Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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There were many reasons the Wolf electric saw wasn’t popular with loggers. Probably the main one was, they saw it as a solution to a non-problem. Loggers actually liked the misery whip just fine. Its sad-country-song name notwithstanding, the misery whip was a pretty efficient and effective way to cut down a large tree. By the time you factored in all the monkeying around with the generator, Wolf’s electric chainsaw was not much faster than a good crosscut team, and far less versatile. Plus, its bar length was too short for much of the old-growth timber that was being cut in the 1920s.
And then, too, what did you do if you got all your stuff set up in the woods for a day of work and the generator engine dropped a valve or someone dropped an ax on the electric line?
Thanks, the loggers said; but, no thanks.
LUCKILY FOR WOLF, others were more accepting. Construction contractors found Wolf saws especially useful for precision cuts made to huge beams and rafters, and sawmill operators used them in various places where a huge circular sawblade wouldn’t be convenient.
A model powered by compressed air came out a few years later, which could be used by divers under water. And in 1930 they made their first attempt at a gasoline-powered saw. It weighed 80 pounds, broke down with depressing regularity, and probably could only be used in an upright position; so nothing came of this.
Meanwhile, Wolf’s number-one competitor was turning out to be Andreas Stihl’s operation in Germany. Using his own patents for a saw chain similar to Wolf’s (but different enough not to infringe), Stihl had built the first gas-powered saw, a 101-pound two-man monster, in 1929. It wasn’t much use, but Stihl refined it and in 1936 introduced a gas-powered saw that weighed only 46 pounds. And it was that saw that now slowly started to percolate into logging operations — although most loggers still preferred their good old misery whips.
Then the Second World War broke out, and Stihl was part of a military enemy. That effectively made his patents free for anyone to use. Wolf’s competitors suddenly had access to a cutting system that could compete with his own.
Then the Portland factory that Wolf had contracted with to make his saws was called upon to produce more critical war materials. By around 1943 Wolf saws and chain were out of production for the duration of the conflict.
At the end of the war, Wolf looked over the competitive field and decided that with his patents expired, Stihl’s in widespread use, and still no good lightweight gasoline engine available to fit to his saws, it wouldn’t make sense to start back up.
History would ratify that as a very good decision. Because three years after the war ended, another Oregon man, watching a nest of wood-boring beetle larvae chew through a log he’d just split open, saw something that would lead him to invent the modern chainsaw.
His name was Joe Cox, and we’ll have his story in the next Offbeat Oregon column (Part 2 in this 2-part series on chainsaw development in Oregon. Here's a link to it.)