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.
The first metallic saws were likely Egyptian, and they resembled a butter knife or a simplified Japanese pull saw. We know that saw technology migrated north to the Romans and Greeks. But most of the saws you see in early frescoes or mosaics are bowsaws – not the Egyptian style.
So I was delighted to see this Roman image that was turned up by contributing editor Suzanne Ellison. It depicts Daedalus and son presenting an artificial cow to Queen Pasiphae. The Roman mosaic is from Zeugma in Turkey. Most of the Zeugma mosaics were done in the 2nd century. The mosaic has the queen, her nurse Trophos, Daedalus and Icarus.
My eyes were drawn immediately to the saw. It looks like an Egyptian saw, but perhaps in iron instead of copper or bronze. It has a wooden handle at one end (in the worker’s hand) and – surprisingly – what looks like another handle at the other end. This second handle looks to be open, much like the open rectangular handles on Roman planes.
If I squint, it looks like the teeth of the saw are filed toward the handle in the workman’s hand. But if I squint again it looks like they go the other way. Or both ways.
Curses. I need to get on a plane to Turkey today to investigate. The resolution on this image isn’t satisfactory.
I can hold my tongue no longer. After a decade of teaching woodworking I have become fed up with schools, books and magazines that promote a jig that reduces the general skill level of the population. It slows you down. And it is one more silly device that gets between you and the craft.
Decent craftsmen don’t need it.
I am talking, of course, about the bench hook.
While promoted as a way to get perfectly square results, this jig is a crutch that will prevent you from ever sawing straight freehand – then learning to stop your cut as soon as the teeth break through the work. This basic sawing skill, taught to apprentices for centuries, is the foundation for a mountain of other skills, such as freehand knifing of parquetry, cutting tenons without scribe lines and full-blind (meaning blindfolded) dovetails.
Oh, and the expense of the jig. Manufacturers will sell all manner of bench hooks to an unsuspecting beginner, wasting his or her money and feathering their own pockets. And beginners don’t buy just one bench hook – they end up buying four or five different varieties and end up never learning to saw.
Will you stand with me by refusing to teach beginners the use of this ridiculous crutch? And will you send letters to the editors of your favorite magazine every time one of these spurious time-wasters appears in their pages?
An Industry That Requires Intelligent Labor and Many Delicate Processes.
How the Large Steel Plates Are Taken And Made to Suit the Uses of Man—Saws of All Sizes and Descriptions.
The complexity of the industries to-day found in this city will, in a very few years, cause it to rank with the greatest manufacturing centers of this country. They are as varied as opportunity and science can suggest or capital establish. In any one of them there is a lesson that few, except those engaged in the work, know anything about, but it cannot be without interest even to those whose fancies or likings tend very little to mechanicism. (more…)
It often occurs that an amateur, with a taste for mechanics, determines to go in for a small set of tools, and after having laid out four or five pounds at an ironmonger’s, finds by-and-by, to his sorrow, that his judgment has been at fault in two respects—first, in not selecting the tools most suitable for his purpose; and next, in selecting tools of inferior quality.
A few practical hints on these matters may therefore be of use to such as are not trained artisans, but who simply seek, in their workroom, the means of recreation from the real occupation of their lives. Yet even among that former class, of which I am proud to acknowledge myself a member, I trust there will be many who will derive both pleasure and profit from the perusal of the following papers. (more…)