One of the first projects I built for Popular Woodworking was an adaptation of Benjamin Seaton’s tool chest. The chest is most notable because of what its owner did not do, which was to use the tools in the cabinetmaking trade. After completing the chest in 1797 and filling it with a nice kit of tools purchased a year earlier, Seaton turned his attention to other areas of business and worked as an upholsterer, auctioneer and undertaker.
Thanks to luck and a prosperous family, the chest and its contents now reside in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester, England, and are likely the best surviving example of what a kit of 18th century tools looked like.
There have always been some tools in the chest that have fascinated and confused me. The most vexing was the tenon saw, made by John Kenyon. The saw’s blade is a whopping 19″ long, yet the sawplate is quite thin: .026″ in many places. By way of comparison, Lie-Nielsen’s small dovetail saw has a sawplate of .020″. The largest Lie-Nielsen saw, a 14″ tenon saw, is .032″ thick.
And this huge saw wasn’t likely a custom job, either. The Sheffield Key, a catalog of English tools published a few years after Seaton built his chest, lists tenon saws as 16″ or 19″ long.
For years I assumed that a 19″-long saw would be difficult to use. It would weigh quite a bit, and the wide and long blade would be difficult to balance on the work and steer straight. And the thin sawplate would likely buckle if pushed too hard. Perhaps that is why modern tenon saws are smaller and thicker.
The last week or so has caused me to re-evaluate all that.
I asked sawmaker Mike Wenzloff to make me a copy of the Seaton tenon saw, as close a copy as we could manage. We had nice photographs of the saw, plus additional photos of another early Kenyon saw from an eBay auction. Another help was that The Tools and Trades Society took lots of measurements of the saws for the book “The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton” (which is now out of print in the United States as far as I can tell).
When the saw first arrived I cut a half-dozen tenons with it, both big and small. The saw was remarkably well-behaved. It was easy to start. And the weight of the tool did most of the work , I just had to steer the thing. But the real revelation came last week while teaching a class on hand-tool fundamentals at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. None of the students was comfortable with hand-sawing, and so I gently encouraged some of them to give the Seaton saw a try to cut some of the joints we were working on. After all, they didn’t know it was a freakishly huge saw.
To my surprise, every student that tried it took a shine to it. Each student got the tool to start easily, and had no difficulty tracking a line dead-on, despite its weight and size. Some of these students had never even attempted hand-sawn joinery. The sawplate did heat up in heavy use (these tenon cheeks were 2-1/2″ x 2-1/2″). But the plate stayed true even in the hands of these beginners with less-than-perfect sawing skills. I did keep the saw lubricated with a little oil just in case.
So tonight I have my copy of “The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton” out on my desk and am looking through it for other clues and revelations. I think I found another one: string.