Straightness

A customer from Italy recently asked me about an apparent bow along the toothline of his new backsaw. He wondered what would cause this and is it a concern? Should he have it fixed and what would it cost?

Lots of things can cause a backsaw blade to warp…being dropped to the floor, bent in over-zealous thrusting, improper storage…these are nightmares to the SawWright. And that’s just the tip of the causal ice berg. Believe it or not though many backsaws are warped from the moment they’re made, and are delivered that way to the customer….like my Italian friend above. Machine tooth punching (or even manual tooth punching of old) almost always warps the saw blade due to the tension created by the process. So it’s very common to buy a saw and find it warped when new.

Huh?

Ya…I know, it sucks. You just plunked down $150 to $300 on a brand new, high-end saw only to open it up and find its warped!!! But honestly, I don’t think it matters. I’ve tuned up and used hundreds of new and old backsaws and found the tolerances required for true cutting to be amazingly broad. In fact, many of my favorite user saws in my own till are far from arrow straight at the toothline.

Take my dovetail saw for example…

It’s a Groves & Sons from the golden age of Sheffield…probably circa 1870 and I love it. But the toothline is anything but straight. I laid a machinists straight-edge across the side of the saw blade at the teeth and found that it bowed over 1/32nd of an inch along its length. Now that might not sound like a lot, but over a short 9 inch toothline, its akin to a woodworking potato chip. When sighting from the heel to the toe, it is quite a striking wave. When I first rehabbed the saw a few years ago, I did my best to true the back and blade, but small dovetail saws are the most fussy in this aspect. I’ve found that the thinner the saw blade, the more difficult to manipulate the tension and effect a truing. So I let it be.

But the saw cuts as true as any…and to the full depth of the blade…

How’s that? Should a warped backsaw cut a warped line?

Maybe not. I’ve seen many, many warped backsaws cut perfectly straight, just like mine. I’m sure all the engineers and techy types could explain why. But I’m not really interested in the why…I am simply thankful that the reality exists.

So should you automatically fix a warped backsaw? That depends…make a cut with it, and I say if it cuts true, it is true. :)

-Matt

Posted in Uncategorized on August 16, 2014 – 1:37 pm | Comments (4)

Size matters

Re-filing teeth on a rip saw is not one of my favorite activities in the shop. I can remember when I first attempted such a feat years ago. I recall wanting to finish the process so that I could saw my arms off to ensure I’d never do it again. Of course, a crosscut saw would have been better suited to severing bone and flesh, but you get the idea.

One of the most daunting tasks of re-filing teeth into a handsaw is the jointing. If a vintage saw has teeth like an old lady, then you’ve got a lot of steel to remove. Somewhere along the line I learned that a big, heavy mill file is the key to efficient, accurate jointing on a thick saw blade. I used to use 8 inch mill files to joint all my saws…simply because that was the size I had on hand. Using one of these relatively diminutive tools to joint saw teeth is like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon.

I’ve found big, heavy 12 inch mill files have several advantages over smaller ones when jointing:

1) Mass is your friend. A 12 inch mill file has several times the weight of a smaller file and is simply more robust in use. The 12s remove more metal, have greater inertia and momentum once moving and stay truer in use.

2) Length is your friend. DUH! They are longer and as such give a more accurate tooth line, just as a longer jointer plane creates a truer edge than a shorter one.

3) Minimum warp. It is very common to buy 6, 8 or even 10 inch mill files that are warped. The hardening process of heating the file to critical temperature and then shock-quenching commonly causes the file to warp. I have found that 12 inch mill files are less likely to be warped. Thinner steels warp more in hardening and the 12 inch files resist this effect due to their mass. By the way, a warped mill file is not useless. In fact, I keep a warped mill file on hand for creating a naturally crowned toothline…kind of like the saw doctor’s equivalent of a compass plane. ;)

4) Built in handles: A 12 inch mill mile is broader and thicker making it easier to hold when jointing AND making a more reliable gauge for squareness to the saw blade. The greater breadth of the file lends itself to your ability to judge if you are holding the file square to the face of the blade.

There are more benefits, but I think you get the idea. And in case you cheapos out there (like me) are worried about an increase in cost, I’ve found 12 inch mill files are only a couple dollars more expensive than their more delicate brethren.  Take my word for it…they are worth ten times as much!

So do yourself a favor and get the biggest damn mill file you can find if you plan on filing your handsaws. It pains me to say it, but size matters!

