Building a Bow Saw

My brother got me a bow saw kit from Tools for Working Wood last Christmas, and I spent an afternoon putting the frame together.

Stock selection was the easy part of this project. I have a whole log’s worth of pecan stored away in BIG billets I split out this past summer. I picked a piece of the pile that I could actually lift and used a hatchet and some wedges to split off an appropriate sized piece. Here’s what I brought into the shop:



The next thing to do was to cut some pieces to length and shave them down with the drawknife.  I’m glad I brought in more than I thought I would need, because one piece I thought I could use ended up being too thin.  After cutting to approximate length, I started to true up one side of each piece with the drawknife.



Hey, nice spalting!  Too bad it’s completely unsuitable for this application!  Fortunately it’s localized and not all the way through this piece.  With only a twinge of regret, I hogged off the spalting until the fully sound wood appeared.  Then I planed the face flat, marked the other side with my cutting gauge, and trued up the parallel faces.  For the moment I didn’t think I needed to true up the other two sides, so I marked an approximate center line the length of each piece, and drilled the holes.


The head from my combo square helped keep me straight, but I had no qualms about freehanding the whole operation with an eggbeater drill.

Then it occurred to me that, yes, I did need to true up one more side of the arms, since I needed to mark out the mortises, so out came the drawknife and the plane again.  And since this wood came out of the tree only a few months ago, it is still WET.  Makes it pretty easy to work with the drawknife, kind of gnarly to plane, and sticky to drill.  I’m also a little worried about the ends I’ve sawed beginning to check, so I coated the ends with some wax.

But back to the mortises and tenons.  The templates show a curved shoulder, with a note saying that the machine-made frames from TFWW use a curved shoulder because they can cut it easily, but that most kits are built with a straight shoulder.  Hmmmm…  I’ve never done a curved shoulder before.  Oh, what the heck.  What’s a gouge for, after all?


I started with a straight shoulder, and then I used a shallow gouge to put a bit of a curve into the shoulder.  It’s not an in-cannel gouge, so the operation was a little awkward, but not very difficult.  Cleaning up with a chisel was pretty easy, as it turned out.  It will be fun trying to match the profile on the mortises.  I hope.

The mortises were pretty straightforward.  Just mark ’em and chisel ’em. Small enough and shallow enough that drilling the waste out would be silly.


Okay, confession time.  A little while ago, in a WoodNet thread about relative strength-to-weight ratios of different species, I said that if I ever built a turning saw, I would use Southern Yellow Pine for the stretcher.  I thought about it.  But since I’ve got so much of this pecan, I decided I preferred a wood that would match in color and figure.  So no SYP after all.  I still think it would work splendidly, but I don’t think this saw is going to be overly heavy with the pecan stretcher, so I’ll just get on with the project now.

So, stick everything together, and here’s where we are:


At this point, I let the wood dry for a day before doing any shaping.  Wet wood tends to clog rasps, and this is going to be a whole lot of rasp work.  In the meantime, I made the handles.  I don’t have a lathe, so they’ll have to be octagonal handles.  I’ve made some octagonal handles for chisels recently, so I figured I would use the same techniques to make the handle and knob.  I began with this hunk of pecan:



And that’s after shaving down the hairy spots a little with the drawknife.  Hard to believe there are a couple handles hiding in there somewhere, but there are!  And I’m going to find them.



I trued up one face and used that as a reference for drawing an oversized square on one end, which I used to guide the drawknife.  Once I got down close, it was a process of drawknife-plane-marking gauge-square-repeat.  Not all that interesting, though the grain in this piece goes in and out, which did make for some unwanted excitement at times.  I had to waste away an awful lot of wood, but I didn’t feel like putting it through the bandsaw, and resawing wet hardwood by hand isn’t my idea of a fun afternoon, so I did an awful lot of drawknife work.



Once I got the stock squared up, I drew lines to make the octagon shape and planed down to the lines on all four sides.  Then I was able to see the grain clearly enough to decide which section should be the handle, which the knob, and which the waste.  This piece is cut about 2″ too long on purpose, and I’m glad I did that.  It allowed me to cut off one particularly tear-out-prone section.  (You may be wondering what that dark spot is on the wood.  Pretty geometrical for wood, isn’t it?  As it happens, it’s the exact width of my splitting wedges.  That’s where one of the wedges must have sat in the log for a few days, probably in the rain, and it looks like it stained it somehow.)

Then it came time to drill the holes for the pins.  I don’t know whether I should have done this earlier, or whether this was the right stage, but I managed.



After marking the center with a center-head on a ruler (the third time I’ve used the center head since I bought it years ago), I started the hole with a small gouge, since a 1/4″ bit is going to walk a little bit on end-grain.  Wish I had one of those bits with the spur in the center, but oh well.  I made do.  I got the holes more or less centered, but so far as I can tell, pretty dead straight on.  Eggbeater drill again, of course.



With the pin dry-fit, I was able to draw a nice circle on the end, so I could taper the handle accurately toward the pin.  That was all spokeshave work.  I marked my line about 1 1/2″ from the edge and freehanded the angle.  It was pretty easy, since I just had to get the angle to begin at the line and end at the top of the circle.  I went around and did the four main sides.  Then I started on the four beveled facets.




Here’s the back of the handle.  At first I was a little hesitant, since I didn’t have much of a guideline down at the bottom.  Then I realized that the bevel would be right once it was the same width all the way down, as in the picture above.  That little eyeballed technique ensured some measure of consistency.  Then I shaved off the 16 corners to make a cone, more or less.  (You could use this same technique to make a socket chisel handle without a lathe, by the way.)

