glossary ltemplate
glossary access

Glossary Intro and Glossary Annexes
Narrative Chapters
Chap 1 Chap 2 Chap 3 Chap 4 Chap 5 Chap 6
Chap 7 Chap 8 Chap 9 Chap 10 Chap 11 Chap 12

Headnote for Manuals    Manuals by Decade

1900-before 1901-1910 1911-1920 1921-1930 1931-1940 1941-1950
1951-1960 1961-1970 1971-1980 1981-1990 1991-2000 2001-later

Email me at

-- If you would like to enter into a discussion about anything you've read on my website, please click here


Historical note: Closely related to the Fret-Saw is the Scroll Saw

scroll_saw_fret_saw_1876fret_saw_wheeler_1924 A saw with a thin blade, used in cutting (in thin workpieces) the frets, scrolls, etc., on home-made bird cages, wall sconces, as well as ornamented screens, and , on a larger scale, verge-boards on the roofs of Carpenter Gothic style houses, etc.

(First, a verge-board is an elaborately carved and ornamented workpiece that graces the ends of roofs in the Carpenter Gothic Style houses. Other common terms to describe vergeboards and/or bargeboards include: fly rafters, gable rafters, gableboards and barge rafters. Click here for house decorated with verge boards.)

From Hand-Tool to Foot-Powered

In 1875, according to Thomas Seaton, a retired English military officer, Fretwork or, more precisely, fret-cutting initially was strictly a manual operation, that is, using a hand tool like the one pictured above, on the right.

As Charles Reichman notes, in 1875, Seaton's suggested list of tools desired for fret-sawing before the foot-powerd model arrive comprised the following:
    a steel bow or wooden frame saw,
    a few saw blades,
    a brace and a bit for boring holes,
    a couple of fine gimlets,
    a flat file,
    a half-round file,
    a cramp [clamp] or holdfast,
    a sheet or two of glass cloth [sandpaper] and
    a small glue pot.

Sources : Thomas Seaton A Manual of Fret-Cutting and Wood-Carving London: Routledge, 1875; also cited by Charles Reichman, "Tools That Fueled the Fret Work Frenzy", The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association Volume 41 March 1988 page 1.

Reichman goes on to say that, by 1870, some hand tools were being superseded by treadle-operated machines. In 1865 a patent was issued for the first treadle-operated Fret-Saw. The up-and-down saw motion produced by foot power had a number of advantages, probably the most important of which was productivity: -- the machine was estimated to be three times more productive than working with hand tools.

The machine was more reliable and less tedious. A problem in handling the hand scroll saw was -- throughout the cutting operation -- keeping it upright and in line. Even the slightest tilt of the saw mars the design.

On the machine, however, both hands are free to manipulate the wood in, and around, the oscillating saw blade. It makes far less likelihood of flawed work. The results of the foot-powered models refuted earlier criticisms of the machines - that they were not made with the idea of turning out superior work, but of producing more than the hand frame. Even Seaton - his book was principally a disquisition on fret-cutting with the hand saw - regarded the machine as "one thousand times preferable to the bow saw."

Source: Charles Reichman, "Tools That Fueled the Fret Work Frenzy", The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association Volume 41 March 1988 page 1.

    As the images above show, a Fret-Saw can be a hand tool -- where Fret-Saws are also known as a Keyhole Saws and/or a Compass-Saws and a Fret-Saw can be a machine tool, mounted on a stand with (1) a treadle to give the reciprocating motion to the jig-saw or, today, driven by a fractional horse=powwer electric motor. The machine shown is specially intended for fret-work on small scale, ornamental inlaying, buhl and reisner work.

    Source: Edward Knight Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, page 915.

The First Fret-Saw Invented 1562

This new sawing technique had major implications for marquetry, inlay and veneer. The new technique freed the design outline on marquetry/inlay operations from the limitations that came from a need to use the chisel and shoulder knife for creating recesses in the surfaces of tables, sideboards, and so forth, where either marquetry on inlay was being employed for decoration. Specifically, fret sawing made creating more intricate and elaborate "pictures" with thin sheets of various types -- colors, grain patterns, light reflection qualities -- of wood possible. While the image on the left is lacking as a demonstration of how revolutionary the fretsaw was for advancing marquetry as an art form, it at least gives us an idea of how a simple jig and a thin narrow blade boosted this art form's popularity.

fret saw wheeler 1924

Source: William Alexander Lincoln, The Art and Practice of Marquetry London: Thames and Hudson, 1971 Chapter 1. (Rather than a specific page in this chapter on the origins of marquetry, I recommend anyone interested in further investigation should look at Lincoln's survey of marquetry's beginnings, and the impact of the fret saw on advancing the practice of marquetry as an art form.)

