Forgotten History – wind powered sawmills

At the end of the 16th century Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest invented the worlds first wind powered sawmill. This was a major innovation that made it much easier to saw planks and posts. Before then trees were cut into planks in saw pits. This was slow and very hard manual work. Wind powered sawmills produced major productivity increases [“With hand sawing, 60 beams or trunks would take 120 working days, with wind power this only took 4 to 5 days”]. This allowed the Dutch to produce ships faster and cheaper and gave them a major edge in their naval competition with other European countries. The English shipbuilders were well behind the Dutch. It was not until the mid 18th century that saw pits were used in our naval dockyards.

The windy Zaan district near Amsterdam became a major industrial area with thousands of windmills, including hundreds of wind powered sawmills. In 1731  there were 450 sawmills in the Netherlands, 256 of them in the Zaan district.

Zaanse Schans is now a museum with a collection of windmills and historic buildings.

There is a pigment windmill, an oil windmill, a dye windmill and two wind powered sawmills. All have names. The original Het Jonge Schaap (The Young Sheep) sawmill was demolished during WW2 but was beautifully reconstructed and reopened in 2007. I visited it recently.

Logs can be brought to the mill by water and then hauled to the saws by wind power. The mill has three saws and each can be fitted with multiple blades. A log can be turned into planks in one pass through a saw. If the planks are passed through again posts are produced. Photographs of the process can be seen here.  A video of the Young Sheep in operation is here.

The Oak Panelling Trade

I was told that some of the Zaan mills specialised in sawing very thin sections of oak. These were then sold to England as wainscot to create oak panelled rooms until there was a dispute between England and Holland during the reign of George III.

Water Powered Sawmills

I have never seen a wind or water powered mill in England, though there must have been some. The only water powered sawmill I have seen was at the Wallachian Open Air Museum in the Czech Republic. That was a single blade saw. There are also YouTube videos of  water powered single blade sawmills in the USA.

These are quite primitive compared to the Young Sheep. That is a very sophisticated and highly productive piece of machinery. It must have required a substantial capital investment and needed skilled operators. It is clear that the Dutch windmill technology was well ahead of other countries.   Low-Tech Magazine has an excellent article on such industrial windmills and another article on boat and bridge mills.

Water powered industrial mills should be superior to windmills. Water can be more easily controlled and delivers more power. Water power can also be stored. A mill pond is a battery for water power. The first English and Scottish cotton mills were built next to rivers.

“However, not all regions were suited for watermills. The reasons could be that they did not have sufficient water resources (like Spain), that they were too flat and their rivers did not have enough flow (like the Netherlands and the downlands of England) or that rivers generally froze during winter (like in Scandinavia, Russia and parts of Germany). In these countries, windmills appeared in the 13th century, possibly earlier, and spread fast. Later, also regions that had abundant water resources constructed windmills, to relieve the pressure on rivers and streams.”   Low-tech Magazine

A 1943 drawing of a wind powered sawmill

The Return of the Windmill?

The Young Sheep and the other Zaan windmills were direct drive, the wind directly drove the machinery.

Today, windmills and waterwheels that convert kinetic energy directly into mechanical energy are considered obsolete. Wind turbines now turn renewable energy into electricity, which might later be converted back to mechanical energy.

Many  processes could in principle still be driven in that old-fashioned way. Grain still has to be ground, wood still has to be sawn, seeds still have to be pressed, but now we use electricity to drive machines that perform the same processes. This electricity can be generated by means of modern wind turbines, or other renewable energy sources, and that is the future that everybody has in mind.

However, there are some reasons that might make it interesting to revert to a direct conversion from kinetic to mechanical energy. For one thing, it is more efficient because the intermediate step of generating electricity causes conversion losses.”   Low-tech Magazine

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1 Comment

Filed under History, Misc

One response to “Forgotten History – wind powered sawmills

  1. Bernard, Dodd

    Haven’t seen a water powered Saw Mill in England? where in England did you go, never mind the rest of the UK. Suggest Gunton Park or Gayle Mill.
    Then go to Scotland Birse in Aberdeen shire.

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