We Don't Need No Stinkin' Backsaws

There is great debate among the Saw Nerds (I’m a card-carrying member) about when the backsaw came into this world, kicking and screaming and whipping its lamb’s tongue to and fro.

Historic documents have been read. Great thoughts have been thinked. The Internet was clicked many times.

But what gets little attention is actually why the backsaw was ever developed.

In the mind of veteran carpenter and tool collector Carl Bilderback, you don’t need a backsaw.

“You can cut any joint you want with a 16″ panel saw,” he said. “It’s more than stiff enough for the job. So why do we have backsaws?”

Bilderback didn’t have the answer to that rhetorical questions, but he did offer up some other thoughts. The late Cecil Pierce cut his dovetails (beautifully by the way) with a hacksaw. You can read all about that in his short book “The Precision Handcutting of Dovetails” from Astragal Press. And the book “Modern Practical Joinery” by George Ellis shows experienced joiners cutting tenons with handsaws. “Look ma, no back.”

“Why do we even have $200 dovetail saws to do something you can do with a $15 hacksaw from Ace Hardware?” Bilderback asks.

Bilderback has cut lots of joints with a panel saw and recommends that if you want to try it yourself that you use a saw with little or no set.

This afternoon I gave it a try and cut dovetails with a crosscut panel saw. I was laughing the whole time I did it because it was extremely easy to switch from a backsaw to a panel saw. The tool leaves a big kerf in its wake, but that actually made it easy for the coping saw to drop in there to remove the waste.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to We Don't Need No Stinkin' Backsaws

  1. Just a theory, but perhaps back saws came about due to the increasing price of tool steel? Sort of the same reason laminated irons came about? Both laminated plane irons and saws with backs would be more labor to make but would save valuable steel. Do we see saws with backs being introduced about the same time period as laminated irons? Having an iron back on the saw would allow the use of a thinner saw plates, thus, using less tool steel to make the saw. Same principle as welding a thin steel cutting edge to a softer iron body in a laminated plane iron.

  2. Mike says:

    Hi Chris,

    My personal tradition was in using panel saws to cut tenons. It is the way my grandfather always did them and so did I. I cannot remember ever seeing him use the panel saws on joinery through the thickness of a board as in DTs. We always had small back saws.

    At the LN and WIA shows I have attended, I always pull out one of the Kenyon 26" 5 ppi hand saws and cut the vertical tail and or pin cuts on 3/4" thick boards. My purpose in using the 5 ppi saw is to show that starting a saw is more technique with a given saw than what PPI the saw has.

    As to the development of the variety of saws…this is no different than other tools (or widgets, or…). Over time there is always refinement or specialization of tools, developed for "parts" of tasks rather than using a minimum of tools for a broader range of tasks. This applies to also to chisels or planes, squares or rulers, etc. For instance, I am really happy I have a plow plane isnstead of needing to saw (with any kind of saw) and chisel out rebates.

    To pick on chisels, why the bloody heck are there so many types–and sizes? Certainly one can make nearly any piece of furntiure with a couple square-sided firmers, can’t they? While I mostly use the aforementioned chisels, there are times I still whip out my bevel-edged bench chisels, my paring chisels or my mortise chisels. And I am danged happy they were developed/refined. As an aside, if one looks at the development of bevel-edged chisels, they came relatively later than back saws.

    I look at saw development exactly the same way. While I can use a 26" 5 ppi rip to cut joinery for (thicker board) drawer parts, I am certainly happy I have a smaller back saw with a thinner blade. I am certainly happy for a cross cut carcass and sash saw too. And while my coarsest tenon saw is realatively coarse and longer than my shortest panel saw (a 21 1/2", 8 ppi back saw versus a 12 ppi 16" panel saw) it still has a thinner, stiffened plate that makes sawing tenons easier for me.

    Though I believe in the following quote from Holly as regards saws, it applies to all my woodworking tools:

    It will pay to have a different saw for different kinds of work, both in wear and tear of patience, and in excellence of workmanship. Those who attempt to do all kinds of work with the same tool, will find most of the time that they have not the right kind of tool for any work.

    Take care, Mike

  3. Gary Roberts says:

    Harken back to earlier methods of work and there could be an answer. Carpenters and joiners (aka people building houses and such) often cut tenons as gangs. Same for dovetail work for built in cabinetry. The back saw of a sash or tenon length cut a cleaner cut that hopefully didn’t need cleaning up, or at least not much. The stiff back kept the blade from vibrating and messing up the cut. The weight of the back also made the process easier as the worker was often sawing in a horizontal plane. I think the dovetail saw was a developed for those workers who needed a very find tooth, minimal set saw for delicate work. We happen, at least today, to think of dovetail saws as the thing to use for all dovetail work. Continuing along that line of reasoning, sash saws would only be used for sash work and so on.

    Then again, Reinnel, in the Carpenters, Joiners and Guilders Companion, called the tenon saw a Tendon Saw. I hope that was a printer error and not a mix-up between the surgeon and the joiner?

    Gary

  4. james says:

    MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE

  5. Adam Cherubini says:

    With all due respect to Carl Bilderback, I think the association between early back saws and dovetail joints is misleading and anchronistic. Like your current thoughts about the author of the "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker", historians I know think of issues like this in the context of the period. Many of us, not trained as historians, have been for too long searching for a single smoking gun source to answer our questions. For me, it was Roubo. I had such high hopes. In my mind, Jay Gaynor would be the guy to ask about backsaws. I think an article on this subject reflecting his lifetime of thoughts would be helpful.

