Chris Schwarz's Blog

Premium Backsaws: A History Lesson

Last year while I was teaching a sawing class in Michigan, one of the students brought along a dovetail saw he had purchased almost 10 years earlier but had never used. When I spied it on his workbench, I snatched it.

It looked like the classic Lie-Nielsen Toolworks dovetail saw, but there was something different about it. When I took it out of its package, I had my answer. This was a mint Independence Tool dovetail saw that was made before Lie-Nielsen purchased the company in September 1998.

Holding this pristine little saw was a little like driving a 1948 Porsche 356. This was the saw that changed everything for hand tool woodworkers. And it started with a friendship between an Army officer and a software developer that was struck up during early days of the Internet.

The story of Independence Tool isn’t well-known among woodworkers, and so I gave one of its founders a phone call to chat about the early days of the market for premium Western-style saws, which has blossomed in the last 10 years.

The primordial stew for the story begins with an Internet listserv called “oldtools” (it’s still around and thriving , I’m a mostly lurking member). Oldtools is an e-mail based discussion group that started in 1995 where the members chat about hand tools and hand work , anything meat-powered that cuts wood, really.

Two of the founding members were Pete Taran, then an Army officer in Maryland, and Patrick Leach, then a Boston software developer. They struck up a friendship through the oldtools list, Taran said, and that led to a discussion of quitting their day jobs and starting a tool-making company.

“Patrick was burned out,” Taran said. “And I was ready to leave the Army.”

The question was: What tool should they make? Taran said they had to pick a tool that didn’t require a lot of heavy metal-working machinery to make. While Taran had some machine training in his background, it wasn’t like he had a fully-equipped metal shop at home.

Coincidentally, Leach had just purchased a nice Groves & Sons dovetail saw that had beautiful lines.

“I was the resident engineer,” Taran said. “So I sort of deconstructed the saw and figured out how we could make it. We made a prototype.”

Leach and Taran showed off the prototype at an old tool sale in March 1996. Everyone who looked at the saw said they would buy one, Taran said. So they bought a couple machines and got to work on nights and weekends (they kept their day jobs at first). Taran was in charge of production of the tools. Leach was in charge of sales, marketing and the company’s web site. (An early flyer for the company is pictured above. Click on the image to see it full-size.)

(While little Internet start-ups like this are now common, Taran points out that it was quite rare in 1996 to start a company that was little more than a web site and a couple guys working from home.)

By the end of 1996, Taran had made 500 saws.

“The word spread like wildfire,” Taran said. “We couldn’t keep up with demand.”

Dovetail maestro Frank Klausz ordered one off of the Independence Tool web site, and Taran delivered it to him personally.

“Frank Klausz is the quintessential perfectionist,” Taran said. “He became our biggest supporter.”

With craftsmen like Klausz and others speaking out for the saw, the catalog companies began to call, but Taran said they resisted getting into the wholesale business. Eventually they sold their saws (both a dovetail saw and a carcase saw) through Highland Hardware in Atlanta, Ga., but the rest of the sales were direct to the customer.

After two years, Taran said that he had made about 2,000 saws. He had figured out how to outsource some of the parts (such as the brass backs and the special split nuts that attach the blade to the handle). But Taran said his relationship with Leach was strained by the work. Taran bought out Leach’s part of the business, but that wasn’t the cure-all.

“It became drudgery after two years,” Taran said. “I looked at my life and said, ‘This is fun, but I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.’ “

Plus, he had a sweet job offer on the table from a former superior officer who was working in the private sector. Taran said he put out some feelers about selling the business. One of those feelers made it to Thomas Lie-Nielsen through Clarence Blanchard, owner of the Fine Tool Journal.

Lie-Nielsen bought Independence Tool in September 1998 and has greatly expanded the line of saws to include tenon saws, gent’s saws and a variety of saws with different filings and tooth counts.

“He’s taken it and run with it,” Taran said.

The original Independence Tool saws and the Lie-Nielsen versions are in many ways identical. The tooth configuration is the same. The length and depth of the blade are virtually identical. The brass back has the same crisp bevels. But the handles are different. The Lie-Nielsen handles have crisp details , a product of machine manufacturing. The Independence Tool saw has rounder edges throughout, a product of all the hand work that Taran put into the saws.

Though some people would disagree (one way or the other) I found both to be quite comfortable and wouldn’t say that one was markedly superior to the other. But dovetail saws are a personal thing, so it’s a bit beside the point.

Australian woodworker and writer Derek Cohen has done a nice side-by-side comparison of the two tools on the WKFineTools.com site if you’d like to read more and see some photos.

It’s now been 10 years since the saw business was sold to Lie-Nielsen, and both Taran and Leach still have a hand in world of hand tools. Leach buys and sells some of the finer vintage British and American hand tools through his site at Supertool.com. (Be sure to subscribe to his monthly e-mail newsletter. It’s filled with hundreds of excellent tools and photos , plus Leach happens to be a great writer.)

While you’re at the Supertool site, visit the “Blood & Gore” section of the site , it’s required reading for handtool geeks-in-training.

And Taran is now a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Cleveland-based corporate consultant who helps weed out inefficient processes in companies. He also runs the excellent VintageSaws.com site. He sells hand saws and back saws (all of which are sharpened and ready to go). And he has posted a great series of articles he wrote for The Fine Tool Journal on selecting, cleaning  and sharpening saws. They are in the Library section of the site.

And Taran said he may someday make some more saws, perhaps if only for himself. You see, Taran said he doesn’t even own one of his own production saws from his Independence Tool days, though he does own the prototype he built.

“And I probably have parts for 50 or 60 saws still lying around,” Taran said. “Some day I should dig those out and make a nice set of saws , just for me.”

Coming soon: We take a close look at the Independence Tool prototype, on loan from Pete Taran.

- Christopher Schwarz

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