A History of Coping Saws in Five Paragraphs

The marquetry saw from 1676.

The marquetry saw from 1676.

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.

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to A History of Coping Saws in Five Paragraphs

  1. Dave Jeske says:

    Thanks for the summary Chris. When was the “coping” saw first used to remove the waste from cutting dovetails. Do you have any early references to this technique?

  2. amvolk says:

    I have no background, but after traveling in India and seeing the artisans working in the shops, I was wondering if Oriental fretwork (especially South Asian) predates the European work?

  3. My thinking is that both saws may have been preceded by the jewelers or fret saw. But really, the saw is a blade for a particular purpose and is mounted in a frame for tension and handling. So any saw could have been made for a need with little inventiveness needed. The coping saw evolved to cope moldings and has found usefulness for other purposes much as a jewelers saw. Blades for either have found utility in motor or foot powered scroll saws. And so on it goes.

  4. toolnut says:

    Sounds like a job for Mr. Burks.

  5. bsrlee says:

    You do realise that the Romans had marquetry inlays (or covered the whole top of tables according to some ancient sources) on their furniture, and that there is at least one stool with an inlaid star shaped design of differing woods on the top surviving from Herculaneum? I’m not so sure about the saws that may have been used, I suspect that any metal framed saws would have been classified as ‘surgical’ saws if excavated, along with any small bladed knives (scalpels).

  6. John Vernier says:

    Of course metal frame saws go way back – I don’t know of Roman survivors but there is one in the Mastermyr chest (c.11th century), and Jost Amman’s 1568 Standebuch (book of trades) shows one being used by a comb-maker. The real innovation of the fret saw or jeweler’s saw is the very thin blade which requires superior steel quality and also a convenient way to attach and tension the blade, because you know they are going to break or dull fast (the Mastermyr hacksaw blade is just riveted to its frame). I don’t know of an example earlier than Felibien. I am not certain when very thin blades became commercially available, but I know jewelers’ saws aren’t much discussed even in early 20th-century books. I heard Patrick Edwards talk about learning to cut and set his own marquetry blades at the Ecole Boulle.

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