 

 

 

 

-Matt

 

Posted in Uncategorized on August 2, 2014 – 12:51 pm | Comments (4)

Values

Is there a set of values that go along with working wood by hand? I wonder this often and I tell myself that the answer is yes…there are values behind this work besides just needing physical things like furniture, tools, and implements of life. But why does this always end up sounding corny…like I’m trying to convince myself of something.

Why on earth would anyone choose to make their own tools especially….there are plenty of places around to buy tools….WalMart, Sears, Home Depot, etc. What kind of a nut job makes their own tools?

I don’t know….then those values creep up again…

Like a voice inside my head, “Matt…you don’t want to be like every other schmuck and buy a pruning saw at Lowe’s with a plastic handle or tube steel frame pressed out by the millions. You’re better than that.”

Am I? Or do I just like making things because I have ADHD and my hands always have to be working on something? Is it a romantic notion? Is it a political statement?

I don’t make very effective political statements….I think I always end up sounding like an asshole. Maybe I should remember that in the future…talk less, act more. So am I making a statement of action? Am I modeling something for someone? Why do i always have to go Existential on this stuff….why can’t I just enjoy it and shut up???

I don’t know…maybe its a sickness.

And why does my pruning saw have to be special….do I think I’m better than anyone else? Why do I have to use Hawaiian Koa for the handle…wouldn’t beech or dogwood harvested in my own backyard be more appropriate for a ‘home-made’ tool? Maybe…maybe not. If its supposed to mean something, shouldn’t the whole thing mean something…all of its parts, individually and together, have meaning? The Koa was a gift from an early customer who lives in Hawaii…that means something, doesn’t it? Yes…I think so.

But what of the blade…you can make saw blades, right? Why did you buy this one at Sears? Oh…I know why, you’re a hypocrite. I read about you people in college…you say one thing and do another. You say you’re a ‘hand tool only’ woodworker that makes his own tools, but you bought your saw blade at Sears and cut out the handle on a bandsaw (also from Sears).

Why on Earth do I get into these arguments with myself????!?!?! Who gives a crap about any of this! Didn’t you just need a pruning saw and couldn’t find one you liked so you made one? I suppose, but what are the things I whisper to myself while I’m making it to make sure I don’t cop out and give up? Oh…that’s easy…that’s the ‘democracy’ that Copperthwaite writes about, the ‘anarchy’ that Schwarz spouts and the meaning of it all from Korn. I am admittedly drunk on all of it. Its obsessive and powerful and Existential and all of that stuff that gives you that funny feeling you got when you first saw Kelly Flammin in the 6th grade….only a little higher above your belt.

What’s the result of all this?

…something that is uniquely mine….something only I can claim…something important. Its a mark…a physical manifestation of my soul and will and values.

Oh jeez…here you go again…do you really believe that crap?!?! Its a f*@^%!) saw!!! You didn’t cure cancer or paint the Mona Lisa! You cut up a scrap of some dead tree and rubbed it with some plant oil and we’re all supposed to swoon??

No….no swooning please. This isn’t for anyone but me. This is one of the rare, sweet moments of my life when I get to do something for myself. For too many years I forgot how to do that…simply enjoying things for me…for who I am and what is important to me. It does mean something, but not what you think…its not a political statement, or a social revolution or a manifesto I have to sign in blood. Its an affirmation. It means I can always labor in my life to a certain end…I can face things, whatever…and solve problems. By myself? No…no one is by themselves. But for myself maybe..as much as it can be. Maybe not even that.

Are you still there?

Ya…I’m here…just taking it all in. And trying not to puke. You know you sound like a psychopath, right?

Yes…but that’s okay. Its your voice that pushes me…makes me do this stuff to begin with. And I know I’m not the only one…there’s others who feel the same. That’s where the real meaning comes in.

Matt…

Ya?

You’re an idiot.

I know. Aren’t we all?

:)

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized on July 26, 2014 – 2:22 pm | Comments (4)

I like it on the bottom…

So you’ve decided to try your hand at saw restoration. Congratulations! You’ve got your newly minted copy of “Super-Tune Your Backsaw” but you’ve got no backsaw to super-tune. What to do? Have no worries, my friend, I’ve put together some tips to help you on your way. Dive in and you’ll be one step closer to never turning your table saw on again …

Tip #1. Feed on the bottom

Hand saw restoration begins here.
Hand saw restoration begins here.

