Full Chisel Blog

July 27, 2008

Reconsidering the Rip Saw

Several things lately have got me thinking about Rip Saws.  The first is a couple of rip saws one of which I restored and one of which I re-handled.  Another item of interest came up when Adam Cherubini on his blog Art & Mysteries talked of the cabinetmakers at Williamsburg not using cross cut saws, as none appeared on inventories and the historic record only indicated rip saws.


Now at first I thought that they just didn’t record anything about cross-cut saws, but other records don’t necessarily indicate anything else.  Now in Smith’s Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield in 1816 only mentions two man cross cut saws.


Holtzapffel, London 1846 doesn’t specifically list cross cut saws and most of the teeth are quite coarse from 3 1/2 to 10 Points Per Inch.  But there are early blades with finer teeth and they may or may not have been sharpened crosscut.  I have bought a new saw or two in my day and I have always just sharpened them as they were never up to my standards, so I am wondering if the manufactories just didn’t offer their saws in one tooth pattern, but in different sizes, knowing full well that the craftsman would immediately sharpen it to their preference?


Now maybe this is another case of familiar oversight, not mentioning the obvious as it was common knowledge, I don’t know?  Certainly the rip saw would be the easiest to make, no double angles for filing, but straight across.  And while the handles were farmed out to the cottage industries around the industrial centers, the blades were all made in factories and mass produced, by hand on water or steam powered factories.


There are two saws that I have recently put in good order that have prompted this reconsideration of the Rip Saw.  The first is the Spears and Jackson 7 point half rip saw that I have gone on and on about and the other is the recent addition to my arsenal of toothed tools, the small 18 inch 16 PPI rip saw that I have re-handled.


This little saw, however has turned my head.  After 36 years, you can still learn something, if you can afford to pay attention.  I have mentioned this sweet little rip saw previously and here is what it looks like finished.

Little Rip Saw finished

Thanks to Mike Wenzloff for the saw nuts (the check is in the mail) and they worked great, there was some hand holding as he sent me a detailed email on how to install them, although I didn’t have some of the tools he described but got it done with a twist auger and a gimblet, worked out fine.


The strip of wood below the saw is a piece of pine I ripped off a 3/4″ board and the results were astounding.  I rarely have this kind of epiphany but this one has got me thinking.

Small Rip Saw, off side

Here is the off side of the saw showing the split nuts, finished flush to the wood.  My saws are not fancy, they are functional and work for me.

Rip saw results

And here is what the wood looks like when it is cut with a 16 ppi rip saw.


I have to reconsider the rip saw, I used it to cross cut some hardwood dowels today for a repair and the cut was surprisingly smooth, who would have thought?  I did try cross cutting a 3 inch wide board and it was just too slow so I did pick up my small cross cut saw to finish this cut, so I won’t be resharpening my cross cut saws to rip anytime soon.  But this got me cogitating.













  1. Stephen, I think your thought makes sense. Other tools were very often sold in this way, i.e. as a kit so to speak. Some examples would be carving tools sold without handles. I’m sure that the blacksmiths didn’t sharpen chisels and gouges for the cabinetmaker; this was done by the cabinetmaker when he received the tool. So it makes sense that saws may not have been sharpened either. After all, the cabinetmaker would have all the tools necessary to do the job since he needed to keep his tools sharp so why should the smiths waste their time doing it when the cabinetmaker may want it done their own way in the end anyway. Along these lines, it would make sense that a saw maker wouldn’t specify crosscut or rip as he would only be selling his saws based on PPI.

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — July 27, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  2. Yeah, this has long been my belief. One only needs to look at pictures of saw teeth, both “modern” (late 1700s onward) and ancient (Roman, et al) to see that there are cross cut teeth on some of the saws.

    The cutting dynamic was obviously well understood, common knowledge. That CW didn’t find proof saws were sold and or sharpened CC there, isn’t proof none ever were. It’s a limited snapshot.

    From a saw maker’s perspective, it makes sense to me that once processes gained efficiency in the 1800s, value added services such as pre-sharpening cc profiles would be a sales point. Especially once the dumbing down of the common worker began, combined with the perceived pace of life increasing and demands of consumers: more for less. This isn’t a recent phenomenon.

    Rip works well for cross cuts in a limited toothing range/certain thickness/width combinations. If one relaxes the rake quite a bit (which is how CW/Adam handles this issue I believe) cross cutting with a rip gains a wider application (thicker/wider stuff).

    Well, need to run–thank you Stephen.

    Take care, Mike

    Comment by Mike — July 27, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

  3. Bob and Mike,

    Thanks for your comments and your apparent agreement, I am in good company. Unlike other issues where I seem to be the lone voice in the wilderness (well the frontier). Adam likes a negative rake is that correct? That means the leading edge of the tooth tips back a little, right?

    A friend picked up an old Spears & Jackson handsaw and I posted pictures over on Traditional Tools. I think it is a fairly early one.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 27, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  4. If your theory that it was just left to the woodworker to sharpen the saw to a crosscut pattern, it seems that it would also follow that all sharpening would have been left to the woodworker.

    In other words, if it could be shown that early saws had teeth cut, perhaps filed for shape, and perhaps set, but not really sharpened, the theory about the final filing of a crosscut pattern being left to the wodworker would make perfect sense. However, if the rip saws were keenly sharpened by the maker, it seems that the theory would fall apart.

