Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The medieval tool chest: the two man cross-cut saw

The two man cross-cut saw appeared first in the 10th century in the Northern Alps, but only became common in the mid-15th century. The saw was mostly used by carpenters, and only after medieval times became an ubiquitous tool for lumberjacks or woodcutters (to cut the tree logs into smaller units).  The saw is worked by two man, which both use the saw on the pull stroke, and relax when the other pulls. This saw is often depicted together with the Apostle St. Simon, who reputedly was martyred by being sawn in half lengthwise. The saw in this period traditionally is shown with a straight blade of the same width throughout, and two large handles into sockets forged onto the blade following the width of the blade. However, the blade could also have a belly, being wider at the middle of the blade. Also the setting of the handle could differ, such that the handles went through the blade, or that the handles were directly riveted to the blade.

Top: Two man sawing a board lengthwise on a saw horse with a two man saw. Around 1300-1340. British Library, Manuscript Royal 10E. IV, folio 99 verso. Right above: St. Simon with a two man cross-cut saw. The handles go 'through' the blade. Baptismal altar, St. Johanniskirche, Luneburg, Germany. Around 1507/1508 by Benedikt Dreyer. Left: A two man cross-cut saw. Building of Salomons temple St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Prudentius: Psychomachia, Codex Sang. 135, page 434. 10th century.

Most of the blades had ordinary peg shaped teeth, but at the end of the 15th century also M-shaped teeth appeared. These teeth allow a better removal of the wet sawdust. A figure of St. Simon with a saw with M-teeth is depicted on a casket of Duke Rene II of Lorraine and his wife Phillipine of Gueldres, which was offered for their wedding in 1477. From the same period dates an engraving of St. Simon by Martin Schongauer.  Slightly later is a sketch of an M-toothed saw in the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (dated between 1488-1497).

Emperor Maximilian visiting carpenters. Woodcut from Der Weisskunig from Hans Schaufelein, 1517. 
The emperor holds a 2 man cross-cut saw.

Two man working a cross-cut saw on a workbench. The workbench is fitted with a screw clamp. Blockbuch Eysenhuts, 1471. Herzogliche Bibliothek, Xyl III no. 8. Gotha, Germany.

Left: St. Simon with an M-saw on the casket of Duke Rene II of Lorraine and his wife Phillipine of Gueldres (1477). Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France. Right: Engraving of St. Simon with an M-saw by Martin Schongauer (1450-1491). Museum L'Oevre Notre-Dame, Strassbourg, France.

The sketch of an M-toothed saw in the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (around 1488). 
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris, France.

Detail from a woodcut from Von der Dyngen Erfyndung by Polydor Vergil, showing an M-toothed saw. 
Augsburg, Steiner 1537, folio VC r.

We currently have two two-man cross-cut saws, which are antique ones of unknown manufacturing  date. We did have three, but one was given away to be turned into a ‘singing’ saw. Of the two left, only one has recently been fitted with turned handles into the sockets. The other one, needs to have some sockets added first. Actually, these saws do not fit in our medieval tool chest as it they are much too large. The length of the saw blade is almost 2 metres (1.7 m for the complete saw). The blade is belly-shaped with a thickness of approximately 2 mm, as the blade is thicker at side of the teeth. It has peg-shaped teeth of 15 mm, with 3 teeth per 5 cm in a regular cross-cut setting. In comparison, the two-handed push saw has a blade thickness of 3.3 mm and a push-cut setting of 4 teeth per 5 cm.

 Our belly-shaped two man cross-cut saws.

 The attachment of the socket and handle to the two man cross-cut saw.

Left: the peg-shaped teeth of the first (complete) saw. 
Right: the W-pattern of the other saw blade, also providing room to remove the wet sawdust.

The third 'singing' saw worked by Marijn and Bram at Chateaux Vaeshartelt, the Netherlands.

Sources used:

  • W.L. Goodman (1964) The history of woodworking tools. Bell and Hyman Ltd., London, UK.
  • H.T. Schadwinkel and G. Heine (1986) Das Werkzeug des Zimmermanns. Verlag Th. Schafer, Hannover, Germany.
  • F. van Tyghem (1966) Op en rond de middeleeuwse bouwplaats. Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse academie voor wetenschappen, letteren en schone kunsten van België. Jaargang XXVIII nr. 19.


  1. Another interesting post! Thank you Marijn

    1. The use of the scie passe-partout, or cross cut saw, would appear to date from at least the 10th century (maybe earlier if saws from the Roman period were copied in the 'Dark Ages'), although it is possible the 10th century depiction of the building of Solomon's temple (above), may be cutting stone , rather than wood... However, there appears to be some controversy as to when this type of saw may have been used to fell trees. The Bayeux tapestry shows axes being used in the 11th century, no signs of saws... Is there any documentary evidence of when they began to be used for tree felling????