Tomorrow, August 17th, I will be exhibiting some props at the Burlington Mini Maker Faire in North Carolina. I wrote up some more details about it a few days ago. There’s going to be Stormtroopers, robots and even a space launch. That’s right, they are going to launch a balloon into (near) space from the mall parking lot. I never thought I would live to see the day I could type the previous sentence.
I’ve linked to a few of blacksmith Tony Swatton’s videos in the past; he has a new one up where he creates Link’s Master Sword from the Legend of Zelda series. The result is an amazingly accurate replica of a sword which exists only in a video game, built out of the materials which a real life sword would be made from. It is far more intense than the Master Sword I created a few months ago, but then again, I don’t have a whole team of specialized metal artisans working in my shop.
The guys at Tested recently visited The Hand Prop Room in Los Angeles to tour through their 1,000,000+ props. I often wish I lived close by to a props rental house that contained everything; then again, I probably don’t have the budget for that. I guess I’ll have to make my own.
Here are some jokes and funny anecdotes from various newspapers, all of which appeared in 1911.
In a fourth of July oration in Denver N. C. Goodwin once remarked on the small means wherewith Washington achieved such great ends.
“When I think,” said Mr. Goodwin, “of Washington’s terrible handicap, my mind goes back to the town of Nola Chucky.
“An actor manager was to appear for one night in Nola Chucky, and accordingly he wired the proprietor of the Nola Chucky opera house:
“‘Will hold rehearsal tomorrow afternoon. Have stage manager, stage carpenter, property man and assistant, chief electrician and all stage hands at theater prompt to hour.’
“He received this telegram in reply:
“‘He will be there.'”
The San Francisco Call, July 22, 1911, Page 7.
Property Man: “Did your company have a long run in Squeedunk?”
Comedian: “They chased us only two miles out.”
University Missourian, September 18, 1911, Number 7, Page 4.
An English actor tells a good story of the old days of the touring fitup companies. They were at Oldham playing a melodrama called “Current Cash.” One of the properties essential to the piece was a light rowing scull, with which the hero had to push himself off into the stream. When the company reached Oldham the oar was missing, but the property man promised to have one ready for the evening’s performance, says the Pall Mall Gazette. That afternoon, with evident pride, he produced from the sacred recesses of his room a real human skull, and when it was pointed out to him that it was hardly what was required he declared in haughty tones:
“If that skull’s good enough for ‘Hamlet’ it ought to be good enough for a piece like ‘Current Cash.'”
This article first appeared in the February 20, 1927, issue of The New York Times.
With the trend of the drama toward realism it is obvious that the relative importance of the property man in the theatre must have increased considerably. In the barn-storming days of the early ’90s a revolver, a window-sash and a back-drop depicting Niagara Falls at its most gushing moment, comprised an almost complete set of props. Today, the man whose business it is to supply all the effects necessary to create an authentic background must produce as part of his day’s work everything from a flying carpet to a cat’s meow.
It is just such effects that William Bradley, who has been tracking the prop to its lair for lo, these many years, has on tap at his studios. Bradley’s first experience in playing valet to the stage began in 1885 when he worked at the old Standard Theatre. In 1892 he wandered out to Dayton, Ohio, with his trusty three-piece set of props. There he not only dressed the stage, but he also did a song and dance turn, tended door on the balcony, and also rehearsed the orchestra for the incidental music.
In 1908 Bradley returned to New York to begin work as property man with the late Henry B. Harris. It was while furnishing the Harris productions with properties that he conceived the idea of opening a studio upon which producers could call for data and incidentals. On Mr. Harris’s death Bradley started in the property supplying business. Today, no matter what article of stage adornment is necessary to a show he will usually find it.
Any number of interesting quests fall to his lot. Take, for instance, the little matter of shark teeth. It isn’t often that the voracious specimen of cartilaginous fish, or even any portion of his anatomy, is called upon to make a public appearance. Naturally, Bradley thought that the shark would be pleased—nay, even willing—to turn professional. But not a bit of it. The property man spent a lively few days trying to gather together enough shark teeth to make a necklace. He searched high and low and at last rounded up two stuffed shark heads with the idea of extracting the necessary ivories. But the heads refused to lose their teeth. So the hunt for the necklace continued.
It was a week later that Bradley journeyed to the Syrian quarter on Washington Street looking for some pipes for another production. He happened into a Turkish delicatessen store. It was bargain day for dried okra, and Mr. Bradley was the recipient of an idea. Buying the okra, which is usually used for soups, he took the bag of herbs to his studio, hung the pieces on a string, and thus was born a necklace of shark teeth that, so it is said, would have turned any South Sea Islander green with envy.
