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Love Your Saws with Matthew Cianci


The secrets they tell us…



I think our tools have secrets to tell us…



... if we are keen enough to listen to them. This is one of the reasons why I almost always prefer antique tools over new ones. Not to say that new tools don’t have secrets….quite the contrary. Saws in particular seem to have many little important bits they can whisper in our ears.

Take the much debated nib on a handsaw, for example. What does this little protrusion tell us about saws? I think it tells us that tradition is very important when it comes to tools. Here’s why:

It is generally accepted that the nib is a decorative element and all that remains from the aesthetic origins of the modern form. The western handsaw tradition can be traced back to early Continental saws of the 16th and 17th century which feature elaborate scroll work on the nose of the saw plate. Saws at this time were almost completely hand wrought, and these beautiful designs were the craftsman’s mark of quality and pride.

Over the next 200 years or so, as steel plate and saw production became more mechanized, we see these elaborate designs become less ornate and simpler and simpler, until their culmination in the vestigial nib that became standard on almost all 18th and 19th century western saws.

So what does this mean? It means, first, that tools evolve. Every tool has a predecessor….a very similar previous form that had something added, or taken away, or both. And most of the time, for good reason. In the case of the nib, I think its fairly simple: aesthetic tradition.

As saws became more and more machine made they became less and less a representation of the craftsman’s individual skill, and so there was no need, or warrant, for decoration. And to retain the elaborate scroll work on a more mass produced item would require an inordinate amount of labor for almost no return. But, because tradition governed all things in the trades, it could not be outright discarded. And so the nib remained as a nod to the saws origins.

OK… so who cares, you say? Well, I say if you’re going to work wood in any creative way, then you need to understand and respect tradition. If you want to build functional, durable furniture or wooden goods, then you’d damn well recognize that someone of the same basic form came before you and did it better than you. You can choose to heed their wisdom and benefit from it, or stray from it at your own peril. And if you challenge it, then you’d better have a good reason, because it is very difficult to argue with hundreds or thousands of years of success. This is one reason I hate power tools; they isolate me from the wisdom of those craftsmen before me.

So, as far as I’m concerned, the nib is completely functional: it serves as a visual reminder to me every time I pick up a saw that there were countless craftsmen before me who faced the same problems and either succeeded, or failed, based on their ability to respect the wisdom of their fathers and mothers.

September, 2013

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