The first treadle-driven Fret-Saw was patented in 1865

The first treadle-driven Fret-Saw was patented in 1865 (invented in Austria?) and quickly became popular. The foot-powered Fret-Saw (also called a Scroll Saw or Jigsaw) used the same mechanism for operation as the sewing machine, a flywheel driven by a treadle.

The setup could also drive a Lathe, a small Circular Saw, and, most importantly, a Drill Press. (To start the dozens of interior cuts necessary in Fret-Saw projects, a drill bit makes the holes, where the blade of the Fret-Saw is inserted.)

    ... [W]ere it not for the jig-saw (or is it the fret-saw?), Long Branch would be wholly without a Long Branch grace. This simple instrument has furnished the frequenters of these barren sands with nearly the only art emotions that they have felt while here; and, were the products of its labors suddenly broken off and unglued, and so destroyed, the eyes of the form-worshipers would have no place whereon to rest their weary gaze. Every balcony fairly drips with wooden lace work, and all the eaves are alive with softpine waves and ripples. The pillars of the piazzas are adorned with knobs and twists, and there are few ridge-poles that do not terminate in flourishing spirals that point to heaven.

    Sources: Old Tool Heaven Website,A. F. Webster, "American Summer Resorts-Long Branch, Part VII", Appletons' journal: a magazine of general literature. Volume 12, No 289, October 3, 1874, pages 430-434

For the period, the statistics of numbers sold are astonishing: One contemporary source claims that, between 1865 and 1877, over thirty thousand foot-powered Fret-Saws sold. by 1877, 1d another that in the four years after 1874, fourteen thousand treadle saws ere sold, about half with iron frames and half made from wood.Sources: Henry T. Williams, Fret-Sawing for Pleasure and Profit New York: Henry T. Williams, 1877, page 107; "Fleetwood Scroll Saw," Arthur's Home Magazine r7 (October 1874): n.p. [advertisements]; "Fleetwood Scroll Saw," Godey's Lady's Magazine 97 (1875), n.p. [advertisements].

By the end of the 1870s, an iron Fret-Saw -- with lathe and drill attachments -- sold for 8.00; later,in the mid-1880s, full-size iron-frame saws sold in a price range from $3.50 to $22.50. At the lower end, the cost of a treadle saw was surprisingly close to the $1.50 price of a handheld spring-steel saw frame. Sources: "Improved Scroll Saws and Lathes", Manufacturer and Builder Volume 13, no 5 May, 1881, page 100; Bowman's and Russell's Famous Scroll Saw, 28; Moody, Catalogue and Price List, 5; Charles Reichman, "The Tools that Fueled the Fretwork Frenzy," Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association Volume 41 March 1881: 1. 103. Julius Wilcox, "Fret-Sawing and Wood Carving," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 54 (March 1878): 533

    Millers Falls Company. Manual of Fret-Sawing: with illustrations. Millers Falls, Mass. : Published by Millers Falls Co., [1878]. 12 pages : illustrated ; 12 x 19 cm.

    Title from cover. Date from testimonial letters published on last page. A small pamphlet with basic instructions for sawing intricate patterns with a hand-held bracket saw. Contains an advertisement for the foot-powered Lester scroll saw. This pamphlet was included in inexpensive kits equipped with a saw, blades, an awl and paper patterns. Deluxe kits included additional tools and were packed in wooden boxes rather than pasteboard. Published by the Millers Falls Co., the pamphlet's copyright was held by Perry Mason & Company of Boston, the publishers of the popular magazine the Youth's companion. 1881

    Source: Old Tool Heaven Website

Images from 1881 Manufacturer and Builder article: fret_saw_manufacturer-and-builder_1881

Improved Scroll Saws and Lathes

The heading above heralds an 1881 article in The Manufacturer and Builder May 1881, page 100 Improved Scroll Saws and Lathes extolling the virtues of the latest models of foot-powered Fret-Saws

Click here for my rendering of the article and the two images of iron foot-powered Fret-Saws figures that accompanied the article

    125. Scroll saw, Jig saw or Fret-Saw. Used for fine work in thin wood. Teeth must point downward. To follow the pattern, turn the wood, not the saw. Run the saw straight up n1 down, as shown. (When you have to make a very sharp turn, run the saw up and down without trying to cut ahead, at the same time slowly turning the wood until the saw [blade] has worked its way around. Quick turning may bend or break the saw [blade].) To saw a hole or inside openwork, bore small hole in which to start the saw.

