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Waiter There’s a Fly Press in My Soup Part II, Punching Saw Teeth

April 13, 2010

We got off to a fast start in our first installment. In case you missed it, we had videos of Japanese saw smiths, we gunned down a burglar with a Foley retoother, and we dusted the cobwebs off Charles Holtzapffel. A veritable smorgasbord of sawmaking curiosities. I’m going to assume you’ve read that installment and won’t repeat much from it. One thing I will repeat, though, is Charles Holtzapffel’s description of a toothing gauge. It will be helpful to have it near at hand. He writes:

“The teeth of saws are for the most part cut in the fly-press. …Two studs are used to direct the edge of the blade for the saw to the punch, at the required angle depending on the pitch or inclination of the teeth, and an adjustable stop determines the space or interval from tooth to tooth, by catching against the side of the last tooth previously made.” (Holtzapffel, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Vol II, p 942)

This description was the only actual description of any kind that I had to work from. But of course I also had in mind what I needed a toothing gauge to do—so ultimately what I did was work backwards from what I needed, carefully considering Holtzapffel’s description as I did so. Here is what I came up with.

This first shot shows the gauge from above with some of the parts labeled. The second shot shows the gauge installed on the press.

The whole thing sits on the fly press table and is fixed to it by the bolts that pierce either end of the gauge bed. The heads of the bolts fit into T-slots in the fly press table. You’ll notice that the lefthand nut that fixes the gauge is about half the height of the one on the right. That is because I feed the saw plates from right to left, so the plates pass over that lefthand nut; it initially did stand up higher and got in the way, so I cut it down.

Probably the biggest thing you’ll notice is that my gauge has a solid fence and no studs. Holtzapffel’s description of two studs acting as a fence seemed less effective a solution than simply having a solid fence. For instance, two studs that lead the blade to the cutter would probably be placed a few inches apart in order to be an effective fence—but then once the blade was advanced to a certain point, it would no longer be supported by both studs. A solid fence, by contrast, never loses contact with the blade, and can even cross over and support the blade on both sides of the cutter.

The fence is adjustable not only for rake angle but also for depth of cut. What’s more, the same cutter can be used to cut all sizes of teeth. The size of the teeth is determined by how closely and shallowly the teeth are spaced. For the smallest teeth the old makers would have used a punch that punched several or so teeth at a time. I haven’t gotten around to making one of those yet but plan to.

The punch I did make is made from W1 tool steel. The lower die is made from O1 tool steel. The bottom die is held in place with a pair of recessed screws; they are recessed so that the saw plates can pass over them without the heads of the screws interfering. The W1 punch was filed to shape to fit the lower die and is held in an auxiliary tooling holder that fits into the fly press ram. The die and punch are made from different types of tool steel just because those were what I had on hand. The O1 is more ideal for this type of work, but the W1 works fine.

The teeth are spaced using a little indexing stop that I made from scrap steel. It is adjustable both from side to side and from front to back.

It works like the one Holtzapffel describes–it registers against the last tooth punched. That registration, combined with control of the rake and depth, is what produces good teeth. All three variables have to be regulated–if you adjust spacing without adjusting depth of cut, for instance, you wind up with all sorts of odd permutations, some of which result in the punch just nicking the blade. Like this:

Now that you see how the gauge goes together, let me show you how I use it. The first thing to do is to register the punch with the lower die. To do that I loosen the bolts that secure the gauge bed as well as the set screw that hold the punch in the ram. I move everything around until it meshes just right then gently snug it up. The punch and die are both made with relief angles so that they make contact just at the point where they shear the saw platel. Then their surfaces retreat just a bit. The punch and die either needed relief like that, or they needed to be perfectly vertical, and it was simply easier to give them a tiny amount of relief. If they sloped in the other direction they would spread apart as they engaged, and as the punch was raised you’d see that the cutting edges no longer meshed.

