Chris Schwarz's Blog

Morris Saws and Coping Saws

I never knew how lame my cordless Skil drill was until I used a Makita. With a clutch. And the distinct absence of flames. So these last few weeks I’ve become frustrated and obsessed (frusessed?) with my coping saws , their blades just don’t hold their angle.

Luckily, there are already a lot of patented mechanisms out there (patents that have long expired, by the way), plus lots of antique examples of coping saws that have blades that really lock tight.

This week I got my hands on one of the Stanley FatMax coping saws that has a pretty good blade-locking mechanism. You’d think this new saw would calm my locking lust, but it has only inflamed it. That’s because I’ve been using the FatMax quite a bit to clear dovetail waste and it works brilliantly.

After a couple sets of dovetails I found that I could saw even closer to the baseline because:

1. I wasn’t afraid of the blade twisting and me sawing off line.

2. I knew the exact angle of the blade (45Ã?°) and as I got used to that angle I knew exactly how to twist the saw to skim the baseline. In other words, I’m hooked.

So why am I blogging about this today? While I think the FatMax is great (skip three lattes and buy one), I think the form could be improved a bit. Here’s what I would do:

1. Make the locking mechanism tighter , perhaps by copying the early 20th-century Simonds coping saw or one of the other expired patents out there.

2. Improve the machining on the blade connectors that grab the pin-end blades. Have you seen the connectors on the Gramercy bowsaw? They’re excellent. I’d like something like that.

3. Please give me a wooden handle. The FatMax handle is surprisingly comfortable, but industrial-looking squishy handles just don’t do it for me.

What would they look like? Well thanks to Joel Moskowitz at Tools for Working Wood, I fell for some 18th-century forms shown in “A Catalogue of Tools for Watch and Clock Makers by John Wyke of Liverpool” (1758-1770). This catalog, reprinted by the Winterthur Museum, contains a lot of tools used by cabinetmakers to build the cases.

Plates 27 and 28 have what are called “Morris Saw Frames.” These frame saws come in a variety of sizes (some are coping saw sized) and have elegant handles. And the cool saws for jewelers on plate 27 have a nice ornamental scroll at the midpoint of the frame (which seems to serve no purpose, according to the book , another “nib”).

The origin of the word “Morris” is in doubt, according to the modern text accompanying the catalog. The term might be a bastardization of “Moorish.” Or it might be related to a game from the Middle Ages known as “Nine Men’s Morris,” which used a marquetry gaming board.

The Morris saws for cabinetmakers in plate 28 look a lot like modern coping saws or fretsaws , you’d only need to make the handles plastic and change the blade-holding mechanism to accept pin-ended blades.

What does all this prove? That a small metal frame saw sure was handy in the 18th century and still is today.

If any of you out there have old coping saws with mechanisms that lock the blade tight, I’d sure appreciate a photo. Perhaps the chatter will inspire manufacturers to improve the locking mechanism.

As to the handle, well, I’m sure that most of us can handle that. Take a look at the coping saw handle turned by reader John Borgwardt of Wisconsin, who was inspired by the handle on the marquetry saw shown in Andre Roubo.

– Christopher Schwarz

14 thoughts on “Morris Saws and Coping Saws

  1. Ken

    Frank – Rob Cosman uses a fret saw (also called a jeweler’s saw) with an adjustable frame. These saws use blades somewhat smaller (and more fragile) than coping saw blades. He sells this saw on his web site, but similar saws are widely available. I have used both fret and coping saws, but tend to use the fret saw only for very small dovetails since the blades tend to break with annoying frequency.

    Ken

  2. me.yahoo.com/a/iW1ZUdFypdN6QP5sQc6EBs75k3Qi7Q--

    Greetings Chris. For quite some time I fought with coping saws for the same reasons you mentioned (lack of stability with locking mechanisms and asthetics). A few months ago you suggested an Olson so I ordered one and it works well although it would serve many better that suffer with arthritis if the handle were larger. I agree that modern-day tool makers have fell away from what really works in favor of profit margins and I for one get totally turned off when I see real wood replaced by plastics and cheaper materials. I appreciate the photos and would most certainly pay alot extra for something with infallible locking mechanisms and more personal, turned wooden handles. You have my blessings in your quest to push for a tool like this. Please let us know if and when you run across ANY re-produced tools of yesteryear that served their purpose of working extremely well AND succeeding in getting brothers like us HOOKED on a fine and respectable trade.

    Steve Hilton——Prescott, AR

  3. Adrian

    I’m curious about the difference between turning the blade and turning the saw. When I was cutting out dovetails using the gramercy bowsaw (in 1-1.25 inch thick wood) I found that I could cut a much sharper corner if I started with the blade lined up with the handle. I would cut down and then when I got near the line, I’d turn the blade and cut sideways. (So the frame stayed vertical the whole time.)