    [Wheeler shows example in section #123.]

    Source: Charles G. Wheeler, Woodworking: A Handbook for Beginners in Home and School New York: G P Putnam Sons, 1924. pages 314.

The Fret-Saw's Secondary Role

In woodworking, as a tool choice, the Fret-Saw has almost always played a "secondary" role. The Fret-Saw -- as a hand tool -- often was the first tool -- and I'm speaking from personal experince -- a young man receives as a gift to introduce him to woodworking as a hobby. Using it -- and, again, I speak from personal experience -- soon proves problematical, because to do respectable work with a Fret-Saw requires careful cutting, a skill that takes time and patience, things that not all boys are blessed with.

The American material culture historian, Steven M. Gelber helps sort out these truths about the Fret-Saw:

In the nineteenth century, men's and women's craft hobbies divide primarily by tools and secondarily by medium. Men, Gelber argues, "almost never used textiles and needles", and, among women, wood, saws, and hammers did not appeal. Nonetheless, this rule was not black-and-white;

    Small projects such as light painting that were, not identified with a particular sex were sometimes done by both men an women. Similarly, both men and women were targeted by manufacturers of wood engraving kits. This close work, which involved carving printed designs in wood blocks, straddled the line between traditionally male woodwork and traditionally female craft fancywork. No hobby, however, was more important in breaking down the wall between men and women than the new craft of Fret-Sawing, which combined female aesthetics with male tool and materials.

    Source: Steven Gelber Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America New York: Columbia University Press, 1999, pages 188-202

Fret-Sawing: A Hobby for Both Genders

Already we have seen that, at the turn into the twentieth century, as electric power was introduced into home workshops, woodworking tools got larger, heavier, and -- with this heft -- ever more masculine in character. "Power", declares Gelber, page 188, "confirmed" men's dominance in the use of machine-based woodworking tools.

Not until the next decade -- about 1915 -- did A/C power begin to permeate urban residential areas, meaning that until then machine tools were power by D/C electricity, a rare occurence -- see this account of the building of a Morris Chair by an amateur woodworker in 1908:

Document 2: A L Hall Workshop at Home 1908

    Document no. 2, an 1908 magazine article, chronicles the creation, equipping and operation of a home workshop by a suburban New Yorker. In that era, before electrification became widespread in urban areas, primarily a phenomenon of the 1920s, home workshops are rare, even among the affluent.

Curiously, Gelber continues, "in the Gilded Age, both a conformation and a major exception occurred in the general rule that women stayed away from wood and the big tools used to shape it. The conformation was the lathe, and the exception was the Fret-Saw".

    Fret-Sawing for Pleasure and Profit. Williams' Hand-Book. How to Use the Fret-Saw. By an Old Amateur. New York: H. T. Williams.

    This is an exceedingly neat publication, printed with new type on beautiful paper, and illustrated with more than 100 beautiful engravings, most of them quite new and in good taste. The different kinds of available woods are described, the necessary tools explained, as well as the various manipula- tions, and the fact demonstrated that in this occupation pleas- ure is really combined with profit.

For Most Woodworkers, Appeal of Fret-Saws Limited

Unlike sewing machines -- yes, sewing machines might cost twice as much, but in homes where making clothing and other objects out of cloth fabric are important economically, they can translate into a machine of immediate use -- Fret-Saws make bird cages, wall sconces, ornaments, but not anything that you can consider essential.

For material culture historian, Steven Gelber, Foot-Powerd Fret-Saws "can lay claim to being the first leisure 'power' tool".

Handheld jigsaws had been used by jewelers and dentists, who did particularly delicate A work, and in the mid-1870s Italian artisans popularized fret-sawn openwork, sometimes called Sorrento-work.

Aside from the music rests on pianos and organs, there was no established use for open scrollwork, and thus the Fret-Saw craze of the 1870s and 1880s was very much a problem invented to meet an existing solution; scroll saws begat scrollwork.

For popularizing the Fret-Saw, contemporaries credited demonstrations at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and other fairs in the East .

