Next month I’ll be at Plimoth Plantation teaching a private class on saw sharpening for the artisans department. In conversing back and forth with one of the carpenters at the living museum, I inquired about their use of fleam. This got me thinking and digging up all of my old books and sources of info on fleam and its origins. Fleam (not to be confused with phlegm) is the knife edge of a crosscut saw tooth that efficiently severs cross grain wood fibers. 

I’m fascinated with trying to figure out when fleam came into use. In the saw world (all 20 or so of us) it’s almost as contentious as the nib, but not quite. I’ve heard that the craftsman at Colonial Williamsburg don’t use it on their saws at all….they apparently have not uncovered any evidence of its use much before the 19th century. But I’m not convinced.

I think fleam may well have been in use for a great long time…even bef0re the 18th century. My argument is simple. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmen used handsaws every day, all day long and they knew them intimately. And their knowledge of their tools was second probably only to their practical understanding of wood.  I think these close relationships would have easily lead them to the effective use of fleam. There may well be no way to know this for sure, as every antique saw has likely been refiled many times, there by obliterating any pre-industrial evidence of fleam’s existence. And as for fleam not appearing in the written record of the craft before the 19th century, this is a thin argument at best. The use of fleam by craftsman may have been so common place, that no one thought to make a formal report of it.

The alternative argument suggests that it was only during the declining use of handsaws in the 19th century that craftsman discovered fleam? I don’t think so. I generally regard the 19th century as the time when tools began to devolve, not evolve. I think the only thing about tools that improved in the 19th c. is our technical ability to describe and define their function on a more specific level. We didn’t discover fleam in the 19th century….we learned how to quantify and examine it.

Any way, that’s my thinking thus far. I’d really love to hear from all you handsaw geeks out there. What’s your thinking? Please post a comment and lets see where this goes.

Always exciting! :)


Posted in Uncategorized on September 7, 2013 – 3:04 pm | Comments (4)

The secrets they tell us…

I think our tools have secrets to tell us…if we are keen enough to listen to them. This is one of the reasons why I almost always prefer antique tools over new ones. Not to say that new tools don’t have secrets….quite the contrary. Saws in particular seem to have many little important bits they can whisper in our ears.

Take the much debated nib on a handsaw, for example. What does this little protrusion tell us about saws? I think it tells us that tradition is very important when it comes to tools. Here’s why:

It is generally accepted that the nib is a decorative element and all that remains from the aesthetic origins of the modern form. The western handsaw tradition can be traced back to early Continental saws of the 16th and 17th century which feature elaborate scroll work on the nose of the saw plate. Saws at this time were almost completely hand wrought, and these beautiful designs were the craftsman’s mark of quality and pride. Over the next 200 years or so, as steel plate and saw production became more mechanized, we see these elaborate designs become less ornate and simpler and simpler, until their culmination in the vestigial nib that became standard on almost all 18th and 19th century western saws.

So what does this mean? It means, first, that tools evolve. Every tool has a predecessor….a very similar previous form that had something added, or taken away, or both. And most of the time, for good reason. In the case of the nib, I think its fairly simple: aesthetic tradition. As saws became more and more machine made they became less and less a representation of the craftsman’s individual skill, and so there was no need, or warrant, for decoration. And to retain the elaborate scroll work on a more mass produced item would require an inordinate amount of labor for almost no return. But, because tradition governed all things in the trades, it could not be outright discarded. And so the nib remained as a nod to the saws origins.

OK…so who cares, you say? Well, I say if you’re going to work wood in any creative way, then you need to understand and respect tradition. If you want to build functional, durable furniture or wooden goods, then you’d damn well recognize that someone of the same basic form came before you and did it better than you. You can choose to heed their wisdom and benefit from it, or stray from it at your own peril. And if you challenge it, then you’d better have a good reason, because it is very difficult to argue with hundreds or thousands of years of success. This is one reason I hate power tools; they isolate me from the wisdom of my those craftsman before me.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the nib is completely functional: it serves as a visual reminder to me every time I pick up a saw that there were countless craftsmen before me who faced the same problems and either succeeded, or failed, based on their ability to respect the wisdom of their fathers and mothers.

Posted in Uncategorized on August 29, 2013 – 3:22 pm | Comments (3)

The table saw?

The debate over what the heck a table saw should be used for has raged for a while now. I made one a while ago (here and here) and have been using it around the house and in my shop since then, and whether or not I know what it was truly designed for, its proven to be very handy.

