The History of Tools With Teeth

Band, hand, buck, back, hack, bow, whip, rip, crosscut, coping, jig, pull, push and scroll (to name a few).

If you were to guess what tool was described a century ago as “the most necessary, the most wonderful of all man’s aids in conquering nature and furthering the needs and comforts of present-day civilization,” would you ever imagine that it was the humble saw? Though that statement was written by a potentially biased saw manufacturer (Henry Disston & Sons Inc., The Saw in History, 1916), the declaration was nevertheless a sharp observation.

For our modern minds to appreciate the full power of the handsaw, we must consider a time long before the power saw existed. Beginning with the Stone Age -- when tools were made of, well, stone, a jagged piece of flint could carve and slice anything softer than itself. Strap on a handle and you had an ax, another primary tool useful for tree felling, boat building and hut construction. During the Bronze and Iron ages, people employed metalworking to form more sophisticated tools, including the first saws (which may have been inspired by shark jawbones or the serrated nose of a sawfish).

Many cultures claim origination of the handsaw: Ancient Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, European and Australian civilizations offer supporting evidence in the forms of artifacts, art and writings. This can mean only one thing: The saw is universally a great idea — and one that lends itself to endless variations. As humans’ understanding of metallurgy, wood characteristics, engineering and physics grew, inventors customized saw blades and handles to help lumberjacks, surgeons, butchers, carpenters, stonemasons, arborists, metalworkers and countless other professionals, hobbyists and homeowners work more efficiently.

One example of this evolution is the single-handle saw used for milling lumber, which later became the two-man pitsaw. The system boosted production, but the straight-blade saw still required a wasted reverse motion that didn’t cut anything. Numerous individuals are credited with devising a solution: the circular saw blade. One account says that a 19th-century Shaker woman, Tabitha Babbitt, merged the mechanics of her spinning wheel with a tin disc (which she notched along the edge) to create a one-directional cutting tool. The design improved efficiency, but lumber mills that installed circular blades faced violent protest from the pitmen and sawyers whose livelihoods were threatened by the machines.

Another development in continuous-motion cutting was the band saw. Its thinner blade and efficient cut wasted less wood and time. Band saws’ designs also allowed for cutting logs of greater girth. With improvements in steel (to withstand the repeated bending and tensioning) and in the fusion of the bands’ ends, the band saw made lumber infinitely more available and affordable. This resulted in greater accessibility to housing, which no doubt did “further the needs and comforts of present-day civilization,” as the 19th-century saw-maker claimed.

The science and art of saw design expanded with industrialization, yielding a plethora of job-specific specialty saws. Yet as high-tech as saws have become, many in use today are based on centuries-old designs, such as the Japanese pull saw and the rip and crosscut push saws. They were (and still are) that good.

Band saws were first powered by hand; later models were driven by water wheels or windmills. The 19th-century model shown above was steam-powered.

Want more?
Check out Pursuit of Hanging Space: History of Closets.
Nail History Notes.