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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


 
 

Wenzloff & Sons Saw Makers by Christopher Schwarz
Copyright 2006. Originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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Specializing in Custom,

Almost-Forgotten

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 hand-cut tenon.

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 perfectly. 

 

A 20"-high 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 and true. 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 History Society).


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 1797.

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 right path).

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.


 
Learn how. Discover why. Build better.
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