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
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.
think my favorite saw of the seven (seven!) Bad Axe saws that I own
monster rip saw. In 4/4 material it is so fast that I have to really
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.