    Comment by Luke Townsley — July 27, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

  5. A negative rake angle would be tipped back, yes. At least that’s the way it is in every kind of cutting tool that I know of, though I’ve had such an august personage as Chris Schwarz try to tell me that hand saws are opposite – that positive means a tipped back tooth, and negative is the more aggressive cut. I didn’t bother arguing, but I’m pretty darned sure that he’s wrong. If it attacks the wood like a plane iron then it’s positive. If it attacks it like a burr-less cabinet scraper then it’s negative.


    Comment by Metalworker Mike — July 27, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  6. Luke,

    If the saws teeth were cut, filed and set then it would be ready for the craftsman to do with it as they will. The most simple cut and file pattern is rip, straight across. Modern reproduction saws are provided sharp I am sure, but this may not have been the case in the past. I think plane irons were provided ground and sharpened but not honed, that left to the craftsman. I will look at the P.S. Stubs blade and see how finely it is sharpened. Thanks for the comment and an opposing view.


    That is what I thought, laying the rake back would change the cutting dynamics, I need to think about this for a while. I like your comparison.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 27, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

  7. Interesting thoughts on how saws were delivered. There is a distinction between cabinetmakers and carpenters in England. Carpenters sharpened their saws; cabinetmakers did not, but sent them out to be sharpened (see the books by Charles Hayward). So one would expect cabinetmakers’ saws to come sharpened (unlike chisels/plane irons).

    Cheers Peter in Sydney

    Comment by Peter Evans — July 28, 2008 @ 2:16 am

  8. Hi Peter,

    That was partially/mostly true in the US during Hayward’s day as well. However, the manufacturer didn’t make much distinction in the manufacturing process (other than *perhaps* saw model) between saws destined for one group or another. And certainly there was overlap as to which group bought which model.


    I think that the period we are talking about makes a difference. It is one thing to claim saws were not filed cross cut in a local area in the early 1700s than from the early 1800s, etc.

    I see no problem with saws being shipped in one tooth style in the early days of the growth of mass-made hand saws. There’s little proof, though I think that is easier to understand than no one used cross cut filed hand saws in CW’s chosen period to emulate.

    There are modern equivilents to tools sharp, but perhaps not ready for work depending on what one does. LN and LV use to ship their irons with a ground 25 degree bevel. It was wholly up to the end user to steepen it if desired. And they both still recommend a honing before use (duh!).

    We generally ship the retail saws with a given rake and or fleam, as well as set. We have no idea what the end user will be cutting. So we make a decision. It is then up to the end user to adjust to their conditions if desired.

    Well, time for a refill…

    Take care, Mike

    Comment by Mike — July 28, 2008 @ 8:47 am

  9. Hi Stephen,
    Another thought provoking blog, that’s what I like about reading your blog, question everything.
    When all saws were one-off’s made by the local smith, (pre 1660’s) I can imagine every craftsman sharpening saws to suit the task in hand. References from late 1600’s like the marine archaeology at Port Royal Jamacia, (careful this is a 20Mb pdf) http://nautarch.tamu.edu/pdf-files/Franklin-MA1992.pdf In the probate inventories, they refer to “X -cutt sawes” as well as “whipp sawes”, I suspect they are referring to two man bi-directional (“M” toothed”) cutting saws. So when did cross-cut teeth first appear? Great question, (another research project) great blog.


    Comment by Ray Gardiner — July 30, 2008 @ 1:39 am

  10. Ray,

    I tried downloading that study and my computer crashed, I will try again, as it looks interesting. I have heard two man cross cut saws referred to as ‘argument saws’, and I like that characterization.

    As for when cross cut handsaws were first offered by manufacturers is probably after 1850, although I don’t have a hard date. This is worth looking into, or perhaps someone will have the answer.

    I recently learned the value of a Shilling to the Dollar in the nineteenth century, a nugget I had been looking for, for quite a while. I called a friend to share the information and he already knew, I guess I should have asked him first, but now I know that 2 shillings was worth $0.25, making a shilling worth a ‘bit’ (12 1/2 cents). Foreign Gold and Silver was legal tender in the United States until 1857.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 30, 2008 @ 10:16 am

  11. The curious thing about that port royal study, was the fact that they didn’t find any saws, although saws are mentioned in the probate inventories. It is worth downloading for study, because of the circumstances of the 1692 earthquake making it a somewhat unique site. see http://nautarch.tamu.edu/portroyal

    There are 20 shillings to the pound so 1 pound == $2.50 ( in the 19th Century)
    ( not much different to today’s $2.00 approx)

    Something don’t change all that much evidently.


    Comment by Ray Gardiner — July 31, 2008 @ 4:58 am

  12. Ray,

    I finally got that study downloaded, will have to take a look when I have some time.

    The price of pounds and shillings is helpful when looking at old catalogues or publications that list the prices in those terms. In earlier times the colonists issued Shillings and used these and other foreign coins until 1857 when they were no longer legal tender. The prices can be compared to a days or weeks wages to get an idea of the cost of the tools or other goods in relation to the context in which they were used.

    Thanks again for the port royal study.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 31, 2008 @ 8:06 am

  13. Reading in Smith’s Key to Various Sheffield Manufactories, 1816, I noticed that the saws were offered for sale, but it was extra to have the saw ‘set and sharped (sic)’.

    So I think that the saws were provided with the teeth cut and everything else was extra. And the use of the word ‘sharped’ is repeated in the printed description.

    There are 30 saws illustrated in Smith’s Key, 5 of which are backed saws. Some are on multiple blade knives but a large number are unbacked.

    Just a note on what was available.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 3, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress