Brass backs Versus Steel backs

Up until more recent decades, all tenon saws had a folded spline running along the length of the saw, a process developed over 250 years ago and one which some companies held to until as recently as the 1980’s. There are merits to this, but none that warrant changing back. Most people don’t know what that benefit is. The British saw maker that makes almost all of the British-made saws actually make them under one and the same roof and this company, Thomas Flynn, still rely on this simple process. The main advantage is that the saw plate itself is only ‘pinched’ and not fixed with indents and epoxies. The pinched method allows the craftsman to straighten bowed (not kinked) plates throughout the life of the saw. Perhaps the only reason a saw bows is because pinching allows this bow to happen, some might argue. others might argue that there would be far more kinked saws if the back didn’t release the plate if accidentally trodden or kneeled on. But we all know when it comes to tools accidents happen and people do stand on tenon saws when they use them everyday and especially on jobs sites, in offices and in the homes of customers.

This questioner asked me for my perspective on whether steel backs were rated as inferior to brass backs and whether craftsmen were in fact disdainful about steel backed saws. Every craftsman I ever knew swore by brass-backed versions, they were indeed unwaveringly so. In those days your tools were what got you the job  when you went for an interview and when you went in search of work the foreman usually asked 1) Where you had even working? 2) Where you apprenticed? and 3) Could he see your tools? (No man would ever enter another man’s tool box without expressed permission.) Depending on the tools, types, quality, condition and such, you either got the job or you didn’t. I liked the system. No contracts, HR, H&S, just responsible people mostly.

 

 

The steel backs on tenon saws were usually made from thinner folded stock and were indeed markedly lighter. Through the years this lighter feature got even lighter until we ended up with some very poorly made tools coming from many major producers. In the 60’s, tool companies were looking for more fashionable style whilst at the same time trying fob us off with tasteless construction and poor quality goods. Stanley had dropped its brief excursion into saw making and produced a Teflon coated plastic handled saw (Shown above right), which actually worked surprisingly well, never rusted in 45 years and had almost zero friction. I still have it, though I was of course frowned on for several years.

Back then there was no such thing as second hand tools and of course no Internet and yet been birthed. New tools were the way everyone went unless an older joiner liked you and handed down a few tools to get you started. Personally I like the heavier brass-backed makers; early S&J, Disston and especially R Groves.

 

I bought this little 8″ S&J for £6 ($9) from a car boot sale last weekend. They don’t feel the same in steel and feel is a key feature as well as sound too.Sound? Yes, a brass backed saw sounded less tinny than a brass backed one and I think this too has a baring in that the brass serves to dampen to sound of the plate as you cut. The saw actually progresses into the cut better with less…yes, you’ve got it…vibration resulting in sound and chatter caused by friction, flex, and more external influences ranging from force, body alignment, arm/hand alignment, angle of saw presentation, handle position and so on. When it comes to saws I like the extra weight of brass. I like to push forward and not downwards and that means I can focus on one thing only and that’s direction. The men I worked with always told me that I shouldn’t need to press down with the tenon or dovetail saw (we didn’t call it a dovetails saw then either), just forward. I look at that now and say the same. A well sharpened saw needs minimal downward pressure.

 

11 Comments

  1. Christopher Harvey on 26 October 2012 at 11:21 am

    thanks Paul for this interesting commentary. Before I saw the light, I bought a S+J hardpoint tenon saw. Why is the set on these saws so broad, making them bind in the cut?



    • Paul Sellers on 26 October 2012 at 7:55 pm

      I think many makers of hardpoint saws produce a good handsaw product. People often think I am condemning them. I don’t. What I condemn is the fact that they produce something that stands in truth’s stead. They give the impression that what they have replaced more traditional saws with is an evolutionary improvement, the next level, as it were. They conned people worldwide and now they sell only the disposables. Think of Bahco and Spear and Jackson and most others as steel processors and plastics companies and then you get the reality of who and what these companies really are. Heat the teeth of saws through an an electronic impulse machine and hey presto, you have your ‘craftsman’ coming back to buy five saws for $25 in The Home Depot every few weeks and the “You can do it, we can help” team of experts who sell kitchens and work checkout tills in between filling shelves and working forklifts, are the experts people turn to for advice.
      The hardpoint saws cross cut really well. Exceptionally well, I think, but none of these makers seem to have come up with a really good hard point tenon saw. There is no reason why they couldn’t or wouldn’t except that the demand is not high enough. In actuality, if one of these big boys was to replicate any of the high quality saw makers and sell what they make with hardpoint teeth and plastic handles they could be onto a good thing because the smaller the saw teeth the harder they are to sharpen. They could sell replaceable blades. Overset teeth creates a wide cut and it’s this that takes more effort. Overset teeth make saws inaccurate. That is generally the main problem I found with saws made in Sheffield UK. It’s a quick fix. Two hammers a vise and a few taps takes of the excess set and the saw suddenly cuts like the best.