Yesterday I had an hour or so to build the carcase for a utility cabinet to go around the electrical panel in our basement. I hastily cut and nailed the box together with clear white pine and cut rosehead nails, but was stymied when the whole thing wouldn’t fit around the wires running into to the top of the panel. I needed to relieve the whole upper part of the carcase. Hmmm…a job for my table saw?

I hastily scribed a pencil line in a gentle arc that would give ample clearance for the wires and grabbed my table saw. I was able to track the line pretty easily. I would say this was the absolute limit of an arc this saw is able to cut. I think if I set the teeth and ground the blade further I could track a tighter curve.

Is this a table top? No. Is it a table, or scarf joint? No. Am I pruning on a gardeners table. No. But the saw worked like a charm in this instance…quick and easy.

After we figure out who killed JFK and how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie-Pop, maybe we can turn our attention to what the ‘table’ in table saw really means. But until then, I’m just going to use mine like a narrow bladed handsaw and use it however I dang well please.


Posted in Uncategorized on July 14, 2013 – 3:23 pm | Comments (2)

Fear and Loathing in St. Louis…

Whenever I teach a class, I convince myself that the students hate me, and that they’re going to tie me up and beat their tuition out of me in retaliation for the cockamamie things I’m talking about.

Reality has, however, proven to be quite the opposite. To date, the most traumatic actual response to a class of mine was when one student asked me to re-file the saw he built, as he wanted it to be perfect. I guess that’s not so bad.

So why do I still beat myself up during and after every class? No idea.

Take my recent 2-day class on ‘Building a Backsaw’ in St. Louis, MO with the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild. I had a fantastic time. It was 12 guys packed into a chicken coop (literally) in sweltering heat banging on chunks of metal and wood, while intermittently stuffing their holes with donuts, fried chicken, Italian subs and Diet Mountain Dew. And I loved it. The guys were fun, eager to learn, and exceptionally tolerant  of my twisted brand of humor. But I still left feeling like they wanted to break in their new saws by disemboweling me.

So how shocked was I when my host in St. Louis, the incomparable Kilted Woodworker, Ethan Sincox,  told me that the members all agreed after I left that it was the best class or seminar they have offered to date.

Well crap. I didn’t expect that. Especially since past teachers at the Guild have included people like Frank Klaus. Yes…the Frank Klaus.

Ok. Maybe my classes aren’t that bad. But they are cockamamie. After all, some of my instructions to struggling students include gems like, ‘Bang it harder’ or ‘Get a bigger hammer’.

The truth is, building a backsaw is like nothing else you’ve ever done in woodworking. Heck, half the class isn’t even about wood…it’s about metal: brass and steel. Its challenging. Its exciting. And its sometimes frustrating. But its fun.

So, if you’re not doing anything on July 20th and 21st and you are up for a trip to Connecticut, then you’re in luck, because my ‘Build A Backsaw’ class still has spots open. (Clock’s ticking though….you need a few days to get your saw kit)

And you have my personal guarantee that if it isn’t one of the best damn classes you’ve ever taken, then you can drive me out to the middle of nowhere and beat the ever loving snot out of me. Promise. ;)


Class details and registration at: http://schoolofwoodworking.com/woodworking-classes.html#Speciality_Weekend_Classes

P.S. Can’t make it to CT? Then check out my super-cool new DVD with Popular Woodworking Magazine, ‘Build a Custom Backsaw with Matt Cianci’ (Sorry. Middle-of-nowhere beating guarantee not included)

Posted in Uncategorized on July 9, 2013 – 3:54 pm | Comments (3)

Save the files…

I’ve searched for years to find the best saw files, and while I do like certain brands, there is still much to be desired in a file for sharpening saws. I recently have been emailing with Brett Gregory from Australia and I am much encouraged by his work. Brett is petitioning several manufacturers of saw files in an effort to motivate them to produce a saw file equal to the excellent quality of days past.

Brett has started a petition that he is asking any and all interested parties to sign on in support. If you have any interest at all in saw sharpening, I emplore you to sign on. In addition to my support, Daryl Weir, Mark Harrell and many other noted filers have done so.

To learn more, click this link and sign: Change.org saw file petition

Thank you for your efforts!

Posted in Uncategorized on June 29, 2013 – 12:01 pm | Comments (5)

It’s here….

