I don’t know if it’s the cool air evoking thoughts of more time in the shop, the poor economy, the lunar cycles, or just mere coincidence, but it seems like discussions about resawing by hand have popped up on just about every message baord I frequent over the last two or three weeks. Apparently a lot of folks have resawing on the brain. So I figured it was about time to write something about it here on the blog, if for no other reason than to enable me to link to my thoughts on it rather than constantly re-write them. I can also elaborate more here since I have the time and space. So here goes.
Let’s get some general definitions out of the way first in case you are reading this and have no idea what I’m talking about. Resawing is a sawing technique or cut whereby a thick piece of lumber is sawn through its width to yield two thinner boards. So, for example, one might take a 5/4 thick x 6″ wide board and re-saw it to make two 1/2″ thick x 6″ wide boards (after cleaning up the saw marks). This same technique can also be used to saw thin veneers from a single board in one’s own shop rather than purchasing super thin commercial veneers. For the most part, this is the same thing as ripping, it’s just ripping a very thick board. The saw doesn’t care if you’re ripping through the thickness or the width, it’s still just ripping.
Most woodworkers today don’t think twice about resawing. With a properly tuned bandsaw equiped with a good resawing blade and a tall fence, resawing is a relatively simple, if rather dusty job. The width of the board that can be resawn is only limited by the size of the bandsaw being used. Capacities up to 12″ are not uncommon, and boards over 12″ wide can even be resawn on some higher end saws.
However, the subject gets a little more challenging when power is removed from the equation. Most historical texts don’t have much to say about the process, or the tools that would have been used in the joiner’s or cabinet maker’s shop to perform this task. This usually begs the question, “How did they do it?” However, a better question to ask first is “Did they do it?”
If we think about the reasons that we would typically resaw a board into thinner stock today, we can begin to answer the question “Did they do it?” So one reason we might resaw a board would be to produce less waste while obtaining a board of the desired thinness. Let’s assume we want a board about 3/8″ to 1/2″ thick for use as drawer side material, or for a small box. Today, our choices are to plane down 4/4 stock to 1/2″ thick and turn 1/2″ of thickness into wasted chips, or buy a 5/4 board and resaw it into two boards slightly over the desired finished thickness, producing far less waste and wasting less money. Most folks would probably choose the second option.
In the 18th and into the 19th century, however, there was a third option. Buy your lumber in the proper thickness. In the areas around most major cities, where most cabinet makers would choose to set up shop, sawyers or mills would produce boards of varying thicknesses, not just the 4/4 and up that we are accustomed to today. One reference notes that different species were sawn to different thicknesses. Note how the secondary woods were typically the ones sawn thinner.
The number of complex storage forms listed in the written documents and the evidence of the many surviving examples suggest that western Connecticut joiners employed a number of strategies to produce case furniture efficiently. Foremost was their reliance on local sawmills to provide boards in desired dimensions, thereby precluding the need to resaw or plane the lumber to usable thicknesses. In Newtown and Woodbury, surviving artifacts reveal the joiners’ use of blanks that required only slight planing before use. Some boards used for drawer linings or backboards still retain their water-powered saw marks. In Newtown, most cherry boards were sawn 3/4″ thick, and yellow poplar and oak, 1/2″ thick; in Woodbury, cherry tended to be 7/8″ thick, yellow poplar, 1/2 or 7/8″ thick, oak, 1/2″ thick, and white pine, 3/8″ thick. With boards delivered in proper thickness, the joiner could more easily lay out and cut his joints.¹
Another good reference on commonly available lumber thickness during the period is provided by Joel Moskowitz in The Joiner & Cabinet Maker. I don’t have the exact page in front of me right now, but look for the Skyring reference. If I remember correctly, lumber was offered in that reference sawn down to at least 3/8″ thick as well.
While thinner lumber was certainly available and often purchassed, it wasn’t like you could just run down to Ye Olde Homme Depot and pick some up. A trip to the mill could be quite the trip for a period joiner or cabinet maker. So if I were a cabinet maker during this time, I would make sure that I had an adequate supply of that thin stock for use as drawer sides, cabinet backs, and other secondary parts where I would want thinner stock. That way, there would be no reason for me to waste valuable time resawing a lot of thick lumber to make these parts.
