A Story About My Sawhorses

Dateline: 14 December 2016

38 years ago I was in the building trades program at Alfred State College here in New York. It was a two-year program but I only had enough money to go for one year. 

So, I never got a degree, but getting official degrees in higher education was never important to me. I just wanted to learn about things that interested me. And, after working the summer of '77 helping to restore an old Inn in Vermont, I was  interested in carpentry. 

My objective back in those days was to learn a manual skill (at least one) that I could use to make a living. And that's what I did. In retrospect, the one year of building trades education was time and money well spent. 

The first project we undertook as a class was to make a sawhorse. Each student made a single sawhorse by following a sawhorse blueprint our teacher (Mr. Burdick) gave us. I saved that blueprint for many years (I wish I still had it). 

Making a sawhorse, according to the supplied blueprint was an excellent project. We were graded on it and Mr. Burdick told us that he was going to be looking closely at how tightly the legs were mortised into the top. We used a handsaw and chisels to make the pocket for each of the legs. 

What I remember of this project is that my fellow classmate, Jim Schillinger, had the tightest mortised fit in the class. It turned out that he had prior carpentry experience. But, as I learned later, he also soaked the end grain of his sawhorse legs with water so they swelled up tight. Mr. Burdick never knew.

A good sawhorse should be light in weight, yet strong and stable. The sawhorses we made way back then were just that. Once they were made, our class went on to use them for the rest of the year as we built a house.

When I got out of school and got a job working in my community for a local contractor, I made myself a pair of sawhorses based on the blueprint from school. I put a lot of time into the project. My thinking was that my sawhorses should be an example of my skill and attention to detail. Once they were made, I carefully painted my name, H. C. Kimball, on the horizontal crosspiece under the top.

My sawhorses got a lot of comments and were incredibly useful. I even made a pair for my boss as a Christmas gift one year. On the night before Christmas, I snuck them into his yard, put them on the lawn in front of his front door, and covered them with a tarp. He was surprised and appreciative. That's a good memory.

After five years working for that contractor (and learning a LOT), I went to work for another local contractor. My sawhorses served me well, and were recognized as a remarkably useful tool. 

Before long, I organized an off-hours (on a Saturday) sawhorse-making party. Several of my fellow employees each made ourselves a pair of new sawhorses, according to my design. Our boss supplied the wood. We were a dedicated crew.

My sawhorse design followed me into 10+ years of self employment as a remodeling contractor. I painted Bestbuilt Construction on the horizontal wood piece for part of those years (the partnership years). Then, H.C. Kimball & Co. for the rest of my self-employment years.

In all my years as a carpenter and remodeler, I never saw another tradesman with saw horses like mine (except, of course, the guys I worked with). But a lot of other tradesmen noticed my horses and commented on how nice they were. And they didn't just look nice—they were versatile and useful.

I'm pretty sure that the basic design of my horses is somewhat traditional, meaning that it was in common use by many carpenters in the first half of the 20th century. But, for unknown reasons, carpenters stopped making such horses, opting instead to make some sort of heavier, bulkier sawhorse, using 2x4s and plywood.

When I left self-employment to become a state prison employee, my sawhorses were in rough shape (they don't last a lifetime when really put to use). Lacking a place to store them, I left them outdoors behind my workshop. Eventually, they disintegrated to the point of uselessness. That's when I took the broken one you see in the picture at the top of this page and stashed it under one of my storage sheds. I saved it to use as a pattern to make another pair of sawhorses..... someday.

That someday came a couple months ago when I got involved in a community project, making a shed for an old classmate of mine. I couldn't imagine taking on that job without a good pair of sawhorses!

So, the day before the project, I made the two sawhorses in this next picture...

Mr. Burdick would surely not give me a good grade for those horses, but I made them in just over an hour, and my objective was pure utility—not to showcase my skills. 

The wood to make the tops was from old 2x6 boards I had on hand. The rest of the wood came from a packing crate that once held chicken plucker bearings (an item I sell in my Planet Whizbang mail-order business). So those horses cost me nothing.

Here you can see them being used on the shed-building project...


