The sawmill was a common feature of 19th-century eastern Canadian landscapes. Early sawmills were simple structures: water-powered and cheaply built, usually with a single reciprocating blade and a hand-operated ratchet carriage to feed logs into the blade. They were used for cutting local logs for local consumption. Sawing was slow: a day's work might produce 500 boards. Built alongside or in conjunction with a gristmill and near a blacksmith shop, such mills might be the focus of a growing village, though work was seasonal and often part-time.

Far more significant were the fewer, larger mills cutting logs for export. Equipped with gang saws and ancillary machinery, they produced better lumber faster. After 1840 new technologies increased their size and efficiency. Circular saws were used for edging and trimming. The continuous-cutting band saw largely replaced the reciprocating gang after 1890. Rollers and log chains moved material through the mill quickly. Steam power, increasingly common after mid-century, meant faster, more continuous cutting and locational freedom. Electric lighting reduced the fire hazard of night work. In 1830 a large mill might have produced 7500 m/day; by 1850, 18 000 m was unexceptional; in 1900 the figure might be 180 000 m. Massive investment lay behind these increases, and with it came concentration in fewer locations and the pre-eminence of a relatively small number of firms.