The problem for most novices is not finding a quality saw. The trouble is knowing which saws to buy and which saws to pass up. The trick? Be a bottom feeder. Almost any old backsaw can be tuned to a high degree and made to do fantastic work. Because of this, I recommend you not bother with shiny saw blades, immaculate handles with the original paper label and factory fresh teeth. The old crows will drive these saws into the stratosphere in cost anyway. Plus, in a worst case scenario, if you buy a beat up old saw for $5 and it turns out to be a glorified paint-scraper, then you’ve only lost $5 and learned a whole lot more about hand saw restoration. I’ve never spent more than $20 on any of my user saws. Warped and rusted blades, broken handles, and missing hardware are things that collectors will not bother with … but you should! And the older the saw the better. Look for brass hardware, ornate handles and deep patina. These are the hallmarks of saw greatness.

Tip #2. Don’t buy anything else (yet)

I recommend not buying your saw files, saw set and filing tools until your saw is ready to be filed. The majority of the time and grunt work in hand saw restoration is all about removing rust, re-setting the back, repairing wood and getting everything back together. All of this can be accomplished with stuff you probably already have in your shop – sandpaper, solvents, sledge hammer and scrap blocks of wood. You don’t need to even think about files and sets until you’re in the home stretch. Plus, you’ll need to figure out what size file you need for your saw (and you may not be able to figure that out until after you watch the video). I see lots of students show up to class with every kind of file, set and gadget ever made for saws only to sadly never need them. Don’t buy it until you need it. You can save a lot of time and money.

Tip #3. Upgrades

Thanks to the “21st-Century Hand Tool Renaissance” (as some are calling it) there are now several resources available to budding saw doctors in their quest to resurrect old saws. And unlike full-sized handsaws, anything on an old backsaw can be replaced with better-than-new parts if need be. Saw blades, saw backs, split nuts and new handles can all be upgraded. So go ahead and take a chance on that gorgeous Groves sash saw with the deeply pitted blade. If it proves to be too far gone once you get it cleaned up, you can drop Dom Greco at TGIAG.com a line and order a brand new saw blade that will be better than new. Bent or broken saw back? You can get a custom milled back in brass or sexy bronze from Isaac Smith at BlackburnTools.com. Split nuts? There are now nearly half a dozen makers all available on-line. And last but not least, what about the handle? Well, you are allegedly a woodworker, right? If you have glue and rasps you can fix anything on a handle. And if you want to make a whole new handle for a truly unique work of functional art, then check out my other DVD that walks you step by step through making a custom handle – “Build A Custom Backsaw” also from Popular Woodworking.

Tip #4 Stop reading this post.

Start a hand saw restoration project, and change your world!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized on June 1, 2014 – 1:04 pm | Comments (3)

A busy spring…

Its been a busy spring thus far…but that’s how I like it. I’ve gotten quite caught up on my backlog of work finally. It’s a great time to send me a saw or two, if you’re thinking of it. I’m turning work around in 4 to 5 weeks right now. Email me at: matt@thesawwright.com

There’s lots of news to share as well…

My second DVD with Popular Woodworking came out last month. I like this one even better than the ‘Build a Backsaw’ video. This one is how to ‘Super-tune Your Backsaw’ and I think it covers many more of the common questions I tend to get from readers and customers. At over 2 hours long there’s plenty of time to cover everything from dis-assembly, back removal, cleaning, re-assembly and evening toothline tension, plus sharpening. Check it out here.

As if the folks at Popular Woodworking Magazine and their readers couldn’t get enough of me, I’ll also have an article on saw sharpening in the up-coming August 2014 issue. I can’t believe I was able to cram all the info we wanted to cover into about 2000 words, but its all in there. This article was the genesis of my recent post about Doing It Wrong. I’ll be revisiting this topic again soon…its been quite interesting lately. Stay tuned.

And for the cherry on top, I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be a featured presenter this year at the Woodworking In America conference in Winston-Salem, NC in September. The decision by PopWood to include me in a group of craftsmen like Drew Langsner, Roy Underhill, and Phil Lowe makes me seriously question their selection criteria, but I’m not dumb enough to object out right. So I hope to see you there. My class will be in the afternoon on Saturday…check out the details here.

And just in case all of that wasn’t enough saw-nogrophy, I also just finished editing a forthcoming book from Lost Art Press that I think will do for saws what Chris Schwarz’s ‘Workbenches’ book did….it will make everyone who reads it want to make one. The book I’m referring to is the much anticipated ‘The Art of The Saw’ by the incomparable Andrew Lunn. If you like saws, this book will blow you away. It took me about a month to absorb all of the information contained in its pages, and it has already changed the way I think about saws and saw making. More on that soon.

That’s it for now…and if this post came off like one giant infomercial for me, my apologies…feel free to click  over to a PBS blog where they are honest about only wanting your money. ;)

-Matt

 

Posted in Uncategorized on May 11, 2014 – 3:23 pm | Comments (1)

I do it wrong

 

 

 

 

 

There. I said it. I file saws the wrong way. I  feel better.

