Glossary Intro and Glossary Annexes

Circular Saw

Also known as Cabinet Saw and Bench Saw. Variations include Table Saw, Contractor's Saw, and perhaps such other labels as "buzz saw". Historically, Circular Saw Table and Circular Saw Bench.

Circular Saw A saw in the form of a circular disc, which is made to revolve rapidly on its axis. Hence circular saw-mill, etc.

table-saw n. A small saw fitted to a table, and worked by treadle mechanism. It may be either of the scroll-saw type, or a circular saw, more commonly the former.

Source: William Dwight Whitney, The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language 1891

Below are dated references from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1817 Niles' Register XII. 336/2 At the steam saw mill there is a circular saw, ... chiefly calculated for cutting veneers.

1825 J. NICHOLSON Operating Mechanic 444 Circular saws...are now used in the dock-yard at Portsmouth.

1852 C. W. HOSKYNS Talpa 178 As easily as a circular-saw cuts a plank.

1816 J. SMITH Panorama of Science and Art I. 98 The construction of a circular saw-mill, invented by Smart.

As Tools For Woodworking, Saws Trace Far Back Into History

With the exception, perhaps, of the wedge and the axe, the saw can lay claim to being the most ancient instrument for the conversion of wood, and it is certainly by far the most important.

So writes M Powis Bale, celebrated author of the 1880 classic study of Woodworking Machinery, page 4.

Records exist for sawmills driven by water or wind in Germany as early as the 14th-century, but Bale claims, “this is, however, very much open to doubt”.

According to Bale, the German, Paul von Stetten (1731-1808), says in his 1779 Kunst-, Gewerb- und Handwerks-Geschichte der Reichs-Stadt Augsburg that saw mills exist near Augsburg in 1337, although the records of the machinery consisted of, or by what means it is driven, are sketchy. Records also exist which claim that sawmills are operating in:—Breslau,1427; Holstein, 1545; Lyons, 1555; Ratisbon, 1575; and in Norway in the year 1530. The first mill in what is now The Netherlands is in Saardam in 1596, and in Sweden about 1653.

Britain's first sawmill for which records exist is in 1663, near London; however, Bale notes, the occasion causes so much riot that it is abandoned. This is also the case, where a century later – 1768-- James Stansfield erects a sawmill that is torn to pieces by a mob.

In my search for early traces of circular saws I found Alexander Jamieson's 1829 dictionary, where the date indicates importantly that the steam-powered circular saw is beginning to have an economic impact, particularly in the displacement of sawyers. The decades 1840-1860 are formative, evidently, with 1840 being pivotal for cabinetmaking by hand versus cabinetmaking with steam-powered machinery. It is here that Britain pulls ahead of the other European nations in developing the tools the help her create the Industrial Revolution. She holds this edge until the 1851 London Exhibition, when -- ever so slowly -- America begins to pull ahead of even Britain.

Samuel Miller and His Patent of the Circular Saw, 1777

From Knight's 1876 entry on the Circular saw

... The circular saw is well described in Miller's English patent, No. 1,152, of 1777.

Knight'scircular saw-table

The first patent (No. 1152) on such a saw was issued in London, England in 1777 to Samuel Miller. This document, reprinted below, is adapted from Norman Ball-- see Sources. See page 9, John Richards' 1872 Treatise on woodworking machines, page 6, in 1880, by M Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery,and Robert Grimshaw's 1880 Grimshaw on Saws

Source: Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, Volume 1, page 555:

Sawing Machine


TO ALL WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME, I, SAMUEL MILLER, of the Town and County of Southampton, Sailmaker, send greeting... .

NOW KNOW YE, that ..., the said Samuel Miller, do hereby declare that my said Invention of An Intirely new Machine for the more Expeditiously Sawing of all Kinds of Wood, Stone, and Ivory, is described in the following manner (that is to say):--

The machine that gives the power, a horizontal windmill. The shaft of this mill stands vertical, with four levers fixed to it, at right angles with the shaft, to which levers are fixed the sails. These sails when in motion are one half of their time horizontal, the other vertical. The upright shaft being in motion, communicates its power to an horizontal shaft. This shaft hath a large wheel to it, round which goes a rope or chain, which is continued to a smaller; through the small wheel goes a square bar of iron that receives the saws, which are a circular figure. Those saws being in motion, the matter or substance they are to cutt is brought forward as follows: -- The horizontal shaft, as mentioned before, hath a small wheel on it, with a groove to receive a rope, the rope is continued to a smaller, that hath a pinion to it, connected to a straight bar under the chariot, which hath teeth to match the pinion; the chariot moves in a groove likewise on a center; it hath two motions, one to advance forward and the other sideways, which is performed by a screw annexed to the end of the chariott. This screw is turned by hand to direct the pieces against the saws, agreeable to any line wanted to be cutt.

