Will's books

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Monday, May 28, 2012

The history and tools of production roof cutting

*** If you like this post you will absolutely love the chapter entitled "Roof Cutters - A flash in time" in Will Holladay's new book From the Top Plates Up. That chapter provides the most detailed look at the history of production roof cutting ever written.***
   Production roof rafter cutting has a very interesting history that most rough carpenters find enthralling.  I was lucky to have lived and worked through it and still remember most of it like it was yesterday.  Roof framing has always been a joy. 
   Production framing in general was started by the US military during WW2.  So many housing units were needed in record time that the assembly line method developed in car and aircraft production industry was applied to building (see this amazing video).  After the war, home contractors used these same methodologies and processes to handle the immense pent up demand for civilian housing that had been caused by the population shift to California and other parts of the West Coast for wartime production.  Prior to these post WW2 days production home building was virtually unheard of as all houses were hand built by a the same crew of men from start to finish, one at a time. When the post WW2 building boom hit the Los Angeles in the early 1950's, this age-old house building method was discarded and carpenters became specialized in just one production assembly task.  Contractors began throwing up wholes tracts of houses in record time using the moving assembly line method.  It seemed as if one day a field stood empty and the next day it was filled with houses.  Tract carpenters were paid by the piece - a price per square foot to do a certain task.  For example: 5 cents a square foot to snap, plate and detail; 8 cents to stand walls; 4 cents a square foot to cut rafters; etc (mid-1970's prices). With pay for performance as the incentive, tract carpenters thought up new techniques, found short-cuts, modified existing tools to do something more efficiently, and invented new tools.  From these "piece work" days came most of the specialty framing tools we use today (large diameter portable circular saws, dado saws, bolt markers, layout sticks, triangular rafter squares, framing hammers, saw hangers, etc).  "Necessity is the mother of invention" as they say.
   The production roof cutting of rafters reached its peak in the late 1960's and early 1970's and died almost overnight when roof trusses gained prominence in the late 1970's.  So nowadays, for the most part, true production rafter roof cutting is only a memory and these methods are rarely seen except on the occasional stick framed roof done by the custom builder.
   Although gang-marking racked lumber dates back to the Middle Ages, rafters were still laid flat and cut one at a time up until the WW2 when the production gang-cutting of rafters began using the Delta radial arm saw.  This chore was moved from a fixed saw shack job to a job-site task in the early 1950s when the Skil 117 "Groover" was adapted to gang-cut the birdsmouth notch.  The "Groover" was a powerful (18-20amp) 2-in.wide portable wormdrive dado-saw manufactured by Skil Power Tools from the late 1940's to the mid-late 1960's (est).  It was based on the Skil 107 (10-in.wormdrive circular saw) and was originally designed to cut a square notch in beams or joists to run electrical wiring (back in the days of knob and tube type electrical wiring).  With a little modification to the blade guard, it was able to tilt sideways, making the Skil 117 the perfect tool for gang-cutting birdsmouth notches on racked lumber.

Skil 117 "Groover" with 2" wide 7.25" diameter dado set

   By the mid-late 1960s saw shops in the Los Angeles area began to modify the Skil 107 to carry a 3.5-in. dado set in order to fulfill the desires of various framing contractors who wanted a larger birdsmouth notch than the Groover could easily produce.  Nate Fletcher, formerly of Nate's Saw Shop (Anaheim, CA) was one of the principal innovators behind this and other saw modifications.  Nate modified close to 200 Skil 107s during the Los Angeles building boom days.

