Bow Saws

Alternative names ( Buck Saw, Frame Saw, Framed saw, Pit Saw, Reciprocating Rectilinear, Reciprocating Resawing Machine, Sweep Saw, Turning Saw)


A frame-saw with a thin blade tensioned by a cord or a threaded rod at the lugs of the frame. The ends of the blade are secured by a knob and handle by which the blade can be turned to facilitate cutting shapes in boards. The tension on the blade gives it sufficient rigidity in its work.

Definition adapted from Vic Taylor, Woodworker's Dictionary Hemel Hempstead, England: Argus Books, 1987, page 18.


Once the cabinet-maker's general "bench" saw, a bow-saw comprises a narrow blade stretched in a stiff framework, not unlike the bowstring in the violin bow. Like its motorized cousin, the bandsaw, the Bow-Saw can -- with its inter-changeable blades -- cross-cut, resaw, rip, and cut curves.

bow_saw_sizes_holtzapffel_ 1846

The sizes of bow saws vary from a two-man-operated saw -- the Frame Saw or Pit Saw -- that is large enough to cut logs roughly into lumber to a small saw with delicate teeth for cutting thin sheets of veneer. Its larger cousin -- a Frame Saw -- fashioned as a pit-saw, and handled by two-men, cuts timber logs into boards, not unlike a bandsaw "resawing" timbers logs into boards.

In most designs, the Bow and/or Frame saw consists of a two wooden-sides -- deceptively called "cheeks" -- tensioning the blade -- sometimes called the "web" -- with two additional, but essential components: a central "stretcher" -- which functions, first, to "separate" the cheeks, and, second, at each end of the stretcher, to be a pivot for the cheeks, and, finally, a third compment, for creating tension in the blade.

Think of the Bow-Saw as "a Bandsaw without an electric motor", or, as shown by Robert Grimshaw (below) -- in Grimshaw on Saws, its motorized version is a "Reciprocating Rectilinear" or "Reciprocating Resawing Machine".

Historical note

The framed handsaw of antiquity, of which an example of circa A.D. 100 has survived, had the tension provided by a piece of springy wood. It was made like a bow, with the saw blade in the position of a bow string. It survives today in the form of certain metal Bow Saws, e.g. Saw, Bow, Tubular.

A Bow Saw with a twisted cord (but without toggle-stick) is depicted in a stone relief of Roman chairmakers.


The original purpose of the Framed Saw must have been to keep a narrow and relatively weak blade in tension and thus avoid buckling when in use. Later, the frame was used to hold the very thin blades which are needed for cutting veneers in valuable wood without undue waste; and also for holding the long narrow blades needed for sawing out curvilinear work. Though framed Saws are still used on the Continent for all ordinary hand-sawing operations, in Britain they survive only for dealing with curved work.

Source: R A Salaman's Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, page 419.

According to W L Goodman -- as the passage above from Salaman notes -- History of Woodworking Tools London: Bell, 1964, pages 131-142, -- Bow-saws, i.e., their hand-powered versions -- date back to Roman times.

Among today's woodworkers who adhere to hand-tool traditions, bow-saws remain central in their significance as versatile cutting tools.

(Aside: Not since my youth on Canadian prairie farm have I used a Buck saw, which at the time I didn't think much of. After reading all these sources, I have become a believer, and purchased my own Bow-saw.)

These saws are often called "Turning Saws" because -- according to Graham Blackburn -- "... the blade can be 'turned' in the Frame.

bow saw 1987

The Office of the Cheeks made to the Frame Saw is, by the twisted Cord and Tongue in the middle, to draw the upper ends of the Cheeks closer together, that the lower end of the Cheeks may be drawn the wider asunder, and strain the Blade of the Saw the straighter. The Tennant-Saw, being thin, hath a Back to keep it from bending.

Sources: 1677 etc : Joseph Moxon ...Mechanick Exercises: or, the Doctrine of Handy- works, applied to the arts of smithing, joinery, carpentry, turning, and bricklayery ; to which is added mechanick dyalling, etc. , 3rd edition. Lond. 1703, page 102: The Frame or Bow-Saw. (The quote above on the bow-saw from Moxon's book is in R A Salaman's Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, 1975, pages 426-429; and a sidebar in the Consumer Guide's The Tool Catalog New York: Harper & Row, 1978, page 29; the image above on left adapted from Vic Taylor, Woodworker's Dictionary Hemel Hempstead, England: Argus Books, 1987, page 18.

