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Where Do Saws Come From?

November 12, 2009

At the recent woodworking events I attended I got asked a lot of questions. A lot of good, earnest questions. And yes, one of them was, “What’s the nib for?” But a lot of them were also more involved, asking things about various design features, or bits of geometry built into the saws. Many questions could loosely be grouped into a category characterized by yet another question, one that I thought contained the theme underlying many of the others–“Where do your saws come from?” I got asked that exact question a number of times. Are my saws reproductions? Are they totally novel designs? Where do the scrolls come from? What about the blade shapes and the handles? As is often the case I’m not sure who learned more, the people asking the questions or the person answering them. Every time I endeavored to answer a question like that I hardly knew where to begin.

The truth is, I’ve been working on these saws for several years now, and the refinements and details are built up in so many layers that I no longer have a simple answer as to where my saws come from. For me it’s a bit like looking down through the many thin layers of a delicately constructed finish. When people ask me where my saws come from I can feel a bit at a loss for words, as there is simply so much to say.

So I usually start by saying that my saws are not reproductions. The idea of reproducing saws has never really appealed to me. But that does not mean that my saws have no relation to old saws—hardly. I have been an avid student of the old makers, assembling a reference library of old saws, and reading everything I’ve been able to find about old saws. But that is just the beginning. As with anything that really speaks to you, the real work occurs somewhere deep inside, where your mind begins to chew over problems all by itself, even when you are doing other things.

Many refinements are subtle adjustments of line, or geometry, or process. It’s a bit like playing a sport where the better you get, the slower the sport becomes for you, so that you can make seemingly faster and finer movements. Many refinements sound a bit anticlimactic when put into words–“I thought this scroll would look good here.” Or, “I got the sense that this angle would be better there.” For most refinements, their clearest and most definitive expression is in the saw itself. The language surrounding them is not as vibrant as the features themselves. So sometimes the answers I have for people probably sound a bit dry–“Well, I thought these shapes balanced well here, and I wanted to do something a bit different here by splaying the lamb’s tongue.” The saws express my thoughts a lot better than my words do. The words say what I was thinking, but the saws show what I was thinking.

That goes with function, too, not just appearance. There are all kinds of things you can say about the functional design of a saw–my goal from the beginning was to study the old saws but not to simply copy them. I wanted to make my own decisions. Sometimes that would mean deciding to do the same thing as the old makers, and other times it would mean doing something different. I really couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent thinking about these things. Saws are deceptively complex tools. They have a hardwired geometry and a way in which they channel the force that is applied to them. Each kind of saw is to some extent its own little world and requires its own niche of expertise. The thoughts, words, and refinements accumulate beyond anything very easily conveyed in casual conversation. Again the saws themselves are their own clearest explanation. Just pick one up and use it.

So where do my saws come from? I wish I had a better answer. We all have things in life that speak to us, and for some reason saws speak to me. At times it has struck me as a strange sort of object to feel connected to like that, but I suppose it’s not inherently stranger than feeling connected to anything else. As much as anything I enjoy being a student of the craft, and over time I plan to continue exploring it. So who knows, I may never have a perfectly finalized answer as to where my saws come from.

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