Frame saws hanging on the wall of the Hay Shop

The Frame Saws of Colonial Williamsburg

Back in December 2013, I topped off the Mr. Fusion, warmed up the Flux Capacitor and headed back to the 1780s for our annual pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg Virginia. During this visit I wanted to check out some of the frame saws my friends are using and what they thought about the saws ahead of building my own.

My first stop was that Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’ Shop…

The Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker's Shop at Colonial Williamsburg
The Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’s Shop at Colonial Williamsburg

Hanging on the wall was a nice two man frame saw and a smaller veneer saw you may recall seeing in an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop. (Season 6, Episode 9 — Free Preview Here on YouTube )

Frame saws hanging on the wall of the Hay Shop
Frame saws hanging on the wall of the Hay Shop

In talking to my friend Ed Wright, the master Harpsichord Maker in the Hay Shop, he showed me some of the finer details of the larger saw shown below.

Ed Wright with a frame saw in Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker's Shop
Ed Wright with a frame saw in Anthony Hay Cabinetmaker’s Shop

The saw’s size and details were derived from Roubo’s plates. The hardware was forged by Colonial Williamsburg’s Blacksmiths, not to be confused with Williamsburg Blacksmiths up in Williamsburg MA (I bought my hold fasts and log dogs from the former, and barn hardware from the latter and I am very happy with both). You can see the forged eye bolt below, passing through a threaded square section and pressing against a metal wear plate.

Close up detail of the tensioning mechanism of a frame saw
Close up detail of the tensioning mechanism of a frame saw

The saw deviates from the Roubo plate a bit with the offset turned handles shown below. (Check out Don’s post here — which includes a copy of the plate I am referring to and is related to the recent LAP reprint of Roubo on Marquetry which includes a nice translation of this plate and Don’s experiments with his own reproduction saw) Ed said that the turned handles worked well over the years even if they give the saw a slightly more modern (Say 19th century) appearance compared to the simple carved volutes in the Roubo print. If you were to use this saw all day long vigorously sawing fine veneers I could see wanting this sort of turned handle and it seems to be popular in other reproductions I’ve seen. While the carved volutes seem like they’d be tougher on the modern sawyers’ hands I suspect the likely simple volutes were contoured to fit in the sawyers hand and would have forced him to have a lighter grip on the saw which might have allowed him to react more directly to the wood and make fine adjustments as he goes. From examining Figure 10 of the Roubo print it looks to me like the sawyer on the right has a very light grip and is sighting down the saw to gently steer it on an appropriate course as the the left sawyer is sighting as well as pulling the saw through the cut. Don’s translation talks about the advantages of sawing on a slight incline and lifting the saw on the return stroke to clear sawdust and not bind the saw. Sawing with a second person can be like having a dance partner — if you are in sync and can communicate well verbally and non verbally you have a shot, if you are out of sync things can go south quick as the narrow blade is unforgiving and wants to follow the path of least resistance.

Close up detail of turned handles on the frame saw
Close up detail of turned handles on the frame saw

The saw blade is held in place via pins that are held in tension, thus tensioning the blade. The blade shown here is quite wide, though not quite as wide as the ~4″ Roubo suggested. When using this type of saw you need to be careful not to over tension it as you can deform/stretch the holes in the blade. The impression I got was that this saw was a little slow cutting at times. A lot of folks online have experimented with saw tooth geometry and similar variations. Adam Cherubini had an interesting and somewhat controversial post regarding his experiences with frame saws which you can check out here.  (Be sure to read the comments as several other folks who have been experimenting in this space weighed in).

Close up detail of the pins the secure the blade to the frame
Close up detail of the pins the secure the blade to the frame

When using a frame saw to re-saw planks or make veneers you can see some of the telltale marks of the tool as it slices through the figured wood. (See below). In general the blade wants to follow the path of least resistance, so cutting in with another saw to start as Roubo describes or using a ‘kerfing plane’ as Tom Fidgen suggests are great ways to better your chance of success. If you’ve seen any of the many great projects to come out of the Hay Shop you’ll have no doubt Ed and the others in the shop have mastered many uses of the frame saw.

Panel that was cut with a frame saw -- shows the telltale pattern of tool marks showing how the saw progressed through the wood
Panel that was cut with a frame saw — shows the telltale pattern of tool marks showing how the saw progressed through the wood

My next stop was to visit Master Carpenter Garland Wood in the Joiner’s shop. Every time I visit I want to pull up a bench and take up residence in the shop as another member of the crew. The benches, tools and projects all feel like home.

Garland Wood in the Joiner's Shop
Garland Wood in the Joiner’s Shop

In the Joiner’s shop Garland showed me the frame saws he had on hand in the shop. Shown below is a nice felloe saw with its narrow blade used to cut curves. In the wheelwright’s shop you can see some larger versions of this style of saw. The example below has nice delicate lines, a simple volute detail, and nicely wrought wing nuts on both ends of the saw. In the foreground of the photo below you can see a tiny bit of a simple bow saw which we’ll talk about in a future post.

Small frame saw in the Joiner's Shop
Small frame saw, a ‘felloe saw’ used for cutting curves and the like, in the Joiner’s Shop

There are very few places you can drop by and pick the brains of talented folks who share the same level of enthusiasm for traditional woodworking and sharing the craft with others — Colonial Williamsburg is one of those places. I’m thankful to Ed and Garland for their time and advice. I look forward to putting some of it to use in building my own frame saw.

Take care,

P.S. I’m of the mindset that we still have more to learn about these saws and look forward to experimenting a bit with my own. I ordered the first production frame saw kit blade from Bad Axe Toolworks based on a saw from Tom Fidgen’s Unplugged Woodshop and will be posting about that in the future.

4 thoughts on “The Frame Saws of Colonial Williamsburg”

  1. Hey Bill those were some great pictures. They got me to thinking, when have you found it to be the best time to go to CW…assuming you want to hang out, watch, and ask questions? So far I have only gone in the summer months at which time it is thick with tourists, I would love some one-on-one or small class sizes with some of these guys.

    I know we have access to Roy and Peter now since they have retired and I suspect the convention in CW each year is worth it too. But what have you found?

    1. Hi Scott,
      Thank you for the note. My wife and I generally try to go different times of year to see the various holidays and seasons of Williamsburg. We usually try to go at least once a year and rotate between going during the later spring or summer and around the holidays. The Grand Illumination in early December (Kick off of the holiday season at CW) and the week after Christmas are nice though busy times to go but great to see all the decorations and holiday events. The most dead time of the year is January-March. During this time of year attendance is lower and some of the venues are closed. The cabinet shop and joiner’s shop are open so those are good times to talk to the guys. I like the peace and quiet of that time of year, but sometimes its a little sad to see some of the hotels and sites not have a lot of visitors. The woodworking and furniture conference is during that time of year and gets busy during that week. We live up in NH so it’s a hike to get down to VA — driving sometimes and flying others, but if I lived closer I’d visit a lot more often. They warm up a lot sooner so things were leafing out down there when I still had snow on the ground. If you go during a busy season and want to get in some questions with certain trades, try going early in the morning before a lot of the folks with families start wandering around. I hope this helps.
      Take care,

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