Picture above: The small rural sawmills with circular saws provided the forest with a new use and a new value.

Some communities created their specialties from the forest. Charcoal and tar were among the first products to be manufactured on a large scale. Another product was potash, which contained potassium carbonate (K₂CO₃). Potash was created by burning wood and then leaching the salt from the ash. The lye was then used to make soaps, but was also used in the textile industry and at glassworks. Farmers in Göinge travelled with wooden chests and cartwheels to the local markets.


The breakthrough for the Swedish forest industry came with sawn timber, which was an exceptional export success from the mid-1800s. It is unclear when water-powered saw technology reached Scandinavia, but the first evidence of water-powered saws in Sweden is from the 1400s. 

At the end of the 16th century, the Crown investigated whether it was possible to build large sawmills in Norrland. The sawmill industry began in earnest in Norrland after the end of the Great Northern War in 1721, partly for exports. 

In the 1740s, a technological shift began from coarse-toothed saws to fine-toothed saws. The inventor Christopher Polhem complained that boards from the coarse-toothed saws were as “furry as bears.” Much of the log was lost as sawdust and sometimes as shavings. 


The breakthrough came in the 19th century. The industrialisation of Western Europe involved a rapid increase in construction. Many wooden boards were needed. An enormous market became available when the UK introduced free trade.

The rivers offered Swedish sawmills a competitive advantage – it was cheaper and easier to obtain logs than in other countries. In the mid-19th century, steam-powered sawmills were developed, with greater capacity and a longer season than water-powered sawmills. 

Growth was historically unprecedented. Between 1846 and 1850, sawn timber accounted for about 15 percent of exports – by the end of the 1860s this figure had grown to more than half. 

Some of the first sawmill owners became fantastically rich. The Kempe family were behind MoDo, and another branch of the family built the luxuriously furnished Hallwyl House in Stockholm. 


The main story of the Swedish sawmill era concerns the coast of Norrland. Slightly overshadowed by frame saws, another type of sawmill business emerged in southern Sweden. This was founded on the circular saw, which was patented in France and the UK around the turn of the 19th century, though Christopher Polhem had actually built a wind-powered circular saw in the early 18th century. 

One of the first circular saws was built by the Göta river in the 1850s, but the breakthrough came first in the 1870s. Circular saws were primarily used at smaller sawmills. Many of these were built near railway tracks in southern Sweden, that could transport both round timber and finished boards. 

Thousands of smaller circular saws were built between the 1870s until the mid-20th century. The circular saws played a key role in the changing attitudes of farmers in southern Sweden to the forest. The small rural sawmills provided the forest with a new use and a new value. This helped to make rational forest management profitable and possible.

With the expansion of pulp mills...


The sawmills could only use part of the logs. Initially, the waste became charcoal, boxes or simply firewood, but the first pulp plants were built in the 1870s. Up to then, paper had been made from textile rags, but cellulose now opened up completely new opportunities. 

The sulphite process produced the brightest and strongest pulp, suitable for newsprint. The sulphate pulp became brown in the process and was mainly used as durable paper. 

...spruce and small-diameter trees could also be processed. Pictures from Södra’s pulp mill in Mönsterås.

The pulp industry experienced a rapid expansion between 1890 and 1920. The focus shifted from sawmills to pulp mills – from the world’s leading exporter of sawn timber products at the turn of the century, the country became the main pulp exporter by the outbreak of World War I. 

The pulp industry became a new buyer of not only sawmill waste but also spruce and small-diameter trees. At the beginning of the sawmill era, companies were only interested in thick pines. Spruce was not included in contracts until the 1860s. 


Sweden became a leading paper manufacturer due to the availability of cellulose. The Chinese had manufactured paper already in 100 A.D. European paper manufacturing began in Spain and Italy in the 13th century. The first paper letters arrived in the Nordic countries from the Pope in Avignon in the 1350s. 

The oldest recorded documents in the Nordic countries are written on parchment, made by cleaning animal hides and then cutting them to a suitable size. This was a lengthy process and the material was expensive, so used parchment was sometimes re-cleaned – recycling saved money. 

In Sweden, the production of wood-based paper began in earnest around 1900. The expansion of the paper mills was hampered by the fact that several countries charged higher tariffs for paper than for pulp. They wanted to save the more profitable paper production for their own manufacturers. 

Nevertheless, the forest industry succeeded in maintaining a position as Sweden’s leading export industry. Most years from the mid-19th century and for the next 100 years, sawmills, the pulp industry and paper mills accounted for between 40 and 50 percent of Swedish exports. After World War II, this percentage began to shrink, but in absolute terms the value of these exports has continued to grow into the modern era.


Not only sawmills developed new industries. The cellulose industry was also a hotbed of new products. From an early stage, new applications were considered for the fibre. In the 1890s, Alfred Nobel attempted to make artificial leather and rubber from cellulose. Around the same time, other inventors were seeking methods to use cellulose in textiles. In more recent times, it is hoped that this could reduce our dependency on cotton and oil-based artificial fibres. 

A by-product of the sulphite process is monosaccharides. Most of the sulphite spirit is used in industrial applications, but in 1919 it became legal to manufacture aquavit from sulphite spirits. The following year, sales began of unflavoured table aquavit, which was later renamed unflavoured “taffel” aquavit. The same year, “Renat” table aquavit was launched. “Reimersholms Aquavit” appeared in stores in 1922 and “Gammal Norrlands Aquavit” in 1928. One by one, these makes disappeared – the last was “Gammal Norrlands Aquavit”, production of which ended in 1988.

Text: Gunnar Wetterberg 

Gunnar Wetterberg. Photo: Christine Olsson.

GUNNAR WETTERBERG is a historian, author, investigator and former diplomat. He has also featured as an expert on the Fråga Lund TV programme. As an author, Gunnar has previously written about Axel Oxenstierna, the Wallenberg family empire and the 14,000 year history of Skåne. He is currently finishing the book “Trees – a walk through the Swedish forest” [Träd – en vandring i den svenska skogen”]. Gunnar has written special versions of some chapters in the book at the request of Södra. “The Forest – the predecessor to industry” article above is one of these. “The Farmer and the Forest” article was previously published here on sodra.com – read it here.