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Bad Axe: Saws with an American Accent

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During the 19th century, American sawmakers particularly Disston Saw Works and the E. C. Atkins Co. were the envy of the world.

 

Even exceedingly provincial English woodworking books were quick to acknowledge that American saws couldn't be beat. A hundred years later, it's the Americans who are again leading the charge to build world-class Western saws for a market that is awash in both excellent low-cost Japanese saws and mediocre (at best) Western saws made by the likes of Crown, Pax and a handful of other British, American and far East makers.

But what is curious this time around is that the Americans are making British-style saws. While the 19th-century American preferred a steel spine on a backsaw, the British preferred a brass one. While the British would sometimes use fancy woods for their totes, such as mahogany or rosewood, Americans preferred the utilitarian apple.

Nearly every 21st-century sawmaker is following more of a British pattern: brass backs, fancy totes and even using old-school British hang angles, which make the saw less aggressive.

Why did this happen? You could make the case that Americans have always had an inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with the British. But I think the real answer is simpler: The saw that kicked off the modern revolution in sawmaking the Independence Tool dovetail saw from Pete Taran and Patrick Leach was a nice British example.

That saw has been copied and copied and copied by modern sawmakers. And as these toolmakers expanded their lines of saws, they followed the British model so all their saws looked like they belonged together.

Enter Mark Harrell (Colonel (retired) Mark Harrell to those of you in the Army). At the close of 2007, Harrell had just redeployed from Afghanistan, retired from the Army after a 28-year career, and was looking for something meaningful to do.

He had tried writing and had tucked four published novels under his belt between 1988 and 1992. He had tried being a stay-at-home dad. He'd built a straw-bale house with a solar array. And he knew he didn't want to become a part of a large corporation.

I think my favorite saw of the seven (seven!) Bad Axe saws that I own is this
monster rip saw. In 4/4 material it is so fast that I have to really pay
attention not to overshoot my baseline.

But there was something he enjoyed doing: Buying old tools off eBay, refurbishing them and reselling them.

"But when I developed a pronounced saw addiction, and taught myself how to sharpen the teeth and hammer-smith the plates straight, that's when I knew I was off and running," Harrell says. "And in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to build my own saws. It was just a matter of getting there."

He started out sharpening and refurbishing saws under the name Technoprimitives LLC, and in 2008 I sent him a ragged-out English saw for him to refurbish. The sawplate was bent, the teeth were a mess, but the results were so encouraging that I was impressed with his work. Harrell kept at the refurbishing business and soon hatched a plan to make his own saws.

But instead of following the British pattern, Harrell decided to discard the modern path.

Instead of starting out by making a dovetail saw, Harrell's first Bad Axe saw was a big tenon saw. Instead of using a brass back, he chose gunsmith-blued steel. Instead of fancy woods, Harrell stuck with American black cherry or walnut.


 
Learn how. Discover why. Build better.
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Disston Saws



Saw Vises



   

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