The next thing to do is to set up the fence and indexing stop. To do that I use a piece of saw plate that already has the desired tooth configuration–I place it against the fence and place the cutter in one of the gullets. I adjust the depth and angle of the fence so that the cutter fits perfectly in the gullet. Then I gently snug down the bolts that hold the fence.

With the plate still in place I move the tip of the indexing stop into place against the tooth beside the cutter. Basically I am aligning everything just as if it had punched the very plate I am using for alignment purposes.

I snug up the screw that holds the indexing stop, and I’m ready to go.

The pictures of actually using the press don’t look much different really than the pictures of setting it up. Only now the cutter is going up and down, and I’m not fooling around with any wrenches. Here’s a picture of just starting out punching a saw plate.

Here is the same plate much farther along.

And below is what the plate looks like with the teeth nearly, but not quite, finished.

So that’s about it. I’ve been very pleased with how the toothing gauge has performed. For me this method strikes just the right balance between thoughtfulness and expedience and seems to fit nicely with the other processes involved in making my saws. At some point down the road I will experiment with a second gauge that utilizes the two studs for a fence like the one that Holtzapffel described. I still feel that tugging at me. But for starters I wanted something that I knew would work and that I could rely on right away in my own work. Thanks for reading.


Waiter, There’s a Fly Press in My Soup Part I Background to Punching Saw Teeth

March 26, 2010

Certain parts of the saw making process seem to particularly intrigue people. For instance, people almost always comment on the teeth–“How do you make all of those teeth? Do you buy the blades with the teeth already on there? Do you file the teeth in? Do you have a machine that stamps them in, all in one shot?” People don’t just wonder about it, in other words—they really mull it over and think about how it might be done. That spark in people’s eyes is a familiar sight to me at this point. When people ask those questions the way they do, they may not realize it but they are under the spell of the Western saw. It’s a taste of the same preoccupation that has no doubt given us the Western saw as we know it.

The way I make saw teeth is by punching them with a fly press. I’ll show you in detail how I do it. It’s really similar to how the old makers did it. But first let me give you a little background. This is the third method I’ve used to make saw teeth—-the very first method I used was to simply file them in. That way obviously works and is fine if you only want to make a saw or two, but it is woefully slow and wasteful of files, and in my opinion has no real advantage to recommend it. People sometimes imagine this must in fact be the oldest way that saw teeth were ever created, and I would seriously doubt that. Back that long ago files were handmade and were not nearly as trivial an item as they are now. Plus, saws were made by blacksmiths, and blacksmiths use punches like woodworkers use drill bits–just a dirt common way to pierce your material. The oldest method I know of for creating saw teeth was to punch them individually using a small handheld punch of some kind that was struck with a hammer and moved along by eye (1). I think it was probably sort of similar to the way the teeth of some Japanese saws are still punched today.

Check out these videos of Japanese tools being made. The two videos on the left are about saws (All four videos are worth watching, though). The second one from the left shows a small hand held punch being used to punch teeth.

The next method I used to make teeth was a vintage Foley retoothing machine. I actually own two of them. It’s a clever little machine for its combination of simplicity and competence, but in use it wound up appealing to me about as much as volunteering for Highway Patrol Taser practice. There’s nothing wrong with them, mind you. I just didn’t care for it. It felt like I was feeding my saw plates through some kind of Gatling gun. I’m making saws, not charging San Juan Hill. The real question here is why do I own two of them? Well, that way I’d always have at least one in good working order; I bought them more or less simultaneously. So my plan didn’t flop at least. They both work. Plus if someone ever tries to break into my house I can always feed a saw through the Foley and watch the guy fill his pants.

So now we get to the fly press. I’d already owned it for probably about a year and had been steadily implementing it in my work. I was up to my eyeballs in the hunt with the old makers, and so now I got the idea that I would figure out how to punch my teeth using the press as well. It’s not quite as simple as it might seem. Check out this old engraving here, along with the one at the top of the page.

