Chris Schwarz's Blog

Some Details on Sash Saws

Sash saws are a bit of a mystery to the modern-day woodworker. These saws show up in early catalogs and inventories of cabinetmaker’s possessions, but that’s about all you get. According to the early writers (in this case Charles Holtzapffel), sash saws are backsaws that are 14″ to 16″ long, with a blade that is 2-1/2″ to 3-1/4″ deep and 11 ppi (it’s the small one in the photo above). I have yet to find an early reference as to whether they are filed rip or crosscut.

Some of the large and modern tenon saws qualify as sash saws, such as the Lie-Nielsen 14″ tenon saw, which can be purchased with a 10-point rip profile , so maybe sash saws do exist but we don’t call them that anymore.

But that’s no fun. That doesn’t let me purchase a sash saw from Mike Wenzloff that matches my other Kenyon-style saws. So I went ahead and ordered one that matches the Kenyon saws found in the tool chest of Benjamin Seaton.

Every time I touch base with Wenzloff, his work seems to somehow improve , even though it’s hard to imagine how the quality could get better. The sash saw he built for me is simply exquisite. The lamb’s tongue detail on the bottom of the tote is delicate and perfect. Everything fits nearly seamlessly , the blade flows into the back and into the tote just like you hope it would.

The European Beech handle of the Wenzloff & Sons sash saw.

And, of course, the saw cuts smoothly and dead straight.

Of course, the next question should be: did I get it filed for rips or crosscuts? As I was debating this decision several months ago, I touched base with Don McConnell. McConnell, now a planemaker with Clark & Williams in Eureka Springs, Ark., knows more about early woodworking than anyone I personally know. He is a walking library of early texts, catalogs and account books. And , here’s the best thing , he’s worked most of his life as a professional woodworker, building furniture and doing ornamental carving using almost exclusively using hand tools.

If anyone knows about sash saws, it’s McConnell.

So after reading his extensive writings on sash saws on oldtools (THE mailing list for hand tool geeks like myself),  I concluded that sash saws could be filed either way. Here’s what McConnell said about sash saws and the naming of saws in general:

I (hope) to wean people away from taking the terms too literally. For example, while I do reserve my dovetail saw (filed rip with no/minimum set) for drawer-type dovetail work only (1/2″, or less, thickness of material/joint), that doesn’t mean I haven’t set up other saws of that size for crosscut work of the appropriate size. Such things as shoulder cuts on small mortise-and-tenon joints.

Larger dovetails, such as those used in carcass construction and in traditional door/sash frame construction, require larger back saws. Because of the deeper cuts, the saws for cutting these dovetails will benefit from having a little more set, etc. i.e., not all dovetails are cut with dovetail saws.

In the instance of “sash saws,” it seems that many people automatically assume that these were intended for cutting the shoulders of various sash members. I don’t think this makes much sense, given the scale of most of those cuts. Assuming the term arose in conjunction with sash work, their size suggests they may have been more likely used in conjunction with the heavier membered frames which house the sash (and doors). And, possibly, for cutting the cheeks of the tenons on the wider rails of the sash, itself. Many of these cuts would be closer to “rip” cuts, though some would be crosscuts.

[On a tangential note, the only period mention of the use of a sash saw, that I know of, is by Sheraton , and that was for ripping off widths of laminated curved bars for barred glass doors in cabinet work. i.e., not sash work, at all.]

It would be great to have a crosscut and rip saw in each size, though there is only one of each size in the Seaton chest. While I don’t know the tooth configurations, Duncan Phyfe seemed to have a number of back saws , especially in the smaller sizes.

If I had to choose between rip and crosscut teeth, I guess I would, reluctantly, choose rip. A little better would be to have both rip and crosscut for the two smaller sizes. Better yet, of course, would be to have one of each in each size. Depending, of course, on the scale of work one does. Has that helped at all?

My new Wenzloff & Sons sash saw with the old Garlick & Sons saw.

Yes, Don, you were very helpful. Wenzloff filed my saw rip. I then got an old Garlick & Sons sash saw and had it filed crosscut. It is great to have both. Do you need these sash saws if you already have a tenon saw (a rip saw) and a carcase saw (a crosscut)? Probably not. These larger saws are, like Don suggests, better for larger-scale work. And I agree. I’m working on a very large project right now, about 8′ long, that these saws are beautifully suited for.

– Christopher Schwarz