Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Visit to Wenzloff & Sons Sawmakers

It’s funny how the most exquisite things in life come from the simplest surroundings.

It’s Thursday night in a small scratch of a town called Cornelius about 40 miles out from Portland, Ore. We pull into a small industrial park that’s right on the railroad tracks. It’s the kind of place where at least one of the tenants customizes cars (a fact that is confirmed later in the evening with a primordial muffler blast).

Mike Wenzloff, sawmaker, has worked that entire day building saws, but he has cheerfully agreed to give me and some woodworking students an evening tour of his new sawmaking facility. He’s also been smoking a mess of barbecue for us.

Wenzloff leads us through a couple small rooms at the front of his unit that are stuffed with boxes. The first one is filled with boxes of vintage tools. The second one is stacked with cardboard boxes for his saws. The third room is the production floor.

I’ve seen a lot of factories filled with robots, CNC lathes and machines that can make 1,000 nails a minute. But that didn’t prepare me for the 19th-century sight behind door No. 3. For the operation that is Wenzloff & Sons uses basic equipment found in home workshops, small vintage saw-making machines and a few custom-built motorized jigs to turn out work of immense utility and beauty.

The brass backs are slotted on a small heavily modified machine you could find at Harbor Freight. The wood is cut and milled on Jet machines intended for a small hobby shop. And the steel is processed using an astonishing amount of handwork , from the hand-cranked retoother to the sanding bench, where each handsaw gets an hour of sanding to remove the marks left by the taper-grinding process.

Scattered around these small machines are the bits and pieces that make up a Wenzloff & Sons saw. There’s a box of beech handles for panel saws. A pile of folded brass backs for immense 18th-century-style tenon saws. A wall of expensive and wildly figured boards propped up like suspects in a line-up against the 1970s-looking paneling in the garage bay.

And then there’s Wenzloff and two of his three sons, who are furiously trying to beat down a waiting list that is more than 4,000 saws long. They refuse to raise their prices. They refuse to cut corners. And Wenzloff is surprisingly open about that fact that he is behind and how much he hates that fact.

He walks us through the factory and explains how everything is done. No secrets (except for the taper-grinding machine in his shed by his house). He even gives a quick saw-filing demonstration to one of the students who is interested in learning it.

Making a saw begins with Swedish steel that is toothed and filed on vintage Foley equipment, which is no longer made. The teeth are then hand-set and hand-filed.

If the saw has a brass back it is either folded over for the old-school 18th-century saws or it’s slotted on a machine with a plywood jig that Wenzloff built himself. The backs are then chamfered on a small attachment to a Wilton sanding station and then sanded smooth on a belt sander.

The handles are cut to shape on a band saw, shaped using router bits and then rasped and sanded by hand. The brass nuts and bolts that hold everything together are added after all the holes have been pierced with a drill press. Then the handles are sanded and finished and the whole package is shipped out the door.

Despite the immense backlog of orders, Wenzloff and his sons seem relaxed, even jovial as they show us around their facility. Maybe they’re just good-natured folks. Or maybe they know that they are doing excellent work that just cannot be rushed.

Wenzloff poses for some photos from the students, shakes everyone’s hand and packs us up for our drive back to Portland under the most astonishing moon I’ve seen in a decade. Wenzloff waves good-bye and then heads back into his shop to clean up and prepare for another day of saw-making.

Christopher Schwarz, with all photos by Narayan Nayar

8 thoughts on “A Visit to Wenzloff & Sons Sawmakers

  1. Pat

    It’s great to see someone making saws again that actually work right out of the box. Back in the day I used to be a saw sharpener and woodworkers of all kind would bring me their brand new saws (unused) to make them better. Used some of that same Foley equipment. Most of the big name saw manufacturers should be ashamed of the products they are dumping on the market. The Wenzloffs should be proud to do it right.

  2. Paul Chapman

    Nice report, Chris, and nice to see the photographs of Mike and his sons. Must have been a great visit to see where those beautiful saws are produced. Every time I look at mine I marvel at how good they are.

    Paul Chapman

  3. Steve C

    Great to see Mike and his sons getting the recognition they deserve. A finer saw you couldn’t wish for. Given the quality of their work, the wait for a Wenzloff & Sons saw is easily understood. Congrats to Mike and his sons, and a half-hearted thanks to Chris for making the waiting list even longer!!! (lol)

  4. Old Baleine

    Chris,

    Thanks for the report and for the photos. That group photo of Mike and his two sons is really great. The look in their eyes says a lot.

    Mike and Sons,

    Thank you so much for your dedication to craft. Your saws are tools of the highest order as well as works of art. Whenever friends drop by my tiny shop, they go straight to your saws (I’m a pig: I have seven).

    "Where do you get saws like these?"

    Even non-woodworkers want to hold your saws and try them out. Tools like yours appeal to the homo habilis ancestry buried deep in our psyche. Eye. Hand. Build. You guys are doing great work, and there are many many of us out here who are so very grateful for your skill and dedication. I hope the rewards of your craft keep the spark of inspiration in your heart and the twinkle in your eye. It’s such a pleasure to finally see the men behind Wenzloff & Sons.

  5. SWANZ

    It’s great to know some people are still making a living in America by crafting quality tools. Thanks for sharing the tour.

  6. Mike

    Everyone is simply too kind.

    Thank you for pointing me to the blog, Chris. It was an incredible time for us.

    John, here’s a rather poor picture of the Moulson handle. I’ll see about taking better ones, perhaps tomorrow. It’s a lovely saw. Long my favorite small joinery saw

    http://wenzloffandsons.com/saws/handles/moulson_0001.jpg

    I do get some free time, now and again. At least, when the boys aren’t driving me too hard…

    Take care, Mike

  7. John

    Just some free association from me. I’m a beneficiary of Wenzloff’s craft, having received a dovetail saw from Lee Valley.

    I haven’t got to do any serious work with it yet, as I’m finishing up my bench right now. Then it’s on to a mad stint of kitchen drawer making, as a way to progress from relative beginner to reasonably competent. One thing about it besides the gorgeous Bubinga handle is that the hard lines where the fingers go are softer (nearly invisible) than appear in any of the photographs, giving it a particularly delicate look and feel. That suits me fine, and the saw is a joy just to hold.

    It certainly would be enlightening to see a gallery of the antique saws in Mike Wenzloff’s collection, particularly of the ones that have influenced his own saws (Hint: Moulson model for the saw I have). But at the same time, it would be a shame to take any of these saw makers attention away from their work.

  8. John Cashman

    This article highlights part of what makes woodworking so appealing — the people. I’ve followed Mike’s posts on the old tools list for a long while, and he seems like the kind of guy I’d enjoy hanging out with. It’s wonderful he can do work he seems to love, and spend that time with his family as well.

    I wish I was there for the tour.

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