You must be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. Let me catch you up…

Some history:

The old texts on saw filing are clear. They indicate you should never file a saw only from one side. They all unanimously say that you should file every other tooth and then flip the saw around in the vise and file the teeth you skipped from the other side. I don’t do that. I file a saw all from the same side. Why? Because when I was learning to file saws, that was the way that made sense to me. And I’m certainly not the only one…many saw makers and saw filers today file all from one side. I can’t honestly remember what possessed me to start filing this way…it certainly wasn’t my idea.

As I’m writing an article for Popular Woodworking Magazine on saw sharpening, I find myself thinking more and more about this topic (thanks to the good-nature antagonizing of my friend Carl).

But what are the reasons to NOT file a saw that way? I have heard a few…

1) Filing from one side of the saw dulls the file faster because you have to file into the teeth leaning towards you, which causes more wear on the file teeth.

I think this is a silly point. The gullet edge of the file is what wears out first and destroys a file. The extra wear to the face edges is completely irrelevant…they stay intact long after the file is useless regardless of how you file teeth.

2) Filing from one side of a saw alone puts all of the filing burrs on the opposite side of the saw teeth and will cause the cut to steer to that side when the saw is used.

I have filed hundreds of saws. The only case where I have found the above argument to be true is in dovetail saws and similar saws spaced 14 points and finer. These saws have fine teeth that can be affected by the burr, but an extra side jointing pass or two on the burr side of the tooth is a simple remedy. The burr created on teeth coarser than 14 points are unaffected…I’ve found that they are large enough to overcome any discrepancy.

3) You cannot create saw teeth with independently shaped back bevels (sloped gullets) filing from one side of the saw.

I would say this is mostly true. But for 95% of woodworkers, I don’t think it makes any difference filing independent back bevels on your teeth. For most work, the benefit is negligible. Can you gain a small advantage in your work with independently shaped back bevels? Sure. But to me, its like the difference between a Corvette and a Ferrari. Is it really worth it? I don’t think so.

This whole argument may be like the tails vs. pins first argument with dovetailing: it’s simply a matter of preference and opinion. There is more than one way to skin a cat. And I love skinning cats. :)

But as much as I like torturing small domestic pets, I like free thinking all the more. Because I am stubborn, naive, and foolish, any wisdom I have gained in life has come from making so many mistakes that success was the only option remaining. What drives me in my business and in craft is the hope that I never stop learning, never stop improving and never stop questioning tradition. I would rather be comforted by a small token of marginal truth hard-won through years of trial and error than bask in the glory of unimaginable wealth blindly accepted from a benevolent master.

What the heck does that mean? I like doing it wrong. Wrong feels right to me.

:)

-Matt

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized on April 19, 2014 – 1:06 pm | Comments (6)

Saw Design

As I sit here at home sick with the flu and literally stewing in my own juices, my mind wanders, and I start to think about saw design…what makes a good saw? Are there rules to follow about saw design? Are there things you definitely should not do? Or are there simply guidelines that you should know and feel free to by-pass if you have reason or inclination to do so?

Let’s take a look at some new saws making their way to market to find out…

Backsaw by Stewart Simpson with Tiger myrtle handle and brass back

I have watched Stewart Simpson’s backsaws develop over the last couple of years, and I can say that they most certainly have a style…they are unmistakable. The high placement of the handle, curving transition of the grip to the cheek, and flowing lines are all very unique. I love the look, and I applaud the breaking of traditional forms. But do they work in function? Does tradition dictate that the handle should not be so high on the saw? I don’t think so.

I’ve never used one of Stewie’s saws, but I would love to find out how they cut. If they are sweet and responsive, then the gamble of breaking traditional forms will have paid off in spades.

Tenon saw by Bontz Saw Works with sycamore handle and brass back

 

 

 

 

Ron Bontz is another new saw maker who has been testing the limits of traditional saw forms. But unlike Stewart Simpson, Ron’s saws retain the essential form of traditional saws while pushing the boundaries of aesthetics. The result are saws that begin to challenge our notion of what a saw should look like. For example, look at the highly embellished tenon saw pictured above. What an ingenious idea to decorate the saw back with the same profiles that cabinet makers adorn fine furniture with! Ron appears to treat the straight lines of traditional saws as blank canvases waiting to be touched by the artists stroke.  In this pursuit, he has challenged our notion of where a tool ends and art begins.