In witness whereof, I, the said Samuel Miller, have hereunto sett my hand and seal, this Fifth day of August, One thousand and seven hundred and seventy-seven.

Beginning with London's 1851 Great Exhibition, this period's technologies, designs, and inventions are recorded in the myriad catalogues of the great international exhibitions. Even though the investment is substantial, by 1850, according to Henry Mayhew, there are are sixty-eight steam-powered saw mills in London. The cost of two steam engines of ten horsepower each would be between £650 and £800.

1843 version of reciprocating saw

The saw-mills of the present day -- that is, 1820s and 30s -- are of two distinct kinds:

[bullet] the reciprocating saw -- which operates similarly to the common pit or frame saw -- have blades which cut by a continuous up-and-down motion

[bullet] the circular saws, that is, have blades which cut by a continuous rotary motion.

The circular saw-mills are for the most part used for cutting up timber of small dimensions; and the reciprocating for large timber, in forming beams, rafters, planks, etc., out of large timber.

The most important machinery of the kind is erected first by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) under the joint co-operation of Dr. Gregory, at Portsmouth. Some important improvements have recently been made by Robert Eastman, of Brunswick, Maine, United States, in sawing machines, the distinguishing features of which consist in a rotary saw of a superior construction to the common circular saw, and in the improved manner in which the logs are sawn. Instead of a continued series of teeth round the periphery of the plate like other circular saws, Eastman's has oniy eight, or rather only four cutting instruments (each containing two teeth) placed at equal distances on the circumference, and projecting from it; these instruments are called section teeth....

Sources Alexander Jamieson, A Dictionary of Mechanical Science, Arts, Manufactures, and Miscellaneous ..., with an entry about "saw mills", but which disusses circular saws as well; E Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery: Its Rise, Progress, and Construction, 1800-1880 , 1880, page 4; but also see the book's first three chapters.

A little over a decade later, more progress in the refinement of circular saws is recorded below a mark surely that the promise of the cricular saw in the industry is recognized widely and that much effort is being directed toward refining it even further.

Circular Saw A saw in the form of a circular disc, which is made to revolve rapidly on its axis. Hence circular saw-mill, etc.
271. Instead of a straight saw oscillating in a frame, circular saws have been recently much employed. Some difficulties have been found in applying them to sawing heavy timber; but for sawing Veneers, and all light work, they are to be preferred, in consequence of the greater rapidity with which they perform their work, the greater smoothness of the cuts they make, and a saving in power. In cutting veneers, the axle of the wheel has in some cases been made to rise and fall, thus combining the advantages of the oscillating and the circular motion. One of the most complete and important combinations of circular saws, is that employed in Glasgow (Scotland) in the fabrication of barrels.
272. Planing machines may be considered with saw-mills. The work of planing wood is effected in these by knives placed in an oblique direction on the circumference of a cylinder. A machine for tonguing and grooving plank for flooring has been constructed on the same principles. The grooves are cut by a thin cylinder, having cutting teeth on its circumference. The tongue is formed by two such cylinders revolving parallel to each other on the same axle. The planks are reduced to the proper width by passing them between two circular saws. These circular saws, the planing knives, and the tonguing and grooving instruments, are so combined that the whole process is performed at one operation, and a rough plank introduced at one end of the machine, comes out finished and fit for laying in a floor at the other.

Source: James Renwick, Applications of the Science of Mechanics to Practical Purposes New York: Harper & brothers, 1842

The Circular Saw Precedes the Bandsaw

The invention of the Circular Saw precedes the band saw. Circular saws are revolutionary because they cut by continuous rotary action, and did not have the non-cutting return stroke inherent in the gang saw.

Circular saws are in use at the Royal Navy yards by 1781, and their use spread rapidly thereafter. It has been alleged that circular saws are in use in Holland in the 1600's.