Life is funny. One day you’re working quietly in your shop, and the next day you’re on a plane to Cincinnati to film a DVD about saw making. Who would’ve guessed it?

Anyway, after much work and even more anticipation, the first of two DVDs I filmed with Popular Woodworking Magazine is now available for order. This DVD is quite extensive at well over 2 hours long, but covers everything you need to know to build a backsaw from raw components (including info on where to buy the parts).

Check it out: Build a Custom Backsaw with Matt Cianci

And if you’re interested in taking a two-day saw making class with me in person at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, then now’s the time. There are still a few spots left for the July 20 – 21 offering. Check it out here: Saw Building Class at CT Valley


Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2013 – 5:47 pm | Comments (2)

Liogier Handle Maker’s Rasp

The making of wooden tool handles has long been a specialized trade in the Western world. Many English tool dealers in the 18th and 19th century made their own totes for steel and iron tools which they purchased directly from tool makers. Chisels and saws were common items to be sold by iron mongers who handled them in-house and stamped them with their name. Jane and Mark Rees’ book about Christopher Gabriel’s fascinating inventory is a key testimony to this type of work. Interestingly enough, as most specialized trades often do, there are specialized tools that accompany it.

Enter the handle makers rasp. Years ago, Nicholson made a handle makers rasp, and Gramercy Tools in New York resurrected the form, lead by the pansophic Joel Moskowitz. I have owned that rasp for several years and reviewed it here. It is a phenomenal tool. For a while, Gramercy was the only dealer offering a handle makers rasp. But no more…

As soon as I discovered the Liogier Handle Makers Rasp I ordered it. No thinking. No hemming and hawing. I just found the site, and bought it. That’s how excited I was to even learn of its existence. Since I received the tool, it has not surprisingly become one of the few I can’t live without.

One of the most wonderful things about buying a rasp from Liogier is the personal service from Noel Liogier. Noel emailed with me back and forth a couple of times to make sure that the rasp was being stitched to my specs. I have spoken with several other customers of theirs who have had the same experience, so I don’t think it was just Noel catering to a big American hand-tool celebrity like me. ;)

What makes this rasp so special to handle making is the shape of the blank…its curved and has teeth cut into the inside of the curve. This might not seem like a big deal, at least not until you have to shape a closed tote.

Here’s the problem: As you begin to shape the inside round-overs of a handle grip with a conventional straight rasp your stroke is quite limited due to the opposite side of the handle. It makes a nice target for the tip of any straight rasp and one invariably finds themself smashing into it…

…and you end up with this…

Now try it with a handle makers rasp…

The rasp earns its keep inside the tote web because as you turn the tool in your stroke to create the round-over, the curved tip steers clear of the opposing side of the tote. It allows you to shape the tote without needing to worry about mascerating the other side of your work.

The other thing I love about the Liogier rasp is the stitching: it is available in  coarse (9 grain…like the one I own), medium (12 grain), and fine (15 grain) AND in right and left-handed versions (if you like pandering to those demonic south-paws). I don’t know of any other rasp maker offering such a wide range of options for this tool. So, even though I’ve found the 9 grain to be the only one I need, you could get two or even all three and take your totes from blank to finish ready. I’ve not tried the 15 grain rasp, but Liogier suggests that it cuts so finely you can dispense with sanding. In use, I’ve found this 9 grain version to be able to handle a great deal of the shaping tasks in my tote work. The 9 grain is fast, but not so coarse that it destroys the integrity of the wood fibers.

After I’ve roughed in all of the round-overs, it’s quite easy to use a conventional modelers or small cabinet rasp and put a cleaner finish on the wood. From there, it’s just 220 grit paper and you’re good to go. Handle making hasn’t been this easy since the War of Northern Aggression! ;)


Posted in Reviews on June 20, 2013 – 2:36 pm | Comments (2)

Smith’s Carcase in action…

I actually had time to do some woodworking over the weekend. Probably won’t happen again ’til next year, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. It was a great excuse to do some more work with my carcase saw based on Joseph Smith’s ‘Key’, as well.

I’m making a door to cover a utility cabinet in my step-daughter’s room. Since we remodeled a few months ago there’s been nothing but good intentions standing between our water main and her bedroom/karate dojo. I’m making a simple frame and panel door from white pine.