Tenon saws by Veritas with Bubinga handles and composite spines

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boutique saw makers are not the only ones challenging the traditional confines of saw making. Lee Valley tools and their manufacturing brand Veritas have a long history of taking old tool forms and re-engineering them to improve their function. They have completely thrown tradition out the window with their line of molded spine backsaws. Their final effort in this series of saws are the massive 16 inch backsaws shown above. You don’t have to know anything about saws to know that these saws are different. The spine is a composite of stainless-steel powder, glass fiber and polymer resin…what would Henry Disston say?!?! He’d probably be impressed as hell! The bubinga handles are nearly unbreakable, as they are attached by a single through bolt to the single spine/handle assembly. Is this ground-breaking saw form an act of tool heresy, or pure mass-production genius? I’d say a little of both.

I’ve used many of the Veritas dovetail saws and tenon saws from this line, but not these big 16 inch saws. While the saws were a bit heavy for my tastes, they cut very well. I am hoping to try out the big boys at WIA this year. But only time (and customers) will tell if these saws will make the cut.

So what do these saw tell us collectively? Maybe that rules were meant to be broken? Or that there are no rules to begin with? Having repaired hundreds of vintage saws I can tell you that if there are not rules today in saw making, there most certainly were in the past. The astounding uniformity of saws from one maker to the next across both saw-making traditions (English and American) is an undeniable testament to this reality. But that is all gone from us now.

Saw makers today are a new breed…they are tinkerers and engineers, they are asking questions and creating answers for themselves. They recognize tradition, but their innate curiosity and ingenuity drives them to re-invent something greater than before. Is this wrong? I don’t think so. I say a good saw is as a good saw does. But some will be offended by the forms above. More will take issue with the way these saws feel and work…but I think that has more to do with the habits they have already developed by using traditional forms. For those new to hand sawing, these saws offer an opportunity to embrace something different than their fore fathers…an exciting chance for many to be sure.

Looking at these new saws, I am reminded of the innovations that the Industrial Revolution brought to tool forms in the 19th century. Can you imagine the first time an apprentice trained, English cabinet maker first picked up an iron bench plane? The disgust he must have expressed at such a monstrosity would most likely be unprintable in these pages.

I wonder how many of you reading this blog now use wooden planes, or iron?

There is no destination….there is only our pursuit of it.

-Matt

Want to learn more about saw design and how to build your own saws? I’m teaching a 5 day course at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking in Washington this June. Check out the details and register here: http://www.ptwoodschool.com/Handsaw_construction_restoration.html

Posted in Uncategorized on March 26, 2014 – 2:49 pm | Comments (3)

For Sale: D8 Rip w/ Thumbhole SOLD!

 

 

 

 

Disston & Sons D8: 26 inches, 4.5 pts, filed rip with 0 deg. rake, c. 1900.

SOLD!

This is a very comfortable D8 rip saw with the famous Disston thumbhole handle. An aggressive saw great for ripping soft through medium hard woods like pine, fir, poplar, walnut and cherry. The handle is exceptionally smooth and sculpted…these earlier D8s have much nicer handles than the later ones, which became boxy with sharp, blister inducing transitions. I have made a small repair to the upper horn (pictured below) using apple and coloring it to match the patina.

Fully polished and waxed blade, freshly filed, razor sharp and ready to work!

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized on March 2, 2014 – 1:41 pm | Comments (0)

Reagan

The original patent drawing granted to William J. Reagan on Dec. 8, 1874

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 1874 was a very busy year at the Keystone Saw Works, the hub of Henry Disston and Sons mammoth saw and tool making enterprise. Among many patents granted that year and utilized on new Disston saws was the ‘Improvement in handles for saws’ feature granted to William J. Reagan on December 8.  The Reagan patent handle was found on the Disston No. 9 improved backsaw, which featured a decorative ogee shaped on the nose of the saw blade, as well as the standard Disston #4 backsaw with a square nose.
Nowadays, saw lovers drool over the gorgeous, sculpted lines of these saw handles. Some time ago I found my first Reagan backsaw with a nice, thin, 14 inch blade. I’ll get around to cleaning and tuning it someday. But more recently, I stumbled across a variety of Reagan saw handle that I have never seen or even heard of before.
 
All of the Reagan handles I had seen previous to this, both in person and in pictures, where of the three bolt variety shown on saws 12 inches and larger. The saw I found–and subsequently snatched up on sight–has a two-bolt handle on a 10 inch saw plate. While I know that Reagan pattern saws were available in sizes as small as 8 inches, I never thought about what the handle might look like. You can tell from the picture above that it is quite different. I have included a 14 inch variety of the same vintage for comparison.
 