Skil 107 adapted with 3.5" wide 6" diameter dado set

   When the supply of 107s dwindled (these big barrel saws were never very popular on the job as they weighed over 30 lbs), several saw shops around CA began modifying the newer Skil 77 and 87 wormdrive models.  Pairis Products (Phelan, CA) made a kit for the 77, while Furber Saw (Martinez, CA) made a kit for the 87.  Both kits were available up until the early 1990s.
   Because the dado saw required quite an investment, an optional method to gang-cut birdsmouth notches arrived on scene in the early 1960s in the form of the swing-table saw base.  It was inexpensive and simple, and favored by most everyone other than the dedicated roof cutter.  A swing-table saw base installed on a standard circular saw allowed it to swing well past 45 degrees and get the shallow angle required for the seat-cut.  Both Pairis Products and Big Foot Saw (Henderson, NV) currently make models for various saws.

Swing-table for Skil 127
   While the dado-saw or a saw with a swing-table made quick work of gang-cutting the rafter birdsmouth notches, a fast method was needed to gang-cut the ridge-cuts.  The largest portable saw circular saw in the early 1960s was the 20 amp Skil 127 (12-in. wormdrive circular saw), which could gang-cut 2x4 rafters racked on edge (the common rafter size back in those days) but fell short of reaching through a rack of 2x6s.  The method developed for larger material was to use the 127 (or even a standard 77) to make a starter ridge-cut pass and then finish off the unreached part of the cut with a sidewinder blade mounted on a Skil 77.  While inherently dangerous because the blade was outside the guard, the sidewinder in the right hands proved to be a very efficient tool for finishing off plumb-cuts.  OSHA eventually pressured the blade out of production in the mid 1990s.

Sidewinder blades for Skil 77 (red paint to repel rust)
   In the mid 1960s Nate Fletcher began modifying the Skil 127 with 18-in.or 20-in.blades of the big Delta radial arm saws, which allowed roof cutters to gang-cut the ridge-cut in one pass.  The 20-in. blade could cut through 2x8 racked on edge up to a maximum pitch of about 5/12.  In the late 1970s Makita introduced the 16-in. beam saw (model 5402).  It was able to cut 2x6s racked on edge up to a maximum of 5/12 but lacked the power for long, continuous, rip-style cutting, as it was designed more as a beam cutoff saw.
   In the late 1980s, the Linear Link saw (Muskegon Tools, North Muskegon, MI) arrived on scene with a self-oiling 14-in. chainsaw bar attached to a Skil 77 motor body.  Because it could be tilted sideways, some carpenters used it to make the ridge-cut on racked rafter material but it was very underpowered for these type of cuts and not nearly as precise as the circular saw.  Another similar device, the Prazi Beam Cutter (Prazi USA, Plymouth, MA) came along in the mid 1990s.  It had the same drawbacks as the competition and worse yet, no provision was made for chain self-oiling.  In 1997, Big Foot Saw made available the "Headcutter", an adjustable saw table that attaches to a gas-powered chainsaw.  It instantly became the best option available (and still is) for gang-cutting the plumb-cuts on common rafters.  It combines a powerful gas motor, a self-oiling chain system, and a large saw foot for making accurate cuts.  Fitted with a chisel-tooth ripping chain, it is hard to tell the cut made using the "Headcutter" from one made with a circular saw (the "Headcutter" also works well for precutting bundled I-joists to length or the cutting of structural insulated panels).

Big Foot Saw "Headcutter" chainsaw base
   The Europeans have been gang-cutting timber frame beams since the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Mafell AG (Germany) began manufacturing a 16-in. diameter saw in the early 1950s and added a vertical cutting electric chainsaw in the early 1960s.  Today, Mafell North America (Williamsville, NY) offers many variations to these same tools, including a 25-in.circular saw (portable?? -145 lbs) and a 4.5-in. dado-saw called a skew-notch and tenon cutter.  These tools are very pricey and geared more for a factory environment versus something a common carpenter might have in his/her tool box.  I did try the single phase Mafell dado to gang-cut rafters in 2001 and was disappointed.  I found it lacking in power and the planer style blade cut poorly.  I can not comment on their recent 3 phase model but having 220 will certainly help in the power aspect..

Adapted from the JLC version of "A Roof Cutter's Secrets". Copyrighted 2002 by Will Holladay.