During the Early Medieval there were a number of different saw styles and blade types covering all requirements from rough preparation to the cutting of fine decorative lines. Despite their modern use in metal and wood working, saws in the Early Medieval seem to have been mostly tools of the bone worker. Evidence of saws in woodworking is limited – even the scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the construction of Duke William’s invasion fleet features every possible woodworking tool; except saws. As for metal cutting, the process would have been available to produce saws capable of cutting through iron, but it would be time-consuming and thus far easier to use either shears on thin plate or a hammer and chisel on thicker metals. This is corroborated by the lack of saws in virtually all known collections of smith’s tools from the period.
Modern vs Period
As with many tools, the major differences between modern and period saws are changes in manufacturing technique and materials. The use of modern steels and machinery means that the vast majority of modern saw blades are a world away from their ancient counterparts.
Luckily, a bit of time (carefully) using a grinder can reshape a modern saw blade into something more suitable for re-enactment purposes. Avoid blades with engraved/ stamped names etc on them, coated or stainless steel blades, and exceptional narrow blades (below 1mm in thickness). The most common blade thicknesses were probably 1.5 -3.5mm.
Styles of saw and blade
There are almost as many styles of saw known as there are finds of actual saws. Something all styles had to accommodate was the fact that the available metal made saws that were prone to buckling if used to cut on a push stroke. A number of methods were used to avoid this problem.
The first was to use the saw on the pull stroke and keep the blade under tension; this is evidenced from the rake of the teeth on ancient saw finds (the earliest push saw from Britain is not found until the 13th century).
It is also possible to make the blade more resistant to buckling by making it thicker in section, as two of the Mästermyr saws were, though this also increases the effort required to cut.
Another method would be fitting the blade into a frame that held it at either end. This can be seen with the Mästermyr hacksaw (Fig 2) as well as in tensioned frame or bow saws (Figs 4 & 5). These styles of saw were in use by the Roman period.
The use of a “rib” of metal across the back of the saw or the setting of a saw blade in into solid handle would also prevent undue flexing. These methods may be seen in a knife from York, and the saw from Icklingham. Again, this is also known from at least one Roman find.
Fig 1 Saws 41 (top) & 42 (bottom) from Mästermyr – not to scale. Image: (Arwidsson & Berg, 1982)
This style is a typical long bladed saw much like a bread knife. A good example is Mästermyr 42 (Fig 1). In this case the blade is both long (over 60cm) and thick (about 4mm).
Fig 2 Hacksaw (36) from Mästermyr. Image: (Arwidsson & Berg, 1982)
Another find from Mästermyr (Fig 2) is unique as it is considered to be a blacksmiths saw specifically. The blade is much shorter and thinner (about 1.5mm) than those of the long saws.
(left) Fig 3 Double sided (8 & 14 tpi) saw blade from Thetford. Image: (d’Alroy Jones & Simons, 1961)
It is possible that this was hafted and used in a similar manner to a modern dowel saw. Probably 10th-12th century in date.
Fig 4 Frame saw shown in Carolingian manuscript. Image: (Biblia Sancti Petri Rodensis. Latin 6 (3), 900-1100)
|Fig 5 10th – 11th C Russian bow saw. Image: (Goodman, 1964)|
The terms “bow saw” and “frame saw” may be confused from time to time as their usage and definition changes from period to period. Here, the name “frame saw” specifically refers to a saw blade held in a multi-piece wooden frame (usually tensioned with a twisted rope) such as Fig 4, and the term “bow saw” is used to refer to a blade held in a handle that is a rigid one piece arc, such as Fig 5.
From the latter half of the Early Medieval there is an illustration from a 10th-11th century manuscript depicting a frame saw. While the manuscript (Fig 4) shows a saw without a twisted cord to maintain tension, these are known to have been in use prior to the Early Medieval. There are no definite finds of a bow saw similar to Fig 5 from Western Europe, however it is suggested that a fine (approx. 13 tpi) saw fragment from London could be from such a saw and a coarse (4 tpi) bow saw blade dated to the 10th – 11th century is known from Knyajhnaya Gora in Northern Russia. An antler find from York (Fig 6) has been interpreted as the handle for a small bow saw, as has a similar wooden find from Dublin. Additionally, a cross fragment from Winwick, Cheshire depicts a bow saw in the execution of Isisah
Shoulder Saw and Double bladed saw (Stadda)
In addition to the saws that are known definitively from physical remains, there are also the types of saws that can be inferred from indirect evidence.
One of these is the double bladed saw. This was a tool most likely used by comb makers in order to ensure that the comb teeth were even. Additionally, some of the saw cut decoration on bone and antler is even, parallel lines – indicating the use of a twin bladed saw.
A second possible saw is the “shoulder saw” (Fig 7). In this style of saw the blade is set into a handle that runs along the length of the blade, thereby stiffening the blade. As mentioned before, these were probably used in pre-Early Medieval period. The principle however is ancient, with finds of such tools extending back into the Stone Age, and continuing to see use until at least the 19th century. The concept of a stiffening rib is still used today on backsaws.
Fig 7 A modern replica of a simple shoulder saw
A number of serrated knives have also been found. These are clearly knives rather than saws as they are wedge shaped with the teeth cut into the narrow blade of the wedge. An example from York is particularly fine. This style of tool was possibly used for decorative work or to “ring” an antler prior to snapping through the cancellous tissue (as seen at Hedeby).
 (Goodman, 1964) p122
 (Leahy, 2003) p23
 (d’Alroy Jones & Simons, 1961) p22
 (Ulrich, 2007) p47 shows a Roman bow saw (Fig 3.35A) and a frame saw (Fig 3.35D),
 (Ottoway, 1992) p589, suggests a row of holes on a knife represents a handle that is the full length of the blade
 (Leahy, 2003) p22, (MacGregor, 1985) p55 posit that the channel found with the saw was a reinforcing rib
 (Goodman, 1964) p117, Fig 120, describes a Roman saw blade with a line of holes similar to the knife from York
 (Arwidsson & Berg, 1982) p13 & Plate 14
 (Arwidsson & Berg, 1982) p15 & Plate 7
 (Rogerson, Dallas, & Archibald, 1984) p77 & Fig 117.13,
 (Wilson, 1976) p257
 (Biblia Sancti Petri Rodensis. Latin 6 (3), 900-1100)
 (Ulrich, 2007) p47
 (Riddler, 2004) p100 “A fine saw like this might have been held in a curved wooden frame.”
 (Goodman, 1964) p123-124, Fig 129 & 130a
 (MacGregor, Mainman, & Rogers, 1999) p1945-1948
 (Bailey, 1996) p29, Fig 2a
 (MacGregor, 1985) p55
 (d’Alroy Jones & Simons, 1961) p11 & 37
 (Ottoway, 1992) p589 & Fig 245.2983
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Bailey, R. N. (1996). ‘What mean these stones?’ Some aspects of pre-Norman sculpture in Lancashire and Cheshire. Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 78(1) , 21-46.
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d’Alroy Jones, P., & Simons, E. N. (1961). Story of the Saw. N. Neame (Northern) for Spear and Jackson.
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Leahy, K. (2003). Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Tempus.
MacGregor, A. (1985). Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal materials since the Roman Period. London: Croom Helm.
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