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.