By Joseph A. McGeough
The chipped flint knife, with its irregular edge, was not a saw in the proper sense, for though it could sever wood fibres and gash bone or horn, it could not remove small pieces of material in the manner of a saw. Furthermore, the necessarily broad V-shaped profile of the flint saw severely limited its penetration into the workpiece; the nature of its cut was limited to making an encircling groove on a branch or a notch on something flat.
The true saw, a blade with teeth, one of the first great innovations of the Metal Age, was a completely new tool, able to cut through wood instead of merely gashing the surface. It developed with smelted copper, from which a blade could be cast. Many of the early copper saws have the general appearance of large meat-carving knives, with bone or wooden handles riveted to a tang at one end. Egyptian illustrations from about 1500 BCE onward show the saw being used to rip boards, the timber being lashed to a vertical post set into the ground.
The use of relatively narrow, thin, and not quite flat blades made of a metal having a tendency to buckle, coupled with poorly shaped teeth that created high friction, required that the cutting take place on the pull stroke. In this stroke the sawyer could exert the most force without peril of buckling the saw. Furthermore, a pull saw could be thinner than a push saw and would waste less of the material being sawed.
The familiar modern handsaw, with its thin but wide steel blade, cuts on the push stroke; this permits down hand sawing on wood laid across the knee or on a stool, and the sawing pressure helps to hold the wood still. Operator control is superior, and, because the line being sawed is not obscured by the fuzz of undetached wood fibres or sawdust, greater accuracy is possible. Some tree-pruning saws have teeth raked to cut on the pull stroke to draw the branch toward the operator. Blades that are thin and narrow, as in the coping saw (fretsaw or scroll saw), are pulled through the workpiece by a frame holding the blade. Electric reciprocating and sabre saws, which have narrow blades that are supported at only one end, pull the blade when cutting to prevent buckling. The carpenter’s pull saw for wood requires sitting on the floor and using one’s feet to stabilize the wood while sawing. Long forgotten by the Western world, it has been kept alive in China and Japan, where some craftspersons still favour it.
Although there is no positive evidence of either the type of saw or the method used, the Egyptians were able to saw hard stone with copper and bronze implements. The blade, probably toothless, rode on an abrasive material such as moistened quartz sand. The 2-metre (7.5-foot) granite coffer still in the Great Pyramid carries saw marks.
During the Bronze Age the use of saws for woodworking was greatly extended, and the modern form began to evolve. Some saws with narrow blades looked very much like hacksaw blades, even to the holes at either end. They might have been held in a frame or pinned into a springy bow of wood.
Iron saws resembling those of copper or bronze date from the middle of the 7th century BCE. A major contribution to saw design was noted in the 1st century CE by Pliny the Elder, whose works are one of the major sources on the technology of the ancients. Pliny observed that setting the teeth—that is, bending the teeth slightly away from the plane of the blade alternately to one side and the other, so creating a kerf, or saw slot, wider than the thickness of the blade—helps discharge the sawdust. He seems to have missed the more practical point that the saw also runs with less friction in the now wider slot. The Romans, always ingenious mechanics, added numerous improvements to both simply handled saws and frame saws but did not make push saws despite the advantage of the kerf that made the saw easier to work with and less liable to buckle. Roman saw sets and files have been found in substantial numbers. The small handsaws were sometimes backed with a stiffening rib to prevent the buckling of thin blades; today’s backsaw still carries the rib. Frame saws, in which a narrow blade is held in tension by a wooden frame, were exploited in many sizes, from the small carpenter’s saws to two-person crosscut saws and ripsaws used for making boards.
The time and provenance of the push saw are uncertain, although it appears that it may date from the end of Roman times, well before the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, after the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, the use of the saw seems to have declined as well. The axe again became the principal tool on the return to the more primitive state of technology. Saw artefacts are very few in number, and even the Bayeux Tapestry of about 1100 shows no saw in the fairly detailed panels dealing with the construction of William the Conqueror’s invasion fleet; only axe, adz, hammer, and breast auger are among the woodworking tools.
With the Middle Ages came the search for a nonclogging tooth to be used when crosscutting green and wet wood. The new saws were long, with handles at both ends, so that two men might each pull, adjacent teeth being raked in opposite directions. To provide space for the cuttings, M-shaped teeth with gaps (gullets) between them were developed; this tooth conformation, first noted in the mid-15th century, is still used in modern crosscut saws manufactured for coarse work and for cutting heavy timber.
Perhaps even more important than crosscutting was the need to rip a log lengthwise to produce boards. Saws for this purpose were generally called pit saws because they were operated in the vertical plane by two people, one of whom, the pitman, sometimes stood in a pit below the timber or under a trestle supporting the timber being sawed. The other stood on the timber above, pulling the saw up; the pitman and gravity did the work of cutting on the down stroke, for which the teeth were raked. A pit saw occasionally was nothing more than a long blade with two handles (a whipsaw), but more often it was constructed as a frame saw, which used less steel and put the blade under tension.
The fretsaw was a mid-16th century invention that resulted from innovations in spring-driven clocks. It consisted of a U-shaped metal frame, on which was stretched a narrow blade made from a clock spring, the best and most uniform steel available, for it was not forged but rolled in small, hand-powered mills. These relatively thin blades had fine teeth that were well suited to cutting veneer stock from decorative wood for furniture of all kinds.
By the middle of the 17th century, large water powered rolling mills in England and some parts of the Continent were able to furnish broad strips of steel from which wide saws could be fashioned in many varieties. In particular, the awkwardly framed pit saw was largely replaced by a long, two-handled blade of increased stiffness. Smaller general-purpose saws were developed from this rolling-mill stock into the broad-blade saws of today. The modern broad-blade handsaw is taper ground, that is, the blade is not of uniform thickness but is several thousandths of an inch thinner at the back than at the toothed edge. This makes possible no-bind cutting, and such saws require little set for fast and easy cutting. Continental craftspersons still use the frame saw for benchwork. Since the only purchased part is the blade itself, workers often make their own wooden frame, which is tightened by twisting a cord with a short stick.