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Joseph Moxon on Saws

November 26, 2009


For the longest time I hadn’t been able to read much of what Joseph Moxon had written about saws because I didn’t own one of the old Astragal reprints of his book, Mechanick Excercises and the Art of Joinery–those Astragal reprints have been out of print for some time. But then Christopher Schwarz did a great thing and reprinted portions of Moxon’s work and annotated it with his own commentary. It’s a handsome and slender volume that is bound to become a classic. If you don’t already have a copy, I highly recommend it. (www.lostartpress.com) The whole book is excellent, but I have to admit that my copy falls right open to the section that deals with saws.

There are a couple of passages pertaining to saws that particularly caught my eye, but I want to discuss just one today–the passage where Moxon describes sharpening a saw. After a close reading of this passage I think it could perhaps be explicated a bit more fully than it has. That said, I’m a saw maker and a careful reader, not an actual scholar, so all I really intend here is to air my thoughts and opinions, not to appear as though I possess the last word on any of these topics.

Let me go ahead and quote the passage first:

“When workmen light of [find] a good blade, they don’t mind whether the teeth are sharp or deep or set well. For to make them so is a task they take to themselves, and thus they perform it. They wedge the blade of the saw hard into a whetting block, marked P in plate 4. With the handle towards their left hand and the end of the saw to the right, then with a three-square [triangular] file they begin at the left hand end, leaning harder upon the side of the file on the right hand than on that side to the left hand so that they file up the upperside of the tooth of the saw aslope towards the right hand, and the underside of the tooth a little aslope towards the left, or almost downright. Having filed one tooth thus, all the rest must be so filed. Then with the saw wrest, marked O, in plate 4, they set the teeth of the saw. That is, they put one of the notches marked a a a of the wrest between the first two teeth on the blade of the saw and then turn the handle horizontally a little towards the end of the saw. That at once turns the first tooth somewhat towards you and the second tooth from you. Then skipping two teeth, they again put one of the notches of the wrest between the third and fourth teeth on the blade of the saw, and then (as before) turn the handle a little towards the end of the saw, and that turns the third tooth somewhat towards you and the fourth somewhat from you. Thus you must skip two teeth at a time and turn the wrest until all the teeth of the saw are set….” (Schwarz, pp.69-70)

OK. I think this passage contains quite a bit of information. Firstly I think it may point to a saw making practice I have not seen referenced elsewhere, and secondly I think Moxon’s description of saw sharpening is perhaps much more complete than has formerly been appreciated.

For starters Moxon appears to be talking about the initial sharpening of a new saw, not the resharpening of one the joiner already owns. That seems kind of obvious, but it becomes important when you consider some of the other details in the passage. He writes, “When workmen light of [find] a good blade, they don’t mind whether the teeth are sharp or deep or set well.” Sharp or set well, those two things make sense, but what about the teeth being deep? What’s that about? I think part of the answer lies just a little farther along in the passage. Moxon writes:

“With the handle towards their left hand and the end of the saw to the right, then with a three- square [triangular] file they begin at the left hand end, leaning harder upon the side of the file on the right hand than on that side to the left hand so that they file up the upperside of the tooth of the saw aslope towards the right hand, and the underside of the tooth a little aslope towards the left, or almost downright.” (Schwarz, p.69)

Moxon said the workmen take the work to themselves, to make the teeth sharp, and deep, and well set. Then he describes what they do. And what they do sounds like filing in rip teeth–teeth where the backs are more aslope to the right, and the faces just a little aslope to the left (“almost downright”), with the handle of the saw also to the left. OK, but what does that have to do with the teeth being deep? Well, I think it could mean a couple of things. It could be as simple as Moxon using the word “deep” in a way we wouldn’t recognize today, as some sort of expression for a saw’s teeth being in good order, or shaped properly. That’s a possibility. Another possibility, though, is that he literally means “deep” just as we would, and what he is talking about is a new blade that has had its teeth punched, just not to their full depth, so there are still little flats along the tops just as though the teeth have been jointed. In fact this could explain why he doesn’t mention jointing. The teeth of the saw could have been punched so that their basic spacing is intact, but with flats left on the teeth for the joiner himself to finish with the file. This way the joiner could impart to the teeth the geometry he desired without having to file unnecessarily deep into the plate to do it–as would be the case if the teeth had been punched to their full depth and still needed adjusted.

The idea that the teeth of saws were left for the joiners to file to their liking is one that’s been around for some time–but the idea that flats were actually left on the teeth is one I’ve not seen before. And that is what I find intriguing. The text itself seems to suggest and support it, so I regard the reading as a distinct possibility, albeit cautiously.

The other thing about this sharpening passage that strikes me is that I think Moxon is describing a method of filing that involves filing every single gullet from one side of a saw, not half from one side and half from the other, as people tend to do today. He describes how the file is manipulated to file a rip tooth, and then states very clearly, “Having filed one tooth thus, all the rest must be so filed.” A modern reader is conditioned to think you must file every other gullet, so they think Moxon must have left something out. But I don’t think he did. I think he’s telling us what to do, and simply doesn’t anticipate more modern concerns and methods. So you don’t find any reassurance, for instance, that he does in fact mean every tooth. To me what Moxon writes seems pretty clear and straightforward. The fact that we don’t find things there that we might expect from our modern vantage point doesn’t mean that Moxon left anything out. In fact, assuming he left things out seems to read more between the lines than considering that he did not.

If you read on and see what Moxon says about setting the saw’s teeth, it is clear that when something should be done to every other gullet, Moxon says so.

“Then with the saw wrest, marked O, in plate 4, they set the teeth of the saw. That is, they put one of the notches marked a a a of the wrest between the first two teeth on the blade of the saw and then turn the handle horizontally a little towards the end of the saw. That at once turns the first tooth somewhat towards you and the second tooth from you. Then skipping two teeth, they again put one of the notches of the wrest between the third and fourth teeth on the blade of the saw, and then (as before) turn the handle a little towards the end of the saw, and that turns the third tooth somewhat towards you and the fourth somewhat from you. Thus you must skip two teeth at a time and turn the wrest until all the teeth of the saw are set….” (Schwarz, pp.69-70)

So that’s basically it, my thoughts on Moxon’s saw sharpening passage. I think it is important to remember that Moxon was not himself a joiner, and even if he was it would be unrealistic of us to expect his short passage on saw sharpening to contain the entirety of what was known about saw sharpening in Moxon’s time. First of all we don’t exactly know everything that they knew back then. And second of all, it is a short passage. But that being said, I think that what it does contain is a relatively cogent bit of methodology for one particular saw sharpening situation–the initial sharpening of a blade. But it also leaves a lot of questions. For instance, the possible practice of teeth being punched so that flats remained–was that a practice that can be found referenced elsewhere? Was it commonly done, or rarely done? Or did Moxon mean something else by the word “deep”? What about fleam? Did joiners file any of their saws with fleam for crosscutting, or did they only use saws filed rip? It is interesting stuff to think about. I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we knew the answers.

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