2 – Woodwork in Šumava and the Bavarian Forest

We learn about the species composition of the original Šumavian forests from pollen analyses of sediments found, for example, at the bottom of Šumava’s lakes. We know that towards the end of the Ice Age, about ten thousand years ago, pines and hazels used to be dominant in these forests. Spruces appeared about eight thousand years ago and gradually came to outnumber other species even in medium elevations. Approximately two thousand years ago, spruces made up 40% of the forest cover while beeches and firs together accounted for 37%.
The forests were initially utilised as a source of fire fuel, and the ashes from slash-and-burn and clearing processes would eventually be used as fertiliser for new small fields. Later, wood ash was used to make potash used in glassworks and timber was used to produce tar as well as grease for carriage wheels or for charcoal production. Local forestry changed once the majority of Šumavian forests came to belong to the Schwarzenberg house (they acquired the Krumlov duchy and the Vimperk estate in 1719, the Prášily estate in 1798 and Dlouhá Ves in 1800). They realised that directly selling the timber would be more profitable than using it for glass production. To improve transportation, they constructed floating canals as well as new settlements to house more workers.
It was not until the mid-18th century that anxieties over possible timber shortages were voiced. In 1753, Marie Therese introduced the Forest Law which aimed to “improve and preserve forests”. According to the law, forest administration was to be overseen and careless uneconomical cutting was forbidden. Cut down forests had to be clearcut and regrown. Trees could only be cut down between November and February. Building wood could not be sold for fuel and international sales required the highest permission status. This law was in use until a new one was passed in 1852.
The oldest logging practice was the so-called “wandering cut”, wherein people simply cut older or diseased trees for their own need, unobstructed by regulation. This changed in the early 16th century and was replaced by clearing cuts which would leave some sections of the forest completely bare. Logging was either as part of forest corvée work or done for a wage. The timber was initially sold as standing crop, later per wagon. Trade in timber experienced intense growth from the 18th century. Prices of wood and wooden products were very low. The wood was processed either on the logging site or nearby. However rafting has been recorded as early as 14th century.
Reforestation was at first done by natural regrowth, i.e. by leaving seedlings. The created clearings would be fenced off from livestock. From the second half of the 18th century, reforestation was done by planting new seeds and later nursery plants. The first forest tree nurseries came to be around that time. Only in mid 19th century do young trees with balled roots begin to be planted. Regular thinning begins in the 1840s. Opening up forests from the inside has been forbidden since the 16th century so as to prevent windthrow.
The transportation of building timber for floating was done in winter using a steer-drawn sleigh or a carriage. Timber for fuel was transported using a small sleigh – ‘rohatky’ - which could carry up to three cubic meters of it. While going down a steep hill, a couple of logs tied together by chains were dragged behind the sleigh to slow down the descent. The rafts were assembled at tying station. Logs were bound and held together by a transverse rod and withes. The raft was 150 meters long, 3 meters wide and contained up to 70 cubic metres of timber. During floating, each raft was controlled by a single oarsman in the front and attended by a helmsman and two floaters.
People who lived in places through which the rafts passed were allowed, usually free of charge, to fish out so-called ‘sinkers’ – the logs that became so soaked with water they sank to the bottom of the river. Up until the 18th century, most wood was used up in glassworks to make potash (K2CO3). Potash is added to the glass preparation mixture to lower the melting point of silica. One to two tons of wood had to be used to produce just one kilogram of potash.
Šumavian production of wood ash in charcoal piles is tied to iron processing. In the Železná Ruda area, iron had been melted at least since the 13th century. In the mid-19th century, wood ash came to be replaced by coke. The amount of wood used up for wood ash production was significant, an ironworks would consume up to 18,000 meters. Tool hammermills would make their own wood ash. Ferdinand Denkscherz was still building charcoal stacks in the 1950s.