Curious for info on another documented saw like mine, I asked my friend Carl. He has been collecting and researching saws longer than I’ve been alive.  Carl said he’d never heard of one before. Hmmmm…
 
So how rare are these little beauties? I’d love to see other pictures of saws like this or even a catalogue image if anyone has one.
 
In the meantime, I’m going to be sleeping with this sexy little saw…I think I’m in love! ;)
 
-Matt
Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2014 – 3:42 pm | Comments (1)

Decoding Smith’s ‘Key’

The following article was recently published in ‘American Period Furniture, 2013′, the annual publication of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers . I wrote the article to chronicle my study of Joseph Smith’s ‘Key’. I also thought I would post it here. If you are not a member of SAPFM, you should join! Enjoy…

Joseph Smith was an English engraver working around the turn of the 18th century, and he is noted as having produced one of the Western world’s first tool catalogs, called formally, ‘Explanation or key, to the various manufactories of Sheffield, with engravings of each article’. He was not a tool maker, or dealer, as far as we can tell (Kebabian, 1975), and he was not a cabinet maker, joiner, or even a woodworker. Quite ironic then, that his work stands as perhaps the one of the most important historical records of the tools of period woodworkers.

The ‘Key’, first published in 1816, contains hundreds of images of all forms of edge tools from chisels and axes to planes and boring bits, not to mention flatware for the ladies of the time. The plate featuring the handsaws is quite profound, for it not only presents the images of the tools, but it names them and gives the available dimensions of each saw at the toothline.  And unlike the saws featured in Moxon, Fellibien, or Nicholson, the detail is outstanding.

 

I cannot recall when I first beheld the handsaws featured in Smith’s ‘Key’, but I do recall quite vividly how I felt. I was mesmerized. I had never seen anything like them before, and I would spend the next several years trying to understand them in every way that I could. But like any piece of archeological evidence, while the plate answers some questions about what period saws looked like, it asks so many more, such as how accurate are the engravings to begin with? Are the details like the tapering of the backsaw plates to scale? I also wonder if Smith used a particular saw maker’s wares as models for his engravings. This question may well be impossible to answer. And what of the reality of period engravings in general? One need only view Smith’s plate featuring the fillister and plough planes to have serious doubts about his ability to accurately capture a tool in proper dimension and scale. Are the saws in Smith’s ‘Key’ accurate?

After gazing at that single plate for hours on end, I wanted to find out these answers. And I wanted to know not just what the saws looked like, but I wanted to know how they felt in the hand, how they cut, and how they were made. So I set out to find actual saws matching the forms shown in the ‘Key’. Pictures of period saws would not do…I needed to hold the saws in my hand. I wanted to feel the grain and patina of the tote…smell the tarnish on the brass back…and know the weight and balance of the saws in my hand.

In my searches, I set out to find saws made in Sheffield between 1800 to 1820. I use this twenty year span based on three factors: 1) It is unclear as to when Smith actually engraved the plate featuring handsaws. It could have been as early as 1801, when he was commissioned by Peter Stubbs, noted Sheffield tool maker and wholesaler to create several plates for a catalog, but it could have been as late as 1816, when he himself published the entire ‘Key’ (Kebabian, 1975). 2) It is difficult at best to date any saw from the period to within a few years of its actual date of manufacturer due to the extremely limited amount of documentation and business records available. And finally, 3) Since tool forms were based on an entirely tradition bound culture, evolution was relatively slow. A common saw made in 1800 would likely feature the same shape and details as one made in 1810 or even later. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that we see the rapid changing and innovation in tool forms to respond to a more competitive market. And so, based on those parameters, over the last four years I found several examples of saws that match the forms shown in the ‘Key’.

I began with the 26 inch handsaw featured by Smith. I have collected half a dozen 26 inch handsaws over the last four years likely made in Sheffield and in the target years of 1800 to 1820. I have also handled twice as many more belonging to other collectors. This relatively large sample offers a rich palette of information for my study. The features of the Smith’s handsaw that distinguish it are as follows:

1) London pattern tote featuring a flat bottom hand grip.

The London pattern was a popular aesthetic detail of the time for saw totes. It was standard fare for most saws made in the late 18th and early 19th century. It is distinguished by the flat at the bottom of the tote grip, as opposed to the fish tail pattern that became the standard by the mid-19th century. Beech is almost always the wood species of these totes as well.

2) A protruding, narrow boss atop the tote cheek.