Having one saw that can do the work of two is just as cool as it gets. Here I’m using it to rip the tenon cheeks for the door frame…

And then cut the shoulders…

She does it all. :)

I have written and talked a lot about how I file these sash-style saws and the more I use them to build furniture, the more I love them. I think the combination of 10 degrees of rake and 10 degrees of fleam is the perfect compromise for ripping and crosscutting.

On a side note, I actually shipped my first order for one of these carcase saws this morning. Finishing it up late last night and running it through wood for the first time made me stop and think. I never intended to become a saw-maker…but here I am. And I don’t think I could be any more pleased. :)


Posted in Uncategorized on June 12, 2013 – 12:48 pm | Comments (5)

Pictoral: How I File a Saw

A recent customer asked if I would document the process of taking his old Disston D-8 (at left) and share pics with him. I agreed and thought it would also make a great post. I’ll try to let the pics do the talking. ;)

Before I can file and sharpen I needed to smith the saw to remove a bit of a kink and bow. To do this I keep pressure on the plate by bending it down on the anvil and use a speically modified hammer.

With the plate true once more, I had to address the sway to the toothline. You can see the dip from the heel towards the toe. This is very common and not helpful in sawing. You want a straight toothline or a slight crown. This saw needs a good jointing before filing.

Jointing a saw is just like jointing a board. I use an 8 or 10 inch mill file.

Now you can see the toothline is nice and straight with an ever so slight corwn, or convexity.

The result of jointing the saw down so much is these little stumps…they are all that remain of the teeth. But this is good…it allows me to even the gullets and create new, evenly spaced and properly sized teeth.

Here’s what they look like after shaping.

I create these by filing straight across the plate. I am not filing any fleam yet. I begin to file the gullets and even the spacing of the teeth by accentuating my file stroke to either side as needed. The goal is to make the gulelts of even depth and the flats of the teeth the same size.

I start by roughing in the gullet.

Then define and even the depth.

Now refine the depth of the teeth.

And bring them to full size and shape.

I do this in two inch patches all the way down the saw until all of the teeth are even in size, depth and shape.

The saw is now jointed, the teeth are properly defined. This is what saw teeth should look like before sharpening.

I now set the saw teeth.

I set each tooth firmly and alternate one side then the other to set the teeth left and right.

I once again joint the saw to create a flat on each tooth…

Now the saw is ready for sharpening. Because this is a crosscut saw I file 25 degrees of fleam into the teeth. I do this by filing at an angle from perpendicular and use a simple visual aid that I call a fleam guide.

Here’s the first group of teeth ready for sharpening. You can see the flats created by second jointing.

To create fleam I file every other tooth removing half of the flat. This makes the once previously rectangular flats now trianglular.

Then I go back and file each tooth that I skipped to create the other side of the tooth geometry. The result is a knife edge, or what we call fleam.

I continue this process all the way down the saw until all of the teeth are sharp with proper geometry.

The final step in sharpening a saw is stoning. I  lay the saw flat on my bench and apply a strip of blue tape to the plate. This protects the saw plate and creates a depth stop for evening the set and removing the burr.

The result is a row of razor sharp teeth in prefect alignment.

Who’s next? ;)

If you’d like to send me a saw for sharpening, email me at: matt@thesawwright.com or check out my website: www.TheSawWright.com


Posted in Saws, Sharpening and Restoration Services on May 25, 2013 – 12:45 pm | Comments (6)

Build A Backsaw on-line class

Following my post about building your own saw, a couple of people asked about instruction. Here’s one inquiry and my snarky, self-promoting response…

Andrew from Germany asked:

I have been considering making a back saw for some time, but have been a little intimidated by the process. Do you know of any good video resources or books that detail the process? I like videos for the simple fact that I am a visual learner.

Funny you should ask, but yes, I do know of a resource. Me! ;)

I just completed filming two projects with Popular Woodworking Magazine, one of which is two hours of video instruction for an on-line class on how to build your own backsaw from the very kits I spoke of yesterday. In addition to the videos, students who sign up for class (hosted by PopWood, of course) will be able to ask questions and get assistance through live video interaction with yours truly, and post questions with other students in an online forum.

Class size is limited (to about 25 I think), but after the launch, anyone will be able to purchase/stream/download the videos anytime and build their saw. Plus, you can email me questions at your leisure.

The PopWood video team is editing the videos now, and we’re negotiating a launch date for the class, but it looks like sometime in June. Stay tuned for more details.



Posted in News and Events, Projects on May 10, 2013 – 1:40 pm | Comments (2)