The hand saw is a classic piece of woodworking equipment consisting of corrugated metal with sharp teeth. These ever-handy tools are helpful for a wide variety of projects and have always seemed to be around. Most of us have one or two in our garden sheds—but did you know that these handy tools have been around for centuries?
Humankind developed the first hand saws some 5,000 years ago, although the precursors of the saw form date back to antiquity. There is evidence of hand saws in ancient Egypt. Ancient artists depicted men cutting wood with a similar tool in hieroglyphs discovered by archeologists.
The hand saw we know today has come a long way from the basic woodworking tool archeologists have found remnants of ancient civilizations. The device has a fascinating history. This article will explore when humankind invented the hand saw and how its journey has continued since.
The History of the Hand Saw
The hand saw is one of the earliest traceable tools. Like most tools of its kind, like hammers and axes, initial models tended to comprise basic and ineffective materials. Evidence suggests early humankind started using rudimentary tools as far back as 3.3 million years ago.
These precursors of the modern hand saw were flakes of cores early crafted into sharp edges by chipping. Archeologists excavating a site in Kenya discovered that our earliest ancestors—the australopithecines—made tools before Homos emerged.
Archeologists linked these tools to the sharp etches made on fossilized animal bones and were the first ancestor of our trusty old hand saw.
Early saws were primarily made from rocks, though there is evidence that early humans made saw-like tools from shark teeth. These tools each posed their problems. Rocks were rarely sharp enough to cut through wood, and sharks’ teeth were brittle and prone to breaking. Significant developments would be needed to revolutionize woodworking.
The model of the saw arose from the knife. Early knives were similar to those we see today, with a sharp pointed end and a blunt handle. These needed to be bigger to cut through wood, so people developed a more effective tool that became the hand saw.
Since then, the hand saw has developed through several blades and handle materials. It has transformed from a rare tool that took a lot of time and effort to something easily purchased from your nearest hardware store for $20. What changed?
Copper Hand Saws in the First Dynasty of Ancient Egypt
Many of the earliest archeological discoveries surrounding metal hand saws date back to the very first dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Remnants of saws have been found in stone from that period, which ranges from 3,400 to 2,900 B.C.—over 5,000 years ago.
The saws found at this time were more rudimentary than later discoveries but still showed an astounding grasp of technology. These saws were robust, being used to saw not only wood but also stone.
These saws arose around the bronze age, and people began making tools of copper alloy. Before the Bronze Age, copper was too soft to be effective as a tool, but the technological advancements in mixed metals were a massive development for the hand saw.
Hand Saws in the Later Eras of Ancient Egypt
While people used hand saws from the very beginning of Ancient Egyptian civilization, it was not until around the fifth dynasty that they added a wooden handle to the saw, making it more comfortable to use and thus more effective.
The fifth dynasty began around 2,500 B.C. Early toolmakers took about 900 years to upgrade the saw to look more like the one we think of today. During this period, saws were used for woodworking and often for execution.
Iron Hand Saws in the Iron Age
Copper isn’t an excellent material for making tools from, so the ability to make iron into tools was a massive development for the hand saw. It is difficult to pinpoint when this change happened because the world reached the iron age at different times, but historians suggest that iron and steel use was widespread by about 500 B.C. The steel saw followed shortly.
Steel saws were initially made by heating steel until it was meldable and then hammering it with an anvil to make it flat. This method would be a long and tedious process of flattening the metal before individually carving out the triangular teeth. Because of this, hand saws were not commonly manufactured until much later.
Hand Saws in the Age of the Industrial Revolution
The widespread manufacture of the hand saw came during the industrial revolution in Europe. Steel production took off in the English Midlands in the 17th Century before really taking off in the city of Sheffield, which remains famous for its steel production today.
Here is a brief history of the steel industry in Sheffield and its importance for the tool-making sector in the 19th Century.
Europe dominated the steel industry for a while before the United States of America took over. Their steel production was the largest in the world by the early 20th Century, with more than 24 million tons produced. By this time, the hand saw that you know and love was taking form.
Today, hand saws are mass-manufactured using stainless steel and laser to create the sharp edge needed for woodworking. They come with a plastic handle and are easily accessible from any good hardware store or online—a far cry from the lumps of copper alloy from 5,000 years ago.
Moving Past Hand Saws—The Circular Saw and Automation
There will always be a place for hand saws in basic carpentry. If you are completing DIY projects in your backyard or doing small tasks around the house, you will find the hand saw useful, so it is still relevant.
However, technology has moved past the need for basic hand saws in industrial settings. The circular saw was first seen in the 18th Century. Instead of a straight-edged saw that required a manual back-and-forth motion, people could continually move the circular saw in the same direction by cranking a lever.
This development wouldn’t become widespread for a while due to the size and technology required, but many people use it in woodworking facilities.
For example, you can use the Miter Saw at home for advanced woodworking projects. It is incredible to think that what was once a rudimentary yet rare tool is now available for you to have in your own home. This article talks about miter saw work tables and why they are important.
The saw has gone through one of the most impressive transformations in archeological history for a tool so simple. It reminds us that we are similar to people of the past, way back in Egyptian times and probably even further back than that.
The hand saw has evolved beautifully through all of the developments of humanity. Every time new material is discovered, the hand saw is updated. Because of this, something so simple has a rich and exciting history.
Is the current hand saw the final form, or will it continue to evolve? Only time will tell.