Saws in the Medieval Period

by Jamie Hall on November 1, 2010

Note: This is an old post, that had to be re-posted during the transfer to

Saws are a very old form of tool, probably sharing development with the knife. In prehistory, sharp rocks or shells were rubbed against meat and leather to cut them, and as tools improved, the features of the saw became more pronounced, with deeper grooves knapped into the stone to leave sharp teeth behind. The biggest change was the introduction of metal – the blades became thinner, longer and sharper, eventually allowing mankind to cut most materials this way.

The modern jeweller uses a special saw frame, called a piercing saw. In practice, they are useful for more than just piercing – very few jobs, in my experience, can be completed without some use of the saw, even if it’s just used for starting a groove for filing. In addition, the workshop might contain various other saws, depending on the needs of the artisan.

In Theophilus’s On Divers Arts, there is surprisingly little in the way of references to the saw. Clearly, the delicate modern piercing saw was not available, but other types of saw would be just as useful. Of the three mentions in the index, two are notes, and so only one is mentioned by Theophilus himself. This is in the context of using a two-man saw to cut up blocks of rock crystal, assisted by throwing water and sand into the cut. As the list of tools in his book is quite comprehensive, the saw seems a strange omission, suggesting that he made no use of them for his work, perhaps preferring to cut with the chisel, or shears.

That doesn’t mean that there were no saws, however. In The Mästermyr Find (Arwidsson and Berg, 1983), the authors illustrate and describe 3 saws/blades (36, 41 and 42 in the catalogue). These tools were found in marshland in Scandanavia, and were probably lost by a travelling craftsman. At around 40kg, it’s an impressive haul of tools from 10 centuries ago. The first is a hacksaw (pictured above), with the blade still mounted on it’s frame. The length, including handle is 24cm, and the blade itself is only 0.15mm thick. It might not work for piercing, but cutting small sections of sheet or rod would have been possible – the teeth look like they were reasonably small (huge compared to the modern saw blade), and while there is no evidence that the owner worked in precious metals, copper, brass and bronze were all in evidence, so similar techniques were in use.

The other two blades (41 and 42) have larger blades that hold themselves rigid, with a tang at the end for mounting in a handle (42 still has a handle attached). 42 is narrow, and it’s teeth are all in line, which suggests that it would be appropriate for working metal, but 41 has larger teeth which are set left and right of the blade – this might be a woodworking saw, as the teeth are too large for fine metalwork. You can look at the pictures for these online, at The Mästermyr Project.

In Anglo-Saxon Crafts, Kevin Leahy references finds from Icklingham, Suffolk and Thetford, Norfolk, but suggests that the saw was used mainly for bone and antler, rather than wood or metalwork.

I’ve managed to scavenge a modern saw frame for myself already – there isn’t much point having a jeweller’s bench without one – but for any task where I want to be authentic, I will not be able to use it. I’ll purchase a small hacksaw, and see how well I fare with that. Otherwise, I’ll be relying on chisels and shears, as Theophilus must have.

{ 1 comment }

angus daren May 15, 2012 at 04:31


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