By the 11th century, hydropowered sawmills were in widespread use throughout the medieval Islamic world, from Islamic Spain and North Africa in the west to Central Asia in the east. Sawmills eventually became widespread in medieval Europe as well, as one was sketched by Villard de Honnecourt in c. 1250. They are claimed to have been introduced to Madeira following its discovery in c. 1420 and spread widely in Europe in the 16th century.
The sawmill was also described by the Dutchman Cornelis Corneliszoon (1550-1607) by applying a pitman arm onto a wind mill, which converted a turning motion into an up-an-down motion. Corneliszoon patented the sawmill on December 15, 1593 and the pitman on December 6, 1597. He built the first sawmill there in 1594.
Prior to the invention of the sawmill, boards were rived and planed, or more often sawn by two men with a whipsaw, using saddleblocks to hold the log, and a saw pit for the pitman who worked below. Sawing was slow, and required strong and enduring men. The topsawer had to be the stronger of the two because the saw was pulled in turn by each man, and the lower had the advantage of gravity. The topsawyer also had to guide the saw so that the board was of even thickness. This was often done by following a chalkline.
Early sawmills simply adapted the whipsaw to mechanical power, generally driven by a water wheel to speed up the process. The circular motion of the wheel was changed to back-and-forth motion of the saw blade by a Connecting rod known as a pitman (thus introducing a term used in many mechanical applications). A pitman is similar to a crankshaft, but in reverse; a crankshaft converts back-and-forth motion to circular motion.
Generally, only the saw was powered, and the logs had to be loaded and moved by hand. An early improvement was the development of a movable carriage, also water powered, to move the log steadily through the saw blade.
A small mill such as this would be the center of many rural communities in wood-exporting regions such as the Baltic countries and Canada. The output of such mills would be quite low, perhaps only 500 boards per day. They would also generally only operate during the winter, the peak logging season.
In the United States, the sawmill was introduced soon after the colonisation of Virginia by recruiting skilled men from Hamburg. Later the metal parts were obtained from the Netherlands, where the technology was far ahead of that in England, where the sawmill remained largely unknown until the late 18th century. The arrival of a sawmill was a large and stimulative step in the growth of a frontier community.
Early mills were taken to the forest, where a temporary shelter was built, and the logs were skidded to the nearby mill by horse or ox teams, often when there was some snow to provide lubrication. As mills grew larger, they were usually established in more permanent facilities on a river, and the logs were floated down to them by log drivers.
The next improvement was the use of circular saw blades, and soon thereafter, the use of gangsaws, which added additional blades so that a log would be reduced to boards in one quick step. Circular saw blades were extremely expensive and highly subject to damage by overheating or dirty logs. A new kind of technician arose, the sawfiler. Sawfilers were highly skilled in metalworking. Their main job was to set and sharpen teeth. The craft also involved learning how to hammer a saw, whereby a saw is deformed with a hammer and anvil to counteract the forces of heat and cutting. The circular saw was a later introduction, perhaps invented in England in the late 18th century, but perhaps in 17th century Holland, Netherlands. Modern circular saw blades have replaceable teeth, but still need to be hammered.
The introduction of steam power in the 19th century created many new possibilities for mills. They could be built away from water and could be far more mechanized. Scrap lumber from the mill provided a ready fuel source for firing the boiler. Efficiency was increased, but the capital cost of a new mill increased dramatically as well.
By 1900, the largest sawmill in the world was operated by the Atlantic Lumber Company in Georgetown, South Carolina, using logs floated down the Pee Dee River from as far as the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina.
A restoration project for Sturgeon's Mill in Northern California is underway, restoring one of the last steam-powered lumber mills still using its original equipment.
In the twentieth century the introduction of electricity and high technology furthered this process, and now most sawmills are massive and expensive facilities in which most aspects of the work is computerized. The cost of a new facility with 2 mmfbm/day capacity is up to $120,000,000 cdn. A modern operation will produce between 100 mmfbm and 700 mmfbm annually.
Small gasoline-powered sawmills run by local entrepreneurs served many communities in the early twentieth century, and specialty markets still today.
A trend is the small portable sawmill for personal or semi professional use. Many different models have emerged with different designs and functions. They are especially suitable for producing limited volumes of boards, or specialty milling such as oversized timber.
Technology has changed sawmill operations significantly in recent years, emphasizing increasing profits through waste minimization and increased energy efficiency as well as improving operator safety. The once-ubiquitous rusty, steel conical sawdust burners have for the most part vanished, as the sawdust and other mill waste is now processed into particleboard and related products, or used to heat wood-drying kilns. Co-generation facilities will produce power for the operation and may also feed superfluous energy onto the grid. While the bark may be ground for landscapine barkdust, it may also be burned for heat. Sawdust may make particle board or be pressed into wood pellets for pellet stoves. The larger pieces of wood that won't make lumber are chipped into wood chips and provide a source of supply for paper mills. Wood by-products of the mills will also make Oriented strand board paneling for building construction, a cheaper alternative to plywood for paneling.