History of Hand Saws

Updated February 21, 2017

Handsaws of various types have been in use since prehistoric times. The earliest saws were made of flint, which flaked easily and could be pounded to a sharp, serrated edge. The Bronze Age ushered in saw blades made of bronze or hardened copper and mounted in wooden handles. Since then, handsaws have continually improved in materials and design, making them easier to use in an ever-growing list of applications.

From Stone to Metal

Archaeologists have excavated stone tools that Stone Age man used to skin animals and cut meat in preparation for cooking. These first saws were one piece of stone pounded until a sharp edge was honed. The stone saw was difficult to use and broke often. Once man learnt to forge blades of bronze or hardened copper, handsaws could be given sharper, more durable edges. One such saw, dating from 1450 B.C., was taken from an Egyptian tomb in 1853 and is now housed in the British Museum.

Roman Advancements

The early Romans discovered that saws would bind less and be easier to use if the slot cut by the saw (known as a kerf) was wider than the blade. The Romans achieved this by angling the top half of teeth outward from the blade and to right and left. This process was called "set."

Saws of the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, saw blades were very thin and buckled easily. To avoid this, the saw blade was set in a rectangular frame to keep it stiff—hence the name "frame saw." Double-bladed frame saws were used to cut boards in a pit-sawing technique. This two-man operation had one man above the log to be cut and one in a pit below the log. The saws were "raked" (the teeth of the saw were angled) toward the hand, so that the saw cut downward and the pitman's pull did all the cutting.

Handsaw Handles

British and American sawyers of the 19th century tended to prefer a thicker-bladed handsaw over the thin-bladed frame saw and its successor, the bow saw. The handsaw had a stiffer blade, with either a turned-open handle or a closed handle that completely surrounded the gripping hand. The handsaws of this era were refined by the use of harder tempered steel and the carving of elaborately shaped closed handles. In the 1920s and 1930s, plastic Bakelite handles were introduced as the new plastic became popular. In the 1950s, as tastes changed, most manufacturers went back to wood handles.

Speciality Saws

A combination saw that incorporated a square, a ruler, a scratch awl and a level in its design was introduced by Disston in 1858 and continued to be sold until 1918. Other speciality saws that appeared in the 1940s included the tapered keyhole saw, the patternmaker's saw (with 15 points to the inch) and the stair builder's saw, designed for making slots in stair treads or risers or cutting dadoes (slots) for fitting boards. Power saws have largely replaced handsaws in many workshops, but many still prefer the comforting grip and feel of sawing by hand.

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About the Author

Kevin Ann Reinhart, a retired teacher-librarian, has written professionally since 1976. Reinhart first published in "Writers' Undercover" Cambridge Writers Collective II. She has a bachelor's degree in English and religious studies from the University of Waterloo and a librarian specialist certificate from Queen's University and the University of Toronto.