Norman Ball's well-documented 1975 presentation to the Association of Preservation Technology shows that Samuel Miller's patent actually covers a machine powered by a windmill and containing "a square bar of iron that received saws which are a circular figure". The remainder of the patent does not describe the saw blade at all nor show any drawings of it; it only covers various mechanisms to power and operate the machine.

Ball goes on to state that the use of rotary cutters "clearly predates Miller by at least a century and perhaps 240 years. These early applications of rotary cutters are for cutting gears for clocks and scientific instruments". Apparently history gets a little dim in this area. In any event, it can safely be said that the circular wood-cutting saw came into well-documented use at the end of the 1700's.

Sources: Norman Ball,"Circular Saws and the History of Technology", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 7, No. 3, 1975, pages 79-89; Chandler Jones, Bandsaws: Wide Blade and Narrow Blade Types Seattle: Privately Printed, 1992.

Brunel and His Patent

In 1807, circular saws are employed by Brunel in his block-making machine -- i.e., a block-making machine for mortising ships' blocks, an operation until then performed by manual labor-- and afterward circular saws came into general use.


The Circular Saw. During all the centuries which witnessed the birth and rise, the haughty supremacy and the fall of nations in successive turns, no important change was made for the better in the manufacture of saws, until, in 1790, a device was brought out by Brunel, by which cutting should be continuous. In other words, the application of the rotary principle to power-driven saws was given practicality to the world. While the circular saw was first practically used in Holland, its development is due to England and America - especially the latter.

Source: Robert Grimshaw, in Saws: The History, Development, Action, Classification and Comparison of Saws of All Kinds, page 53.

First Circular Saw in America in 1814

In America, about 1814, in Bentonsville, NY, using blacksmiths' tools, Benjamin Cumminsa made a circular saw. This is said to be the first circular saw made in this country. Formerly, the larger portion came from Sheffield, England, but Philadelphia, Pitbsburgh, Cincinnati and other places make saw blades, "of the best quality, and from American steel of American iron".

Source: Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, Volume 1, page 2033.

Circular Saw Bench 1868


As a wood-working tool, the saw bench has the disadvantage of requiring large power to drive, and -- [with the blade's wide kerf] -- wastes a considerable amount of wood. This drawback is, however, more than counterbalanced by its general handiness and adaptability for converting all kinds of wood, and its little liability to disarrangement.

Source: M Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery 1880, page 19

J D Wallace Produces the First Direct-Motor-Drive Circular Saw


On the left is the 1920s version of the No. 8, J D Wallace "socket-driven" table saw. (The socket-driven set-up reflected early wiring standards.) The 1920s Wallace catalogs also show smaller, "bench top" versions, including a 1/2-HP Direct Drive. Note, too, the tilting-arbor mechanism.

M Powis Bale, Robert Grimshaw, and Chandler Jones on the Advantages and Disadvantages of Circular Saws

M Powis Bale also offers observations -- highlighted in the quoted passage on the right, above -- about the distinctions between cutting with a circular saw blade versus cutting with the bandsaw blade. Primarily, it is the Kerf, that is the width of the saw's cut. Kerf is a factor in sawing determined by Set, or the Clearance of wood chips by the action fo the Blade as it cuts. This factor, kerf, is also noted by Robert Grimshaw,
Grimshaw on saws: concerning the details of manufacture, setting, swaging ..
. Morristown, N.J. : Astragal Press, 1991, 1880 page 85.

Making a saw blade involves the following processess

  1. Cutting out the blade from the sheet.
  2. Toothing with a press and appropriately formed dies.
  3. Hardening, by plunging while heated in an oil-bath. In this state the metal is extremely brittle.
  4. Tempering and straightening; the latter is effected by hammering on an anvil or by compressing several blades, while hot, between two dies worked by a hydraulic press.
  5. Filing and petting the teeth.
  6. Grinding and polishing with emery-powder.
  7. Reheating to restore the elasticity lost in tempering.
  8. Removing the scale by immersion, irat In dilute acid, and afterward in alkali to remove the acid.
  9. The handle Is attached und the blade tested. The plates for saws are mode of ingots of steel, carefully prepared to secure uniformity, and reduced to the proper thickness by rolling.
  10. Source? Sorry can't find -- but will leave for the moment 4-29-08

The circular saw vastly increased production rates, with corresponding decrease in manpower, "but there were some minuses along with the pluses".

When used on saw mill head-rigs, very large diameter blades were needed to saw the big logs, as it is not practical to saw to a depth of more than about 1/3 the diameter of the blade. So, plate thickness was increased to provide the rigidity necessary to keep the saw from wandering or buckling under heavy load. To saw the large logs it was often necessary to add a top saw.

