/lumbersexual axes.”
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“They’re good quality but not really efficient work axes and you’ll never make them a good work ax because of their shape,” Beckley said. “But they look good hanging on a wall or showing off to your hipster friends on a camping trip.”
Don’t bother getting him started on the art of sharpening a crosscut saw tooth. He’ll just hand you the DVD of a master sharpener at work with jigs and files and calipers. But standing next to a sawyer cutting a grand fir with a venerable crosscut saw, Beckley and his fellow saw masters can hear exactly which tooth didn’t get shaped correctly. The saw makes an audible hitch in its stroke as it passes through the tree trunk.
“Bob and his in-depth understanding of traditional skills is a lost art,” said Pete Duncan, national saw program manager in the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. “He brings an extensive knowledge of not only crosscuts but axes, rigging and blasting as well.”
Woodworkers must know those skills to maintain trails and fight fires in federal wilderness areas, where the law prohibits motorized or mechanized equipment. They also have advantages for some jobs where the extra weight of a chainsaw adds no value.
“We don’t have 20-person trail crews anymore,” said Todd Wilson, Forest Service Region 1 saw coordinator. “So when you’ve got six or seven logs across a trail 5 miles in, you take a crosscut. You don’t want a chainsaw and 30 pounds of protective gear and fuel and tools.”
For the past four years, the Forest Service has been reviving its traditional tools training methods. Duncan said Beckley helped move the curriculum from “what” the tool does to the nuance of “why” it gets used a certain way.
“We realized early on the human factors portion of saw use is extremely important,” Duncan said. “You need to be aware of what happens inside your head when something unexpected happens while sawing. If you’re aware of that when things go wrong, you prevent yourself from going into the back of your mind. When you’re not thinking rationally, you hurt yourself or somebody else, or damage property. Bob was one of the people who was instrumental in bringing that to the saw community.”
Putting those lessons into teachable form has consumed most of the last several years for Beckley.
“We realized with each generation we’ve passed these skills to, we’re not teaching them everything. We’re leaving out nuance, the dance, the why. It’s a disservice to that rich part of our heritage. What the group here is teaching is the dance. If you’re doing work with a crosscut saw, you’re doing it wrong. The saw does the work. You’re just along for the ride.”