It was in Dayton that Bradley first met George C. Tyler, whose productions he now outfits. Mr. Tyler was, at that time, a press agent with an eye on the producing end of the business. But the two did not meet again until Mr. Tyler did Tarkington’s “Clarence.” Ever since then Bradley has found the props for all Tyler shows, whether they be modern comedy or historical drama.
It is necessary for the property man, if he is to make a real business of his work, to have at his disposal a fund of information concerning almost every historical period in almost every country. In “The Constant Nymph” for example, Bradley was called upon to supply the props for a Tyrolean home. This meant that he had to furnish the potato barrels, the clumsy stools and tables, the pottery from which the characters eat, and that they all had to be true to life. For the property man never knows when some experienced traveler or historian, or even a native of Tyrol, may be sitting out front waiting to catch him up. And natives of Tyrol, it seems, are given to doing this.
Periodicals from a specific locality are often difficult to procure. There is in “Tommy” a call for a telephone book from a small town in New Jersey. This was fairly easy, for it meant that the property man made overtures to the town and procured the required prop. The question of having newspapers of a definite date and place on the stage is another problem—not a difficult problem, to be sure, but one that demands the attention of the property man. Should the “prop plot” call for the current issue of a daily paper, it is that functionary’s job to see that each day a fresh paper is supplied. Only he knows how many people out front will catch a slip-up on his part—and how many have!
The greatest demands on the property man today are for modern appliances, such bathtubs and kitchen furnishings as are used, say, in “Saturday’s Children.” These are easy enough to furnish and a supply is always at hand.
Originally published in The New York Times, February 20, 1927.
Fon Davis runs a company called FONCO Creative, which makes miniatures and models for film and television. He’s worked on some lesser-known films such as Matrix, Star Wars Episodes I-III, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Make: Believe visits his studio and posts some photographs and this video below. It is great to see a fairly young and high-tech company still embracing the use of models and miniatures.
You should see this “Death Row” router table; so-named because it was found in a prison woodworking shop where tools often need to be, um, improvised.
Here is an interesting Instructable for making your own machinable wax. Machinable wax is a wax which will not melt or deform from the friction of a high-speed rotary cutter; it is useful for trying out a part on a CNC machine before you waste your real material (and it can be machined faster and without wearing down your tools).
A few years ago, a press release came out declaring the history of that most useful of tools, the jig saw. It read:
“The jigsaw is celebrating its 60th birthday. About 60 years ago, Albert Kaufmann, who worked for the Swiss company Scintilla AG, invented the principle of the electric jigsaw. The inspiration for this came from his wife’s sewing machine: the very fast up and down action of the needle. By clamping a saw blade in this sewing machine, the inventor was able to produce extremely attractive curved cuts in wood. This represented the birth of a completely new tool. In 1947, Scintilla began series production of what was called the “Lesto jigsaw”, the first electric handheld jigsaw in the world.” 1
With the absence of any evidence to the contrary, this information has spread throughout the Internet, including to Wikipedia. For anyone researching the history of the jig saw, they will most likely find some quoting or paraphrasing of this press release; the fact that it is parroted on so many other web pages may make it appear that it is universally accepted as the truth.
While companies typically use press releases to extol the virtues of their own products and exclude all others, it is lazy for others to use such a press release as the sole citation in a history of the jig saw. The account given is an extremely simplified and unverifiable account of the history of such tools. We can see that better by examining the individual claims in the statement: that it is “the birth of a completely new tool”, that Kaufmann “invented the principle of the electric jigsaw”, and that the Lesto jigsaw was “the first electric handheld jigsaw in the world”. Along the way, we will get a much richer understanding of how many of the tools we use have evolved over time.
“The birth of a completely new tool.”
