Colonial Cross Cut saw Controversy - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Colonial Cross Cut saw Controversy

 In Arts & Mysteries Blog, Woodworking Blogs

When Colonial Wiilamsburg made saws for the Anthony Hay Cabinetshop they chose not to file any of them cross cut. The reason, says Master Cabinetmaker Mack Headley, is that there simply is no evidence of cross cut filed saws in Colonial America.

For those of us who work wood exclusively with hand tools, this pronouncement has serious repercussions. How could colonial craftsmen accuratly cross cut boards without back side blow out? How could craftsmen with such highly evolved tools, miss such a huge performance advantage? Are we to believe a guy who could make perfect sliding dt, and who could sharpen his plane irons on a rock if need be, lacked the skill to apply fleam to a hand saw?

Don McConnell shared with me an email exchange between he and Master Headley. As I recall, Don argued that 19th c sources included discussion of fleam. That fleam (the angle filed on to the front of a tooth that defines a tooth as “cross cut”) must have predated that documentary evidence and that a lack of documentary evidence doesn’t mean fleam didn’t exist.

Master Headley’s desire was to stick with the evidence available in hopes of learning something we don’t know today. I don’t think it’s fair to summarize his thoughts as “without smoking gun evidence of fleam, we have to stick with rip filings”. There is anecdotal evidence to consider. Some period inventories I have seen indicate a single tenon saw was present, not the fleet of specialty backsaws I have. Likewise, it doesn’t appear these craftsmen had a non-backed version either. And I find it difficult to believe that the lone long back saw would be filed cross cut.

CWF Journeyman Marcus Hanson told me, the use of the striking knife really helps or practically eliminates back side spelching. A close examination of the Hay shop saws revealed that generally speaking, smaller saws had finer teeth and finer teeth had increased amounts of rake. I surmised that the fine rake, combined with the fine teeth produced an acceptable, if slow, cross cut. I duplicated this in my shop but abandoned the idea in a fit of impatience. Once you’ve used a well filed cross cut saw, there’s no going back.

At last years “Woodworking in the 18th c” conference in Williamsburg, I asked 18th c tool expert Jane Rees specifically about the filings on the saws in the Seaton chest. Do any of them have fleam? Do they indicate evidence of having been refilled? According to Jane, no one has ever looked at the saws this closely. Could Master Headley’s smoking gun evidence be sitting in the Guildhall museum in Rochester England? It’s possible. But it would be difficult to distinguish between a saw filed in 1850 from a saw filed in 1800. So I asked Jane for her sense of the colonial cross cut saw controversy. Jane suggested that saw makers probably didn’t file fleam, leaving this extra step (it IS an extra step when making a saw) for the owner. Saws may have been custom filed for specific jobs by the user. Saw files certainly do appear in inventories as early as 1708.

My feeling is that a skilled craftsman can probably “get away’ without cross cut saws. But I suspect some craftsmen did indeed have them. Personally I prefer a dedicated cross cut back and long saw and find them invaluable additions to my tool kit. I don’t like cross cutting with a rip saw or ripping with a cross cut. And so far, I’ve not enjoyed using saws that are good at both. In my shop, that’s a false economy. But don’t let me talk you into or out of anything. Get a second opinion, and try it yourself.

I hope I’ve accurately represented the various views presented here. If Don or Mack or Jane are reading along and would like to correct me, please email me directly and I’ll correct the blog entry.


Recent Posts
Showing 7 comments
  • Bjenk

    This is interesting. I read again and more carefully the passage where Roubo explains the filing of the saws and I swear that it really looks like he is describing fleam. His description is very detailed and I should translate this stuff to let you read it. Hit me up if you want to read this!

  • Adam Cherubini


    I’m not sure why Moxon wouldn’t have mentioned it. It may have escaped his notice. He was not a woodworker afterall.


    I missed my last opportunity to speak with George and John. You are certainly correct in pointing out that Master Headley is only one of several highly regarded 18th c tool experts in Williamsburg. I suspect Jay Gaynor was also involved as he was head of mechanical arts interpretation at the time.


    I absolutely file fleam. If i ever sell my chisels, I may leave some final sharpening to the end user, but I’m not doing that with saws at this point. My saw teeth are pretty sophisticated, changing shape and size over the length of the blade. I’m pretty persnickety about that. And as you know, my saws are set up for rather specific operations.


  • Chuck Nickerson

    Adam – how will the saws you’re making for sale be filed? I’m hoping for fleam on mine, but you’re the boss.

  • John Grossbohlin

    While at Williamsburg did you have a chance to speak with George Wilson and/or Jon Laubach, the two guys who make tools behind the scenes? Having worked with them at CW I have to believe that they have done research on the saws they reproduce… Prior to their roles as tool makers they were, respectively, the master of the musical instrument maker shop and a journeyman gunsmith. As such, in addition to 18th century tool production knowledge they have practical knowledge of how to use 18th century tools.

    See you in Saratoga Springs next March!

  • Bob Rozaieski

    I have wondered if the "lack of evidence" of fleam was due to saw makers leaving the final sharpening to the cabinetmaker similar to how a blacksmith might leave the final shaping and honing of a plane iron to the cabinetmaker. Nicholson and Moxon reference cambered edges on plane irons, however, this probably wasn’t done by the smith but perhaps by the planemaker or cabinetmaker to suit the particular plane. Similarly, I would think that a sawmaker would follow similar suit. Could it be that fleam wasn’t mentioned in texts such as Moxon and Nicholson simply because it was not done by the sawmaker? Maybe it was simply left up to the cabinetmaker or joiner to decide how to file it? I’m sure they sharpened their own saws just like they sharpened their own plane irons so why would we believe that they wouldn’t know the benefits of fleam? It just doesn’t seem logical. Nicholson describes a tenon saw as a saw used primarliy for cross cutting shoulders of tenons. I would think this would be enough information for anyone in the know at the time to understand that the saw had some fleam. He does distinguish between saws used for ripping and saws used for cross cutting in his descriptions of the different saws. Perhaps that’s all that needed to be said.


  • Greg Forster

    The discussions of woodworking 250 years ago indulge my skills at the bench, my interest in history and my love of a great detective story.

    The question of cross-cut saws is one I’ve also asked several times; with the explamation of either the saws weren’t examined for this or probably the saws were re-sharpened at a
    later period. I am interested something more in-depth to support these conclusions.

    It is difficult, for me , to dismiss a cross-cut saw evolving during an eureka moment in the several hundred years prior to the 1800s.

    Colonial Williamsburg working solely with rip-filed saws must
    lead to some interesting techniques, esp. with the knowledge of cross-cut saws for comparison. A short paper on this would be welcome.

  • Jonas

    Fascinating topic.

    I thought that the large 2 persons saws used for cutting down trees were always cross cut, so I don’t see why the furniture makers shouldn’t know about this feature.

    Thanks for a good blog.

Start typing and press Enter to search

It is important that all the guides be adjusted properly. Better quality band saws feature roller-bearing guides.