On the walls of the den in the house in Raleigh where we lived for nearly 34 years were hundreds of little holes where I banged in nails and tacks and screwed in hooks and stobs to hold an ever-growing army of old tools. Some had come from my grandfather's home in South Carolina, some from my granddad in Greensboro. Most had come, one by one, from antique shops and junk shops and yard sales over the years. One lovely box of tools -- the box itself a work of the cabinetmaker's art -- came from a neighbor up the street who was looking for a place to put his father-in-law's tools.
Most of these old tools collected dust for years. There were decorations of sorts, especially the pieces with ornate lines on them or shiny brass parts -- the old boxwood rulers, hanging scales, fancy thumb screws on planes and the like. I rarely used anything more than some of the old hammers that hung over the hearth, or a curious oval-handled set of screwdrivers that must have come off the designer's table accompanied by smiles and nods of heads. Mostly I looked at them, and thought about the work they might have done in their primes.
Up in one corner out of reach was an old backsaw, a short saw that would have been used to cut tenons for drawer corners and carcase joinery. I was attracted by the handle, something close to a work of art, but it was rusty, a little bent and didn't look like it would stand much hard work. I can't remember ever giving it a job to do, until now.
I'm building shelves in the great room, fitting them into the spaces between the heavy beams the timberwrights put up to hold the house upright. The beams are white pine, held together with big wooden pegs where the pieces are morticed and tenoned together. The pegs -- some call them "trunnels", short for "tree nails" --are vital parts of the structure, holding the beams tight. There's not a nail or screw in any part of the timberframe that I'm aware of.
Well, there are now, because I'm building these bookshelves and cabinets board by board as they go up, fitting and fixing with finish nails each piece one at a time because the dimensions are, um, subject to change. One beam might be a degree or two off square; the wallboard behind it might be a bit off the bubble, the floor beneath it might have an interesting pattern all its own. I'm used to these variations in old houses we have fixed up, but finding them in a new house was a revelation. My father-in-law once told me the secret to good carpentry was knowing how to hide your mistakes. I'm relearning that lesson every day.
My shelves are 8 inches wide -- the nominal width of the southern yellow pine I got from a mill down in Chatham County, N.C. a few years ago. This really means the shelves are 7 1/4 inches wide, after milling and shrinkage and whatever other trade reasons there are for supplying lumber that is not exactly what it is said to be. And at that width, the shelving boards have to occupy space where the original occupants are those big pine pegs, which the builders left with an inch or so still protruding from the beams so all can admire the joinery.
There are any number of ways to remove those pegs, even on a finished beam. A chisel could be used to cut them off. Or an axe -- one of the worst methods. I've been cutting these off with the a backsaw, which lets me saw nearly flush with the upright beams. It's a job I've finally given to that old backsaw and to another old saw that some woodwrights call a gent's saw. Both of them have thin blades, which let me get close to the beams without leaving much of a tool mark on the surrounding surface.
The backsaw with the pretty handle was made in Sheffield, England sometime during the 19th century by J&I Taylor. Stamped below the maker's mark is the phrase "German Steel." I'm told the Taylor saw works on Lawson Street in Sheffield was not one of the top-notch sawmakers, nor was German Steel some of the best steel. The Taylor saw handles evidently have a reputation for moving about, attached as they are with just two screws. Saw collectors and tool enthusiasts appear to have little regard for the Taylor Brother's quality.
But their saw, perhaps a century and a half after its manufacture, has done the job that had to be done. Those pegs are now flush with the surface of the beams they hold together, and evidence of their existence is disappearing behind the shelves and the stiles and rails that will serve as the trim, hiding the gaps and the flaws and the occasional scrapes where the backsaw dug into the wood.
Most of my old woodworking tools now sit in boxes, banished from our walls and awaiting their fate. When the shelves are done, they'll fill up with books hauled up from the Piedmont, family pictures looking for a place to stand and the occasional knickknack from some place or other. I'm thinking of giving the old backsaw a place on a shelf, maybe up high in a corner again, where it can stay handy just in case. You never know when something needs to be taken down a peg or two.