    For some reason, when I tried to turn the saw to cut the corner, it would prefer to continue going straight. It seems like with a mechanism like the fatmax, you have to decide in advance how to set the blade, you can’t turn it in the middle of the cut. Is that right?

  4. Lyle

    Chris;

    I hate to take credit however, does your recent discourse on coping saws having anything to do with my comment on one of your earlier blog posting on handsaws encouraging you to enlighten us on more than just handsaws to things like coping saw and fret saw; the fein and dremel of hand tools. 🙂

    Happy New Year.

    Lyle

  5. Bill

    I made a small bow saw from a plan of Mack Headley’s at Colonial Williamsburg, and yes I did use Joel’s Gramercy saw blade. His was smaller version of the Seaton Chest bow saw. It is the best working coping saw I have used. Holds an angle, am able to get the blade very tight and it does not kink or wander when cutting. It works much better than any metal one I have used. I’ll never go back.

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    Joel,

    The Olsen saw you sell is nice. I agree. But the blade does tend to go into wind after a few joints.

    Just my experience. YMMV.

    Chris

  7. Jeff Burks

    I have a few bits to add to this conversation about coping saws. As a carpenter, I have always thought of the coping saw as a carpenter tool for architectural millwork by design, and had assumed it was just the evolution of a woodworking fret saw adapted for millwork sometime in the 18th or 19th century. I was surprised to find out how complicated the history of this saw has been while doing research on the subject over the past decade or so.

    As already mentioned in this blog thread, the early patents (that look like modern coping saws) only surface in the late 19th century and there seems to be little evidence (by my research anyway) that carpenters adopted the coping saw in large numbers until the early 20th century. The same seems true of listings I have seen for carpenter tool sets and toolbox inventories of the period. They almost universally contain a compass saw, but no mention of a coping saw. One would think that carpenters would have adopted the tool earlier to cope mouldings…. In the 20th century it was almost universal for carpenters to cope architectural mouldings with a coping saw and files. This has been replaced to some extent in recent decades by jigsaws and other power tools.

    As a side note, it would be very interesting to see if anybody has the earliest printed reference to using a coping saw or fret saw for removing dovetail waste. I had assumed this was a modern adaptation of a common tool that has probably appeared in every home shop since the 1920’s. My guess is that it would appear in a hobbyist book/magazine or manual training document about this time frame. Has anybody looked into this and found the smoking gun?

    So anyway, while I was doing research in the mid 2000’s I came across a few references that I wanted to share here. The first is an article that appeared in the Manufacturer and Builder titled "The Art of Coping". This article is the earliest in-depth reference I have found to the actual process of coping architectural mouldings. It is also the earliest reference I have found to what most carpenters refer to as "uncopable" mouldings i.e. those which do not fit together when coped because some portion of the profile blocks the joint from closing. This is entirely a design error that became common in the age of production millwork machines and continues to plague carpenters and builders to this day. What really makes this article special though is the total lack of reference to coping saws. It is implied that the carpenter would use a compass saw and penknife to cope the moulding.

    As you probably know, Cornell University has an archive of The Manufacturer and Builder available online as part of it’s Making of America site. It appeared in the March 1890 Issue, Pages 64-65.
    http://digital.library.cornell.edu/m/manu/

    Owen Maginnis, the author of the article, was a frequent contributor to the trade magazine of his day. He went on to write a number of inexpensive ($1) carpentry related books, which were published around the turn of the century. One of the books was a follow up to this article that I first became aware of when I read the publication notice in a later volume of the same journal. (April 1893) / Volume 25, Issue: 4, pp. 95

    So I tracked down a few copies of the book and digitized one of them for a carpentry forum which I was participating in at the time. I have always referred to the book as "Art of Mitring" since that is the cover title in gold leaf. Librarians would list it by the proper title "How to Join Mouldings; or, The Art of Mitring and Coping." I don’t believe it got wide circulation with the Internet woodworking community so it may be new to you and your readers. You might also notice that some of the illustrations from this book were “borrowed” by Frank Graham for the Audel’s series.

    I can’t seem to find the screen resolution version on my file server, though I do have the high resolution, text searchable pdf version that I made for users to print at home. You can download the 31.2MB PDF here:
    http://www.carpentryarchive.org/files/art_of_mitring.pdf

    Jeff Burks

  8. joel

    I actually think the Olsen coping saws are pretty good but folks have made small bow saws for coping saw blades using the Gramercy bow saw pins. It’s an easy project and you can make a great saw easily.

    I’ve always wanted to make a Morris saw – the Wyke design is very elegant but like the saw vise these is a pretty long time lag between desire and production.

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