  2. Rob Young on 27 October 2012 at 8:41 pm

    In the realm of hardened teeth and replaceable blades, the “Shark Saw” brand is a decent choice. Plastic handles, but a bit of friction tape (hockey tape) helps the feel.

    These are pull saws but this particular one : http://www.amazon.com/Shark-10-2410-Fine-Cut-19-Point-Finish/dp/B00004TBQ2/ref=pd_cp_hi_2 has a partial back for support and stands up to the occasional confused stroke with a bit of down pressure on the push. This particular one has rather fine teeth at 19 ppi so don’t plan on cutting thick & quick. But if you want to experiment a bit with dovetails, this is a nifty saw to try.

    I’ve used successfully a few of the Shark Saw products but have since switched (graduated?) to western style saws and sharpening them myself. Since I made the switch, it is nice to be able to adjust the saw to match the task rather than compromising and “fighting” the tool.

    For $25 to get a blade and handle, it isn’t such a bad thing to experiment with.



    • Miles Thompson on 30 October 2012 at 3:48 pm

      The task facing me last evening was extracting a 1/2″ board from a board about 11/16″ thick – that’s a lot of planing.

      Possibly could have done it with my Western rip saw, but its kerf is pretty wide and there would not have been much support on the offcut side. I’m not that good yet.

      So took the Shark ryoba from its nail and sawed with the rip side. It cut more slowly, and the saw plate became noticeably warm. Smoother cut than the western style, and ended up with a 3/32 slice of “spruce veneer”.

      So, part from having a dedicated, thin-blade frame saw, it’s good to know the Shark is there.

      Cheers – Miles



      • J Guengerich on 31 October 2012 at 1:11 am

        Resawing by hand, Cheers to you Miles!
        That is one of the many task that I have not attempted yet. Perhaps in the holiday gift making I will come across the need and the fortitude. LOL



  3. Geoff Bembridge on 31 March 2014 at 5:54 pm

    I have recently bought three PAX saws 1776 types, these saws are exceptionally well made, with their pistol grip elm handles, which feel very comfortable in the hand. A very solid brass back which weighs fairly heavy and definitely appears to aid an accurate cut. I’m confident sound is reduced, because of the brass back. Keeping the saw track during a cut is an absolute doddle. So for me its Bass back all the way.



    • Paul Sellers on 31 March 2014 at 6:19 pm

      I prefer brass backs for most of my work, but every so often I use a steel back and think to myself, I should use these more. So what does that mean for others. Brass backs are in general heavier and it does aid balance and ingress. That said, lighter weight saws have their place. I use half a dozen tenon saws, dovetail saws and handsaws. I sharpen them for different approaches in the wood and different types of woods too.



  4. Jonas on 8 October 2016 at 5:14 pm

    Stumbled on this post when searching for ways to replace a missing back. Can wood be a third option to brass or steel? It’s easier to find, easier to shape and cheaper.



    • Paul Sellers on 10 October 2016 at 8:38 am

      The issue usually will be weight. Whereas wood will keep the back straight, the weight is only a fraction of say brass. Steel backs are generally lighter and this is why people avoided steel over brass because brass usually increases weight by about 20% depending on thickness.



  5. Glyn W on 14 December 2017 at 2:09 am

    Not sure if its relevant but in engineering generally brass is mated with steel when minimal friction between the mating metals is required (i.e. bushes or lock parts). Maybe in the days of crimping the saw back on this reduced vibration and squeak with the blade.



    • Tone on 4 March 2018 at 8:31 pm

      Interesting. I suppose the steel plate could corrode, rust, or stick into a steel back. I have several used tenon-style saws now, all steel backed except one, which I find ridiculously heavy by comparison – but it looks prettier/more professional/expensive!