  1. Hi Herrick, I have a set of sawhorses that my grandfather built I don't know how long ago. They are still useable having been stored inside all the time. Also it didn't hurt the longevity of them in that he soaked them in a tub of creosote before assembling them so my Dad told me! They didn't know all the problems creosote can cause the human being. But by the time they came into my possession they had no smell at all left.
    But since I got in the LPG business and was always doing a lot of galvanized pipe threading, I broke down and bought a couple of the folding aluminum ones. They have taken a beating but are still being used quite a lot.
    Just received my 50x100 foot bunker cover from a place called Farm Plastics. It will cover the inside of the HT twice, so I have enough for double however long the life of it is. Began building my 30" 2x4 frames for in there. I am such a idea thief!! Had our first snow flurry about an hour ago while I was in the HT pulling up the last of the Bell and Jalapeño/cayenne peppers.. Still got Kale, Chard, and a couple kinds of lettuce cooking away in there! Merry Christmas and a Happy New year to Marlene and you and your kids. Give my regards to the Restauranteurs! Verna and Everett

    1. Hi Everett—

      I love the fact that your grandfather built those sawhorses to last a long time. And that they have been passed on to you. That's a great story.

      I'm old enough to remember using creosote, back before pressure treated lumber became so ubiquitous. And then there was a product named Cuprinol that I used for awhile to waterproof wood.

      I don't mind you being an idea thief. But you're getting an experimental idea. So I guess we can experiment together and compare notes.

      I pinned the frames in place with a 12" long length of 1/2" re-rod in three of the inside corners. Also, after the frames were in place on the plastic, and pinned as I just explained, I used a scrap of 3/4" thick board against the inside edges of the frame to guide my knife when cutting the plastic. So I ended up with a 3/4" plastic reveal in the inside. That just seems like a better idea to me.

      First snow flurry! Wow. You really do have it made. :-) We are getting strong, snow-blowing winds out of the West today, and bitter cold. Nevertheless, Marlene dug some kale out of the snow yesterday.

      Thanks for the well-wishes. Same to you, my friend.

  2. Your memories jogged several in me, Herrick. In high school I worked summers on a framing crew building custom homes in a subdivision. We didn't build like they do today. We were a three-man crew and we framed from foundation to roof sheeting and siding. It was all what I like to refer to as custom framing, but I think what some folks call stick framing. We hand nailed every stud, ever top plate; we custom cut ever roof rafter and floor joist. It was a wonderful learning experience and I loved being outdoors and earning money to apply to my college tuition.

    I got the job based on a referral from someone that was a friend of the family. I didn't know the framing crew. I walked onto the job site and the leader asked if I had any carpentry experience. I told him I had stage carpentry experience because I was building stage sets in high school. He laughed at me. He then said, go over there and make a set of saw horses. Pointing to the pile of materials that had just come from the lumber yard. I quickly sneaked a peak at the saw horses they had there already and went to work copying what they were already using. They weren't the best, but it landed me the job. I spent the next two summers framing houses and still feel it was one of the best jobs I've had. The leader tested me one other time a few weeks later when he directed me to build a truss from scratch that was to structurally support a long span over the garage without using I-beams. He gave me a few directions and I was off. When the unit was installed and the developer/architect came by, he was jumping up and down on that floor trying to see if my truss supported properly. It did and I won everyone's confidence that day. I have to say, there are days when I wonder if I should have remained a carpenter. But then I walk out on a winter day and am thankful I don't have to endure winter weather to earn a living.

    1. Dan—

      I'm impressed. Framing houses (without air tools, especially) is hard work. What a great experience for the younger you!

      And you are right about working in extreme weather. Too cold and too hot. I've been there. No fun.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. When I first came out of the Navy after 20 yrs I was looking for a job of some sort before I bought the gas business. A guy I went to school with had been doing custom house building for those twenty years and he said to come to work Monday morning and bring your tools. I showed up at the duly appointed hour and he said where are your tools, so I pulled a 12 oz Craftsman hammer out of my back pocket and showed it too him. He took it looked at it and threw it as afar as he could into the bushes and said, "Go to the hardware store and and get a a 22 oz Estwing farming hammer and come back in the morning! By the end of the first day I could just barely swing the damned thing. Good times!

  4. Elizabeth L. Johnson said,
    Speaking about hammers. Being a general contractor's wife, and having helped him slightly on the job, I learned that you give the tool direction, and let it's weight do the work. On short-term mission trip to Mexico back in April, I was involved with the women's Bible study, though yearning to do construction. I know nothing, but can do something, if I'm told what. Seeing the young people were having a horrible time getting sixteen-penny nails into homemade trusses, I wanted the challenge. I let that son-of-a-gun hammer's weight do it's job. Done right, it should only take a couple of swings. What fun, 'cause the youth didn't know how.