"Nothing in the exhibition of mechanical processes in [Centennial] Machinery Hall had such a constant crowd of observers as one of these sawing-machines," reported Harper's. More than three thousand inlaid vases made by Fret-Saws were sold as souvenirs.103

Unlike any other woodworking tool before or since, using the Fret-Saw crossed gender lines.

Illustrations from the time show women working both with handheld jigsaws and with a "velocipede scroll saw" run by a wheel with bicycle-type pedals.

Advertising for some of the larger treadle saws included references to their use by both "boys and girls," and the first how-to book of Fret-Sawing noted that "numbers of ladies practice this beautiful art, and are really most skillful at it."

The full extent of each gender's involvement is unclear, but circumstantial evidence points toward substantial female partic­ipation. The materials used, the objects made, and the light weight of the most popular handsaws were all compatible with a woman's hobby.

The wood was rarely thicker than a quarter inch and often as thin as the card-board that women used in other crafts.

The popular decorative wall hangings and pious mottoes were sawn-wood versions of standard embroidered fancywork (see fig. 6.6).

The most popular saws were not the large iron and wood treadle-driven machines but the much smaller and cheaper handheld steel U-frame saws. In 1878 a writer estimated as many as 75,000 of these FIGURE 6.5 A high-end version of the treadle-driven scroll saw with an attached drill and blower. (Reprinted from Edward H. Moody, Catalogue and Price List of Scroll Saws and Scroll Saw Material [Hartford, Conn.: Star Job Printing, 1884], 5.)

Small saws had been sold in the previous four years, along with 24 million of their easily broken blades. 104

While large numbers of women may have crossed onto male turf by sawing wood, men still dominated, although they did not monopolize the hobby, as claimed by one scrollwork collector.105 In both England and the United States projects were targeted at boys, and most manufacturers of large treadle machines directed their advertising toward males. 106

An 1885 pattern catalog guaranteed "that a Fret-Sawyer working industriously two hours for fif­teen evenings will have ample time to make the article complete."°'

By setting the production time in the evening, the catalog assumes male use; women did most of their crafts during the day when the light was better and their husbands and children were not at home. Men, but not women, were told they could use the saws to make money: "One young man we know of, who found it impossible to obtain employment at any mercantile pursuit, became possessed of a foot-power scroll-saw, and by its aid, produced brack­ets, card-baskets, match-boxes, frames and other articles, to give him, when sold, a clear profit of five dollars per day."108

Yet this hobby in both its large and small saw versions broke down estab­lished gender barriers in odd ways. It introduced significant numbers of women to a form of woodworking and at the same time was the original male craft hobby.

The first American instruction book, Fret-Sawing for Pleasure and Profit by Henry Williams, was written for men but resembled a typical woman's fancywork manual. It was not a book about making manly practical things but about ornamentation that "elevates and teaches, and all such emotions smooth the rough places of life, rendering a tribute to the light of the home." With its stress on home, aesthetics, piety, and genteel education, the language of Williams's rationale is traditionally feminine. However, instructions for constructing machinery and references to selling products in the market make it clear that, at the very least, men were as much an audi­ence as women, and that Fret-Sawing broke down gender barriers in both directions. Women used men's tools on men's materials, and men did women's decorative fancywork for traditionally feminine reasons.109

For twenty-five years, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the general patterns of craft activity, other than in Fret-Sawing, remained fairly rigid: women worked with light materials and tools; men, when they worked at all, used heavier tools on wood and metal.

After the turn of the century, however, Fret-Saw exceptionalism became the norm. That is to say, many more women engaged in crafts that used heavier tools, and many more men used tools around the house. The fundamental gender division between light and heavy work would remain, indeed remains to this day, but a dis­cernible, if slow, trend took hold that would reach its climax in the great do-it-yourself movement after World War II.

Sources: Thomas Seaton A Manual of Fret-Cutting and Wood-Carving Link to book George Routledge Ltd. London. 1875; "Improved Scroll Saws and Lathes", Manufacturer and Builder Volume 13, no 5 May, 1881, page 100; Bowman's and Russell's Famous Scroll Saw, 28; Moody, Catalogue and Price List, 5; Julius Wilcox, "Fret-Sawing and Wood Carving," Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 54 (March 1878): 533; Charles Reichman, "Tools That Fueled the Fret Work Frenzy", The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association Volume 41 March 1988 pages 1-2; Steven Gelber Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.