Way of the Wood – Tirol's Last Master Sawyer
Wood is a key element of Tirol's landscape and lifestyle. While the valley is dominated by large industrial sawmills, the mountains are still home to a few smallscale businesses which have been around for decades, if not centuries. We travelled to the Alpbachtal Valley to meet one of Tirol's last remaining master sawyers.
Andreas Moser is a master sawyer, the third generation of his family to run a smallscale sawmill in the Alpbachtal Valley. Most of his jobs are special, made-to-measure pieces. After completing his training in Kuchl near Salzburg he returned home to take on the running of the family sawmill, founded by his grandfather in 1924, Many of the tools he uses in his work were passed down to him by his father, who in turn received them from his own father.
As a master sawyer you work with lots of types of wood. Do you have a favourite tree?
I don't really have a favourite tree, but my means of course I like straight trees. The tastes of my customers are, however, changing – ten years ago people wanted trees that were as straight as possible, with no branches; today wood can be a bit coarser and have more life. The rustic style is on the rise again.
What makes your sawmill in the Alpbachtal Valley so special?
With my old machines I can cut trees that the big mills can't because they process standardised logs at top speed. I also process short logs up to 1.35 metres long and thick trees up to 1.30 metres in diameter. If someone from the village comes to me with a pear tree from his own garden and wants to make a table out of it, I saw the boards to size for him. Every trunk I cut I look at carefully. What is the best thing to make out of it? Boards, beams or maybe fence posts? I get the best out of each trunk. No one else does that any more.
Andreas Moser cuts around 2,000 cubic metres of wood per year – a large industrial sawmill manages around the same in a day.
Wouldn't it be cheaper for your customers to go to one of the bigger sawmills in the valley?
Down in the valley they are not interested in cutting one or two trees for you. The industrial mills have a different clientele and a differeway of calculating – they use leftover wood, for example by pressing the sawdust into pellets to burn for heating. With me, the tree usually remains in the valley: it grows here, is felled here, sawn up here and processed here. And the farmers get the sawdust to use as bedding for their cows.
How long does it take you to cut up a tree?
That depends on what is required. For a four-metre-long, 25-centimetre-thick tree it takes me about five minutes to cut it up. One board costs about ten euros. If things go well, I can cut 15 trees an hour. I do a good 2,000 solid metres of wood per year. A large sawmill, on the other hand, can do that in a day.
Is running a smallscale sawmill like yours still economically viable?
Honestly, for a long time it was difficult. Almost everyone bought their wood ready-made from the wholesaler. Lately it's been getting better because wood is becoming more expensive and people are coming to me more. Many also prefer to use their own wood for building their house or barn. The younger generation likes it when they can cut and process their own wood from their own forest.
Tradition and technology: Moser's oldest tool dates from the year 1867. His sawmill is a mixture of workshop and museum. In 2024 the mill will celebrate its 100th anniversary – and he definitely wants to keep going until then.
You started working as a master sawyer back in the 1980s. What has changed?
In the past, someone would bring me logs for a whole house and that would be work for a couple of weeks. Today, people only bring a few logs – jobs have become smaller. For me, that means I have to spend much more time to do the same amount of work. It has become more laborious to get the same yield. I also cut far fewer trunks overall than before. I fill the gap with other things, for example building raised beds for gardens, sawing benches, cutting fence posts. All all in it is economically viable, but it would be difficult to live off cutting trees alone.
What do you need to take into account when cutting wood?
It depends on what I want to make out of it. Balcony wood, for example, should not be heartwood, i.e. the dark, inner part of a tree. Otherwise the wood will twist when it dries. That doesn't matter if you want to use it to make a raised bed for a garden. I also look to see if the trees have defects. When a tree grows on a slope, the soil exerts pressure on it. The tree has to resist this, so one side becomes curved. I have to cut this side differently from the straight side. I can use the curved side to make boards for a barn, for example, which don't have to be so beautiful. I need to know all this before I put the log through the saw.
Does your work vary according to the season?
There's less to do in winter. When it is 15 degrees below zero, wood is frozen and difficult to work with. That's why I prefer the summer for cutting. In winter I make benches for the local council, cut decorative items out of wood or build raised beds for gardens.
Sharp and tough: Moser needs around five minutes to saw a four-metre-long trunk which is 25cm in diameter. If nails and shrapnel are embedded in the wood, things can take a lot longer. In the worst case, the blades can be completely destroyed.
Why did you decide to become a master sawyer?
Because it's in my blood. My father was a sawyer, my father's father set up the sawmill. And my mother's father was also a sawyer. That's why it was clear that I would go on to do the same. And I like the job. Wood is a material I like to work with. It is beautiful, soft, has life, a face. Metal or concrete seem almost dead in comparison.
Would you recommend the profession to a young person today setting out on their career?
Not the way I work. Instead I would advise young people to become wood technicians so that they can also draw up plans and work in a carpentry shop. The sawmill can then be considered as a second job on the side.
Is there a special tree that you have cut in the past and you can still remember today?
Once I cut a tree that had a telephone line running through it. When the tree was still young, someone had screwed porcelain insulation for the phone line into the trunk and I hit it with the saw. There was a huge bang, the tree was stuck, seven saw blades were ruined – I had to get out the circular grinder and cut them free. Shell shrapnel is also bad. There was a military training area here at the end of the valley, where the French practised with grenade launchers after the Second World War. The shranpel was so hard that it tore your saw blades apart – a nightmare. Fortunately, I haven't had a tree like that for a long time.
Andreas Moser gets the best out of every tree trunk.
Have you ever hurt yourself at work?
My father only had two or three fingers in tact. The others were either cut off or at least trimmed a little. I, on the other hand, have been pretty lucky: I still have all my fingers.
Have you ever considered stopping?
No. Our sawmill will be 100 years old in 2024. I would definitely like to continue for that long. I don't know if there will be anyone else after me. I have a son, but he's only three years old. Hardly anyone does the job I do nowadays – it's a lot of work.