Zen and the art of sawing

My motorcycle, circa 1984

My motorcycle, circa 1984

This is a picture of my motorcycle, a Yamaha XS400, circa 1984. I bought it because I wanted to be free and feel the wind in my hair (and also, as an impoverished art student, I needed cheap transportation). But life took a different turn, as it sometimes does. In the end, I got more than what I bargained for, and learnt many valuable lessons. And what does this have to do with jewellery, you ask. You’ll find out soon.

The New Year has come and, with it, a new crop of students. One of the first basic metal techniques they need to know in order to make a piece of jewellery is sawing. And I keep hearing: Why are saw blades always breaking? Sounds familiar? Here are some tips that might help:

When inserting the saw blade, make sure there is sufficient tension in the frame. Pluck the saw blade to check the tension; if it does not “ping”, the blade is not taut enough.

Keep the frame perpendicular with your work piece.

When cutting on a curve, turn your work piece slowly (not the frame) while moving the saw frame up and down and without pushing.

When sawing, use the whole length of the blade, making long strokes, not short ones.

If these first tips have to do with knowing your tools and understanding the physics of sawing, the last two have to do with trust and balance – the key to learning to ride a motorcycle.

In order to get my motorcycle licence, I took a motorcycle training course. Our instructor gave us many tips, and the most helpful was to always anticipate, whether it is when scanning traffic to avoid obstacles or when negotiating a curve; “where you look is where you go”. As a novice rider, you tend to want to look down at your wheel. If you do, you hit the obstacle or you lose your balance and fall (and believe me, lifting a 400 lb bike was no mean feat for me!). Instead, look ahead. I would give the same advice to someone learning to use a jeweller’s saw: anticipate and look ahead of what you are cutting.

Copy of 0013_###

Our instructor would also often tell us that it was important “to look good” when riding a bike. Of course, he did not mean we had to wear stylish or cool motorcycle gear. What he was referring to was posture. Having a good posture means that you are not only comfortable, but also in full control of your bike and can operate it safely. The riding posture involves many things that are obviously not relevant to sawing, but surprisingly, some are. For example, relaxing your arms and holding the handle bars lightly. To a newbie, who is eager to learn, and maybe a bit impatient, gripping the frame with a white-knuckled hand and pushing forward with gusto, this will sound very counterproductive. The fact is, this kind of pressure only results in breaking more blades. Use your whole arm, not just your wrist, and remember, as I was explaining in the previous post “Ode to a bench pin”, to keep your back straight when working at your bench. Your work must be at mid-chest level.

And sawing may not be a high-risk activity like riding a motorcycle, but even still don’t forget to keep your fingers on the side or at the back of the blade – never in the front!

The title of this post is a play on Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, An Inquiry into Values, first published in 1974. The title of his book was itself a play on Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. R. Pirsig famously said that his book did not have much to do with Zen practice, or with motorcycles. It does, a bit; it relates a motorcycle journey during which the protagonists have extensive philosophical discussions on science, technology, and the meaning of quality. I reread it recently and found it even more moving and powerful than the first time. And this quest for quality is certainly much more relevant now, at the beginning of the 21st century. But enough of that; it will be the subject of another post.


12 thoughts on “Zen and the art of sawing

  1. artdoesmatter

    Very valuable advice; it’s amazing that the technique of using the jeweler’s saw has to be one of the most overlooked aspects of what we do. Amazing analogy you’ve made here of riding the bike vs. sawing. Both appear so carefree but “losing one’s guard” while “driving it” can cause dangerous results. Loved your post, Dominique, as always!

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Overlooked, yes. It looks deceptively simple, and yet it is quite difficult to master. I think that’s true of filing as well. Thank you so much for your comments and your support, Patricia.

  2. Robert Mclean

    Great article. I have driven for years and always try to anticipate trouble. It makes so much sense to do the same when sawing. Some people tell me that sawing is easy but , if it is done right, it takes so much thinking and concentration. Not so easy.
    Thanks Dominique for helping me add to my skill set.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Yes, concentrating and letting go – at the same time. Very zen, and very challenging.
      But you already knew that. Thank you for your kind comments, Robert, and you are quite welcome.

  3. carla

    Fabulous post… I have made the mistake of fixing my gaze on the obstacle instead of the course more times than I’d like to admit! My great-uncle’s translation of that law was: When carrying a tray of full drinks, keep your head up, look straight ahead, and your hand will remain steady – watch the drinks and they will spill. It’s amazing how universal and true that law is… yet it never occurred to me to look ahead to where the saw blade is going, not where it is right now – brilliant!!

    1. metalandmettle

      Great comment Carla! It’s just like learning how to walk (which none of us actually remembers): look ahead, not at your feet, to keep your balance. It never occurred to me how universal that was. Thank you so much!

  4. Pete's Pots

    Hi there, thanks for following my Pete’s Pots blog. I return the compliment as I like what you are writing and making. As a coincidence, I bought a 2nd hand copy of Robert Pirsig’s book just a week back; having missed out on reading it at the time it came out.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Thank you, Pete, for dropping by. Your blog is quirky and fun. What a treat to get glimpses of the life of a fellow crafts person !
      I’d love to know what you think of R. Pirsig’s “Zen”.

  5. putyourkingdomupforsale

    This is one of the most fantastic similes for describing the “art” of sawing that I have ever read. The tips are sound. One question though, I find with very delicate and precise back cuts, I often turn my blade slightly as well as the piece of metal. do you do this as well or am I alone on this. My teachers have always told me it is bad form, and so has every book I have ever read, but I have had such great success with doing it this way, that it is hard for me to change my methods.

    1. metalandmettle Post author

      Thank you very much for your comments. As far as turning your blade slightly, I really think there is often more than one way to do things, in jewellery-making as in life… as long as there is not too much pressure, and it is done slowly and lightly, why not?


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