Van Gogh’s Carpenters and Handsaw Quiver Varieties

Sketches by Van Gogh, 1881-1882.

Sketches by Van Gogh, 1881-1882.

This summer I bought a new book about Vincent Van Gogh and came across a couple of his sketches of carpenters. Like most artists, when Van Gogh wasn’t painting he was sketching and produced  many studies of working people. His carpenters could be journeymen on an obligatory Dutch version of wandergesellen or they may be itinerant craftsmen.

I sent the sketches to Chris and his reply was, “I WANT TO KNOW HOW THAT SAW BACKBACK WORKS.” Thinking there was some static on the email line I figured he meant BACKPACK, checked the Van Gogh sketches again and started searching…and searching. I tried several variations of ‘saw backpacks’, ‘saw back racks’ then threw ‘hand’ in front of ‘saw’ and still found nothing.

Getting creative, and thinking about archery, my next try was ‘handsaw quiver’ and then the pain started. I had found the 34 pages of “Handsaw Quiver Varieties and Finite W-Algebras” by Hiraku Nakajima. I read Hiraku’s paper (because it was there), and thanks to having some semi-advanced mathematics under my belt, I only fainted twice. I understood all the in-between words (and, this, multiple, product, vector) and learned a new term, ‘shifted Yanigan’, which may become a new insult the next time someone cuts me off in traffic.

Taking a closer look at Van Gogh’s carpenters and their saws you can see the one on the right has some type of leather strap or belt slung over his shoulder and his saw is attached to the front. He steadies the saw with one hand. The carpenter to the left also has a leather strap over his shoulder. Is it the handle to the bag he carries to the front or the strap to which his saw is attached? If the saw were attached to a leather strap it should hang at an angle, not straight. Has he fashioned a better means of carrying his saw via some type of rack on his back?

Although I didn’t find any 19th century (or earlier) handsaw backpacks or back racks it doesn’t mean they weren’t made and used by individual craftsmen. Who better to design a better method of carrying tools? Maybe there were even some handsaw quivers of the non-W-algebraic kind.

Suzanne Ellison

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9 Responses to Van Gogh’s Carpenters and Handsaw Quiver Varieties

  1. henrik1224 says:


    At least for the picture on the left: I think he is carrying his tools in what, at least in German, is called the Bundgeschirr. That is, most of his tools are brought along with him: Framing chisels, framing square, mallet, hammer and hand (side) axe.

    The dictum webshop even sells such a collection of tools and the cloth to wrap them in today:

    It seems from the picture that the saw has simply been put over the handle end of his axe or hammer. I cannot see clearly whether he is holding it by a leather strap or a short stick – as in a hobo “bindle” (notice the etymological connection with the “bund/bündle – something bound together – and with the German bundaxt – the axe for making framing joinery. In Danish half-timbered houses are known as bindingsværk – “framing tied together”.)

    As for the picture on the right: I think this is about the same. You can see that the right hand thumb is stuck into at loop in the strap. As improbable as it sounds, it helps to steady the load when you only have it on one shoulder: By raising the arm, it minimizes the tendency for the sack to roll off the shoulder. Probably the saw is just hung over the strap as well.
    In comparison, consider how mules or cowboy horses are packed.

    Given that the carpenters often had to carry their belongings considerable distances on foot, these were usually both simple, light and multipurpose. Somehow a cloth square seems more right than a fancy saw-holder contraption.

    Best regards
    Henrik, Copenhagen


  2. mike piper says:

    During the 18th & 19th centuries most of the world’s military organizations employed “pioneers” to clear the paths for advancing brigades of rank & file troops. They were part of the corps of “sappers”, or military engineers, that also constructed siege trenches and dug tunnels. Pioneers wielded axes, fascines, and saws to clear brush and timber. I have seen contemporary drawings for such a saw quiver in the context of the military “pioneer”. In fact, I have seen such an implement in the flesh at historical reenactment events.



  3. Josh says:

    This post is a great reminder of why I check this blog all of the time! Awesome.


  4. Mike Siemsen says:

    I would have expected a continental type frame saw. I wonder when the switch was made?


    • Hey Mike,

      The Dutch and English (and North Americans) used this type of saw. The rest of the continent used frame saws.

      Here’s an image of an early Dutch one:

      Some writers blame the Dutch for the nib because they were prone to filing the toe in a decorative way.



  5. wrightes says:

    Searching for the term “saw scabbard” might be more fruitful. I’ve seen both modern and antique examples that go by that name… Usually in the context of forestry and arboriculture.


  6. John Sisler says:

    there is a good article on modern journeyman carpenters going Wandergesellen : It’s interesting to see what these guys go through while following a traditional path,in the modern world, to becoming masters at their trade…


  7. tomdengler says:

    To me, and I will be stating the obvious here, these are drawings of the same guy carrying a crosscut and rip saw in scabbards connected by a leather strap slung over his shoulder as someone would carry horse saddlebags over your shoulder.


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