The more I read old woodworking texts, the more I am convinced that 18th and 19th century cabinet makers did not file their backsaws for dedicated ripping and crosscutting. Instead, I think they filed all of their backsaws–from the little dovetail saw to the mammoth tenon saw–with a combination of moderate rake and fleam to make cuts both with and across the grain.
And the more furniture I build, the more I am convinced that this is the way to go.
What’s that you say???
I know some people would say this is crazy talk, but rest assured, I have not been huffing denatured alcohol fumes in my shop (much). In fact, I think I’m on sound historical ground here. Exhibit A…
This past weekend I was feeling nostalgic. I realized it was the two-year anniversary of my starting this blog, so awash with sentiment, I started looking at old posts and recalled this one about two early 20th century woodworking texts reprinted by Gary Roberts over at Toolemera. I pulled ‘Woodwork Tools and How To Use Them’ down from the shelf and started reading the section on saws. Big surprise, I know.
Fairham goes on and on about dedicated rip and crosscut handsaws…how rip teeth are filed like chisels and how crosscuts are filed like tiny knives. But then he gets into backsaws…and he does not mention anything about dedicated filings for rip or crosscut, and in fact, he writes about how tenon saws can be used to cut cheeks and shoulders of tenons. Clearly, he is indicating that a backsaw for joinery can and should be filed for both. Right? This book, by the way, was originally published in 1922.
If you’re not familiar with Fairham (which you should be btw…its one of the best intro books to hand work) perhaps you’ve heard of ‘The Joiner and Cabinet Maker’? If not, I’ll wait a minute while you go outside a smack yourself in the face with a tree branch. (Whistling………..whistling………..whistling……..)
Ok. Back? Great. (How’s your face? Seriously though….buy this book. I’ve read it twice since buying it a couple of years ago and I love it.)
Where was I?
Oh…right….the Joiner and Cabinet Maker….So this incredibly important book (which was first published in 1839) provides wonderful detail and insight into many common tools used by 19th century joiners and cabinet makers, including lots about saws. The author, who is in fact unknown, talks at length about ripping and crosscutting timber for use in several projects like a small dovetailed box as well as a chest of drawers. He clearly identifies the rip saw and the crosscut saw for said tasks, and when it comes to backsaws, he identifies two as well: the dovetail and the sash saw. However, he indicates that each of these can be used for both ripping and crosscutting. Once again, you would think that if he went to the trouble of explaining the difference between a rip and crosscut handsaw, that he would as well be inclined to define a backsaw for ripping and for crosscutting, if such a tool existed, right? After all, which cut is more critical…a rough dimensioning cut for a plank, or the shoulder of a tenon?!?!? If the former deserves a dedicated tool, should not the latter especially???
I think the reason why the author of ‘The Joiner and Cabinet Maker’, nor Fairham, nor any other book that I know of from before the 20th century talks about rip filed backsaws, or crosscut filed backsaws, is because for most woodworkers, there was no such distinction. I think most craftsmen filed their backsaws with a bit of rake and a bit of fleam and did both tasks with their tools….just like a sash saw.
Still not convinced? Try Exhibit C: Saw Makers.
19th century saw makers like Disston, Bishop, Wheeler Madden Clemson, Woodrough and McParlin, Harvey Peace, etc. were wonderful marketers and never missed an opportunity to highlight the salient features of their wares. They were constantly trying to out maneuver and out-sell each other and this is clearly evident in their catalogs. We get a very detailed look into the product lines of these tool makers, and once again, we see a dizzying array of rip handsaws and crosscut handsaws. We get filing patterns and patented crosscut teeth and on and on when it comes to handsaws…..but what about backsaws??? Especially Disston–who was the master marketer and had the broadest product line–why would he/they miss an opportunity to market a crosscut backsaw???
I own lots of these catalog reprints from the 19th and 20th century and I can’t for the life of me figure out why none of them show or reference or offer a crosscut filed backsaw. You can pick the length of the saw and the tooth spacing, but why not the tooth geometry? This choice is always offered for handsaws, but why not backsaws??? Because, again, I think there was no such distinction. Or, they simply left it to the consumer to decide how he wanted to file his dovetail saw, or tenon saw. Which, I also believe further supports my theory that most craftsman filed their own saws for both ripping and cc’ing. If not, Disston, et al. would clearly have pounced on the opportunity to offer one already filed as such.
So if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know how much I love sash saws…and now you know why I increasingly believe that this ‘sash filing’ was standard on all backsaws. Am I 100% convinced? No…its hard to be 100% anything (besides pregnant).
And just for the record, I don’t want to discount the value of dedicated rip or crosscut backsaws. I love a dedicated crosscut backsaw. Especially miter saws, which I file with 25 degrees of fleam, or my trusty Tillotson dovetail saw with 15 degrees of rake and 20 degrees of fleam. These saws scream through wood. I wouldn’t file them any other way.
So that’s what’s been on my mind lately….I’d love to hear all of your thoughts.
Now back to my huffing…