So here’s what the finished handle looks like:


Not as pretty as a turned handle, but comfortable and easy to grip.  I think I’m really going to like having those flats on the handle when I need to adjust the blade.  Now, as I was making the handles, I was noticing that the wood was already feeling a little drier than it did yesterday, and having a little more time at my disposal, I went ahead with a little shaping.  Here’s what I had at the end of the day:



Shaping the arms is really the most fun part of this whole project, but also the most nerve-wracking.  Take off too little, and the tool is too heavy and bulky.  Take off too much, and the saw will break under the tension.  [Edit to add: If you make the frame too thin, the most likely problem is not that the frame will break, but that it will bend and twist, making it impossible to hold the saw in tension and saw straight.]  And on top of that, I’m trying to shape two complex pieces to be nearly identical, working mostly freehand.  Suffice to say, it took me all evening.  But here’s how it went.

Cutting the major curves was easy, thanks to this little trick I learned at from Paul Sellers in a woodworking course I took at Homestead Heritage:


Mark out your curve, and then make a series of saw cuts along the curve.  (I took out the tight curves at the ends with a coping saw.)  The harder the wood is to split, the closer the kerfs should be.  I went about every 1/2″, approximately.  Knock out the waste with a mallet and chisel, leaving a surface like this:


Clean up with a spokeshave and/or rasp.


Pretty simple, and you get results quickly, so it looks impressive when someone’s watching.  (My father-in-law was visiting, and he kept popping in to see my progress.  It was fun showing him some of my tools and techniques as I went.)  I did some shaping on the edges with the spokeshave and rasps too, followed by files, a card scraper, and sandpaper.  The wood was still feeling a tad wet, so tearout continued to be a problem throughout.  Rasps and files helped a lot, though. [Edit to add: Impatience is not an asset when working with wood.  I should have taken the hint from the wood itself and let it season indoors for a few months before trying to shape it.]

The toggle was about as simple an operation as you can imagine.  I split out a bit, sawed it down to size, and used the spokeshave to smooth it down to a gentle taper.  I did use a half-round file to make a shallow trough for the string to sit in while it’s tensioned.

Most bow saws have a carved hook on the ends of the arms to hold the tensioning cord.  After looking at a few bow saws, I decided to do something a little different.

Bow Saw End Detail 09 - 2

This kind of detail looks difficult, but it’s really quite easy.  First, I drilled a hole in the top of the arm, and then used a coping saw to cut a little wedge out of the bottom, and cleaned it up with a small file.  I rounded the top with a spokeshave, and then used a pillar file to shape the little “returning” piece on the outside of the arm.  wanted to give this saw something distinctive, so I decided to use holes rather than hooks at the top to capture the string.  It was a fun detail to shape, and I’ll probably start putting details like that on other projects now that I’ve experimented a little.  No, I didn’t try it on scrap first or anything.  I had a pretty good idea what I wanted the ends to look like.  This detail did make it a little more difficult to thread the string, but I don’t  plan to do that every day, so it’s no big deal.

After all that, here’s what I ended up with:



I’m pleased with it.  Due to the freehand shaping, there are a lot of irregularities, but nothing that will affect actual performance.  It’s comfortable to hold and balances well.  Toward the end of the shaping process, I kept weighing the arms in my hands to make sure they were about the same weight, and they seem pretty close.  I sanded it down, but because of the moisture in the wood, it was not smoothing quite as well as I’d like.  So let it sit a few days, and it sanded down smoother.

The string is just some cotton stuff we had in a drawer.  I’d tell you what it is exactly, except that I can’t find the rest of the spool.  I know a lot of you guys use fishing line now, and I’m sure that works really well.  But for myself, I dislike the look of a modern, shiny, plasticy-looking element in such a traditional tool.  So I used something more traditional looking.  The original twine did eventually break, so now it is wound with nylon cord, which is holding up very well.

I ended up making the handles a little longer than suggested in the directions from TFWW.  I know I tend to like long handles on chisels, and I figured I could always make them shorter if I didn’t like them.  That, and the knob was hard enough to shape anyway, given that most of it was buried in the clamp for most of the shaping operation.

Since building this saw, I have used it many times, and I am always pleased with how well it cuts and how nice it feels in my hands.

[Edit to add: While I was generally pleased with my work here, the frame of the saw eventually proved to be too thin, and it began to distort after a couple years of use.  So, very reluctantly, I discarded this original frame and built another one.]

This entry was posted in Build-Alongs, Tool Making, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Building a Bow Saw

  1. Pingback: Homemade Woodenware, Part 2: An Easy Spatula, and Food Safety with Woodenware | The Literary Workshop Blog

  2. Tim W. says:

    I like your blog and really enjoyed your bowsaw tutorial. I really like the ‘swans neck’ you carved for securing the string, rather than a shallow hook. Great idea!

    I just learned of your blog yesterday on WoodNet. My two favorite subjects – Literature and Traditional Woodworking – you nailed it!

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences. I’ve bookmarked your blog and will read it often. Tim (rarely posts on WoodNet as ‘Rustyiron ).

  3. Thanks, Tim. I’m glad you liked it. The little swan neck is not really my own idea. I saw a more complicated (carved) version on someone else’s bowsaw and really liked the look. It makes it a little more complicated to wind the string, but the string also doesn’t fall off if I dismantle the saw. So reassembling it is very quick. It’s funny to me that a decorative feature actually ended up performing a useful function.

    I’m always glad to run across folks who enjoy both literature and woodworking.

  4. Pingback: Making a Stair Saw, and a Split-Nut Driver | The Literary Workshop Blog

  5. Pingback: Howarth Bowsaw – Beech – 2014 | raecreation

  6. Pingback: Making a Stair Saw, and a Split-Nut Driver | The Literary Workshop Blog

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