Endean’s MillJune 8th, 2017 By Dylan Owen
In 2016 I photographed Endean’s sawmill located near Waimiha, a remote part of the North Island’s King Country.
Closed now for over 20 years the sawmill and most of its surrounding infrastructure still remains intact.
Sprawled across 3 hectares lies a remarkable assortment of tram lines and bogies, vehicles, drying sheds, mill worker houses and stacked processed native timber. There is even a steam engine that originally powered the mill.
Over the road from the mill plant is the manager’s office, complete with corrugated iron chimney. Its interior is crammed with an extraordinary array of maintenance equipment, tally boards and administrative documentation, the latter stretching back decades.
Today, Endean’s Mill represents New Zealand’s last fully intact native timber sawmill. It is a distant reminder that, for better or worse, our native timber industry played a substantial role in New Zealand’s economic and pastoral development. In fact it has been estimated that between the years 1838 – 1980 nearly 2000 mills operated across New Zealand.
Endean’s Mill was originally located in Matiere on the Ohura Road, and then moved to its current location in 1927. This included some buildings and the single-cylinder steam engine that powered the twin cutting saws (see below.) It was common practice that as a source of timber became exhausted, or ‘cut over’, mills (and particularly their infrastructure) were sold or shifted to another location. Depending on the timber supply, the life span of most mills averaged between 10 and 20 years.
The steam engine was powered by freshly-cut matai slabs or off-cuts, and remained in use until 1960.
As was standard practice for the time, the mill’s design featured a largely open-sided structure roofed with corrugated iron. Dominating the interior were the cutting saws, or break-down saws.
These twin saws initially cut the freshly-felled native logs transported from further up the valley. However in larger mills this task was often completed by a single six foot circular saw.
Twin saws were mounted one above the other with one positioned slightly forward to enable a cutting overlap - as they needed to accommodate some fairly sizable logs!
After the first cut the resulting timber (or flitches) were loaded on to the breast-bench skids then positioned and fed through a second saw, the breast-bench saw. This was operated by the Benchman and at the other end his work mate, the Tailer-Out.
Incidentally, the rollers to the left in the above photograph were lathed from Black Maire (Nestegis cunninghamii) a wood renowned for its durability and hardness, essential qualities given the size and weight of the native logs passing over them.
The Benchman’s role was one of the most important in a mill. It was his expert judgement which decided how to extract the best prime quality timber using the least number of cuts so the kerf (timber that became sawdust) or wastage was minimised. It has been estimated that 35% of a log’s volume was discarded as sawdust or offcuts.
A third saw was operated by the Gooseman or ‘Goosie’. His job was to cut the rough or jagged ends of the previously cut timber using a swing saw.
The other essential mill role was the Saw Doctor. His job was to strip, swage (reshape and tension) and sharpen the blades to ensure they cut accurately and smoothly.
Following the sawing, processed timber was stacked according to its grade, size and class, heart timber, due to its hardness and durability being a particularly valuable commodity. Timber offcuts ended up travelling up a conveyor belt to be burnt in the mill’s furnace, (above). Mill sawdust was deposited behind this furnace down a small gully.
Sawmilling was hard physical labour, and frequently a six-days-a-week job, though Saturdays often involved mill maintenance work. Conditions were rudimentary and dangerous to say the least. Apart from fire (it is claimed around three sawmills burned down each year) it was often cold (in winter), wet (water was used to continually cool cutting blades), and noisy work. Given sawmillers’ proximity to whirling saw blades, pulley belts, wire cabling, winches and heavy logs, injuries and fatalities were not uncommon. Graphic reports of amputation, crushing, being struck by flying debris and caught in pulley belts were widely reported in newspapers.
Mill work was intense and stressful, so much so that some sawmillers used the phrase “I could hear the saws today” - an indication the work they were doing had “jaded their nerves to breaking point.”
Noise was another factor, especially when all saws were working. Communication was often via a system of hand signals. However smoko, lunch and knock-off time (heralded by a whistle blast) were times to enjoy a cuppa, yarn or, after work, a few beers. Here one person also found time to climb into the rafters and immortalise themselves.
Our first sawmills
As one of our first industries, sawmilling proceeded on an almost exponential trajectory. As early as 1794 timber was exported for the Royal Navy. Initially these were Kahikatea but subsequently Kauri timber in the form of rickers, (large poles used for making spars) proved more durable. There is even a persistent rumour that some of the English ships present at the Battle of Trafalgar may have had Kauri masts.