Regardless, frequently 25% (or more) of a log became sawdust!

Circular saws tended to be noisy. ..with harmonic problems which some tines caused "screaming". Blade imbalance, incorrect tension, heating, critical speeds or tearing problems are all encountered.

But, says Chandler Jones, "these were not inherent defects... [instead,] they were the result of imperfect knowledge."

Source: Chandler Jones, Bandsaws: Wide Blade and Narrow Blade Types Seattle: Privately Printed, 1992.

Circular Saw Table 1800-1850

The corners of the block are next taken off at a circular saw table, and it is then removed to the shaping machine; here the blocks are fixed in grooves in ....

Source: The Engineer's & Mechanic's Encyclopedia ...: The Machinery & Processes ... - Page 177 by Luke Hebert - Technology - 1849

An improved circular saw table and boring machine, a portable wrought-iron liquid manure pump and stand, (new implement) a portable manure pump, ...

British Farmer's Magazine - Page 160 Agriculture - 1850

Prof., blocking out gothic and other mouldings with the circular saw, 798; parallel guide for circular saw table, 759; vertical saw machine for curvilinear ...

Charles Holtzapffel, John Jacob Holtzapffel, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, by C. Holtzapffel, 1850 - Page 1473:

Circular Saws in the 1850 to 1900

New Table Saw ... LATEST tool in the Sypher-Arcon line is a table saw. -*. their Model 75. This new saw is a sturdy bench tool that follows large saw design ...

Source: Industrial Education Magazine 1903, page 256

A chapter is given to foot-power machines: lathe, scroll saw, table saw

1887: Samuel G. Love, Industrial Education

also 1883, F. R. Hutton, Report on machine tools and woodworking machinery. [Washington: U.S. Census off., 1883 10 Census; v. 22; 294 p. 4to. Note: a search of google books and the open library shows that this report is available in only one library]

The mill room proper is connected with the bench room by a large opening, making the two practically one room of an L-shape. It contains, beside the lumber racks below the mezzanine floor, a universal table saw, band-saw, jointer, hollow chisel mortiser, circular saw grinder, six under-drive lathes, and a motor-head lathe for larger work.

Source: Manual Training Magazine v. 19 (Sept. 1917-June 1918)

In the future I will survey the sources on circular saw technology for the following three decades:

Circular Saws in the 1900s

Circular Saws in the 1910s

Circular Saws in the 1920s

Circular Saws in the 1930s

Unedited notes


When operating a circular saw, it must be borne in mind that it is a dangerous ...

Source: Herman Hjorth, Machine Woodworking 1937, page 41

Industrial Education Magazine - Page 112 1932

New 1933 Delta Tools Set New Standards for Motor- Driven Woodworking Units New "Delta" CIRCULAR SAW Revolutionary in Design Designed completely new from the ... Snippet view - About this book - Add to my library - More editions

1932: Walker-turner 1938: Walker-Turner Co.The Bench Saw 1938

Sources: Norman Ball, "Circular Saws and the History of Technology", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. 7, No. 3. (1975), pp. 79-89.

Charles E. Peterson, "Sawdust Trail, Annals of Sawmilling and the Lumber Trade from Virginia to Hawaii via Maine, Barbados, Sault Ste. Marie, Manchac and Seattle to the Year 1860", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. 5, No. 2. (1973), pp. 84-153.

John 0. Curtis, "The Introduction of the Circular Saw in the Early 19th Century" Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. 5, No. 2. (1973), pp. 162-189.

A. J. H. Richardson, "Indications for Research in the History of Wood-Processing Technology" Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. 6, No. 3. (1974), pp. 35-146.

FOOTNOTES from Norman Ball:

    1 [Henry Disston & Sons, Inc.], The Saw In History: A Comprehensive Description Of The Development Of This Most Useful Of Tools From The Earliest Times Down To The Present Day. Sixth Edition. Philadelphia, U.S.A.: Henry Disston & Sons, Inc. Keystone Saw, Tool, Steel, and File Works, 1922, p. 3. Hereinafter referred to as Saw In History.

    2 Charles E. Peterson, "Sawdust Trail", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. V, No. 2, 1973, pp. 84-153.

    John 0. Curtis, "The Introduction of the Circular Saw in the Early 19th Century", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. V, No. 2, 1973, pp. 162-189.

