Framesaws, Before They Got Cool

There’s been quite a bit of talk about frame saws. Shannon Rogers over at The Renaissance Woodworker included making a centered frame saw as part of his Hand Tool School. Bob Rosieski at the Logan Cabinet Shoppe has featured these a little over a year ago too. Somewhere in there was the time trial of using one at WIA during the Hand Tool Olympics. These are damned fine tools and great for resaw operations. The folks down at the Moravian Village in Old Salem, North Carolina have one that mounts to a lathe for “powered” resawing in the German Tradition (which is actually Medieval Roman/Byzantine, but I digress).

The other type is a tensioned frame saw that Shannon and Bob have featured as well. Roy Underhill has shown both types in different episodes of The Woodwright’s Shop, for which we can all appreciate. Gramercy, Highland Woodworking, and a few others make and sell a couple varieties of both types, both as kits and ready to work tools. But, its the tension type I mean to speak of today.

Tensioned frame saws, at least in Western Woodworking, generally predate every other saw type in use. Most every one available on the market allows for the blade to be turned to keep tension while making cuts that are longer than depth of the teeth to the stretcher. Even if these are not strictly “turning saws” which cut with a very fine blade for tight curves, being able to turn the blade is significant innovation for making long rip cuts.

What about crosscutting? Well, given a good crosscut blade, a frame saw works just fine in the “modern” configuration and being able to turn the blade 90° to the stretcher is a white elephant. But, if your rip and crosscut blades are the same length, you only need one frame for two different cutting operations. Switching from one to the other just means releasing the tension, pulling the pins that hold the blade to the turning battens and doing a swap before re-tensioning.

But what about frame saws before they got cool, with this innovation of being able to turn the blade 90° to the stretcher? Your center bladed frame saw is great for ripping, as long as the stock is no wider than the span between the stretchers. Not so much cross cutting ability there, though. So we come to this –

 Jacobo-da-Ponte-1574-Noah_s detail of “Building of the Ark” Jacopo Bassano, c.1570

Down in the right corner there… that is positively Medieval. According to Goodman, this pattern of crosscut saw might actually be Bronze-Age, but this example is very much Renaissance European. Having more than a passing interest in that era and geography, I’d mentioned to a similarly minded woodworker some years back that I’d like to make a couple saws like this. Astutely he asked “Yeah, but where are you going to get the blades?”

A year or so later I was asked to inventory the tools of a friends late uncle and suggest prices for selling the collection. I’d get right of first refusal on anything I was interested in. Among the collection that stuffed a 1500 square foot basement and overflowed into a two car garage were a pair of frame saw blades that had been sitting on a workbench, untouched, since the early 1990’s. They’d acquired a commensurate amount of rust but the teeth were still freshly sharp. Given the general age of the other tools in the shop, and the deceased uncle, they are very likely quite a bit older than the 20 years since the gentleman’s demise. At some point, I’ll bother to look up the manufacturers mark on the sawplates, but for now it is unimportant.

Being a man of enforced leisure of late, I decided to dig out these blades, clean off the rust and turn them into serviceable tools. A good evening was spent with naval jelly and brass bristle brushes to clean off the worst of the rust before applying a healthy coat of paste wax with prophylactic intent. A couple hours refreshing myself on choice or at least acceptable woods for making the frame, I picked through my meager available stash and settled on a combination of red and white oak for the frame material. I would have preferred maple, ash, or hickory for the stretcher, but I figured that if any parts break I can always replace them. This was the mindset of those I am emulated with these tools, and figure there is not a bit of fault in repeating their less than optimum wood selection.

Going back to that image above, you’ll notice that the span between the top of the blade and the stretcher is barely larger than the width of the workman’s hand. Both my blades are for cross cutting, so there is no need to make them super-deep. Usually these will be used to cut thicknesses far less than six inches, so nothing particular to worry about there. Also notice that the ends of the blade are pinned directly to the frame, no turning battens to worry about. I’ll presume to cut a notch on the tension arms about a fat finger from the end to allow the rope, in this case it’ll be hemp twine, to bear into and keep from sliding off the top end. Other than that, I can see the stretcher is narrower by about a quarter than the arms, and the span of the arms above and below the stretcher is equal. That’s rough dimensions for me.

Next time out, we’ll get into making sawdust so we can make sawdust.

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