More on Hand-Powered Bow-Saws

Technically, handsaws such as crosscut or ripsaws are known as "open saws," a term that, according to Eric Sloane, describes "a saw blade with a permanently attached handle". Bow-and buck saws- originate from another design, the technical name of which is the "Frame saw." Both share the common trait of having a rather narrow metal blade mounted on an open wood (metal in modern versions) Frame. Historically, Frame saws were popular among early North American craftsmen because wood was simply more available than metal for a saw Frame. They bought the blade and mounted it as they wished. Frame saws are also taken apart very easily, and only the blade needs to be carried from place to place - a convenient solution to the problems of a metal-poor, but wood-rich world.


The saw, which is a very thin, narrow, and straight ribbon of steel, very finely toothed, is stretched in a frame, the necessary strain of which is imparted, by a twisted loop of strong cord, in the simple manner indicated. As this image from the Wells and Hooper classic manual on cabinet- making shows, this saw is very useful in cutting small curves or ornamental openings, which are usually started from a brace-bit hole. To insert the saw, the bow is loosened to allow one end of the blade to be removed from its holder, passed through the hole, again attached to its holder, and strained by the twisting of the cord. When this is done, the blade is turned, by means of its two handles, in the direction required, and the cutting is proceeded with. The bow is held by the larger handle.

For the proper sharpening and setting of saws no directions of a sufficient nature can be given in words: and as a saw can be easily injured, by ignorant hands, in these important matters, the amateur must seek direct instructions from a proficient workman.

Most of the works performed in England with the hand-saw, the tenon, dovetail, and similar saws, are on the Continent accomplished with frame-saws of various sizes; the pieces are mostly fixed, either to or upon the bench, and/or a fixture specifically designed for securely holding longer workpieces.

(Image above on right is adapted from Percy A Wells and John Hooper, Modern Cabinet Work: Furniture and Fitments, 1922, page 314; diagrams of the manipulative apparatus for the blade are shown as figures 708 on page 726 and figure 710 on page 727 of Holtzafppel's Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, volume II).

Sources: Charles Holtzapffel, John Jacob Holtzapffel, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation 1850, volume 2, page 727 volume 2 not online; Percy A Wells and John Hooper, , 1922, page 314; George Ashdown Audsley, Amateur Joinery in the Home Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co, 1916, pages 32-33; Eric Sloane, A Museum of Early Tools 1964, page 66.

Pit Frame Saw

From Oxford English Dictionary :

A long saw with handles at each end, used for cutting timber over a saw pit.

The word Pit Saw to describe these long Saws was probably first used by Joseph Moxon. This use Pit Saw, evidently, is confined to England and America. Designating "Pit" as a term for saws used for dimensioning boards from timbers can be documented from the early sixteenth century onwards; but in certain cases in England, e.g. in shipyards, and generally on the Continent of Europe, the timber was supported above ground on trestles as it still is in parts of Africa and Asia.


As we see on the left -- around 1700, for sawing boards, European woodworkers used Frame-Saws , with a blade length of about two feet, with wide blades. (The plate is from master-craftsman, Jacques-Andre Roubo's 17th-century Paris workshop; see L'Art du Menuisier .)

Roubo's bow-saws are representative of a European tradition, which is different from the English and American traditions. Among these woodworkers,for these same operation, handsaws were used. It is for cutting curves -- fitted with a narrow, tensioned blade -- that English and American cabinet makers used Frame saws. These smaller saws are typically called either bow saws or turning saws. Very small versions with blades of around 6 inches are known as coping saws, and are naturally used for coping joints and other intricate work. See Fret Saws The Frame consists of a pair of mortised cheeks held apart by a tennoned cross-member called the stretcher. The hardware, or pins, hold the blade in the cheeks and also provide a mount for the handles. Finally, the tension on the blade is kept by a twisted cord, a Spanish windlass type of traction device kept from unwinding by the all-important toggle. The typical full-sized bow saw has a distance between the cheeks of about 8 -16 inches - typically 12 inches.