I use the term ‘boss’ to describe the peninsula of wood that protrudes from the foremost upper section of the tote. It is quite narrow for saws of this time, and is easily distinguished from later saws which feature a much wider protrusion, and which curve back down towards the toothline. Saws earlier than about 1780 or so do not feature this boss. Though saws earlier than this are quite rare, those known saws feature a completely rounded cheek and typically no protrusion at all.

3) A straight back saw plate with nib and soft radius on the nose.

The nib was also standard on almost all handsaws prior to the late 19th century, so it is of little help in dating an early saw. However, the shape of the nose of the saw plate is quite distinguishing. One can almost see the evolution from a very broad rounding at the nose (radius of 2 to 3 inches) to an almost square edge (radius of ¼ inch). The Smith’s saws have what could be determined to be a mid-point in the evolution from round to square. It appears to be a radius in the neighborhood of 1 inch.

Viewing the six full-size handsaws I was able to find as a whole, I was struck by a singular thought: they are remarkably uniform. Though each has slight variations in hang, detail, and execution of certain elements, it almost appears as if each maker was working from a singular and common pattern. This uniformity is certainly not unique to handsaws of this time, as we see this in tools more and more as we progress into the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, as many scholars have said before, the western world was becoming standardized. It seems handsaws were no exception.

So what does the collective uniformity of these saws, and their striking resemblance to the Smith’s plate, mean? To my mind it is a validation of the saw engravings on a whole. If Smith was accurate enough in his work to represent the handsaw so well, as clearly my found examples suggest, then it stands to reason that he represented each of the other saws just as well. And therein lies the value of Smith’s ‘Key’: these are not artistic interpretations of tools, or period representations limited by the engravers stroke and the printers plate, but near photographs of actual tools from that time. Knowing this, I was encouraged all the more on my quest to find examples of the other saws featured on the plate.

Not surprisingly, however, finding examples of the remaining forms proved much more difficult. Any saw collector will tell you that they find ten handsaws for every one backsaw, and as well, nine of those handsaws are 26 inches or more for every one panel saw (a handsaw of 16 to 24 inches at the toothline). I did most recently find this little panel saw at an auction and nearly fell over myself in excitement before acquiring it.

The tote bears an uncanny resemblance to the panel and grafting saws featured by Smith. This example can easily be dated to circa 1800, and may even be earlier.  This tote is a great example of what I call the ‘swept-forward’ design. The whole shape seems to lean forward slightly…just as in the ‘Key’. It is a subtle element, but one that is crucial to dating the tool.

 The saw blade of this small saw is not so encouraging though. It may well be a replacement, but I’m not convinced one way or the other. The marks on the plate suggest a very primitive working of the steel. It was likely rolled, as steel plate had been for a very long time by the 18th century, but it is crude by our standards. There is a small chance it could have been forged by a blacksmith on an anvil, but these saws are very rare even by 18th century standards. The later steel nut and bolt is obviously a replacement on this saw, but this was a very common repair to saws of this time. The hardware of the late 18th century was nowhere near as robust as that used in the 20th century and often broke or wore out soon after manufacture. Regardless, the saw is the real gem. The value of it lies in the tote itself….it is another validation of the form shown in the ‘Key’.

But what of the backsaws? Interestingly, this is where things get blurry. I have not been able to find an open-handled backsaw matching either of the forms in the ‘Key’. This includes both the dovetail saw and the carcase saw. This is not surprising as small backsaws of this vintage are exceptionally rare. They are delicate tools and do not survive easily. I have found two saws of roughly the same time period, but one is a bit earlier and one a bit later.

This dovetail saw, with its completely rounded tote cheek can be dated to the later 18th century, perhaps even as early as 1770. The Smith’s dovetail saw features a pointed cheek which became en vogue around the turn of the century. And the hang is far different.

The other dovetail saw I have found can be dated to the early 1820s or so, but the hang is much more horizontal. Hang is a term used to describe the angle of the tote relative to the back. It can generally be anywhere from 0 to 45 degrees. The earliest handsaws had a near perpendicular hang (0 degrees from the back). As time passed through the 18th, 19th and into the 20th century, the hang of most saws rotated more and more horizontal until it settled at about 35 degrees on most backsaws. It is the hang of Smith’s backsaws that I was so….hung up on. That, and the extreme cant, or tapering in width, of the saw plate along its length are what makes these saws so unique in form.

