Unplugged Tools: A Maker’s Journey to Revive Traditional Woodworking

Daniel McGlynn

Daniel McGlynn is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He shares a small workshop behind his house with his two kids.

81 Articles

By Daniel McGlynn

Daniel McGlynn is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He shares a small workshop behind his house with his two kids.

81 Articles

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During his last deployment as an Army officer, in 2007, Mark Harrell was in command of a team tasked to train Afghan National Army forces to better fight insurgents. He valued the work, and his comrades, but throughout the tour of duty there was one thing that his mind kept coming back to: traditional backsaws, the kind with a stiff back, used to make fine cuts in detailed joinery and furniture making. One in particular, a hand-built backsaw made by a family-run outfit in Oregon, consumed his attention, and he resolved that when he got home he would add it to his collection.

CB1_0034_2 Harrell

Photography by Mark Harrell

It was just a tool he wanted to buy, but it would become so much more, setting him on a path to the forefront of a growing movement of woodworkers and tool builders who champion the merits of near-forgotten designs and build techniques.

Long before he set his sights on the backsaw, Harrell started collecting old hand tools as a hobby. He would visit eBay looking for vintage tools in his price range. Then he noticed that tools that needed a little work, some rust removed or a new handle, could be bought cheaply, fixed up, and then resold at a profit.

Eventually Harrell discovered handsaws. “Having a sharp saw that will sever a board the exact way you want it, with that buzz sliding up your arm, you become addicted,” he says. “Before you know it, you’re buying saws on eBay and sneaking them past your wife.”

By taking apart and reviving old saws, Harrell was also getting a design education. Inspired and informed, would go on to start, in 2009, a small manufacturing company in La Crosse, Wisconsin, called Bad Axe Tool Works, which is now one of the premier small American saw companies.

THE UNPLUGGED GOSPEL

Tom Fidgen, a writer and professional furniture maker in Toronto, exemplifies the obsession that hand-tool makers and restorers like Harrell possess and cater to. A widely recognized evangelist for handcrafted woodwork, Fidgen is the author of The Unplugged Woodshop and founder of The Unplugged Woodshop, a studio and school in Toronto that features classes on how to use hand tools and what you can make with them. He started building with hand tools only when he moved to Toronto in 2008 and didn’t have the space for a workshop with large tools. Then he realized he preferred hand tools anyway. “At some point, working with hand tools became its own thing and I started writing about it, and talking about it, and teaching classes all over the planet,” he says.

“Seventy percent of my students are desk jockeys that work in an office all day,” Fidgen says. “When they get home they don’t have a whole lot to show for it.” So they head to their garage, or basement, or shed, and get to work building something by hand. Low-tech building can be done practically anywhere, at any time. And using hand tools is a more tactile experience: A Maker can hear, feel, and sense subtle changes in a workpiece. The result is that no two things made by hand will ever be exactly the same.

The attraction of traditional craftsmanship, and the demand for high-quality tools, are directing experts like Fidgen toward traditional toolmakers. “There are boutique places popping up all over, like [Harrell’s]” Fidgen says. “He’s one of the most well-known saw makers in the United States, but it wasn’t that way five years ago. Before, he was just one guy sharpening saws in his basement.”

After his deployment to Afghanistan, Harrell retired from the Army and perfected his saw sharpening technique. He built a website in 2008 and started advertising his restoration services. At that point, he still thought of saw restoration as a side project — something he could do to make enough money to support his own tool buying habit.

Harrell wrote to Chris Schwarz, at the time an editor at Popular Woodworking and a well-regarded voice among hand tool enthusiasts, explaining his sharpening technique. Schwarz sent Harrell a saw to sharpen, and happy with the results, blogged about Harrell’s fledgling operation. And woodworkers noticed. In the weeks that followed, Harrell found dozens of saws shipped to him, waiting on his doorstep in need of attention.

It didn’t take long for him to feel like he stumbled onto something he could shape into a second career. “I looked at my basement workshop, and realized I wasn’t the only one doing this,” he says. “I realized the market was really deep.”

bad axe

TRADITIONAL MEETS HIGH-TECH

Years have passed since Schwarz first wrote about Harrell’s prowess, and since then Schwarz too has tapped into the growing unplugged workshop momentum. He now runs a small book publishing company called Lost Art Press that specializes in books about traditional furniture making and building methods. Schwarz wrote and published a book called The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, in which he makes the case that a well-appointed woodshop only needs 50 good quality hand tools to build just about anything out of wood, using traditional methods.

During a question and answer session earlier this year on the 135,000-member r/woodworking subreddit, Schwarz was asked about the noticeable resurgence in hand tools and traditional woodworking — why was this happening now?

