Colonial Cross Cut saw Controversy
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.