    A.J.H. Richardson, "Indications for Research in the History of Wood-Processing Technology", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. VI, No. 3, 1974, pp. 35-146. Hereinafter referred to as Richardson, "Indications for Research".

    All of the above are collections of relevant documents with connecting analytical material. The article by Curtis is a must for anyone interested in circular saws; assuming that the reader is or will become familiar with this excellent collection of material on circular saws I have not felt it necessary to keep referring the reader to it. One should read Curtis if interested in circular saws.

    3 Philip Shackleton, "Further Note Re Circular Saw Use", Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology, Vol. VI, No. 3, 1974, p. 149. This article is a research note reproducing a letter to the editor, Scientific American, Vol. XXIV, No. 14, April 1, 1871.

    4 M. Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery. Its Rise, Progress and Construction. London: Crosby Lockwood and Co., 1880, p. 6. Hereinafter referred to as Bale, Woodworking Machinery.

    5 Bale, Woodworking Machinery, p. 6.

    6 Samuel Miller, "An Entirely New Machine For The More Expeditiously Sawing Of All Kinds Of Wood, Stone, and Ivory", British Patent Number 1152, A.D. 1777.

    blandy double sawmill

    7 Edward H. Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, Vol. 1. New York: J.B. Ford and Company, 1874, p. 555. This three volume work was published in 1874, 1875, 1876, one volume per year. Hereinafter referred to as Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary.

    8 K.R. Gilbert, "Machine Tools" in Charles Singer, et al, ed. A History of Technology. Volume IV The Industrial Revolution c. 1750 to c. 1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, p. 437. This article, pp. 417-441 has very little to do with woodworking machinery. Hereinafter referred to as Gilbert, "Machine Tools".

    9 British Patent Number 1110, 28th November, 1775. British Patent Number 1295, 5th June, 1781.

    10 Joseph Illick, "The Story Of The American Lumbering Industry", in Waldemar Kaempffert, ed., A Popular History of American Invention, Vol. 2. New York: A.L. Burt, 1924, p. 193. The entire article, pp. 150-198, while displaying the usual lack of documentation is well worth reading. Hereinafter referred to as Illick, "American Lumbering".

    11 Illick, "American Lumbering", p. 193.

    12 [See Miller's 1777 patent, above]

    13 Robert S. Woodbury, History of the Gear-Cutting Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1964, pp. 45-50.

    14 Robert Monteath, The Forester's Guide. Third Edition. London: Printed for T. Legg and Son, 73 Cheapside, 1836, p. 480. A circular saw is shown in Plate I, Fig. 2.

    15 Saw In History, p. 34.

    16 Horace Greeley, et al, The Great Industries Of The United States. Hartford: Burr & Hyde, 1872, pp. 366, 367.

    17 Unnumbered plate "Saw Mill", Fig. 3, Third American Edition of Nicholson's British Encyclopaedia or Dictionary of Arts & Sciences. Vol. XI, Philadelphia: Published by Mitchell, Ames, and White, 1819.

    18 Saw In History, p. 43.

    19 Illick, "American Lumbering", pp. 193-194.

    20 Saw In History, p. 15.

    21 Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, Vol. 1, p. 556.

    22 Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, Vol. 3, p. 2035.

    23 Bale, Woodworking Machinery, p. 332.

    24 Charles Annandale, ed., The Popular Encyclopedia. Vol. XI. London: Blackie & Son, 1894, plates CLXXIV, CLXXV. Hereinafter referred to as Popular Encyclopedia.

    25 Popular Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, p. 336.

    26 Charles Tomlinson, Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts, Vol. 2. London: James S. Virtue, n.d. (circa, 1853) p. 583. Hereinafter referred to as Tomlinson, Cyclopaedia.

    27 For a brief but informative introduction to some uses of circular saws, see saw In History, pp. 31-47.

    28 Richardson, "Indications For Research", pp. 68, 80.

    29 Tomlinson, Cyclopaedia, Vol. 1, p. 143.

    30 A-clear illustration of a tenon saw with circular blades is given in Popular Encyclopedia, Vol. XI, Plate CLXXXIV, Fig. 7.

    31 Tomlinson, Cyclopaedia, Vol. 1, p. XLI, Fig. XL.

    32 Saw In History, p. 38.

    33 For a description and illustration see Saw In History, pp. 38 and 15 respectively.