Specializing in Custom,
or Just Very Nice Saws
William Wresh hefted the enormous 24-1/4" - long
tenon saw onto a stretcher that needed a tenon. He tweaked
the saw's position using his thumb so the teeth touched his
cutline, and then he ensured the tool was plumb and square by
checking the reflection of his work in the saw's shiny plate.
The saw, which was longer than a typical jointer
plane, looked almost ridiculously huge on top of the 2-1/2"-wide
stretcher he was about to cut, but Wresh was not afraid.
He didn't know enough about handwork to be afraid or to realize
how odd the saw looked to modern eyes. This was his first
Wresh pushed the saw forward smoothly, and the
teeth dove into the wood. After 10 strokes on both sides
of the joint, it was done. The saw had tracked his cutline
traditional sawbench is the key to unlocking the utility of any
handsaw. The height prevents you from striking the floor with
the toe and allows you to use your legs as clamps on the work.
The London-pattern handle is exquisitely shaped and comfortable
– just like an 18th century saw.
A quick trim at the joint's shoulder revealed a tenon cheek that was smooth, flat
This near-perfect tenon was not
beginner's luck. This was simply a case of using the right
tool for the job at hand. And it just so happened that the
right tool is a saw that hasn't been a common sight in workshops
since the early 1800s.
While Wresh, a student of mine at
the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, cut his first tenon with
that tenon saw in early May, this particular story really begins
about nine years ago when I bought a book (now out of print)
called "The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton" (The Tools and Trades
Cover reproduced by kind permission of the Tools
and Trades History Society
Benjamin Seaton (1775-1834) was not
a famous British cabinetmaker. In fact, this resident of
Chatham is famous in woodworking circles because he abandoned
the woodworking craft at an early age. Seaton was 21 when
he built a tool chest during a period of three and a half
months. He then filled it with a nice kit of tools bought
for him by his father and drew up an inventory of its contents.
But Seaton didn't become a cabinetmaker. Instead, he
focused on other aspects of the family business: auctioneering
and undertaking. But due to luck and thoughtful heirs,
Benjamin's chest survived almost completely intact and now
resides in the Guildhall Museum in Rochester. It's a
snapshot of what a woodworker would need to make furniture in
In 1994 the Tools and Trades
History Society published "The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton," a
short 72-page book that examined the chest, the Seaton family
history and the nearly 200 tools in the chest.
I've read this book more than five
times straight through and refer to it regularly. It is a book
that is both a riddle and the answer to many of my questions
about traditional handwork.
Here's a quick and simple example:
I've always struggled with checking the diagonal measurements of
complex case pieces at assembly time – folding rules are a poor
tool for this job for a great many reasons. I've also always
wondered why Benjamin Seaton had a roll of fine twine tucked in
his chest and recorded in his inventory. One day, both the
riddle and my problem were solved when I realized how twine is
an ideal (nay, cunning) tool for checking diagonal measurements
(it was my sister-in-law, who sews, who pointed me down the
However, the one chapter of the
book that has always captivated me is the chapter on the set of
saws Seaton had. In addition to a turning saw and keyhole saw,
Seaton had a set of six backsaws and handsaws, all made by John
Kenyon. The saws are gorgeous, with London-pattern beech
handles, brass backs and all the details intact.
Owning a set of original saws such
as this would be difficult today. These saws are scare in fine
condition, and you probably shouldn't be filing and using a
pristine 18th century Kenyon saw anyway. So I've simply been
looking at these photos for nine years and wondering things such
as: Why is that tenon saw so huge? What good is a sash saw in a
cabinetmaker's shop? What is it like to saw with such a huge
(and probably heavy) crosscut handsaw?
After so many years of wondering, I
thought that these questions would just have to go unanswered.
But then I met Mike Wenzloff, who learned to file saws in
grammar school. Wenzloff has worked as a logger, graphic
designer, furniture-maker and (very nearly) a pastor. After
sharpening saws as a side business for many years, Wenzloff
decided in late 2005 to begin building custom handsaws and
backsaws as his primary business. I asked him if he would make
me a couple saws that were identical to the Kenyon saws from the
Seaton chest. He agreed immediately.
Building saws like this called upon
all of Wenzloff's skills: a deep knowledge of saw filing, an
ability to use computers to translate photographs into wooden
templates, an ability to shape beech handles by machine and
hand, and just enough faith that it all would work out.