First, just what is a jig saw? The Oxford English dictionary defines it as “a vertically reciprocating saw driven by a crank, mounted in various different ways.” The term can be better understood by looking at the definition for jig: “To move up and down or to and fro with a rapid jerky motion”. 2
A reciprocating saw itself is nothing new; the Hierapolis sawmill from the second half of the 3rd century BCE used a reciprocating saw powered by a water wheel. 3
A jig saw is used to cut curves, though. A 1916 book put out by famed saw makers H. Disston & Sons, Inc. explains the provenance of saws for cutting curves:
“As a matter of fact, Fret, Scroll and Jig saws are very similar, and are used for practically the same purpose… The Fret Saw is used almost always by hand… The Scroll Saw, the blades of which are somewhat wider, is used on heavier work, and although frequently worked by hand is also used in a machine run by foot or other power. The Jig Saw, though often confused with the Fret and Scroll Saws, is distinctly a machine saw, and is used on all heavy work…
The Jig Saw resembles Fret and Scroll Saws mainly in the purposes for which it is used. It is a sawing machine with a narrow, vertical, reciprocating saw blade, on which curved and irregular lines and patterns in open work are cut…
A species of Fret Saw is the Buhl Saw. The name of this saw is derived from André Buhl, an Italian. He was celebrated throughout France, in the reign of Louis XIV, for inlaid work in wood.” 4
The Buhl saw, characterized by its long, thin blade held on either end in tension, is the ancestor of the fret saw. The earliest illustration of one is in Diderot’s famed encyclopedia, first published in 1751. There, in Volume 2, on page 96, in the second plate for Boissellier (carver), is a small drawing. 5
Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary provides some of the earliest descriptions and illustrations of jig and scroll saws. A jig-saw is “a vertically reciprocating saw, moved by vibrating lever or crank rod… Fig. 2723 is a form of portable jig-saw, which is readily attached to a carpenter’s bench or an ordinary table by means of a screw-clamp.” 6 We can see figure 2723, the portable jig-saw, below:
The same book also has a definition for a tool known as a “gig-saw”. This machine is “a thin saw to which a rapid vertical reciprocation is imparted, and which is adapted for sawing scrolls, frets, etc.” 7
Lastly, the book defines a scroll saw: “A relatively thin and narrow-bladed reciprocating-saw, which passes through a hole in the work-table and saws a kerf in the work, which is moved about in any required direction on the table. The saw follows a scroll or other ornament, according to a pattern or traced figure upon the work.” 8
Interestingly, the dictionary also states, “the band-saw is a scroll-saw and operates continuously.” Indeed, under the definition for gig-saw, Knight writes, “Scroll-saws are usually gig-saws or band-saws.”
The earliest use of “jig saw” I’ve found is in an 1857 patent, which describes a reciprocating saw method that can be used “for small scroll or jig saws”. 9 The first occurrence of the term “scroll saw” I could find was in an advertisement in the March 1, 1843, issue of the New York Daily Tribune on the front page.
“Invented the principle of the electric jigsaw”
So it seems strange to claim that Kaufmann’s discovery represented “the birth of a completely new tool,” since the jig saw predates the supposed 1947 discovery by nearly a century, and automatically reciprocating saws in general date back to around 250 BCE. But Kaufmann made his electric, right? That’s the real discovery, isn’t it?
Too bad we have this little nugget from 1933:
“The simplest sort of hand scroll-saws can be purchased for as little as fifty cents. Those of better quality cost a dollar or two. Old-style jig-saws, that are run by foot-power as the older sewing-machines are, can be had at varying prices, but average around twelve or fifteen dollars. You find fewer and fewer of these, however, as the modern jig-saws are nearly all electric.” 10
Not only does this article state that by 1933, electric jig-saws have become far more common than non-electric ones, but it also makes the interesting comparison between jig-saws and sewing machines, which is supposedly the flash of inspiration Albert Kaufmann will have in 14 years.
There were, in fact, a number of patents filed in the late 1920s through the mid 1930s for electrifying both scroll saws and stationary jig saws. Electrifying a jig or scroll saw was attempted as soon as possible at the advent of the Age of Electricity. An article in the 1888 Omaha Daily Bee states, “Besides, after using the batteries and motor during the summer vacation, you can unship them and take them home to run a sewing machine, a lathe or a jig-saw.” 11
Seven years before that, an article titled “Electricity as a Hobby” described a shop run in Brooklyn by Dr. St. Clair, a classmate of Thomas Edison. While listing the various novelties which have been electrified in his shop, it states, “The turn of a switch starts a self-feeding scroll saw by electricity.” 12
So it would appear the “principle of the electric jigsaw”, claimed as an invention of Kaufmann, actually dates sixty years prior to the date claimed in the Bosch press release.
“The first electric handheld jigsaw in the world.”
But what about their biggest claim, that the 1947 production of the Lesto jig saw was the first electric handheld jigsaw in the world?
I found a patent issued in 1931 for “a motor-operated jig saw, adapted to cut wood, fiber, metal and other materials, with a simple and convenient operating means; to provide convenient means for manipulating the saw.” This jig saw features “a base having a flat supporting surface so that it can be moved at will over a flat surface.” 13 The drawing below certainly resembles an electric handheld jig saw.
