Coping Saws: From Bricks to Fretwork Frogs
The coping saw is generally unloved, unheralded and under-appreciated. Yet as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t enjoy woodworking as much without one.
When I started woodworking about age 11, my father forbade me from using machinery. So the only two saws I had were a panel saw with a blue plastic handle (which would not cut a limp biscuit), and a Craftsman coping saw, which I own and use to this day.
I’ve used that tool for everything (perhaps things I shouldn’t: game, deli meats). And as a result I am attached to the form.
However, I don’t know jack crap about the history of the lowly coping saw. And I wonder why no one has ever tried to improve upon the modern, barely usable form of the tool. I have looked through all my resources for the history and true explanation of the coping saw, but my books and downloads and academic sources have mostly failed me.
Now, I’m certain that someone out there will pull my pants down and produce the article titled: “The History of the Heroic Coping Saw.” I welcome the cool breeze on my “no-no square.”
Until that time comes, here’s what I’ve been able to piece together from my library. I’m at the beginning stages of this journey, but I wanted to share some of the stuff I’ve found in the hope that it will shake loose the history of this unsung saw.
Roubo’s “marquetry saw.” Nice handle!
The coping saw is a D-shaped metal frame saw that is obviously descended from the early Roman forms, which feature a thin blade that is held in tension by a wooden frame and string.
The frame saw came into use for marquetry, and as this art form reached its zenith in the 17th and 18th centuries, all its tools became specialized and refined. Andre Roubo dedicated an entire volume to its practice, “Le Menuisier Ebeniste.” And in plate 292, Roubo shows what he calls a “marquetry saw,” which is a metal frame saw that tensions the blade without a string or toggle arrangement. At first glance the saw looks a lot like what we call a coping saw, though the blade does not rotate in its frame and the throat of the tool is quite deep.
The other tool development that seems related to the coping saw is the development of similar D-shaped frame saws that were used to cut metal or exotic materials, such as jeweler’s saws, the hack saw, the piercing saw and the ivory saw. These saws show up in 18th-century plates (such as Roubo) and become fairly common in the 19th century.
So by the 19th century here’s what we have: Marquetry saws with deep throats (sometimes deep enough to warrant an NC17 rating), and frame saws with shallow throats used for cutting dense materials. The coping saw appears to be a tool that bridges these two forms.
First, what’s the deal with its name? “Coping” is a 17th-century term (thank you, Oxford English Dictionary) that refers to the top course of bricks or blocks on a wall. If the bricks were beveled to help shed rain, they were called “coping blocks.” So the term “coping” was clearly related to a beveled edge.
In modern woodworking, coping can refer to actually removing the bevel from a mitered piece of moulding in order to fit two pieces of moulding in an inside corner. The term coping is also used concerning doors that have their inside edges moulded. The ends of the door’s rails are “coped” so they nest against the moulding on the door’s stiles. So “coping” is actually the act of cutting the negative shape of the moulding on a piece.
The first references to a “coping saw” appear, as best as I can tell, in the 19th century in books and tool catalogs. The first U.S. patent for a saw that quacks like a modern coping saw is an 1883 application from William Jones , earlier patented frame saws look to me like marquetry saws with deep throats.
That 1883 patent called the tool a “saw frame for a jeweler’s saw.” The following year, C.A. Fenner patented a mechanism that allowed the blade to rotate in the frame (it’s amazing in its gizmosity). He called it (most unhelpfully) a “hand saw.”
And in 1887, Christopher Morrow patented a tool called a “coping saw,” which ironically tensions its blade more like a wooden bowsaw. After that point, the term “coping saw” crops up regularly in catalogs and patent filings. By 1900, the saw is everywhere.
The inexpensive tool becomes a ubiquitous part of the carpenter’s tool kit. It also becomes a tool that is central to the manual training movement of the late 19th century (what we call shop class). The coping saw was used by students to cut out all manner of toys and decorative objects. And many books, manuals and patterns devoted to coping saw work appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Used Everywhere, But Not in the Same Way
Though lots of people big and small were using the coping saw, there was (and still is) a major disagreement about it: Should it cut on the push stroke (like most Western saws) or the pull (like most Eastern saws)?
The earliest source I could find that addressed the matter directly was “Trade Foundations,” a pre-vocational textbook from 1919 published by the Guy M. Jones Co.
“Most coping saw work is done with the work resting horizontally on the bench and held in place with the left hand. The teeth should point toward the saw handle. When the vise is used to hold the work, the saw teeth should point away from the handle.”
When I looked to other writers who were traditionally trained, their opinion seemed to support this early view. Robert Wearing in “The Essential Woodworker” shows a coping saw cutting on the push to remove waste between dovetails (the work is in a vise). He states that coping saws work on the push, except on a horizontal saw table when working with thin material. Then it should cut on the pull.
Charles Hayward in “Tools for Woodwork” states that coping saws are generally used on the push, but there are occasions when the blade should be reversed.
Among the modern writers, many (with the exception of Aldren A. Watson) seem to prefer to use the saw on the pull stoke only.
In “Carpentry & Construction” by Rex Miller and Glenn E. Baker, the authors state that the teeth should point toward the handle. “This means it cuts only on the downward stroke.”
In the “Band Saw Handbook,” Mark Duginske writes that the coping saw is used only on the pull stroke. “Because the blade is cutting on the pull stroke, the blade tensions itself.”
So with all this divided opinion, I think it’s best to file this debate under “Kobayashi Maru” along with “pins or tails first” and “bevel-up or bevel down.”
A detail of the Lawrence patent locking mechanism.
The Weak Modern Form
So now we come to the real reason I’ve been digging through all this old paper. Modern coping saws are , for the most part , flawed. But they weren’t always this way.
What’s wrong with them? Mostly it’s the mechanism that allows you to rotate the blade. I’ve never had a coping saw that could hold its setting , no matter how much I tightened the frame or even how many lock washers I added to the saw.
After a certain number of strokes, the blade goes into wind , meaning the blade rotates more (or less) at the toe than at the heel. This warping makes the saw hard to control and is one of the reasons why dovetail savant Rob Cosman uses a jeweler’s saw and tweaks the blades manually with pliers.
Me, I’m done with jeweler’s saws, which I suspect are made only to sell the easily snapped blades.
So it sounds like we should get the CAD jockeys to jump on this problem, right? Maybe not. As I was browsing through my old tool catalogs and patent filings, I found all manner of mechanisms for fixing the problem of blades in wind. Some of the solutions were downright silly (see the Fenner patent). Others, including the ones used by Simonds and some other major manufacturers, were simple and robust.
In essence, the saws had eight detents to lock the blade at eight different angles. When you see one of these catalog drawings, you’ll start looking for an old saw made like this. I did.
– Christopher Schwarz