“There is no doubt that the internet has allowed us to find one another,” he wrote on Reddit. “When my dad and I were building houses in Arkansas with hand tools, we thought we were alone. The internet proved us wrong. Second, the availability of new quality hand tools has spurred an interest. People who don’t enjoy tool restoration (I’m one of them) can focus on woodworking rather than metalworking. That’s huge. More toolmakers creates more woodworkers creates more toolmakers. Until we saturate.”

While hand tool enthusiasts and craftsmen have been communicating online since early chat rooms, the latest social media platforms make it still easier to connect, share information, and resurrect tools that might otherwise be seen only in rusty piles at flea markets and antique shops.”

All of this served to set up Harrell, and others like him, to enter the market at a perfect time. As the interest and demand for high-quality tools, made to exacting standards and sold at a premium price, was ripening, Harrell was restoring loads of saws.

REDISCOVERING A CLASSIC

At work in his basement, Harrell explored American saw-building innovations in materials, like steel quality, and changes in design. He was able to figure out what saw set-ups endured over time and what modifications users make to handles (saw makers call them totes) and how different kinds of teeth are filed. He restored saws from some of the world’s best makers, such as Simonds and Atkins.

Before long he found himself developing a particular affinity for saws designed by Henry Disston in the years following the American Civil War. Saws manufactured by Disston (later Disston and Son, and eventually Disston and Sons) are still in demand. The saws represent a benchmark of technological advances, particularly in steel quality and overall craftsmanship, that modern toolmakers struggle to equal. Harrell started studying Disston and was pulled in by his life’s story and his drive to make an exceptional product.

Disston did not have it easy: As a young teenager, he immigrated to the United States from England with his father, who died three days after their arrival. A young Disston found a job as an apprentice saw maker. When his apprenticeship was over several years later, he was paid with tools and supplies instead of cash.

Disston went on to build a small empire, but not without having to start over numerous times because his factories kept burning down, and because of other personal calamities. Along the way he made several important saw innovations. He became the first American saw maker to smelt his own steel for blades. And the skewback handsaw design, the style of carpenter’s saw that tapers toward the tip — the kind most people probably have hanging from a pegboard over their workbench — is attributed to Disston. He also treated his employees well, eventually building a company town for them outside of Philadelphia.

THE AMERICAN KID

During his self-directed restoration education, Harrell also kept thinking about the backsaw he bought when his tour of duty was over — the one his mind wouldn’t let go of while he was in Afghanistan — and his experience when he got it in his hands. “It was underwhelming. I thought I could do a better job than this,” he says. “My background from the Army makes me competitive. There is no substitute for consistent excellence; you can’t make a damn thing happen unless you are consistently excellent. Everything better look cool and be squared away.”

stiletto 2 bad axe

Using Disston’s designs as a starting point, Harrell moved beyond saw restoration and sharpening and moved into actually manufacturing new tools. He studied the designs he liked best from his restoration experience. “When I developed Bad Axe I either copied or made small adjustments to traditional designs,” he says. “You don’t have to reject the old to embrace the new.”

The first step was making prototypes and then having them modeled with a 3D scanner. Then he found craftsman capable of making high-quality components: The steel for the blades is ordered from a steel manufacturer and cut to the correct size. Harrell’s shop grinds and sets the teeth, and then sends it out to a gunsmith for a blue steel treatment, and to have the company logo laser etched on it.

He named the company for a river in Wisconsin, and for a battle that took place there in 1832. The five-mile Bad Axe forms where two streams braid together before entering the Mississippi River. It’s also the last battle fought east of the Mississippi between Native Americans and U.S.-backed militias. Harrell was taken with the resistance shown by the group of Native American fighters — they inflicted heavy causalities on their attackers — even as they fought on the losing side of a massacre.

Harrell sold his first Bad Axe saw in July 2009, and has been working ever since to perfect a decidedly American saw. He now offers 10 models of backsaw, including tenon, carcass, sash, dovetail saws, and more. (The names reflect the kind of joinery or application that they are made for.) Harrell’s saws are customizable to individual customer specifications and intended use. He even makes a small and durable backsaw designed for kids, fittingly called the “American Kid.”

CHASING HENRY DISSTON

Harrell says he is trying to figure out how to manufacture a more general-purpose handsaw, without the stiff back, suitable for ripping thick stock, or for crosscutting big pieces quickly. “We are actively in research and development to reproduce the classical handsaw that was perfected in the 1900s. It has a dual compound taper grind. The tooth line is thicker than the spine in the center. You have to get the grind just right, and then you have to make it stiff again after you grind teeth. No one has been able to do that since before World War II.”

In the meantime, as a reminder of Disston’s influence and legacy, Harrell hung a large banner in his La Crosse workshop where he and a handful of employees assemble, tune, sharpen, and test Bad Axe’s saws before shipping them to customers.

The banner reads, simply: “What would Henry do?”