This week I’m working on a magazine article on coping saws and I’d like to include a few paragraphs about its ancestors and the development of the saw.
My view is that the modern coping saw is related to the marquetry saws of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. A metal frame that tensions a thin blade has been a part of woodworking for about 500 years. However, if you have any evidence that I’m off base (evidence and not speculation, please, I get enough of the former), I’d like to hear from you.
Here is the rough draft of this short section. And thanks in advance!
— Christopher Schwarz
A Quick History of Coping Saws
While frame saws likely were invented by the Romans, it wasn’t until veneered marquetry was developed in the 16th century that the delicate bow saws required for the intricate work appeared.
In 1676, André Félibien published a drawing of a petite sie de marqueterie that looks all the world like a modern coping saw – you can even see that the teeth point away from the handle.
By the 18th century, these sorts of saws were sometimes called “Morris saws” – perhaps it was a bastardization of the word “Moorish” or relates to the inlaid game board for an old game called “Nine Men’s Morris.” These saws were used for all sorts of intricate cuts, both by cabinetmakers and jewelers. And the saws had blades designed to cut not only wood, but tortoise shell, brass and other semi-precious materials.
In the 19th century, the saws were commonly called “bracket saws,” and during the middle part of the century there developed quite a fretwork craze – you find advertisements for the saws and plans in publications that have nothing to do with woodwork, such as The Pacific Tourist and Beautiful Homes magazines.
Soon the saws spread to the schools, where 19th-century craft-based schools using the Sloyd system taught handwork that was based around using a knife, a “frame compass saw” and other simple tools. By the early 20th century, the saw had acquired its modern name, “coping saw,” as carpenters found the tool handy for coping inside miters when cutting moulding.
Historical purists might not agree that the coping saw is a descendant of the early marquetry saw, but from a user’s perspective these saws are functional equivalents: a metal frame that tensions a thin blade that is used for curved and intricate cuts.