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The Bow Saw


The Bow Saw

For hundreds of years before the first band saw ever found its way into a shop, craftsmen were making scalloped and scrolled edges on wood by hand with a thin blade stretched taut between two handles by a tensioning cord.

Depending on the tradesman using it— the cabinetmaker, the cooper, or the wheelwright— the tool was likely to be called a cabinet saw, turning saw, felloe saw, or bow saw. The blade's unique mounting enables it to saw circles, half-circles, S-curves, and notches equally well in thick wood or thin.

Fancy work with a turning blade Bow saws use a thin, narrow blade about 38 " wide, called the web, that's not anchored in the wood uprights, or bows. The blade only passes through the bows to be held in place by the handles. This manner of attachment permits the blade to turn from side to side and even rotate as it cuts through the wood (as compared to the bandsaw blade, which remains in position as the wood turns around it).

For a variety of needs, bow saws were made in many sizes—from tiny ones with 6" blades to ones with blades as long as 48". The bows often were made of exotic wood, and gracefully curved. Plain saws feature beech, apple, or cherry.

To hold the tensioning cord, the tips of the bows must always be hooked or notched. In some fine examples, the tips were eloquently carved. The handles were turned, often elaborately.

Age, condition, and quality dictate value You may not be able to accurately date an old bow saw because the style hasn't changed over the years. Bow saws made in the 1800s and after sometimes carry the maker's mark on one of the bows near the blade, or on the stretcher—the key to your search for its origin. This mark also adds value, especially if you find a bow saw in generally sound condition. Worth even more are those with fancy carved bows of exotic wood. Expect to pay from $30 to $100 or more for an old one; about $35 for a new one.

Written with Vernon U. Ward, tool collector and dealer and editor and publisher of the Fine Tool Journal.
Photograph: Bob Calmer

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