This site is dedicated to showing a collection of what are termed “split nut” saws that were made in England and America during the hundred years encompassed by the last quarter of the 18c and the first three quarters of the 19c. The name refers to the brass “split nuts” that secure the wooden handle to the saw blade. With both handles and blades largely cut and shaped by hand, made by craftsmen and for craftsmen, I consider these saws to have been, aesthetically, the finest ever made. With their long horns and decorative beads and peaks, the handles were gracefully shaped and are very comfortable to use, feeling as though they were moulded to the users hand. The image at the top of this page shows some of the great variety of handle styles employed.
By the last quarter of the 19c industrial production processes became pre-eminent in saw-making, and I feel that the saws made then and later abandoned their focus on beauty and comfort and, even though they may have been made of better and more consistent steel, became pedestrian tools.
The earliest saws, as early as 3000 years ago in Egypt, had their handles force fitted onto a tang at the end of the saw blade. In the late 17c, in England, a new development took hold; the saw blade was slipped into a slot cut in the handle and fixed in place by, at first, rivets and later by a bolt and an early square nut, called a castellated nut. The rivets, incapable of being retightened as the wood shrank and the saw blade loosened, were improved upon by use of the nut and bolt. But the castellated nut was thick and, projecting from the side of the handle, could mar other tools or the surface it was laid upon. About 1780 in England a new fastener was developed that we in America today call a split-nut, (which term was certainly not used back then). Consisting of two parts, a screw with a circular, slightly tapered head like a rivet and a round nut tapered the same way, the fastener could be easily installed into slightly countersunk holes so that it was flush with the handle, presenting a smooth surface and thus causing no problems of interference with other materials.
Originally these saws were made in England, with London and Birmingham being the first important mid-18c saw making centers until they were eclipsed by Sheffield at the end of the century. Sheffield then became the entire world’s major saw supplier until the mid to late 19c when American manufacturers gradually took over the top place.
English saws, then fastened with either rivets or castellated nuts, were probably being imported to America as early as the late 17c. The early saw makers who built the industry in America were almost all English immigrants. The earliest split nut saws made in America that I’ve seen appeared around 1830, although there were almost certainly some made earlier, while the last use of split nuts here in America was around 1880.
Because of their ease of removal and replacement and their flush installation the split nuts were certainly an improvement over either rivets or castellated nuts. However, the split nuts had thin shafts and proved to be fairly fragile so, by the third quarter of the 19c, after trying different fastening options (some of which will appear here in later posts), new types of more durable screw fastenings were developed which made split nuts obsolete. At about the same time, as noted above, saw making rapidly turned to machine production on an industrial scale and became more concerned with volume rather than excellence in handcraft. This ended the production of these beautiful handsaws.
All of these split nut saws were produced before that French invention, the band saw, was imported and in wide use in America, around the time of the Civil War. That means that before then saw makers most likely cut out the handle by hand, shaped it to be comfortable with rasps and files, perhaps cut the kerf to receive the blade by hand and probably used a drill of some sort to prepare the handle for the screws. They’re fine looking saws and I hope you enjoy seeing and learning about them. Although the steel used in saw plates has been repeatedly improved over time, handle quality has been decreasing for more than a century since the end of split nut use, and craftsmen have only recently begun to “make ’em like that” again, with increasing numbers of new small saw makers starting up around the world who are making saws that are as lovely and comfortable as those of the split nut era.
Information on early saw making is scarce and consequently dating early saws is an imperfect process, which can provide general time frames but rarely specific dates. City directories, records of insurance policies and advertisements are the major source for information in the early years (pre-1850 or so), but the only information they give are possible starting and ending dates for the maker, or in the case of insurance records perhaps simply the one year in which the policy may have been issued. And there are rare instances where one maker sold his business to another, and the saws in stock at the changeover might have been re-stamped with the new owners mark; thus providing a date for such a saw.
In the US of A the first few actual catalogs with images of saws (rather than just price lists) show up around the time of the Civil War or shortly after. The brass medallions on saw handles (which came into use around 1830 in England and perhaps a decade or so later in the US of A) appear in some variety over time. These have been studied in an effort to arrange them in order of their appearance, but for now such studies are largely just speculations, however carefully considered and logical. Dating a saw by the various handle styles may also seem logical, but since the styles overlapped for differing periods for different makers, mistakes are easy to make, and common.
I’ve been greatly helped in learning about these saws by many saw collectors and historians, who have always been both welcoming and generous with their information. I’m deeply in their debt. The articles in the Gristmill, the quarterly publication of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association have provided much information on American saw makers. These articles have been gathered into their recent compilation “Gristmill Published Saw Articles from 1999-2014”, which demonstrates by the increasing depth and research in the articles just how recently all this history is being discovered and compiled.
For English saws the best resource is Simon Barley’s “British Saws & Sawmakers from c1660” published in 2014. This remarkable and thorough book is the result of well over a decade of collecting and research, and has set a very high standard for the field. Containing almost 2000 photographs and essays on saw dating, saw making, saw fasteners and saw handles, along with listings of saw makers and dealers, this book immediately became the “Bible” of this field upon its publication. Much of the information discussed in the essays is also applicable to American saws, with the caution that divergences do occur.
Hand Saw Makers of North America by Schaller is the only, and so the best, resource that attempts to list all American saw makers. The pioneering information it presents continues to be updated or corrected by new research from many sources, but no new compendium as yet exists to supercede it.
EIAI has published the Directory of American Toolmakers which is another useful resource which sometimes answers questions no other resource can.
The website and discussion group at Backsaw.net is another wonderful resource where new saw finds appear with frequency. The members bring a great deal of information to the discussions about these finds, so history is being compiled here as well. Several other web discussion groups have also provided valuable information: wkFineTools.com has compiled a great deal of information on many makers, both American and English, while the discussions at WoodNet Forums often provide valuable new information. Several other tool discussion groups in North America, England and Australia are active and occasionally concerned with saw history as well.