These guys are punching awfully large looking teeth, don’t you think? As detailed as these engravings are, it seems to me they have been artistically treated in order to make them “read” better. For instance, in addition to the tooth size, I’m fairly certain that a device is missing from these engravings that I have seen referred to as a “toothing gauge.” A toothing gauge was a device that controlled the depth, spacing, and rake angle of the teeth as they were punched. I’ve seen one referred to in a Beardshaw inventory from 1823 (2), and I read a description of one in Holtzapffel’s second volume on “Turning and Mechanical Manipulation.” I’m not aware of a surviving example of a toothing gauge, although I’d be a little surprised if, in all of the flotsam out there, there wasn’t at least one of these things still adrift. Just some unheralded hunk of rusty iron somewhere.

You might wonder why it is that Western makers wouldn’t just space the teeth by eye like the Japanese makers are doing in those videos linked to above. Well, there are two big reasons as I see it–because believe me, I thought about it. First, a fly press requires you to hold the plate with one hand and to turn the weighted wheel or arm with the other. Good luck keeping your teeth just right using one hand to hold your plate like that. You could use a hold down of some kind sort of like the one Japanese maker does with his hand held punch. But that brings me to problem number two–your line of sight isn’t very good for lining the punch up by eye. Those Japanese makers have it literally right in front of their faces. With the fly press you are back a little farther, and believe it or not, that makes a big difference–and the smaller the teeth the worse it gets.

Also, did you notice how deliberately the Japanese makers worked? I’m attuned to that style of work myself, but Western saw makers would have wanted to do it faster. The biggest saw makers would have had guys who did nothing all day but punch saw teeth.

Let’s get back to Holtzapffel and wrap up this leg of our tooth punching extravaganza with his description of what appears to be a toothing gauge. This is on page 942 of Vol II of “Turning and Mechanical Manipulation,” if you have a copy.

“The teeth of saws are for the most part cut in the fly-press….Two studs are used to direct the edge of the blade for the saw to the punch, at the required angle depending on the pitch or inclination of the teeth, and an adjustable stop determines the space or interval from tooth to tooth, by catching against the side of the last tooth previously made.”

Instead of just analyzing what Holtzapffel wrote, what I’ll do is show you what I came up with. You’ll see how it both draws on Holtzapffel and differs from him. We’ll mount it up on the fly press and show it all in action. That means there is a lot left to go, and it will be very pic heavy—so why don’t we stop here for now, and we’ll pick up next time where we left off, with the toothing gauge.

1. This method of punching teeth is mentioned in appendices 5, 7, and 8 of “Hand Tool Manufacture During the Industrial Revolution: Handsaw Making in Sheffield c.1750-c.1830,” by Simon L. Barley, 2008.

2. The 1823 Beardshaw ledger can be seen in Appendix 20 of the same dissertation.

(I want to acknowledge and thank the Sheffield Local Studies Library for permission to use the two engravings on this page. Also, a big thanks to Leif Hanson for the videos of the Japanese tool makers.)


Ordering Reopened at New Prices

March 23, 2010

Boy do you guys want saws! I’ve been getting all sorts of requests to either add to orders or to take new orders. One of the main reasons I put a hold on all orders was to get a handle on the backlog, which I’m still working on. But the other reason was to give myself a chance to work out prices that are more realistic for the amount of handwork that goes into each tool. My initial pricing attempts were, well, … woefully off target. The present price change is a large one, I know, but to be honest it is simply where my prices should have been from the beginning. As is common with various crafts, my saw making abilities were far ahead of my pricing and business abilities. It’s taken some time, perspective, and experience to get things right.

So as of today I am happy to say that ordering is officially reopened, and anyone who would like to place a new order or add to an existing order is welcome to do so.

The following are base prices. Additional customizing is extra and can be worked out on an individual basis. To read more about the saws check out my toolworks page.









