Trade education and workforce development are two initiatives we value highly here at Dunn Lumber, so it should come as no surprise that we have close ties with Seattle Central College's Wood Technology Center (WTC). With roots dating back to the early 1900s, WTC's history intersects with ours at Dunn Lumber at various points (our very own Ed Dunn Jr. took some classes at Edison), and we're proud to be connected with such an exemplary educational institution.

Throughout the episodes in this series, we'll be speaking with Dave Borgatti, a long-time faculty member at the WTC, about the center's history, program offering, and various topics in woodworking education. Dave got his start in woodworking as a boat builder in Portland, Oregon, for Schooner Creek Boat Works, and ended up at WTC as an instructor in 1992. Since then, Dave has helped countless students—from boat builders to carpenters and cabinetmakers—learn the woodworking craft.

In today's episode, Dave gives us a brief history of sawmills and explains board sizing and naming conventions. Watch the video above, or read the recap of our conversation below.

Sawmill history

In this country, sawyering and sawmills actually began around 1800 in the Shaker religious community in Albany, New York. Legend has it that Tabitha Babbit watched her brothers bucking wood with a ripsaw and wondered what it would be like if they could put teeth on a circle like her spinning wheel. The brothers made a crude circular saw from tin and found it worked. By 1808, the mill was profitable and the hard job of turning trees into lumber was finally mechanized.

Hardwood lumber sizing and naming

These primitive circular saws were called “buzz” saws and could only be adjusted 1/4” at a time on a notched control stick. If there was a need for a 3”-thick piece of lumber they’d call out 12/4; 1” was 4/4, and so on. A board was less than 2” rough, lumber was 2” to 5” rough, and anything greater than 5” rough sawn was called a timber. This system is still used today for hardwood lumber.

However, there was no regulation and one company’s product could be thicker or thinner than another sawmill, and everything was pretty rough. By the mid-1960s, standards were developed for the softwoods used in building construction like pine, spruce, hemlock, and fir. Today we call this “dimension lumber” and the rough “two-by-four” was then consistently planed in thickness and width to 1 1/2” by 3 1/2”.

We’re lucky to have an institution like the Wood Technology Center in our backyard, and even luckier to be able to share Dave’s knowledge and expertise with you. Stay tuned for the rest of the series; in the meantime, be sure to check out episode one and our post on the history of the Wood Technology Center.