Of the larger backsaws–the sash and tenon saw–I have had similar mixed results. I have found several 14 inch backsaws of near identical form, but not one as early as the ‘Key’. They are more mid-18th century. I’ve also fared the same with the tenon saw. I have three examples, one of which is a good match, but all date from 20 to 30 years after Smith’s work. I have found one 18 inch backsaw made by Kenyon Sykes & Co of Sheffield that can be dated to c.1815. The saw is a fabulous example of a near extinct form, but alas, it features the rounded cheek common to earlier saws, not the pointed upper cheek of Smith’s.

This 16 inch tenon saw is strikingly similar to the one in Smith’s, but the maker’s mark indicates it was sold by Thomas Tillotson of Sheffield, who was in business in the 1850s. I think we can safely assume that the form was valid and endured some decades after Smith’s work.

But what of the carcase saw? There are examples here and there of contemporary saws…Benjamin Seaton’s chest comes to mind, as well as some of the saws in the Williamsburg collection, but they are not exactly the same. I was hell bent on trying to find one of these examples (without having to re-mortgage my house, of course), but they have proven elusive and just too rare. Left without an actual example to hold and examine, or even a picture to reference, I had only one option: if I wanted a carcase saw like Smith’s, then I would have to make it myself.

At this point, I felt reasonably confident to use the ‘Key’ as an accurate and scaled image of the actual tool. But before I could begin to shape the wood and metal parts, I would have to have a pattern to follow. And this was the truly exciting part…taking the image from the ‘Key’ and translating it into scaled patterns for the distinct parts. Those distinct parts are the tote, the back, and the saw plate.

I began with the tote, as this is the heart of every saw. To start, I enlarged the image from the ‘Key’ on a photocopier until the tote grip measured 3 and ½ inches between the horns. This is a roughly standard measurement on backsaws. My intent was not to simply copy the tote, but re-draft it with a bit of creative license to ensure its functionality and balance. You can see where I adjusted certain elements…

From here it was a simple process of adhering the pattern to an appropriate piece of quarter-sawn Beech and roughing it out on a bandsaw. I used stock of just under an inch thick, as this is a fairly standard dimension.

Next, I turned my attention to the back. The first couple of years that I stared at the ‘Key’ I was so focused on the taper of the saw blade, that I never even noticed the taper on the back. You will see that the back appears to taper from its tallest at the tote down towards the toe, where it is roughly 10 or 20 percent shorter. This would turn out to be a major element in the wonderful function of the saw, and I’m glad a fellow saw maker pointed it out to me. I decided to use a ¾ inch tall brass back and tapered it down to roughly 5/8ths of an inch at the toe. This was done with a hacksaw and files….a very laborious process!

Finally, I laid out the pattern for the saw plate, or blade, as it is also called. Again, just as with the back, it was crucial to get the proportions of the tapering in height, called ‘cant’, just right. I tapered the height of the blade from roughly 3 inches at the heel down to 2 and ½ inches at the toe.

After completing construction of the saw using traditional brass split saw nuts and polishing all of the parts, I turned my attention to the teeth. I decided to file the saw with a hybrid tooth pattern having 10 degrees of rake and 10 degrees of fleam. This allows the teeth to cut both with the grain for ripping and across the grain for cross-cutting. The teeth are spaced 14 points to the inch.

It took about two months of drafting, roughing out, shaping, refining and filing to create my first prototype of the carcase saw. Finishing it was a spectacular moment…anticipation, excitement and pure joy when I ran it through wood for the first time. Not only was I not disappointed with the results, I was blown away. The saw functioned with a refinement and precision that I could have never imagined. The tapering of the saw plate, coupled with the tapering of the brass back serve to lighten the saw as it progresses towards the toe. This lightening puts the mass of the tool more towards the heel and the tote. Much like a mid- or rear-engine sports car, this shifts the mass back towards your hand in the tote, so that in use it feels more connected to your hand and your arm. The result is that the saw feels like an extension of yourself. As such, it is more responsive, requires less conscious effort to push, and it much easier to track accurately.

Besides this taper, the cant of the saw tote is also unique. Most later and now more popular saws feature a hang more in the neighborhood of 35 degrees. This saw features a hang of about 20 degrees. This puts the thrust more behind the teeth in stead of above them. So instead of pushing them down into the work (which mostly frustrates the sawyer and disrupts accuracy) it pushes them forward and lets the weight of the saw create the necessary downward force to cut. This makes the saw smoother, more naturally accurate, and easier to use in general.

Without a doubt, the results of this experiment have been astounding. I have discovered a form of tool that I find superior in every way to the more common saws of later American makers. The only conundrum I find remaining is which saw from the ‘Key’ should I build next?

-Matt Cianci, The SawWright

Posted in Uncategorized on February 1, 2014 – 10:26 pm | Comments (4)