More From Oxford English Dictionary

1678: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1677 volume 12, page 988

"In the second..[there is a description of] the Pit-Saw."

1703: Joseph Moxon Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handyworks Applied to the Art of Printing page 99.

"The Pit-Saw is ... used by those Work-men that make sawing Timber and Boards their whole Business."

Sources: Joseph Moxon in ...Mechanick Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handyworks Applied to the Art of Printing , page 102; Jacques-Andre Roubo L'Art du Menuisier 1765; Charles Holtzapffel Turning and Mechanical Manipulation 1850, volume 2, pages 720 ff; R A Salaman, Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, 1975, pages 426-429. This is a link to an entry on "Saw Pit" on wikipedia

Mechanization of Bow-Saws

bow_saw_stationary_frame_holtzapffel_ 1846

The mechanization of bow-saws began, evidently, in the 14th-century.

These descriptions come from M Powis Bale Woodworking Machinery 1880, pages 35-36; also "saw mill entry", Encyclopaedia Metropolitana; or, universal dictionary of knowledge.... Edited by Edw. Smedley, Hugh Jam. Rose, and H. John Rose. London: B. Fellowes, Rivington, Ducan, Malcolm, Suttaby, Hodgson ... 1845. volume 1, page 382

"The straight or mill saw was known and in use some hundreds of years probably before the circular saw".

Not known, though, is the date it introduced, or when it was first driven by other means than hand power.

However, several writers mention the fourteenth century as probably the earliest period. The 18th-century antiquarian, Bernard de Montfaucon, in his 15-volume L'Antiquité Expliquée, gives a representation of two ancient saws in volume III, plate 1, page 189. (click here for a wikipedia account of Montfucon (1655-1741)) Taken from Jan Gruter (1560 - 1627) -- also Janus Gruterus -- "one the blade of a saw without any Frame, and the other apparently a cross-cut saw". (I can't find any online source readily available with images.)

Sources: Bernard de Montfaucon L'Antiquité Expliquée,' vol. iii., p1. page 189, as cited by Bale, page 35. In three chapters, Bale gives us a narrative that usefully ties together the traditions assocated with the mechanization of Bow-, Pit-, and Frame-saws, including how and where they are known as Timber- Deal- Frame- and/or as Reciprocating Gang- or Mill-Saws. Other books published in the 1870s and 1880s, usefully supplies both narrative and images of hand-powered and mechanized bow-saws and the variations such as gang-saws: Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... Hurd and Houghton, 1876, volume 3, page 2041; M Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery 1880. page 35 Robert Grimshaw's Grimshaw on Saws (See the Mechnical Version from Robert Grimshaw's Grimshaw on Saws below.) Goodman dedicates several dense prose to sorting out the scholarship on bow-saws and their cognates: W L Goodman, History of Woodworking Tools London: Bell, 1964, pages 131-142.


Some interesting accounts of an early saw, Frame or mill, as it is called, are given in Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... Hurd and Houghton, 1876, volume 3, page 2041; (Bale refers to Hardwicke's Miscellaneous State Papers, from 1501 to 1726, p. 71, but after checking, you must conclude that Bale's citation is incorrect -- the text below is not there, though the book itself is online. However, Knight reprints a long passage of what I think is the source to which Bale refers. Since Knight preceded Bale by four years, maybe Bale got his sources confused.)

In the year 1555, the Bishop of Ely, the ambassador from Mary, Queen of England, to the Court of Rome, having noticed a saw mill in the neighbourhood of Lyons, describes it as follows:

The saw mill is driven with an upright wheel; and the water that maketh it go is gathered whole into a narrow trough, which delivereth the same water to the wheel. This wheel hath a piece of timber put to the axle-tree end, like the handle of a broch, and fastened to the end of a saw, which being turned by the force of the water, hoisteth up and down the saw, that it continually eateth in, and the handle of the same is kept in a rigall of wood from swerving. Also the timber lieth as it were upon a ladder, which is brought by little and little to the saw with another vice.

