Saturday, May 28, 2011

Veneer Tools: Saw

I find it ironic that I can collect literally hundreds of unique and different woodworking tools related to chair making, cabinet making, carving, turning and other trades, but, when it comes to specific veneering tools, the choices are few.

Of course, there is the glue pot. I have also spent some time discussing the toothing plane. I still need to post information on the veneer hammer. The veneer press sits in the corner demanding attention, but, as I look around what is a pretty sophisticated veneer workshop, there are not a lot of different tools that I see.

You might be surprised to hear that I think veneering is a relatively simple procedure. I know what you are thinking, "Marquetry is so complicated!" However, in my mind, the marquetry is fully assembled and applied as a simple sheet of material, exactly like you apply a sheet of veneer.

Using animal protein glues and either presses or veneer hammers has been the standard method of application for several centuries, and some very sophisticated products have emerged from essentially primitive workshops.

The first type of saw to be developed for cutting shapes in veneer was the fret saw, developed in Italy sometime in the 16th century. The French developed the chevalet during the 18th century, and other countries devised foot operated frame saws to cut curved shapes.

The simplest form of hand saw for making straight cuts on veneer has a blade which is held with a wood handle in different forms. The most commonly used hand saw today has a round handle with a small blade having teeth on both sides, top and bottom. This tool is what I started with over 40 years ago, and I determined some 39 years ago that it was worthless.

I always wondered why someone would design a tool with a round handle, offset from the blade in such a way that a) you cannot control the blade, b) you need to remove the blade to sharpen it, c) the teeth on the top of the blade are sharp and will (eventually) cut your left hand so that your blood will stain the maple veneer you are holding, and d) must be used right handed.

I got the answer one day many years ago at a tool meet. You know the situation: early in the dawn, tool dealers meeting in a secret place, first-timers eager to set up early, old-timers picking through the boxes and waiting for the best time to open up, bad coffee, bad donuts and worse cigarettes. I always look around to see where the small cluster of pros are gathered together, and then crash their party with some smart remark, sure to endure me to them.

As I approached them this morning, I could see they were passing around a single tool, and I overheard them asking each other, "What the blank is that?" (They didn't say "blank"...) When they saw me, one of them said, "Ask Pat, he might know", and they handed me the tool. My first response was, "How much?" I was told it was $75 and I quickly handed over the money. Then I informed them that I had just purchased a very rare English veneer saw from the end of the 18th century. They were not pleased with this response, and I walked away in search of more entertainment.

As you can see, this saw has a open tote handle, like a dovetail saw, but was made with a veneer blade. It works wonderful: you can control it perfectly and you can sharpen it without removing the blade, but it can only be used right-handed. I am convinced that this is the model which eventually was transformed into the round handled tool that is sold today.

The French developed a different type of veneer saw. The handle is large and directly on top of the blade. The saw is easy to sharpen, and can be used in both directions, right and left-handed as well. It is still manufactured and used in France. It has been my saw of choice for many, many years.

Now my good friends at Tools For Working Wood, in New York are bringing to market an improvement in this design, made by Gramercy Tools. I have been fortunate to receive this tool, along with several different blade designs, for testing. Working with Gramercy directly, we have suggest blade designs which work specifically on thicker, sawn veneer material. At this point, there are several variations of the blade, along with the tool available on the Tools For Working Wood site, linked to this blog.

It is important to understand how the blade works to sharpen it properly, for any hand held veneer saw. The blade is absolutely flat on one side, which presses against the straight edge. There is never a "set" on a veneer saw. By that I mean that all the points of the teeth are exactly in line with each other, unlike a panel saw or dovetail saw, which requires a "set". The teeth are flat on the one side, like I said, and only sharpened on the other side, using a stone. The sharpening needs to create a bevel which extends past the gullet of the teeth. So, if the teeth are, for example, 1.5mm long, then the bevel needs to be about 2.5mm long. The result is a knife edge, flat on one side, with teeth. As the tips of the teeth wear down, you need to use a triangular file to deepen the gullet, and then resharpen the bevel on a stone to continue.

I want to thank Gramercy Tools for devoting their creative energies to improving on this tool, as well as working on other specialized veneer tools like the lifting knife and veneer hammer. I am hoping that their products will inspire woodworkers to return to traditional veneer techniques and gain an appreciation of how much fun it is.

Now, if we can just get someone to make a good double boiler glue pot...


Craig said...

Have you ever seen a left handed version of the English veneer saw? I have been looking for a more comfortable saw than French version I am currently using and that might do it.
Craig Thibodeau

W. Patrick Edwards said...

The only things more scarce than veneer tools are left handed woodworking tools.

I have made copies of the English saw where I took a thick gauge Sandvik scraper and recut it to the proper shape. Then I used files and stones to shape the teeth and bevel. It took some time, as you can imagine. When I approached Tom at Lie-Nielsen tools to make this tool, he was able to make the wood handle nicely, but quit when he realized that making the blade would not be cost effective.

I suggest you make your own tool. If you want, I can provide you with the pattern for the handle and blade. You can make it left handed. It will certainly be the only one in the world...

If you are interested, I have a left handed woodworking bench for sale. I bought it years ago as a curiosity.


Ronaldo said...

Craig, french veneer saws can be used
with both hands (I cut with my left
hand when needed.)
Maybe your straight edge is not thick
enough to keep the saw vertical.

Patrick, sometimes it is desirable to put set on a veneer saw, but you do it only away from the flat back; really handy when cutting hard stuff.

I agree that you have to make your own saw blade from a scraper. Here in France, there is only one brand and it is real bad (poor steel and teeth are badly cut.)


W. Patrick Edwards said...


I have been delighted to test the Gramercy veneer saw, being sold now by Tools For Working Wood. It is a well made version of the traditional French saw, with the improvement that you can change the blades to suit the work.

One of the blades we are testing is made for sawn veneers, and we are looking at having a set put into the teeth.

You can see this saw and the blades by clicking on the link on the front page of this blog.

By the way, I sell the new French saws, and I agree they are not as well made as the older ones produced by Outillage Fischer.