Full Sized—$575


A Saw Maker’s Old Friend

March 17, 2010

One tool you don’t hear much about these days, but that was of extreme importance to early saw makers, is the fly press. For those who aren’t familiar with it, a fly press is a massive iron frame pierced by a heavy screw; on one end of the screw is a ram, and on the other end is either a weighted wheel, or a weighted arm, used to turn the screw. The screw raises and lowers the ram, and the inertia of the weight above imparts incredible force to the ram as it is lowered. All sorts of tooling can be devised for the ram end of the tool, to convert the energy of the press into useful types of work.

Today in the U.S. at least, fly presses when you do see them are usually characterized as a blacksmith’s tool—a wide variety of hot and cold smith’s work can be done with them. Historically in the U.K. and Continental Europe, the fly press was used in numerous trades in addition to blacksmithing, from making coins, to making locks, to making saws. If you have access to a copy of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, look in Volume 1 at the gigantic fly press used for coining. It was so huge, it took several men pulling ropes to operate it.

For saw makers the fly press was used to fold brass backs and to punch saw teeth. I would imagine a much larger press was used to fold the backs than was used to punch the teeth.

The press that I use weighs several hundred pounds, neither small nor huge as fly presses go—a nice mid-sized press that can handle a wide range of work. Powerful enough to do work that a smaller press could not, and small enough to do more delicate jobs for which a larger press would be too slow and cumbersome. But one characteristic that all fly presses share is a unique combination of power and control.

This is the press I use to punch my saw teeth, close my brass backs, and stamp my medallions. Quite a work horse. And one of the coolest things about this press is that it requires no electricity. It is very quiet in use.

The stand is welded from heavy 1/4″ wall tubing, angle iron, and a 3/8″ thick plate for the table. It also has a 1/4″ thick skirt around the top. I doubt I will get invited to weld on the Alaskan Pipeline anytime soon, but this stand should enjoy a longevity equal to that of the press itself.

Stay tuned, because in the coming entries I will show the press in action.



In the White

February 17, 2010

I haven’t posted anything in a while so I thought I’d take a few pictures of a tenon saw handle I’m finishing up. I always find it interesting to see what work looks like before it is finished–when it is “in the white,” as violin makers say. You can really get a good look at it that way.

My handles are shaped by hand, using various saws, rasps, chisels, scrapers, and files. With this design I changed things up a bit–instead of rounding the front of the tote, I made the front upright and the top flat, and then incorporated my scroll and lamb’s tongue. I wanted to use some straighter lines to act as counterpoint to the curved and more organic elements. Just something a little different. Thanks for looking.


Learn From the Best

December 28, 2009

How many times have you heard someone sheepishly say, “I’m just self-taught?” Being self-taught can be a kind of by-word for the homespun and amateurish. And that’s too bad. History is packed with distinguished figures who were largely self-taught. Inventors, artists, scientists, philosophers, . . . . The ability to teach oneself is an extremely powerful tool. If you can truly teach yourself, there’s really nothing you can’t learn to do.

The ability to refine skill is tantamount to acquiring new skill. Refining your thoughts can move you forward in large leaps, so that you seem to have improved during periods away from the bench. The ability to teach oneself and to watch one’s own thoughts is probably the most important skill I’ve never seen taught in school. Most skills ultimately come down to the particular way that your thoughts wriggle out through your fingertips. Calibrate your eye. Refine your thoughts. Improve your skill.

So as 2010 draws near if I had one wish for everyone it would simply be that if you have something you want to learn, that you start learning it in this coming year. And if it’s something you think might be out of reach for you, all the better–learn it anyway. If you aren’t already good at it, learn to really teach yourself. Once you do that, there’s no telling what might come next. Best of luck and happy new year!


Interview and Article

December 11, 2009

Woodworking blogger Tom Iovino interviewed me about my saws and wrote a very nice article on his blog, Tom’s Workbench. He graciously offered to the share article, so I am reprinting it here with his permission. Thanks Tom.


With care… always.

When people talk about the good old days of hand tools, they often cite the attention paid to the small details. Plane mouths that are machined to tight tolerances. Comfortable handles on chisels. The look and feel of a solid performing work of art.