In 1575, a mill having a gang of saws, capable of sawing several boards at once, was in operation on the Danube, near Ratisbon. In 1596, the first, it is said, in Holland was erected at Haardnm. In England, one erected in 1663 by a Dutchman was abandoned on account of the opposition of the populace; and more than a century later (1767), when James Stansfleld established a wind saw-mill at Limehouse, near London, it wan destroyed by a mob. A similar mill had previously been in operation for some years at Leith, Scotland. ...

Sources: Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... Hurd and Houghton, 1876, volume 3, page 2041; M Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery 1880. page 35.

Before the introduction of saw Frames driven by water or wind, timber was generally converted by the aid of the Wedge and Pit-Saw; the latter had a reciprocating motion given to it by two or more men. In isolated districts, or where little timber is required, these saw-pits are in considerable use even at the present time, and men can be found willing to convert some classes of timber at a cost not greatly in excess of that sawn by machinery; the process is, however, much slower, and as a rule, not so well done. The earliest saw Frames in use in this country were constructed almost entirely of wood, and are described by an old writer as follows:

The common saw-mill, which is generally employed in cutting timber into planks, consists of a square wooden Frame, in which a number of saws are stretched; this Frame rises and falls in another wooden Frame, secured to the foundation of the mill in the same manner as a window sash rises and falls. The timber to be cut is placed upon a horizontal bed or carriage. sliding upon the floor of the mill, which being suffi­ciently narrow to pass through the inside of the vertical or moving saw-Frame, will carry the tree through and subject it to the action of the saw. The carriage is provided with a rack, which is engaged by the teeth of a pinion, and thus gives the means of advancing the carriage.

The pinion is turned by means of a large ratchet-wheel, with a click moved by levers connected with the saw Frame; when the saw Frame rises the click slips over a certain number of teeth of the ratchet wheel, and when it descends to make the cut, the click turns the ratchet wheel round, and advances the wood forward just as much as the saw cuts during its de­scent. The trees are generally dragged up an inclined plane, through a door at one end of the mill, and being placed upon the carriage, they pass through, and are divided by the saw into two or more pieces, which are carried forward, and passed out at a door on the opposite side of the mill.

Source: M Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery 1880. page 35 -- I find it curious that, rather than a citation to a specific source, Bale uses "old writer".


The illustration on the left is a "combined timber and deal Frame ... adapted for timber of moderate dimensions". Its mode of operation is detailed by Bale, on pages 50-51, but, in operation, it works much like the numerous other timber Frames Bales describes on pages 35 to 67 of Woodworking Machinery

1899: The Turning - or bow-saw is much better for any work with which bow will not interfere, and is a very useful tool at times. Get Ile with handles which turn so that the blade can be turned to saw at an angle with the Frame. You will need a few extra blades different widths. The main thing to be borne in mind is to make the cut square with the surface. It is easier to follow the line than to secure a cut at right angles to the surface.

Mechanical Bow Saw


Working Drawings for a Shop-Made Bow-Saw


Sources: Charles G. Wheeler, Woodworking for Beginners New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1899, page 469
Paul N. Hasluck, The Handyman's Book, 1903, pages 86 (illus.) and 88
Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: or the Doctrine of Handy-Works. Applied to the Arts of Smithing Joinery Carpentry Turning Bricklayery London, 1677 and 1703
Jacques-Andre Roubo L'Art du Menuisier 1765; Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... Hurd and Houghton, 1876, volume 3
Charles G. Wheeler, Woodworking for Beginners New York: G P Putnam's Sons, 1899
Paul N. Hasluck, The Handyman's Book, 1903
George Ashdown Audsley, Amateur Joinery in the Home Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co, 1916
Eric Sloane, A Museum of Early Tools 1964
Graham Blackburn The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Woodworking Handtools, Instruments and Devices Containing a Full Description of the Tools Used by Carpenters, Joiners, and Cabinet-Makers New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974
R A Salaman, Dictionary of Woodworking Tools Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1975, section on "saws"; Vic Taylor, Woodworker's Dictionary Hemel Hempstead, England: Argus Books, 1987, page 18
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