Joseph Moxon on Saws


The following is excerpted from “The Art of Joinery,” by Joseph Moxon. It includes lightly edited text of Moxon’s landmark work on joinery, as well as commentary on every one of Moxon’s sections on tools and techniques by Christopher Schwarz.

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S. 26. The use of the saw in general.
In my former Exercises, I did not teach you how to choose the tools a smith was to use because it is a smith’s office to make them. And because in those Exercises I [discussed] making the iron work and steel work in general and the making excellently of some tools in particular, which might serve as a general notion for the knowledge of all smith’s workmanship, especially to those who should concern themselves with smithing. But to those who shall concern themselves with joinery, and not with smithing, it will be necessary that I teach them how to choose their tools that are made by smiths, that they may use them with more ease and delight, and make both quicker and nearer work with them.

Moxon’s saw wrest. This old-school tool is designed to set a set of teeth with one twist of the wrist.

All sorts of saws for joiners’ use are to be sold in most ironmongers’ shops, but especially in Foster Lane, London. Choose those that are made of steel {for some are made of iron} for steel of itself is harder and stronger than iron. You may know the steel saws from iron saws thus: The steel saws are generally ground bright and smooth and are {the thickness of the blade considered} stronger than iron saws. But the iron saws are only hammer hardened, and therefore if they could be so hard, yet they cannot be so smooth, as if the irregularities of the hammer were well taken off with the grindstone. See it be free from flaws and very well hammered and smoothly ground {that is, evenly ground}. You may know if it be well hammered by the stiff bending of it; and if it be well ground {that is, evenly ground} it will not bend in one part of it more than in another. For if it do[es], it is a sign that [the] part where it bends most is either too much ground away or too thin[ly] forged in that place. But if it bend into a regular bow all the way and be stiff, the blade is good. It cannot be too stiff because they are but hammer hardened and therefore often bow when they fall under unskillful hands, but [they] never break unless they have been often bowed in that place.

The edge with the teeth is always thicker than the back because the back follows the edge. And if the edge should not make a pretty wide [enough] kerf, [and even] if the back [of the saw] does not strike [jam] in the kerf, yet a little irregular bearing or twisting of the hand awry might stop [the blade and] bow the saw. And {as I said before} with often [frequent] bowing it will break at last.

When workmen light of [find] a good blade, they don’t mind whether the teeth are sharp or deep or set well. For to make them so is a task they take to themselves, and thus they perform it. They wedge the blade of the saw hard into a whetting block, marked P in plate 4. With the handle towards their left hand and the end of the saw to the right, then with a three-square [triangular] file they begin at the left hand end, leaning harder upon the side of the file on the right hand than on that side to the left hand so that they file the upper side of the tooth of the saw aslope towards the right hand, and the underside of the tooth a little aslope towards the left, or almost downright. Having filed one tooth thus, all the rest must be so filed. Then with the saw wrest, marked O, in plate 4, they set the teeth of the saw. That is, they put one of the notches marked a a a of the wrest between the first two teeth on the blade of the saw and then turn the handle horizontally a little towards the end of the saw. That at once turns the first tooth somewhat towards you and the second tooth from you. Then skipping two teeth, they again put one of the notches of the wrest between the third and fourth teeth on the blade of the saw, and then {as before} turn the handle a little towards the end of the saw, and that turns the third tooth somewhat towards you and the fourth somewhat from you. Thus you must skip two teeth at a time and turn the wrest until all the teeth of the saw are set. This setting of the teeth of the saw {as workmen call it} is to make the kerf wide enough for the back to follow the edge. And [each tooth] is set ranker for soft, coarse, cheap stuff, than for hard, fine, and costly stuff. For the ranker the tooth is set, the more stuff is wasted in the kerf. And besides, if the stuff be hard it will require greater labor to tear away a great deal of hard stuff than it will do to tear away but a little of the same stuff.

The pit saw is set so rank for coarse stuff as to make a kerf of almost a quarter of an inch; but for fine and costly stuff they set it finer to save stuff. The whip saw is set somewhat finer than the pit saw. The handsaw and the compass saw [are set] finer than the whip saw. But the tenon saw, frame saw and the bow saw {and the like} are set fine, and [they] have their teeth but very little turned over the sides of their blades so that a kerf made by them is seldom above half a half quarter of an inch [1/16″].

The reason why the teeth are filed to an angle pointing towards the end [toe] of the saw and not towards the handle of the saw or directly straight between the handle and end of the saw is because the saw is designed to cut only in its progress forwards. Man [has] in that activity more strength to rid {in that forward direction} and command of his hands to guide his work than he can have in drawing back his saw. And therefore when he draws back his saw the workman bears it lightly off the un-sawn stuff, which is an ease to his labor, and [this] enables him the longer to continue his several progressions of the saw.

Master workmen, when they direct any of their underlings to saw such a piece of stuff have several phrases for the sawing of it. They seldom say, “Saw that piece of stuff.” But instead, “Draw the saw through it,” “Give that piece of stuff a kerf,” “Lay a kerf in that piece of stuff,” and sometimes {but most unproperly}, “Cut or slit that piece of stuff.” For the saw cannot properly be said to cut or slit the stuff; but it rather breaks or tears away such parts of the stuff from the whole as the points of the teeth prick into. And these parts it so tears away are proportion[ate] to the fineness or rankness of the setting of the teeth.

The excellent [way] of sawing is to keep the kerf exactly in the line marked out to be sawn without wriggling on either or both sides – and straight through the stuff, as workmen call it. That is, in a geometrical term, perpendicular through the upper and underside, if your work requires it, as most work does. But if your work be to be sawn upon is a bevel, as some work sometimes is, then you are to observe that bevel all the length of the stuff.

Moxon’s entry on saws is interesting because it doesn’t match up well with the line drawings in the plates, which clearly show two European-style frame saws; and because he makes very specific recommendations about what saws to buy, even the name of the street in London.

For the history buff, this long entry suggests that workmen would typically buy their saws (rather than make them) and that they were deeply involved in the sharpening and tuning of them. And – most interestingly – the blades were tapered in their thickness. Latter-day woodworkers tend to send out their saws for sharpening. Perhaps our saws are harder and require less filing. Perhaps we saw less. Perhaps we’re too lazy to learn saw filing. Perhaps all are a bit true.

The other “hand-saw.” Randle Holme’s 1688 work calls the saw above a “hand-saw or a board-saw.”

If you want to buy a saw, Moxon gives you some advice about how to determine junk from a jewel: bend it. If it folds or bends unevenly, it’s junk. If it bends evenly and springs back, buy it. Where the saw bends is the weak point of the saw, where it’s too soft or too thin, and that’s where it will fail when your stroke goes a bit awry.

Today, there’s little to consider about the steel when picking a saw. The steel is universally good, and most of the modern manufacturers even get it from the same mills. The bigger concerns today are how the tool feels in your hand and how well the saw is set up initially. Because most home woodworkers work alone and teach themselves the craft, it’s uncommon to teach yourself to file a saw before you learn to saw.

For his part, Moxon gives you some perfunctory advice for filing and then setting a saw, though nothing that is practically useful for today’s woodworker – though the description of using a saw wrest for setting the teeth is fun to read. Today many woodworkers use an anvil-like setting tool that plunges and bends each tooth to the precise amount of set. Some professional saw sharpeners use a small hammer to tap the teeth in place.
In addition to the advice on saw filing and setting, we get to learn some lingo. In other words: “saw” is not a verb. It’s a noun.

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