That’s why you might be surprised that one of the true artisans making new hand saws started out doing rough work.

Andrew Lunn, the owner of Eccentric Toolworks, got what some folks might call a late start in woodworking. “I did have a shop class in junior high school when I was 14 years old. But that wasn’t what really got me going. In fact I didn’t make anything after that until I was 27 years old! I was working in an office and started to get the feeling that I wanted to work more with my hands.” According to Andrew, this career change came totally out of the blue. “I got myself a job working on a construction crew, doing restoration work to fire damaged buildings. It was all really unfocused at first–I knew I felt drawn to working with wood, and that I felt drawn to working with my hands. But I didn’t know if that would mean carpentry, or furniture, or what. So I put together a modest hand tool shop in my garage and began making things by hand. That’s what really got me going.”

Over time Andrew realized he was attracted to the smaller, more skilled tasks that focused his attention. “Several years ago, I got the idea that I wanted to make myself a whole set of hand tools, and that I would in turn use that set of tools to make things. The prospect of making a saw felt particularly interesting so I thought I would start there–and basically I started and just never stopped!”

Today, Andrew makes some of the most comfortable, true cutting – and beautiful – hand saws available for sale. His saws are not mass-produced. Instead, just as a tailor would fit a suit to a customer, each saw is fitted to the individual client placing the order.

“Basically I start with a measurement or two from the customer then send them a poplar prototype of their handle that incorporates those measurements. I get feedback from them and incorporate their input into the actual handle. I also tune the saw for the particular woods the customer will be using.” Andrew ships the saw with the final handles made of beautiful curly maple, cherry, quartersawn beech, or walnut.

Yes, you are reading this correctly. Each saw is truly made by hand in his shop. The handles are shaped entirely by hand. Most of the metalwork is done by hand with files and other hand tools as well. “The saws are tuned and fussed over until I am totally happy with them.”

While Andrew could certainly just build some functional plain-Jane looking saws and call it a day, his signature on these tools makes his work truly stand out. Decorative cut outs at the front of the saw make what would normally be a shop workhorse a thing of beauty. “Saws to me represent a creative outlet, so the way they look reflects various openings or possibilities that I thought could be explored. I enjoy the entire design process, both with function and appearance, so as much as possible I try to meld the two into a single fabric.”

When I asked Andrew about his favorite aspect of building these beautiful tools, he had some difficulty identifying it. “I don’t know if I really have one. I like each part of it and get really absorbed while doing it. The metalwork is so important, and has a subtle art to it. The handles, those are a really big deal too. Saws are just very lean tools–there’s nothing there that isn’t important. It takes a lot of concentration and care. That’s why on some of the saws I etch the words, ‘With Care … Always.”


Ordering Has Been Closed

December 3, 2009

I am sometimes asked how I ever started making saws in the first place. Initially I wanted to make myself a set of tools that I would in turn use to make other things. I started with the saws and simply kept making them. They are very interesting tools to make. Back then I was also interested in developing other facets of my work, items other than tools. Well actually I still am. I keep telling myself that when I get caught up with my saws I will start making other things too. However, the backlog grows much faster than I can work it down. Right now it is around 18 months or more. I truly enjoy making saws but need to explore other avenues as well. That, combined with the overwhelming nature of the backlog, has led me to the decision to stop taking orders for awhile. It will give me a chance to work the backlog down and to ultimately organize my work in a way that permits other pursuits. All orders already placed will be filled, each one with the utmost care and diligence–but I won’t be able to let those orders be expanded. And ultimately when orders do reopen the prices will need to be higher. Various expedients have been suggested at times to make my work more streamlined and efficient, and I have carefully considered all of them. I am extremely careful and conservative about adopting measures like that. I always come back to the sort of work I want to do, and the sort of work that my customers expect when they buy a saw from me–saws that are made by hand at the bench and that function in a very particular way. These are the kinds of saws that got me interested in making saws in the first place. They are different, and unique, and to my mind are worth the extra time and work to make.


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. ( 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.


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.