Another patent, this one from 1941, describes providing “the benefits of jigsaw cutting, for example, to a portable tool.” 14
Of course, patents do not necessarily mean that a working prototype was ever built. Even working inventions do not mean a commercial product was ever brought to market. Indeed, none of the above-mentioned tools seems to have been available for purchase. So while claims of being the “first” electric handheld jig saw in the world are debatable, the fact that the Lesto was the earliest model you can actually buy seems likely.
One of the earliest written histories of the electric handheld jig saw comes in 1958. The authors refer to the tools as “electric handsaws”:
“[Forsberg’s] Whiz-Saws were the first American-made electric handsaws. They appeared soon after the Swiss-made Scinta (now Lesto) was introduced into the U.S. in 1945… The electric handsaw has been around ever since the first Scinta saw (now called Lesto) was brought over in 1945 from the world-famous Scintilla Company in Switzerland. Scintilla had been attempting to develop a “portable jigsaw,” little dreaming it would become the husky, all-around workhorse it is today… Scintilla soon had a competitor. Forsberg, working in this country, brought out its now-famous Whiz-Saw, using a similar version of the still-expensive planetary-gear drive… Early sales went to a small and strangely assorted group of professional users, among them stagehands, builders, heating, plumbing and electrical installers.” 15
An advertisement from eight years prior claims, “The electric Lesto Portable Hand Saw Designed, Manufactured and Patented by Scintilla, Ltd., Switzerland, since 1944.” 16
So by 1950, it would appear the story is that Scintilla has been making the Lesto (previously called the Scinta) jig saw since 1944 and has been selling it in the US since 1945. This is pretty good proof that the Lesto was indeed the first electric handheld jig saw you could buy, though I am unsure why the 2007 Bosch press release claims the Lesto was first produced in 1947 rather than 1944.
So in conclusion, the history of the jig saw is a fascinating and complex history and is part of the general evolution of tools over the centuries. I do not mean to knock Bosch (I believe they still make some of the best jig saws in the world; it’s the brand I own), but for all the other websites presenting the “history” of the jig saw, I wish their research would delve deeper than a 97 word press release.
A Youthful Sixty-year-old: The Jigsaw Celebrates Its 60th Birthday. Bosch Media Service, 4 June 2007. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. ↩
Murray, James A. H., ed. A New Dictionary on Historical Principles. Vol. 5, Part 2. Oxford: Clarenden, 1901. ↩
Bachmann, Martin. Bautechnik Im Antiken Und Vorantiken Kleinasien: Internationale Konferenz 13.-16. Juni 2007 in Istanbul. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2009. ↩
The Saw in History. Philadelphia: H. Disston & Sons, 1916, pg 27. ↩
Diderot, Denis, and Pierre Mouchon. Encyclopédie; Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts Et Des Métiers, Vol. 2. Paris: Briasson etc., 1751. ↩
Knight, Edward Henry. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary. A Description of Tools, Instruments, Machines, Processes, and Engineering; History of Inventions; General Technological Vocabulary; and Digest of Mechanical Appliances in Science and the Arts. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1884, pg 1215. ↩
Knight, Edward Henry. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary. A Description of Tools, Instruments, Machines, Processes, and Engineering; History of Inventions; General Technological Vocabulary; and Digest of Mechanical Appliances in Science and the Arts. Vol. 3. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1884, pg 2077. ↩
Whipple, Carlyle. Method of Hanging and operating Reciprocating Saws. Patent 16416. 13 January 1857. ↩
Wendt, Carl E. “These Jig-Saw Puzzles.” Boys’ Life Mar. 1933: 16. ↩
“Summer Excursions by Electricity.” The Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE) 9 Jan. 1888: 7. Library of Congress. Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers. Web. 3 May 2012. ↩
“Electricity as a Hobby.” The Sun (New York City) 20 Mar. 1881: 5. Library of Congress. Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers. Web. 3 May 2012. ↩
Pickering, Albert V. and Moore, Albert H. For a motor-operated jig-saw. Patent 1826188. 6 Oct 1931. ↩
Briggs, Martin. Power tool. Patent 2240755. 6 May 1941. ↩
Gallager, Sheldon M., and Ralph Treves. “Electric Handsaw: Year’s Most Exciting Power Tool.” Popular Science Mar. 1958: 168-73. Print. ↩
The Electric Lesto Portable Hand Saw. Advertisement. The Wood-Worker Aug. 1950: 65. ↩
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies