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When enough is enough: True story about hand swaging a bandsaw

CFI saw filing columnist Paul Smith shares a story about a sawfiler in Texas whose decision to retire after many years hand swaging bandsaws has a lesson for all mills today about the importance of automation in retaining filers.


June 1, 2022
By Paul Smith

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Photo: Annex Business Media

A long time ago, before autoswages and even air swages existed, and at the beginning of my career as a saw salesman, I will never forget a sawfiler working in a family-owned mill in Livingston, Texas. This is my retelling of his story.

The single-headrig mill with a 54-foot bandsaw was owned and operated by a well-respected family of multiple generations. The filer was somewhere around 70 years of age and had worked at the same mill for three generations of mill owners. The filer was very dedicated to his job and the owners appreciated his work and considered him part of the family.

The filer’s wife and family have been after the old filer to retire, yet the old filer did not care to give up his trade. Finally, he made the trip to the owner’s office one day and as he stood at the door, the owner very politely got up out of his seat and met the filer halfway across the room in front of the desk.

The owner said, “Is everything OK? You hardly ever come to the office.”

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The old filer said, “Yes sir, I just needed to let you know something.”

The owner beckoned him to sit down. As they both took a seat and the owner asked what he could do for him, the filer dropped his head and said that, because of his age and his family pushing him to retire, he was giving a year’s notice.

The owner immediately replied, “Of course. You have been very faithful to me and all our family for many years. We only wish you the best as you have given your best to us. And with a year’s notice you still take care of us by giving us plenty of time to replace you. We so much appreciate your work here and your kindness and dedication to our family.”

The owner then reached for his pencil and paper and started calculating. “Well sir, you repair two bands a day for about 260 workdays a year. Our band that we run is 54 feet in length with 2-inch tooth spacing. That comes to 324 teeth per band. Swaging twice a day for 260 days will have you pull on that swage 168,480 times before your retirement.”

The owner walked the old filer to the door with his hand on his shoulder, praising him for his work at the mill. As the old filer walked out, the owner said, “You come back to the office anytime you want to visit.”

The next day, as the owner approached his office, he saw the old filer sitting outside his door, apparently waiting to talk. The owner somewhat awkwardly asked, “What can I do for you? You were just here yesterday.”

With hesitation, the old filer looked the owner in the eye and dropped his shoulder, finally blurting out that thinking about pulling on that swage another 168,480 times brought him to the conclusion that he could not pull on it even one more time. Apologizing as he went, the old filer started walking out the door, stating that he had decided his retirement started today and he was going home to rest.

When I think about that story today, I come to the conclusion that it can be both overwhelming and frustrating to think about performing a physical task over and over again. That’s not to mention the health issues it may cause.

Does the younger generation realize the importance of technology when they use automatic swage and shapers or even semi-auto swages? Or, should we go one step further and ask, do mill owners and managers realize the good of these machines? Does the new management today understand the hard work that filers put in to keep the mill running efficiently and profitably?

Today, we are a very fortunate generation to have such technology and proven advancements in our wood industry. This opinion is more for owners and managers than it is for the old filers:

The mills have great filers that maintain the filing room to a degree that enhances productivity and profits for the mills. Please consider giving the old filers the tools and equipment that may entice them to put in a few more good years in the filing room.

After all, it’s in the owners’ and management’s best interest to retain trained, experienced staff who can keep saws sharp while passing on knowledge to the next generation of workers.

This column is dedicated to the Olgtree family. Their sawmill was in operation from 1920 to the 1960s. 

This article is part of CFI’s 2022 File Week. Find the File Week landing page here.


Paul Smith is the owner and CEO of Smith Sawmill Service LLC with locations in Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina. Reach him at paul@smithsawmillservice.com.