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Early, Small Woodworking Saws

By Hank Allen
Originally published in The Tool Shed, Number 111 (April 2000)

The inspiration for this article came from the early, small saws in my collection. My main references were R.A. Salaman's Dictionary of Tools and old tool catalogs, mostly from the 1800s. (Salaman is a great book and has been reprinted by Astragal Press.) For this article the term "small saw" is any tool with a toothed blade and smaller than a tenon saw. I've chosen to include only woodcutting saws that predate 1915, or so. Not much has been written about small saws. When I've finished, the literature may still be lacking, but at least I thought you would enjoy the pictures by Charlie Flynn.

Saws are one category of tool that I've collected from my beginning days as a collector. Anything with a toothed blade and very old was fair game. Turns out I ended up with a number of saws that fit the title of this article. I don't recall thinking a lot about them, or searching for them, they just came along with the other saws. Early American and British brass-backed saws with split saw screws are now my favorites, but these small saws are pretty neat too. Small saws include compass, keyhole, pad, dovetail, and fret saws, which, for the most part, are manufactured, and stairmaker's, grooving, dado, rabbet, dowel, and a host of specialized saws, which, for the most part, are craftsman made.

Compass & Keyhole Saws

Photo 1 shows some early compass and keyhole saws, and one of another kind in the upper left comer. A compass saw is an open-handled saw with a 10 to 18 inch blade. You'll come across compass saws with shorter blades like the three in Photo 1. This may be from constant filing, but is more likely from broken tips. Compass saw blades taper from about 1-1/4 inches wide at the handle to about 1/4 inch at the tip. The blade narrows from fairly thick at the teeth to relatively thin at the back of the blade. Salaman states confidently that the compass saw has 10 teeth per inch, but all of mine, and most are English, have either 7 or 8. The earliest compass saws have the traditional open handle (left center of Photo 1), but pistol handles became much more common (top right of Photo 1).

Photo 1
Photo 1.

Disston offered only the latter in its 1876 catalog, so the transition must have started early. Even so, Hammacher Schlemmer and Wheeler, Madden & Clemson offered traditional handles in the 1890s, and Simonds still offered one after 1915. The saw at lower left was sold to me as a rare "nock" or bowmaker's saw. It maybe just a keyhole saw with a fancy handle.

The name compass saw derives from its intended use, to cut curved work, or as Knight says, "to run in a circle of moderate radius." The stiffness and two-way tapering of the blade aid the sawyer in working around such curved cuts. Fred Hodgson in his 1883 book, Hand Saws, chides manufacturers of compass, keyhole, and pad saws for not filing teeth to cut on the pull stroke which, he said, reduces the risk of a blade breaking. He encourages workmen to refile their blades for longer life. Strelinger responded in their 1897 Catalog by offering compass and keyhole saw blades that cut on the pull stroke, and noting that many mechanics had been refiling these blades. Finally, the compass saw became a general workhorse as evidenced by this quote from the same Strelinger Catalog, "It's used to cross cut, rip, and miter. It's a most thoroughly abused and maltreated tool in the carpenter's chest." I guess if you don't want to ruin your favorite saw, you use your compass saw.

The keyhole saw is characterized by a narrower blade with less taper than the compass saw. It may have the same type of handle as the compass saw or it may have a pad-type handle. See examples in top and bottom right in Photo I and Photo 2. The blade is shorter, 6 to 10 inches, and has more teeth, 8 to 20, than the compass saw. The blade thickness is comparable. In concept the keyhole saw is used to enlarge a drilled hole, such as a keyhole, the same as with many compass saw tasks. The British pad saw (second saw in Photo 2) is a keyhole saw, and the terms are used interchangeably by Salaman. The English pad saw blade runs through a slot in the pad handle, which permits the user to expose as much of the blade as needed. It's held in the pad with two slotted set screws and thus joins the other British tools that require a screwdriver to adjust them.

Photo 2
Photo 2.

The 1887 Millers Falls Catalog offered a rectangular-handled pad saw by Star that was made so the entire blade would fit in the handle, and also a pistol-handled keyhole saw with a slot to retract the blade through the handle to emerge between your thumb and forefinger; looks dangerous to me! Disston made pad saws with fixed blades (bottom saw Photo 1 and fourth saw in Photo 2), and also a "keyhole saw & pad," which was patented August 28, 1877 (bottom saw in Photo 2). The latter was advertised as an inexpensive and convenient combination of keyhole saw, pad saw, and screwdriver. The screwdriver was on the handle end of the blade.

The dividing line between compass and keyhole saws may be tough to draw. My solution comes from the "nest of saws" in the 1914 Disston Catalog. The nest includes a compass blade and a keyhole blade for use with the same handle. After seeing the two blades pictured side by side it's just like pornography; when you see it, you'll know! Similar "nests" were made by Richardson and by the English firm of Ward & Payne. The latter is pictured in Fig. 630 in Salaman.

Stairmaker's Saws

Most stair saws you will come across are craftsman made by riveting a section of an old saw blade in a slot in a wooden handle. See Photos 3 and 4.

