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