Benjamin Seaton’s Saws

Englishman Benjamin Seaton is famous in woodworking circles today because he never took hammer in hand to follow his father into the cabinetmaking profession.

Because he never built furniture for a living, thousands of hand-tool enthusiasts have a clearer picture of how to do it themselves.

And because he never much used a handsaw or chisel, I now have a set of late 18th-century-style saws hanging above my workbench that I use all the time.

Seaton was born in 1775, the first son of Joesph Seaton, a cabinetmaker and Baptist minister. When Benjamin was 21, his father bought him a tremendous gift 10 days before Christmas: a set of about 200 woodworking tools. Benjamin built a nice chest for the tools, made a list of its contents and then for some unknown reason never put them to use.

During the rest of his life, Benjamin called himself a cabinetmaker, upholsterer, auctioneer and undertaker, but the historical record suggests he didn’t do much woodworking. He died in 1834, perhaps of typhus, and his chest and tools survive to this day in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, Kent. The chest and tools are a rare glimpse at what a period woodworker needed to build furniture.

Britain’s Tool and Trades History Society published a fantastic book about the chest, “The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton,” and when I first read that book about 10 years ago, I was inspired to build a version of his chest for myself. And some day I plan to build an even closer copy of the chest.

But the part of the book I became obsessed with was its section on his saws. The six handsaws and backsaws in Seaton’s chest were made by John Kenyon of Sheffield and don’t look like the saws I grew up with. The Kenyon saws were both elegant and strange to my eye. The tenon saw was 19″ long – 7″ longer than my tenon saw at the time. And there was a sash saw, a type of saw I’d never heard of.