T. Simpson in his book, Kauri to Radiata notes that as early as mid-1842 four sawmills were operating in New Zealand, two driven by steam the other two by water power. In fact one of the first steam sawmills bought from England was operated by Edward Catchpool in Wellington as early as 1841.
Mr Catchpool put his steam mill into operation a few days since, and it worked to his satisfaction. The engine drives two sets of griss stones and a circular saw. Logs are being brought from the Hutt and about the Bay for the use of this saw mill, which we hope will now soon contribute some wood to the market, for which there is a great demand. We believe this is the first steam mill erected in New Zealand. We heartily wish Mr Catchpool every success.”
By 1880 200 sawmills were recorded in New Zealand. Thirty two years later this figure had more than doubled. By 1912 sawmilling was a major primary industry (particularly in areas where Kauri grew) with around 423 mills in operation. Combined, they employed over 7,400 personnel and were cutting 413,868,919 million feet of native timber.
It didn’t last of course. With the rapid depletion of forest cover (through fire and logging) the rise of exotic planting and harvesting (principally Pinus radiata) and a growing environmental lobby, native timber mills were in significant decline from the 1960s.
Some, like Endean’s, continued catering to the demand for native timber. As can be seen by this tally board, the sawmill mainly cut podocarp, principally Totara, Rimu and Matai. Totara was used for fence post battens, Rimu for construction framing and Matai for flooring. All this was sourced via a tram line that at one stage stretched 20 kilometres up the valley from mill to forest.
The Mill community
The sawmill was not only a work place but also represented a community comprising sawmillers, bushmen and their families. Initially these would have been mainly Pakeha but as Europeans moved away from the Waimiha area increasingly Māori were employed at the mill.
Amenities in remote communities like Endean’s mill were primitive to 21st century sensibilities. Roads were rudimentary; houses often lacked electricity, insulation, sewerage and plumbing. Food was cooked on a wood range and supplied as much from house gardens and hunting as from the infrequent trips to distant towns.
The Endean company houses, empty, unpainted and built from local native timber have been largely stripped of furniture and domestic appliances. However they still offer a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of these mill communities.
Some of the house walls are adorned with a collage of aspirational images sourced from what appear to be popular weekly women’s magazines from the 1960s and 1970s.
Earlier in the 20th century this seemed to be a standard form of interior decorating in remoter rural areas, as the artist E.H. McCormick noted,
We had long ceased to paper our houses with the illustrated pages of the Auckland Weekly News, although traces of this pioneer custom were still to be found in the privies and occasionally in the kitchens of our rural neighbours . . . We had passed beyond that unsophisticated stage and now used the supplements issued with various journals, hanging them, suitably framed, on a background of floral or oatmeal wallpaper.
Other posters and magazine cut-outs reflect both the prevalent popular culture of the 1990s, (wrestlers and pop singers predominate with Michael Jackson being particularly popular) and earlier, like these depictions of Bob Marley and the ‘Zig Zag’ Man.
Colour also played an important role in some of the interiors, colour that also vied for attention with 1970s themed wall paper.
Endean’s Mill uniquely echoes the rise and fall of our native timber industry while revealing the extent (and ingenuity) of a largely forgotten technology that once turned our native forests into timber. As an industrial site it also reveals the sheer physical work and skills required to operate a sawmill against a backdrop of relative hardship and isolation.
Ironically, as the fate of this timber mill hangs between dereliction and restoration new forests of a more sustainable kind have appeared on the surrounding hills, Pinus radiata.
The above photographs (and others of Endean’s mill) have been donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Photographic Archive.
Special thanks to George Ottaway, former Endean’s mill manager and current owner for allowing us to both photograph the mill and patiently answer my many questions.
- Heritage of Industry: discovering New Zealand’s industrial history, by N. Smith, Reed Publishing, 2001.
- Kauri to radiata: origin and expansion of the timber industry of New Zealand, by Thomas E. Simpson, Hodder and Stoughton, c1973.
- Sawdust in my blood, by Don Lang, First Edition Limited, c2008.
- Sawmilling in the 1940's, by Doug Gaustad, D.J. Gaustad, c2007
- An Absurd Ambition by Eric H. McCormick 1959a, p.12
- New Zealand Official Yearbooks, 1912
- Sawmill Engineering in New Zealand by Pau Mahoney and Colin Zeff 2014
- Broken down Endean’s Mill survives complete, New Zealand Logger April 2007, p 44
- Time Capsule, NZ Today Jan/Feb 2007 p 100