    Here’s my take: First, I think it’s wrong to assume the first incarnations of backsaws were designed for dovetails (not that you inferred as much). Second, the open saw is not the earlier subtitute for the back saw (Mike- not that you inferred as much either! I love you both). A framed saw is. Third, when we look at what guys were making, the value of a back saw might become clearer.

    The finest Medieval furniture was constructed shockingly similarly to Jacobean. Trees were felled. Some were sawn, some were split. As our woodworking tradition is Anglo-American with the emphasis on Anglo, it’s essential to recognize England was largely deforested around it’s population centers. They didn’t have big trees. What they were left with were smaller pieces, largely mortised and tenoned together. The resulting joints were fairly modest in size. As oak predominanted, craftsmen had the option of splitting tenon cheeks. What we’re left with is that craftsmen had little need for high precision saw cuts.

    With the advent of the New World, craftsmen had the opportunity to work with wider stock. Wide stock may have been esthetically valued. But it also offered the opportunity to replace frame and panel build-ups with monolithic (time saving) pieces of wood. Contemporaneously, the Dutch were developing rolling and slitting mills which made the production of sheet metal practical for the first time.

    So you have two things converging, wide lumber and the availability of broad sheet metal saws. Keep in mind that in other countries, sheet metal wasn’t available nor was wide lumber and back saws never really took hold (this includes Japan, by the way).

    In use, when one is cutting the shoulder of a wide tenon, one can knick both corners and attempt to connect the kerfs at the middle. This is easier for the far corner than the near one. You can also just go for it and attempt the cut in a single process. When that cut is long, especially when you are starting at the near edge as in a shoulder cut, a stiffened blade really helps.

    The other obvious issue is that saws are typically chosen for the depth of cut. Coarser saws are needed for thicker stock. As the teeth become larger, so too does the stress on each tooth, causing a necessary increase in plate thickness (to resist buclking). Frame and back saws break these rules. A thin saw plate, stabilized either through tension (frame saw) or by a spine allows us to use thinner saws with through thicker stock.

    I’m not sure I made a convincing argument for this. But my point is that back saws were probably developed for cutting broad tenons, not dovetails or other precision cuts. In time, they got optimized for other tasks so some of this is lost on us. I think the fact that all early mentions I’ve seen of backsaws were called "Tenon saws" (or some early 18th c version thereof), suggests to me wide tenons were their original purpose.

    Adam

    P.S. Gaynor thinks there may have been backsaws in Moxon’s time or earlier, though he’s not certain Moxon was describing one in his book. He told me he believes the high priced tenons in th 1708 Plumley account were probably tenons.

  6. Mike says:

    Hi Adam,

    And there were probably back saws of a sort during the Roman period if the one picture in Goodman is so interpreted.

    But frame saws were the norm. And at some point someone rediscovered–or discovered–the idea to combine the efficient cutting of that thin frame saw blade with some sort of stiffener.

    Like Gaynor, I believe back saws were developed in a form recognizable to us moderns before they were documented. We have scant information to judge when, but I too believe the 1600s is a good starting point for further research.

    As to whether the first recognizable as such back saws were for larger joinery or not…I think that could be debatable. At least if the modern back saw flowed from the idea of stiffening a frame saw blade, which was relatively narrow. The main argument for a larger tenon saw being the likely candidate would be what joinery was predominantly used.

    Regardless, they (back saws) have been around a while. Nothing is linear. There are not too many instances of hard and fast breaks from one tool design to another. It is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one.

    Take care, Mike

  7. Adam Cherubini says:

    For this discussion, I just think it’s a mistake to suggest back saws aren’t necessary and use dovetail joints as the example joint. Make a raised panel entry door using 8" stock and get back to me on that. Know what I mean?

    I think it’s helpful to be strict about these sorts of issues. Of course there are other uses for large back saws. But my guess is it was developed for this one mission, a mission for which there is no good substitute and at which this tool excels. If we use it for smaller joints (as we often do, even in test cuts at your or my bench for example at a ww show), the clever among us may leave thinking- "ya know, I can do that with a hack saw" And they are right. And in my opinion that’s where Bilderback is coming from.

    Likewise, we almost universally offer 4/4 surfaced stock to folks to test dovetail saws. I don’t use 4/4 stock for drawer components anymore. Last drawer I made had 3/16" oak sides. The saw that works well for that may not feel the same in 4/4 pine test cuts.

    Merry Christmas brothers,

    Adam

  8. Mike says:

    Yes, the difference in using something like a panel saw in thinnish material that really isn’t appropriate is simply "a side-show act." Someone once told me that line [g]. Sometimes, blog posts can also be a bit of a side-show act…

    That a saw (tool) not made for a particular task can be used to good effect doesn’t mean it should be used.

    For "real" tests at the bench during a show, I use appropriate thickness material–and to show the effect, sometimes too thin or too thick for showing the effect of toothing choices.

    I always refer back to the Holly quote I used in such circumstances.

    Best wishes to you and yours.

  9. ROBERT LINDH says:

    Try Rob Cosmans saws and you will learn why……………

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