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History of Saw Cut Veneers

Industrialisation at the beginning of the 19th century

Sawing veneers on machines is not only a mechanization of sawing by hand, but goes hand in hand with the transition from a feudal to an industrial society. The veneers of the Classicism and Biedermeier periods, which were mostly processed over large areas and joined to mirror image effect, now replace the small-scale surface design of the 18th century and are the expression of a new aesthetic, which stands in contradiction to the still entirely agricultural production and traditional craft based society of the 18th century. This new view (also) of woods is enjoyed by expressive and large veneer surfaces, which as a rule do not have to be simply, evenly and flawlessly grown.

Now even the exact deviation is sought, an abnormal texture of the wood such as flaming, lock growth, coring, black core, eyes, branches, apples, burl growth, floridity, mussel growth, root and plait beginnings as well as pyramid growth from the bifurcation of two large branches are now seen as their own decorative factor and used with much pleasure in the varieties of nature as a design element with determining effect for the appearance of the furniture.

Such woods of course place much higher demands on the craftsmen, who had to cut them into veneers, since any turbulence or irregular course in the fibres of a saw block greatly increased the risk of the saw running. Karl Karmarsch sums up the problems of the veneer cutters and the requirements for such a machine precisely: "When it comes to sawing the wood into very thin sheets, as is the case with the representation of the furnish, the task becomes difficult to a certain extent, because one usually has to do it here with beautifully drawn, i.e. irregularly grown wood, which breaks extremely gladly with the small thickness, which often goes as far as the falling out of larger or smaller parts. The Furnür cutting machines must therefore have an excellently quiet operation and very well equipped saws, the latter of which must be taken very thinly in order to reduce waste as much as possible; at the same time, only one saw can be used at a time.

Such a veneer saw from the 19th century still works today at Signorello Sägefurniere in Havixbeck!

At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century there was not only a change in the way of looking at and appreciating mainly domestic woods, but also the way of sawing veneer was changed by the new demand for wide and long veneer sheets with unusual drawings.

In the early 19th century, the front of a typical Berlin secretary is usually veneered with only two wide, centrally inverted (mirrored) veneer sheets, e.g. in mahogany, which is unwound along the entire length of the front across all profiles without interruption. Such large veneer sheets with a length of approx. 2 metres and a width of approx. 45 - 50 cm have certainly represented a limit for manual cutting, and even the higher waste and the necessary reworking by hand made the veneer an extremely valuable commodity: often the material value of the mahogany veneer imported from the Caribbean, which had always been extremely expensive, was almost as high as the total value of a complete piece of the same furniture made of domestic wood. Dr. Achim Stiegel provides very detailed evidence of this value ratio in his standard work on Berlin writing furniture.

In 1803, the carpenter Thielemann offered a chest of drawers and a bookcase, each veneered in three types of wood, in an offer to furnish an apartment of Prince Wilhelm in Berlin's Stadtschloss.
The chest of drawers cost 18 thalers in alder, 24 thalers in pearwood and 32 thalers in mahogany. The difference is also visible in the bookcase; however, due to the lower veneer costs due to the glass surfaces, the difference is smaller compared to the furniture as a whole. The "Bücher Spind" should cost 93 Taler in "Elsen Holz geschliffen" (alder), in pear tree it was a moderate 106 Taler and in mahogany 135 Taler, thus approx. 45 % more.

This was an additional incentive to strive for a low-cost, low-loss and fast production of veneer. In addition, the rapidly progressing development in the field of sawing technology at the beginning of the industrial age made many developments possible in the first place. A closer look at the development of the widely used gang saws may illustrate this.

Nothing significant has changed in the principle of these sawing machines in the past centuries: The log is clamped on a horizontally forward moving carriage and guided against the saw blades (one or more), which are clamped in a wooden frame and swing up and down vertically, and thus cut into boards. However, a wide range of improvements and refined production techniques enable ever better results in terms of dimensional accuracy, surface quality and cutting quality of the sawing machines. The influence that respected natural scientists such as Leonhard Euler (1707-1783) or Bernard Forêst de Bélidor (1697-1761) had on the theory of sawing machines far beyond their creative period, as well as the invention and spread of the steam engine, which took place during this period, also gave enormous impetus to this development. More and more precisely machined cast iron parts were used on sawing machines, and sophisticated bearing techniques with low-wear bronze plain bearings helped the machines to continuously improve both the results and the working speed through greater accuracy. The decisive impulse for the development of a gang saw for the specialized cutting of veneers was then given by the Frenchman August Cochot around 1815, who patented the horizontal saw gang saw after many years of development, and this saw, which was primarily designed for veneer cutting, finally meets all the requirements for cutting veneers rationally cleanly, precisely and quickly with the least possible loss of wood.

It is also this machine type of the horizontal veneer saw frame with vertical feed, which was decisive for the cutting of high-quality, accurately dimensioned veneers and tonewoods, e.g. for the production of musical instruments, even into the 1950s. In 1802, the American Oliver Evans connected a steam engine to a saw frame for the first time, thus creating the model of a saw machine drive that would determine the entire 19th century.

In Berlin, many inventions were made in the first half of the 19th century with veneer saws, Ernst Francke developed a particularly finely and effectively working machine in 1812. He had used his years of travel in France to record the essential features of a veneer saw in Paris, and after his return to Frankfurt an der Oder he developed a particularly finely working veneer saw machine with this help. After his early accidental death, his brother David continued the development of this promising saw, patented in 1817, from 1820 in Berlin and from 1835 onwards operated it with a steam engine as its drive.

This saw was able to cut amazingly precisely and finely, from a board of one inch (2.616 cm), David Francke was able to obtain at least 12 of veneer after further refinements of his technique in 1836. Assuming a minimal cutting loss of only about 1 mm due to his patented extra-thin saw blade, the calculated veneer thickness is 1.26 mm. This value is in complete agreement with the veneer thicknesses found in practice on many antique pieces of furniture, which were not subject to any significant reworking.

Such highly developed special machines, however, were not yet a generally widespread technical standard around the middle of the 19th century. Throughout the entire century, there was a coexistence of such highly developed sawing machines and veneers cut by hand in a traditional way, the distribution depended not only on the local conditions but also on the preciousness of the wood to be sawn: an expensive and thus valuable 'pound wood' found its way to the best veneer sawmill rather than an inexpensive domestic wood.

At the same time that David Franck was bringing his machine saw to maturity in Berlin, the veneer needed in Linz, just 180 kilometres from the metropolis of Vienna, is still being produced in the way it was used in the early 18th century. In the painting of the presumably parental workshop in Linz, Johann Baptist Reiter (1813-1890) depicts exactly this process of veneer sawing with a veneer block saw with a very wide blade on a vertically clamped log by two journeymen in his father's workshop. This painting from 1835 shows the long parallel existence of manual work in the workshop and mechanical veneer sawing on the veneer saw mill.
Detail Sawing
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