The Saw: A Brief History

The Beginnings

Of all the woodworking tools, the saw presented the most technological challenges of all. The earliest saws were very crude and few examples have survived. Widespread applications did not surface until the arrival of the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago, and did not become standard until the dawn of the Iron Age, when forged iron provided enough strength to withstand the stress when sawing wood.

Flint saws were the first to appear during the early Paleolithic Era, between 60,000 and 10,000 B.C. Flint saws and composite saws made of stone “microliths” or shark teeth (Pacific islands) set into a bone handle also were made during this time. The discovery of copper about 4,000 years ago made possible the first metal blades.

As the Iron Age began, the weaker copper and bronze were replaced by the stronger material and raked teeth were finally made possible. Eventually it became apparent that increasing the number of teeth in a saw increased the efficiency of its use. Small saws were used for carpentry, with the Asian style of pull-saws being specifically used by the Ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics discovered in Egyptian monuments record the Egyptians’ use of the saw in their methods of furniture making. The pull saw is still the preferred style in the Orient today.

Saws continued to be improved as innovations in metallurgy were developed. Leonardo da Vinci invented a marble saw during the fifteenth century, and many developers in Europe and abroad took advantage of improvements in steel to create a better cutting edge. Throughout the seventeenth century, the strongest blades were still the narrowest. The bow saw—named for its structural similarity to the bow and arrow—continued to be popular because of this limitation, and because of the narrow blade, scroll work was made easier.

With the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution, stronger, more durable saws were produced. For example, various forms of the circular saw were introduced during the early eighteenth century, though the first patent in the United States was granted to Benjamin Cummins of New York in 1814, and its’ use was not widespread until the mid 19th century. Today, a wide variety of manual and power saws are produced for the consumer as well as for commercial use.


A Three Thousand Year Old Saw

Advances in saw design were slow to take hold until the 14th and 15th centuries and these examples remained very similar until the 18th century, when steel technology provided the ability to make spring steel, which accelerated the building of more dependable time pieces and then this advanced steel found its’ use in panel saws. Prior to this time, saws were designed to cut on the pull stroke as the steel was not strong enough to prevent kinking on the push stroke. Oriental saws to this day retain the cut on the pull stroke.

The veneer saw

One design that alleviated the kinking problem was the development of the frame saw which kept the blade under tension thus preventing kinking and binding in the cut. These saws originally saw use as plank and veneer saws, then shrank in size to become the felloe saw of the wheelwright.

Mechanization of the Saw and Its’ Effect on History

The 17th century was the actual beginning of the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of the harnessing of wind and water power, which provided a method to mechanize many processes, starting with grist and saw mills. The saw mill was introduced to the American Colonies around 1630, and their number grew to about 5,500 active mills by 1840.

It is interesting to note that in the 17th century, New England was covered with mature climax forests composed of a seemingly endless supply of Beech, Birch and Maple or Hemlock and Red Spruce depending on soil conditions. These forests were wide open with large mature trees, spaced so a rider on horseback could easily travel in them unimpeded.

At this time, England was in the throes of expansion requiring a vast number of ships, both naval and merchant marine. At the same time, England was dealing with two problems; a severe lack of sufficient timber growth, and serious problems with the sawyers’ guild mounting violent resistance to the construction of saw mills, feeling that this new technology would cost them too many jobs.

As a result, when the crown sent agents to the New World to assess what valuable natural resources existed here that could be plundered for the benefit of the crown, they saw the vast extent of the New England forests, they knew they had discovered more value than a land covered in gold!

The king’s agents were instructed to mark trees that were appropriate for the construction of the masts and planks needed for the construction of British ships. These trees were marked with a broad arrow indicating they were the possession of the king and the colonists were not permitted to harvest them except on instruction by the king’s agent. The explosion of saw mills was the direct result of these circumstances. We also eventually learned that there is no such thing as an “endless supply” of anything.

Taylor Saw Mill 1805

By the 1850s, the circular saw mill was introduced into the United States and increased production 5 times over. the circular saw’s invention is credited to the naval shipyard at York England, where it was employed cutting blanks of Lignum vitae tackle blocks. (To learn more, go here)

The Rise of the Modern Hand Saw

Plate XIII from Nicholson, The Mechanics Companion, 1845

With the invention of spring steel late in the 18th century, the technology needed to greatly improve the quality of the panel saw was born. This technology reached its’ epitome early in the 20th century. The steels became so reslient that the blade could be bent completely around with the tip placed through the handle with no kink, or deformity of any kind when released. Taper ground blades made binding in the cut less of a problem, and overall, these saws were a joy to use!

I had a customer who was a restoration covered bridge builder who purchased a beautiful Simonds Silver Steel saw from me and returned to the shop to announce that his saw was so good, it made no sawdust frem the kerf! A bit of hyperbole I know, but that sale resulted in six more sales to members of his crew. These old saws can be an absolute joy to use.

Raw Materials

Tempered, high-grade tool steel, alloyed with certain other metals, is the main material used to manufacture the saw blade. Handles used to be made solely of wood, but modern tools can also be made with molded plastic.

The early 20th century saw the epitome of saw manufacturing quality with names such as Disston, Atkins, Simonds, Spear & Jackson, Pax and more. Many of these makers produced their own saw steels so they had total quality control of the manufacturing process from start to finish. Future posts will deal with these makers both from the standpoint of the craftsman and the collector.

Disston D8
Photo courtesy of

Suggestions For Further Reading

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