Photo 3
Photo 3.
Photo 4
Photo 4.

This may have been the fate of broken buck saw blades, as the teeth in the examples illustrated are all 4 to 6 teeth per inch. When the handle is flat alongside the blade it provides a fixed depth stop. Some stair saws have blades that can be raised or lowered allowing the depth of cut to be varied. Two are shown in Photo 5.

Craftsman-made stair saws can be quite artistic. Stair saws were also manufactured, but their handles have few variations and are not as interesting. Martin Donnelly's 1999 Catalog shows 15 stair saws on page 55; six appear to have been manufactured and the rest craftsman made. The saw on the right in Photo 3 is manufactured but not marked. It has a fence that is adjustable up or down and is held in place by the oval nuts that show in the photo. Some craftsman-made stair saws are very old; the bottom saw in Photo 4 is dated 1797. Some are brand new, but made to look old; buyer beware!

Photo 5
Photo 5.

The stair saw's function is to cut parallel saw kerfs for a groove or dado. The name "stair saw"comes from the dados that are cut in stair stringers to accept treads and risers. Other dados could be cut with a stair saw as well, but these saws are pretty crude and probably were not used for fine joinery, where the dado plane or even a back saw would do a more refined job.

Photo 6
Photo 6.
Photo 7
Photo 7.

Salaman gives the same description for grooving, trenching, and stair saws. Photos 6 and 7 show some craftsman-made saws that we might not think to be stair saws, but whose function is to cut dados or grooves, or trenches. Two large grooving saws with end handles are shown in Photo 6.

Photo 7 shows two saws that have parallel blades that can cut both kerfs of a dado or groove at the same time. Photo 8 shows both sides of an elegant, mahogany, craftsman-made saw. The blade is fastened to one side of the body, and a full length, adjustable, metal depth stop runs along the left side of the blade. In English auction catalogs, examples are called "stair saws." This one came from a Brown auction with the same name.

Dovetail Saws

Two dovetail saws are shown at the center of Photo 9. Dovetails are small back saws intended for fine joinery work, such as cutting dovetails for small drawers, etc. Obviously you wouldn't want to use one to saw the dovetails on a six-board blanket chest. Beading saw is another name for them, probably British. Older dovetail saws had traditional open handles but the pad-type handles soon replaced the traditional ones. Hodgson reported (1883) that most American back saws had backs of iron and that brass-backed dovetail saws were generally imported from England. So naturally, the lower dovetail saw in Photo 9 is by Kenyon Sykes of Sheffield and is iron backed. Dovetail saws are generally 6 to 12 inches in length, 15 to 20 teeth per inch, and 1-1/2 inches from tooth to back.

Photo 9
Photo 9.

Disston did not have a dovetail saw in the 1876 catalog, but the 1914 catalog offered one with a traditional handle and one with a pad handle. Both had brass-plated steel backs. The latter model also came with a blade for cutting brass and copper.

Many early catalogs lumped their back saws together by size without distinguishing them as tenon, sash, carcase, or dovetail. James Howarth's 1884 catalog had two dovetail saws; a traditional handled one and a pad type that was called "Gent's Dovetail Saw." The latter came in brass-back only with either boxwood or rosewood handles.

The thin-bladed, fine-toothed saw in the upper left comer of Photo 1 is almost too delicate to be a dovetail saw. Note the second, vacant hole above the handle of this saw that allows the handle to be attached vertically. This may give a clue as to its use that I've missed, but it's safe to say that it's for very fine woodworking. Having cut a few small dovetail joints in soft sugar pine for drawers, I think this saw would be adaptable to this purpose if only because of the almost invisible kerf that it leaves behind.

The bottom saw in Photo 9 is a 6-inch toy saw by Mosely & Son, London. Howarth sold them with 6 to 9 inch blades. Toy back saws were also made. They came in kid's tool kits but were very well made. A pattern-maker's saw by Disston is shown at the top of Photo 9. The blade is relatively thin and there is no back, giving them more versatility for depth of cut. Disston made only one size. Others made these saws, and all I have seen are about the same size as Disston's.

Fret or Backing Saws

Fretwork is defined as ornamental work consisting of interlacing parts, especially work in which the design is formed by perforation of the work. [There's an article on fretwork by David Pine in the July/August 1989 issue of Fine Woodworking.] The fine-bladed hand saw used to cut frets was originally called the "Buhl Saw," a German adaptation of the name of Andre Charles Boulle, a French royal cabinetmaker (1642-1732) whose fashion of inlaying, called boullework, was popular in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. The buhl saw is shown in Figure 618 of Salaman and is reproduced here with the permission of Astragal Press.

