Monday, April 16, 2012

[Interview] Matt Cianci of

Q&A with Some of My Woodworking Mentors

(If you want to know more about this series, please see the first installment)

When you search the web for information on traditional hand saws, at some point you are going to discover Matt Cianci: sawsmith and editor of the aptly named site, I don't recall how I initially discovered his writing, but it was, I believe, related to figuring out how to safely get the rust-orange layer of crust off my $1 garage sale Disston without ruining the thing. Matt has lots of useful information: detailed (and possibly mystical) insights on the byzantine reckonin' involved in divining optimal rake, fleam and hang angles of tooth and tote. For those who just want to get the most out of their sawing, he explains in simple terms how to boost your odds of success when fondling a hopefully worthwhile saw at the flea market and lots more.

I've long been inspired by Matt's matter-of-fact writing, as well as his intensely narrow focus. I've had a couple questions where he was the one to go to, and he gave me quick and thoughtful replies each time. This prompted me to go to him when I wanted a fine-toothed crosscut panel saw. I wrote to Matt for advice, and happened to mention my "3/4 scale" hands, wondering if he had come across a tote made for the younger apprentice, or perhaps from a time when humans were a little more efficient in their dimensions. Something suitable for a man like myself. Yes, a man with slightly below-average hand size. What he sent was a thing of beauty; a re-purposed old Disston blade cut into a new vision, and with a wonderfully comfortable tote crafted in Osage Orange by Matt himself. It was more than I had asked him for, and it has opened my eyes to how wonderful, and radically diverse, the world of hand saws can be.

My fine crosscut saw, made by Matt Cianci

You can read more of Matt's ideas on saws at his blog, or at

I am The Joiner's Apprentice (TJA) asking a few questions of Matt Cianci (MC):

TJAHow long have you been woodworking, and what changes have you seen
in the field since you started?

MC: I have been woodworking seriously since I was in college, about 15 years ago. I first started building guitars and then got into furniture making when I bought my first house. I've definitely noticed a big shift to hand tools over the last ten years. Most notably, in the last two years, handsaws seem to have gotten a big following.

TJAWhat is your favorite style to work in? What styles do you just not understand or have no interest in?

MC: I love furniture with simple lines and classic construction. Shaker work has always been my favorite. I think the honesty and simplicity of their work and forms is absolutely perfect. I also appreciate the clean lines and gorgeous use of grain in a lot of contemporary work. I am admittedly a sucker for exposed joinery. I am the kind of person who is completely in love with the character of wood. I like big, beautiful slabs with simple lines and graceful curves. I try to never laminate boards together. If I need a 24 inch wide table top, I find a 24 inch wide slab. If I can only find 20 inch wide, then I change the dimensions of the piece. I don't do a glue up to make it bigger. I think mother nature is the greatest designer, why go against her?

I'm not a big fan of some of complex American styles. Federal period stuff and anything with inlays or veneers is really not my bag. Some of it is amazing in its construction details and the skill required, but I really don't care for its aesthetics. I also don't care for arts and crafts or mission style furniture, mostly because of the dominant use of oak. Oak is a 100% utilitarian wood for me. I would never use it in furniture, yuck! I also find the lines too confined and boxy or angular. The best forms should incorporate some free flowing lines and curves-- it compliments well with the natural lines of wood grain.

TJAWhat tools do you always look forward to using and/or what operations do you most enjoy, time after time?

MC: SPOILER ALERT: I LOVE HANDSAWS. I just love every single time I pick up a handsaw of any kind for any reason. I still get excited when I hear that familiar "crunch" of a well filed saw biting through wood. For that matter, I am completely seduced by all hand tools. I can probably only think of one thing in life more pleasurable than working wood by hand (and modesty prevents me from explicitly mentioning it here). I am really into wooden planes right now. The first time you push a wooden try plane across a board you will pee yourself. I did.

And of course, sharpening saws is the greatest of all. I spend hours every night filing. I still love every minute of it. It never gets old and its ALWAYS fun. I can't believe people pay me to do it!

TJAHow much time do you actually get in your shop in a typical week? Do you even do much woodworking anymore, or are the saws taking up all of your time?

MC: I spend about 20 to 30 hours a week in my shop. I'm working on customers saws five nights a week. On the weekends I always try to spend at least a few hours on Sat or Sun doing my own work. I make a lot of things for my house. I just finished a live edge ash mantle for our living room. The slab came from a friend's ash tree that he cut down from his from yard. I love ash, and this piece is particularly gorgeous-- its a full quarter sawn section from the pith to the bark edge. The heart wood is a beautiful rich brown that changes dramatically to the creamy sap wood. Its got some great curly grain as well.

TJAHave you had any memorable masters or mentors help you gain the skills you currently possess? How did you meet them?

MC: I don't really have any mentors, woodworking has always been a solitary pursuit for me. Books and periodicals have been my only guide thus far. I would say that Adam Cherubini and Roy Underhill have been my greatest guides thus far.

TJAWhich styles of saws do you think are the most underappreciated? 

MC: An excellent question! I could write pages in response. Suffice to say that the most OVER appreciated saw nowadays is the dovetail saw. These small saws were intended for cutting dovetails on thin stock for drawer construction and similar work. I see people cutting carcase joinery with DT saws and it makes me want to pull my hair out (if I had any). No wonder they are frustrated with their DTs!!!! A proper DT saw is the LAST saw anyone needs, not the first. The first saw should be a sash or carcase saw, and a proper English design, not the bastardized versions popularized by Disston, et al. In fact, the only saw most of us really need is one of these. File it with a touch of rake and fleam and it will rip and cross cut with aplomb. Its amazing how much work you can do with one saw. That's really all you need.

As for under appreciated saws, those are clearly the true English forms. Most of the high end boutique makers in the US today are copying late 19th century American saws....these are not nearly as functional and refined as the earlier English forms. I get lots of saws from customers asking me to refile their very expensive, brand new saws because they they can't make them cut, or hate the way they feel. Its tough to fix these saws because the issue with them is their basic form to begin with: the saw plates are too thick, the tote hang is far too parallel with the toothline, and the teeth are the wrong size and shape. You want a great saw? Get one of Mike Wenzloff's Seaton saws. That's as perfect as a new saw can get. Otherwise, find an old English saw and tune it up. You'll fall in love.

TJAHave you considered writing a book on saws?

MC: A book? Not really. I think I'd actually need to have something to add to the conversation. Perhaps in a decade or two.

TJAI bet lots of people would love to read what you have to say about saws. I know I would. There may be nothing new to say, but there are always new ways to organize and present it. Anyway, do you have a "day job" you are willing to confess to?

MC: I do have a day job. Its totally unrelated. I am a vocational counselor for people with psychiatric disabilities.

TJAWhat is happening in the hand tool world (toolmakers, blogs, books, projects) that you think need more press?

MC: Hmmmm... tough question. That guy Rob Campbell is doing some great work. I'd love to see him get more attention.  ;)

TJA: I don't think any of the readers of this are going to find his work all that different than the stuff I already talk about here. There is one more question though, and please be honest - how often do you use power saws?

Haha! Great question. In my own work, never. I don't even own any. I am a hand tool purist; power tools are the devil's work! But when I teach at woodworking schools, I unfortunately have to walk someone through using a band saw or scroll saw to cut out the handle blank for their saw. As soon as I have enough bow saws for everyone in class...those days will be over!

TJAThank you, Matt!

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