12 November 2015

Trends in Handsaws

One recent project got me to thinking of a developing trend in handtools. Since I know that there are many industrialist bigwigs who read my weblog, I feel particularly obligated to impart my wisdom to this cohort through the weblogging medium.
Initially, I got an idea that I needed a planing board after reading a posting by Christopher Schwarz in which he referenced the idea from George Ellis, Modern Practical Joinery. Schwarz commented that he would post his thoughts later as to how to properly use the planing board. I followed his construction notes, blueprints and referenced the Ellis book from a .pdf file that I had downloaded. I've not yet had enough experience to write up new insights although I do have a few inklings and planned modifications to make the appliance function to its fullest potential.
The bench appliance is made up of several slats that float in grooves plowed into the long rails that are held in place at four corners with pegged mortise and tenons joints. Though I chopped the mortises easily enough with Lie-Nielsen chisels, I've found that I can cut the tenons more easily and accurately with a Japanese style rip tooth Z saw. This saw didn't particularly cost me much and I was able to buy it from a Shanghai tooldealer. I've become more and more satisfied with the purchase as I steadily make use of it.

A pullstroke seems to start more smoothly in end grain and keep in line with long layout markings. When cutting deeply, the broad surface of the unbacked blade has obvious benefits over a stouter, western style backsaw. The main feature worthy of comment, however, is that this blade is, in fact, detachable from the handle and disposable. The blade hooks in and is wedged between crimped metal of the handle. I've not yet noticed any diminishing of the blades sharpness since I purchased it two years ago.  I am confident that when I do decide that the sawblade no longer passes muster, I can buy its replacements locally, keeping the still functional handle.
It locks in place with a good, strong wallop
This feature is possible due to a method for cheaply producing sawblades: induction hardening. The teeth are hardened through magnetic oscillations, the same method on many glass topped cookstoves. The distinguishing aspect of this heating method is that it doesn't distort nor discolor the steel as with fire quenching. The teeth can be ground precisely before the hardening process; whereas, in older methods, the teeth needed to be tempered in order to be sharpened with a file. The upside of tempering steel is that the sawblade can be resharpened repeatedly after becoming dull, or even reshaped.


The red plastic handle for that I bought for the Z saw fits well in the hand and is easy to grip. It's lightly padded with some sort of dense foam. The handles are also available in different lengths, styles, and other colors, even wooden, and wrapped in bamboo binding. The range of blade options is even more impressive.

All of this is laid out to compare with the options that are generally available for broadly marketed western crosscut saws. Or is it clearer to say NonJapanese saws? Locally I am able to buy some of the wares offered by Irwin and Stanley, generally, whatever the bigboxstores and franchise retailers offer outside the Middle Kingdom.  Induction hardening has now become the industry default standard so much so that saws that are not made so are distinguished with the label, resharpenable, a marketer's neologism. I've been using this Irwin model for the last few months and I've been recommending them earnestly to students. I get good results with the saw both up on the high bench and down low for rough cutting. But eventually, it will become dull, just as my previous crosscut did, a Sandvik, seemingly no longer available in China. Paul Sellers has also written about his experiences with a similar Disston saw and the trends in the construction trades related to it.
as good as it gets marketwise
And when that sad day arrives, there will be no replacement blade, the whole saw, handle and blade, will be rendered disposable. I've noticed that both Stanley and Irwin are now beginning to offer Japanese style pull saws as part of their wares, yet with none of the options on the Japanese market. They offer push saws now with Japanese saw tooth geometry, but nearly all the saw handles are molded plastic, sometimes to imitate wood, the coloring, as far as I can reckon, is but a function of the market zone and not according to the consumer's preference. Despite attempts to reenter the bench plane market after abandoning it decades ago, (whither the surform?) Stanley has no apparent interest in offering anything more than a midrange handsaw. If there are screws, rather sawnuts, to attach the blade to the handle, they hold a meretricious function.

The responses are unsurprisingly predictable as to why brands like Irwin and Stanley, to call out just a few in the field, offer such a narrow range of handsaws and of such minimal quality. The executives will talk about market demands,  production efficiencies,  yada-yada, blah, blah, etc. The corporate/ business school culture is much more to blame. The top level honchos all know each other, or else they hire the same consultants, and thereby tend to do whatever the others are doing and indifferently follow the other's business plans without ever willing to admit so. And so it's not surprising that industrywide, the products would look so similar even if they weren't made in the few same Chinese factories.

It's amazing that very well paid men can convince themselves that they are earning their salaries while offering fewer options internationally than a single Japanese manufacturer can offer domestically. It makes me wonder whether industrialist islanders, perforce, develop higher standards for manufacturing due to the associated higher costs of production and local consumers even more discerning and demanding of domestic manufacturers. But the island setting cannot be the only factor. There are still a few manufacturers in the UK that rely on very highly trained craftsmen, but Sheffield steel is a shadow of what it once was.There are still small French manufacturers producing items that have long fell out of the mainstream but that still fulfill a niche market. The smaller scale of manufacturing and the shorter distance between craftsperson and factory seem to be more salient explanations.

Ecce, ecce! Here is my unsolicited advice to the leaders of the big industrial conglomerates that determine what handtools are available to the masses: do the right thing and take a cue from the Japanese sawmakers whose tool designs you've been surreptitiously offering under your brands, and make your saws with detachable, disposable blades. And while you're composing that email to your outsourcer in Dongguan, you might also think about offering more options for handles.  This is the last time that I waive my consulting fee, you shortsighted boomer bastards.