If I owned only one set of woodworking books, it would be the four texts edited by Charles Hayward that we titled “The Woodworker: The Charles Hayward Years Vols. I-IV.” These four books cover everything – and I mean everything – that you need to get started in woodworking and to grow as a craftsman.
I’ve been woodworking for nearly 30 years, and when I have question about how to do a certain operation, these books are where I turn.
Collecting this information into the four volumes was an epic tale in itself. The four books are made up of the best magazine articles on handwork from The Woodworker, a British woodworking magazine that Charles Hayward largely wrote himself. We had to comb through 30 years of monthly magazines and sort out the best articles. Organize them. Scan images and retype the articles and then assemble them into these huge volumes.
It was worth it, if only for me to own these four incredibly useful books (there’s also a fifth book of Hayward’s inspirational essays we added later). Here is a small taste of the clarity Hayward brought to his writing from “The Woodworker: The Charles Hayward Years,” Vol. I, Tools.
– Christopher Schwarz
Of all the tools in the kit the saw is probably the most difficult to control, and it is certainly the most easily damaged by abuse. Remember that, apart from proper handling, a saw should not be given work for which it is unsuitable.
Since the general modern practice is to buy prepared timber ready cut to size the need for many saws has passed. Still, it is necessary to be prepared to do a certain amount of cutting up, and a cross-cut handsaw is advisable.
Handsaws. If you propose to have one saw only, the panel saw is probably the best investment. If you can have two (and it is better) choose a panel saw and a larger cross-cut saw. The latter will do for the general cutting up of larger timber—you can use it for ripping with the grain as well as crosscutting. It is rather slower at this than the ripsaw, but most men are agreed that the latter is an unnecessary expense nowadays.
For the cross-cut select a saw of about 26 ins. length, with a tooth size of 8 or 9 points to the inch. It will cut quite fast enough for the limited amount of cutting out you need to do, yet it is not so coarse as to tear out the grain. Fig. 2, A, shows the overhand method being used to rip out a set of stiles. Cabinet makers usually prefer this as it is less back-aching than bending over trestles.
The panel saw comes in for a good many jobs. Its fine teeth make it far less liable to splinter out the grain, a feature specially valuable when sawing across the grain of brittle hardwoods. For the same reason it is invaluable for thin wood which would probably split if a coarse toothed saw were used.
Plywood again can be sawn with it without danger of the layers being forced apart. Another use is that of sawing the larger tenons—in fact, it can be used for any of the work for which the tenon saw would be too light. A 20 in. length with a teeth of 12 points to the inch is a good all-round size.
Back Saws. These are required for the general bench work of cutting smaller pieces of wood to size and sawing joints. The blade is of a finer gauge than a handsaw and the teeth are smaller so that it makes a much finer cut. It is kept stiff by the iron or brass back. You need two; a tenon saw and a dovetail saw. The former is used for all the larger bench work sawing. A length of 14 ins. is recommended and a tooth size of about 14 points to the inch. Lighter work is done with the dovetail saw; dovetails, small mitres, in fact, any job requiring a fine cut. A small saw—say, 8 in.—with extra fine teeth is recommended. It might have 20-22 points to the inch. This will give it an extremely fine cut, making it ideal for small joints, but take care that it is not abused by giving it work which is too heavy.
Bow and Padsaws. These are needed for cutting shapes, and of the two the bowsaw is infinitely the better tool. There are, however, one or two jobs for which it cannot be used, and it is for these that the pad or keyhole saw is needed. First the bow saw. The exact size does not matter a great deal; a blade length of 12 ins. is a good average size. Its advantage is that, since it is kept taut by the tension of the cord at the top which is twisted tourniquet fashion, the blade can be narrow, this enabling it to negotiate quick curves. Furthermore there is no danger of its becoming buckled by the pressure put upon it. It can be used for internal cuts because the rivets holding the blade can be withdrawn, enabling the blade to be passed through a hole.