The Buhl saw came to be known as the fret or bracket saw in the 19th century. Before that, some keyhole and pad saws were called fret saws. Fret or bracket saws have a U-shaped frame with a blade fastened across the open end of the frame, and a handle parallel to the blade and extending below the frame. They are made of wood or metal, have frames 12 to 20 inches deep, and 5 to 6 inch blades which can be so fine as to appear to be strands of wire. The early catalogs of Hammacher Schlemmer, Strelinger, Wm. Walter, and Millers Falls all offered bracket saws. But, in Millers Falls' 1911 catalog the name had been changed to fret saw. Disston did not have a fret or bracket saw in either the 1876 or 1914 catalogs. A metal-frame bracket saw by Millers Falls and a wood-framed fret saw are shown in Photo 10. The wood-framed saw was made by the Sorrento WoodCarving Co. of Boston, and has a patent date of Dec. 13, 1870. It does very well at auction.

Fig 618
Buhl Saw: Salaman Fig. 618

A scroll saw was a heavier version of the fret saw. There were also machine saws, initially treadle operated, for cutting designs in wood called fret saws and scroll saws. Jig saw has always referred to a machine saw.

Also shown in Photo 10 is what we usually call a jeweler's saw, but which has also been called a piercing saw and a coping saw for cutting wood. Disston carried a coping saw similar to those available today in its 1914 catalog. Millers Falls had nine different models in its 1915 catalog.

Photo 10
Photo 10

Special-Purpose Saws

Two saws that I bought as planemaker's saws are shown at the top of Photo 11. According to Salaman, a planemaker's saw is from 9 to 16 inches long, 1-1/2 inches wide at the handle, and has a 1/8 inch thick blade with teeth filed alternately from side to side. The saws in the photo fit these characteristics and have taper from tooth to top of blade and no set. I've seen many saws at auction that were called planemaker's saws, but were really short compass saws. Buyers beware. Have I said that before?

The saw at the bottom of Photo 11 is a craftsman-made, cooper's, stave-repair saw. Its purpose is to cut the croze grooves on a replacement stave. One is pictured in Barlow, which I believe to be the same saw. It's the only one I've ever seen. Salaman shows a similar saw with the same purpose, which he calls a riddle, saw. It has a manufactured, open handle and a curved blade without a back.

Photo 11
Photo 11

The saws in Photo 12 have no set and were used to cut off dowels, plugs, etc. flush with the work without damaging it. I'm sure craftsmen found other uses for them as well. A saw very similar to the one in the middle of the photo has also been called a veneer saw. It comes up in English auction catalogs quite regularly, in both mahogany and cormierwood. Another purpose is said to be for cutting miter joints with a miter shooting block; still another is to cut floorboards. Seems to be too nice a saw to use on floorboards. Maybe a saw is what a consignor says it is!

Photo 12
Photo 12

Three small, craftsman-made saws are shown in Photo 13. I remember that Paul Weidenschilling was the underbidder on all three, and he reminds me every time we meet. The blade on the saw at the upper right is mounted vertically probably for inlaying something. The other two have horizontal blades and are used with a straightedge to cut veneer. A similar one appears in Salaman (Fig. 715e).

Photo 13
Photo 13

Two handled saws from a set of four tools, said to be for drawermaking, are shown in Photo 14. The two planes not shown are skewed dados with fences but no nickers, presumable for cleaning out , dados whose kerfs have been cut by a saw. The tool on the right is called a fenced rabbet saw, and would be used to cut kerfs for dados. The fence allows kerfs to be cut at different distances from the edge of the work. The plane/saw on the left in Photo 14 has similarities to the saws in Photo 12 is a large version of the saw at top right in Photo 13. I can't think of a use for this tool in drawer-making. Perhaps it could be used like the armchair-maker's saw described below.

Photo 14
Photo 14

Photo 15 shows an ancient flooring saw and a handled, French, armchair-maker's saw for cutting tenons in curved work like the arm or rail of a chair. The blade of the latter saw is mounted in a slot along the side, about 1/2" above the base. In practice the work on which tenon shoulders are to be cut is mounted vertically in a box-shaped clamp, so that the bottom of the saw runs across the top of the box as the four shoulders of the tenon are being cut. Maybe the saw in the previous paragraph was used in this way with some type of jig.

Photo 15
Photo 15


In the subsequent issue of The Tool Shed (#112) a letter from Bob Nelson was published regarding the article above. He wrote:

The Spring TATHS [Tools And Trades History Society] newsletter had an article about stair saws. Its writer claims that many/most such things, especially the ones with coarse teeth, were really coffin maker's saws. Old style coffins with curved sides in the shoulder area were made by cutting a number of parallel kerfs on the inner side to facilitate making the bend. All cuts had to be the same depth for a smooth bend. Seems to make sense and helps explain why there seem to be so many more "stair saws" around than would seem to be dictated by past demand.

I don't think the standard use of the veneer saws in Photo 13 was "with a straight edge." Rather a piece of veneer slightly larger than the surface being covered was glued on and the veneer saw was then laid against the side beneath it and used to cut the piece off flush with that side. Note that this puts any tearing out of the "back side" of the cut on the top surface where more obvious. I have two variations of veneer saws designed to overcome that problem. Both of their blades are mounted above a recess and in line with a flat surface below the recess; the veneer edge can be slid into the recess, the flat surface put against the side, and the cut made downward so that any tearing out would be along the joint line of the top and side.