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OPINION: Short History of the Band Saw

January 4, 2022 at 12:52 p.m.

Although precursors of modern-day bandsaws go way back, it wasn't until the era of big band music that the saw was actually called a "band" saw. Big bands got going around 1910 and by the 1930s they were in full swing and so was the production of big band saws such as the Yates American 36-inch Snowflake.

The Yates American Snowflake is perhaps the most iconic piece of woodworking equipment ever made and is patterned after older saws that saw limited use in the middle ages. These old saws were often water-powered and unreliable but they allowed Michelangelo to build some of his most famous designs in wood before he sculpted them in stone. It is believed that these old saws were derived from earlier models used by the Romans, as many evidences of them have been excavated in British ruins that date back to the days of King Arthur, which would place them in either the late Roman or early Anglo-Saxon periods.

And the Romans most certainly copied their saws from even earlier designs that were in use at the very dawn of human history. In fact, many historians of note believe that Noah used some primitive form of band saw to construct the ark and, while there is some disagreement among experts as to how it operated, most have come to believe it was powered by camels.

But the Yates American represents the apex of band saw design and construction and, as such, was the saw of choice of all the most famous big band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

In his heyday, Duke Ellington actually owned two Yates Americans which he used to make all the instruments in his rhythm section. He sometimes loaned one of his saws to other entertainers, especially Bing Crosby, who loved to use the saw himself as a stress reliever while touring with his band. One of these saws was eventually sold to the Beatles, who made it their official band saw in 1964. It was used to build the acoustic guitar played by Paul McCartney when he sang "Yesterday" on The Ed Sullivan Show. The saw was also used to make Ringo's drumsticks.

What most people did not know is that two of George Harrison's front teeth were knocked out when he fell off a stage in Germany when he was 19 years old. He didn't have much money at the time, so he had two wood teeth implants. Over the years, this Yates American Y30 was used to build several sets of teeth for George.

Filming of the movie "A Hard Day's Night" was delayed several months because it was determined that George had termites. Paul and John insisted that George's head be fumigated but he refused. So Paul and John tented George when he was sleeping and fumigated him all night long. It turned out to be difficult work indeed. That was how they came up with a title for their movie. George was never the same after that and never really forgave Paul and John for what they had done. He insisted on the Beatles getting rid of the Yates American and so, in order to keep peace in the band, they traded it off for a new Powermatic. Soon afterward, the band broke up and nothing was ever heard about the Yates American again. And what, you ask, happened to the Powermatic? Well, that saw sits in my shop where it sees use almost every day, and I can honestly say I never use it without thinking about its history and the history of the bandsaw.

Sam Byrnes is a Gentry-area resident and contributor to the Eagle Observer. He may be contacted by email at [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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