The only restriction is that it cannot be used internally at a distance from the edge greater than that between the blade and the centre bar. For this work the keyhole saw is necessary. This has necessarily to have a somewhat coarse blade because it has nothing beyond its own stiffness to keep it straight. The rule in using it is to give the blade the minimum projection consistent with a reasonable stroke. It helps to avoid buckling. A typical everyday use is that of sawing the lower part of a keyhole after boring the hole at the top. Here it would not be worth the bother of threading in the bow saw for two short cuts.
It is not advisable for the reader to sharpen his own saws—he will probable do more harm than good unless he has had some experience. A common practice is for cabinet makers to sharpen their own saws twice and then to send them away every time after that. The point is that if a saw gets into bad condition-uneven teeth and so on-the sharpener charges more to put it right, so that it is not an economy in the long run to do it oneself. This applies specially to the saws with small teeth.
14 thoughts on “Saws: A Fundamental Furniture Maker’s Tool”
It’s fascinating to see just how much has changed since the above was written. Wood pre-dimensioned to the appropriate size just isn’t a thing here. Just the occasional piece of egregiously marked-up 19mm S4S material, and rough sawn boards, usually only available 26 or 52 mm thick (4/4 and 8/4 equivalent), sometimes more. You really can’t live without a decent rip-saw (or a bandsaw) if you want to make things that aren’t clunky 3/4″ all-around. Also, sending saws off for sharpening might still have been a thing in the 1930s-1950s, but good luck finding someone who a) can do it properly, b) won’t charge an arm and a leg for it today. So your best bet is too learn how to do it yourself, which isn’t too hard to learn (though the challenge of finding saw files that aren’t thrash doesn’t help), but definitely underlines how much more of a generalist today’s woodworker has to be compared to 100 years ago, even if the tools and materials have not fundamentally changed.
Should the next to last sentence be “the sharpener charges no more”? That would seem to make more sense in context. (Sorry, I proofread reflexively.)
The sentence is correct I believe. Hayward is saying if you sharpen your own saws, you’ll muck them up. And the sharpener will charge you more to set them right because of your ham-handedness.
…. Ah. Then I’m not following the preceding comment about common practice being to do the first two sharpenings yourself, unless it’s implicitly to make sure the basic shape of the teeth is set to your spec rather than the manufacturer’s. It seems more useful to me to have a pro do the first few sharpenings so you learn what the tool is capable of and set that as your standard for judging when it needs attention…?
(Asking, not challenging. I’m an ignoramus in this area trying to become less so.)
Paul Sellers, who admittedly is a strong believer in hand work generally, seems to believe that basic saw sharpening isn’t significantly, if at all, more difficult than other sharpening if one has the right tools and knowledge. Admittedly he “grew up” as a professional woodworker in a time when everyone in the shop was expected to maintain the tools, so his perception of how hard it is to learn may be skewed… but the principles as he presents them don’t seem overly complex. On the other hand I have some locksmithing and letterpress experience, so the idea of hand work to thousandth of an inch tolerance isn’t foreign to me.
Related: Are professional sharpening services still widely enough available/affordable? I’m tempted to send a few old saws out for a proper reset (and re-set), while others I’m willing to learn on.
It’s worth quoting the entire passage: “A common practice is for cabinet makers to sharpen their own saws twice and then to send them away every time after that. The point is that if a saw gets into bad condition-uneven teeth and so on-the sharpener charges more to put it right, so that it is not an economy in the long run to do it oneself. This applies specially to the saws with small teeth.”
If you’ve read enough Hayward (and I’ve read almost everything), he’s saying it is common for people to try to sharpen their saws twice. Then they realize how they mucked it up. So then they send it out to the sharpener. And it costs more because they really boogered up the teeth.
FYI, Hayward was also an apprenticed professional.