I would still certainly need to resaw material on occasion in my own shop. This wold be especially true for items like gallery drawers and such, which would require primary wood in thinner dimensions. But these would be small pieces that could easily be handled by the tools I had. For large jobs, I’d send it out, or buy it in the proper thickness to begin with.
Another reason we may choose to resaw today is to make our own veneers. Historically, this would more commonly have been done by the cabinet maker, I think. The reason is composition. As a builder of the finest furniture, I need to have control over the appearance of the final piece. The saw mill or pit sawyer doesn’t know where or how the final material will be used, and the stock that was typically used for veneer work would be more rare and likely too prized to be trusted to outsourcing. But again, pieces for veneer work would typically have been relatively small in size and in number, and therefore easily managed in house.
For small resawing jobs, like stock that is 5-6″ wide or less, I like my regular 5½ PPI rip saw. I find this saw very easy to control and track a nice straight line, even in stock up to 6″ wide. I imagine it would be no different in period shops. However, for stock that is over 6″ wide, this saw tends to bog down and run slow. In period shops, the tool of choice for wide veneer was a two man frame saw. Roubo has a plate which details such a saw, and shows its proper use (divided here into two separate pictures, but it’s all from the same plate).
Numerous plans have been made available for similar looking frame type saws, however, all that I’ve seen have one major flaw, in my opinion. They all use commonly available bandsaw blade stock for the web. While this may seem like an easy way to approach the problem of finding a 4′ long saw blade, the bandsaw blade stock has a few drawbacks that really make it a poor choice in my opinion, based on using several saws made with it.
First, I think the bandsaw blade is much too narrow. The widest I’ve seen available is typically around 1½” thick. While this is fine for short rips in narrow stock, I found it to ba a major disadvantage for wide boards. If you think about a regular rip saw, the plate is about 6-8″ wide. This wide plate, along with proper minimal set, helps to keep the plate from twisting in the kerf and throwing the cut off. The narrow bandsaw blade just isn’t wide enough to track the kerf very well. I found it to behave more like a large turning saw.
Second, bandsaw blades have too much set. The heavy set on bandsaw blades may be fine for a machine running a true straight line on bearings, but for hand sawing, to much set makes sawing straight a nightmare. The saw plate tends to rattle around in its own kerf and results in anything but a straight line. Hand sawing is not a perfectly controlled straight line no matter how hard we may try to make it so. Heavily set saws don’t help.
Finally, the teeth on bandsaws are shaped all wrong for hand work. The aggressive hook tooth pattern may be fine for a machine that controls the tracking and the force, but when sawing by hand, this pattern requires too much force. Forcing the saw leads to miscuts.
So if one was to desire to make one of these saws today, the only option left, at least as far as I’m concerned, is to also make the saw blade. If I were making one, I’d make it from a 4′ long, 4-5″ wide piece of 1095 spring steel, and I’d file about 3 points per inch. Something very similar to the one described by Roubo and pictured above. I’d want the steel to be the same thickness as my standard rip saw, so that I could start the cut accurately with that saw, and then switch to the frame saw to get aggressive for the remiainder of the cut.
Adam Cherubini has made a saw like Roubo’s and has shared his thoughts on it on several of the forums. He mentions one more important quirk that these saws have that I also experienced with my old bandsaw blade models. Due to their extreme length and width, they are very difficult to control, especially alone. Roubo shows two men using the saw together for a reason. Weilding such a large saw by oneself is a serious challenge. A big part of that challenge is just keeping the saw level. Any twist during the motion tends to throw the cut off. With a frame that is roughly 2′ wide, even a wide blade is going to have trouble resisting the kind of twisting torque that the frame will exert. With a second sawyer on the other end of the saw watching that side of the cut, corrections can be made before the cut gets too out of whack. However, one person cannot watch both sides of the cut at the same time. Occasionally flipping the board helps…some. But if the cut gets off too far, it can be very difficult to get it back on track in a 10″ wide board.
With all of that said, I do still want to build one of these saws one day. However, I’m not all that enthused about filing huge teeth into a 4 foot long hardened piece of steel at the moment. So the project will have to wait until it can’t. In the mean time, I’ll make do with my regular rip saw for the small amount of resawing I currently do. Or, I could just get a band saw.
¹Edward S. Cooke Jr., The Social Economy of the Preindustrial Joiner in Western Connecticut, 1750–1800 (American Furniture, 1995).