Sadly, saw sharpening has become like all sharpening arguments – circular and fruitless. I can say historically, that many teams of carpenters had one person who sharpened everyone’s saws (Tom Law was one of these). And even Joseph Moxon relates how professionals didn’t sharpen their own saws in the 1600s.
So if you sharpen your own saws, great! But I don’t like to see the implication that people who don’t are somehow lesser woodworkers. There’s too much historical evidence to the contrary.
What do I do? I sharpen my big saws. And I have the little filing guide from Lee Valley. I sharpen my tenon saw – no guide needed. But my dovetail saw goes back to Lie-Nielsen (they charge a nominal fee to refile the saw). And my carcase saw goes to Matt Cianci (http://www.thesawwright.com/).
Sharpening a good but slightly dull tool, whether it’s a chisel, plane, or saw, isn’t too hard. You aren’t removing much metal. It’s hard to much up — not much anyway. But each mucking-up compounds the previous, and knowing what you are doing really makes a difference. Hence the need to bring it to a professional.
Back in Hayward’s Heyday, professional saw sharpeners were common enough. Carpenters did their own. But by the 1970s and 1980s they were gone. Carpenters used power tools. Saw sharpening knowledge had largely disappeared. Tom Law and one other guy were just about it. Today there are more people doing it, and lots have relearned to do it on their own.
I think not. As I read it, the phrase in question leaves implicit a “than” qualifier, like so: “The point is that if a saw gets into bad condition–uneven teeth and so on–the sharpener charges more to put it right [than for a saw that just needs sharpening]” (my addition in square brackets).
Very interesting. I had not known the difference between panel saws and large cross-cut saws. Also, brushing off the need for a rip saw is surprising. Getting my first rip saw (likely encouraged by Roy Underhill’s seemingly genuine love of the activity) was a revelation for me. Ripping did go from being extremely laborious to, well, only as laborious as crosscutting.
Well, well, well…after our discussion on Trinidadian (and other regions) rip-sawing, here’s an illustration in Hayward showing how it’s done. I’m gonna have to save my nickels and dimes and get the whole set of Hayward.
Our neighbor in Delmenhorst, a little town west of Bremen, explained that a potential apprentice was given a mill file, a micrometer, a piece of scrap metal, and a bench vise. The master would say, “Make a 26.3 mm cube.” When it was completely correct, the dimensions were reduced. After several iterations, the master would throw the tiny block away and say, “You’re ready to start learning.”
When I first got serious about hand tools, I went to the Habitat for Humanity Restore and picked up several rusty back saws for $2 to $3 each. Then I bought some files and a saw set from Amazon, got the Veritas filing jig, and went to work. Last year, I took a saw-making class from Brian at Bearcat, and now I make my own back saws. Someday, I even hope to be good at it.
Luckily, where I live I. NorCal, we still have saw sharpers plying their trade. One saw sharpening service is not too far, and sharpens everything from band saws, circular power saw blades, and hand saws (the latter done by hand), and any hand tool with an edge.
I’m practically swooning over the essays in Honest Labour – Volume 5. It’s like having a wise and kind mentor teaching life lessons (more philosophy than specific techniques). My great grandfather would have been in London at this time, working in the restoration trade. Hayward conveys such vivid details of a bygone era which are amazingly relevant today. I’ve been colorizing the illustrations with colored pencil.
Question: Are the important Historical Events at the beginning of each chapter from Hayward or Lost Art Press? I love how they put his writing in context, but wonder whether he would have been aware of all the events (like knowing in 1939 that Batman would be a big thing).
The historical timelines are our addition
Hello, general question about this (Hayward) series… I’d like a comprehensive catalog of tools, techniques, etc. And your books are amazing – but I’m worried I’ll be given outdated information when referencing this series. Just want to avoid spending extra time/money doing something that has been appropriately replaced by some modern material/tool. Any techniques, tools, or info that you ignore in this series? I want the books – but also want to avoid doing some archaic action like boiling goat urine.
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