Custom made perfection – Skelton Saws

Shane Skelton with one of his signature panel saws

Great Britain has a long and rich sawmaking history dating back to the 1600s. These tools are collected the world over and while they still have a special place in many a woodworker’s armoury, the skill of new and modern makers cannot be ignored. Operating from a small workshop in North Yorkshire, Shane Skelton is one such highly skilled maker, and his ingenious designs reimagine the past as well as setting a benchmark for the future, all the while taking the world by storm.

I first met Shane and his wife Jacqueline at the North of England Woodworking & Power Tool Show some years ago, and while their stand seemed somewhat unassuming from a few metres away, closer inspection revealed a range of saws in all their glory. Gleaming as they sat there, they begged to be touched such was their tactile nature, and the one that really caught my eye at the time was the Mallard 13, which, as I was told, truly sits in a class of its own. More on that later… For those who may have missed the recent feature (WW August) on the latest one-off to leave the Skelton Saws workshop – the St Paul’s Cathedral Saw – it’s definitely worthy of a read as well as being a great introduction to Shane’s work. The saw in question features a handle made using historic wood from the Bells of St Paul’s.

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Skelton Swift 11 3/4in Dovetail Saw with handle in Castello boxwood – the traditional Skelton medallion features the peacock in all its glory

Woodworking in the blood
From a young age, Shane recalls being enthralled by his grandfather’s natural aptitude for woodworking, but sadly, being a chicken farmer first and foremost, he never really got to fulfil his passion for cabinetmaking. “His tools were always pristine and everything had its place; he was a perfectionist and I too have developed this trait,” Shane comments. “My tools are immaculate and, unlike most, I keep a very ordered workspace.” Shane explains that the main advice he’s carried with him from his grandfather is that ‘if a job’s worth doing, then do it right.’ “I believe that everything should be completed to the highest quality,” he confirms.

Knowing of this family connection to an age-old craft, the attention to detail that’s displayed in each and every one of the saws Shane makes becomes clear. This is a great skill to inherit and one that’s undoubtedly set him head and shoulders above the competition. Going back to his childhood days, Shane says that even as a young lad, he remembers being intrigued by the fact that early planes were made out of wood and he could often be found using bits of balsa to fashion his own: “When I was about seven, I moved onto hardwoods and this was when I began using proper saws,” Shane reveals.

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13 3/4in London Long Stroke Fine Carcass Saw

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The St Paul’s Cathedral Saw – handle made using historic timber from the Bells of St Paul’s

Early skills
Around the age of 14, Shane decided to try his hand at blacksmithing. Regarding this as a weekend/holiday job he could probably do, it just so happened that his parents knew a blacksmith in the neighbouring village. “Sometimes he’d pay me; other times he told me that the knowledge I’d gained was payment in itself – I’m not sure you’d get away with that now!” Shane recalls that the gates he made for the village church in Cloughton many years ago are actually still there to this day. “I was interested in manipulating metal without the use of machines and this is where I developed the hammer and anvil skills that have come in handy for creating my handmade panel saws,” he explains.

Forging a passion for wood and metal early on – excuse the pun – I asked, if at this stage, Shane realised he would go on to become such a successful and internationally acclaimed sawmaker. Believing that hand skills were the key to his success, to my surprise, Shane tells me that he never really envisaged becoming a sawmaker at all: “From the outset I wanted to be a Professional gunsmith and although I had all the training in this area, I’ve always been quite a home bird, and unfortunately the opportunities around here are quite few and far between.” There are elements of gunsmithing, however, that do transfer into sawmaking, in terms of both requiring handwork in order to create precision pieces, so in this sense, Shane’s skills in this area haven’t gone to waste.

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Mallard 13 – 13in Crossover Saw – with handle in English flamed beech

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The Arc Saw – for veneering and inlaying – with tapered semi-symmetrical octagonal handle in English plum

An inventor at heart
Delving deeper into his story, it seems that despite discovering a passion, Shane had his fair share of bad luck – facing redundancy; the gunsmith company he worked for going on to close down; and the kit plane company Shane went on to work for then deciding to move their workshop. Asking whether he ever felt disillusioned with everything, perhaps even considering taking a different path altogether, Shane pragmatically replies that he doesn’t believe that any job is for life these days and as such, it’s always good to have a number of transferable skills that you can take into another career area if required. “I’ve had a pretty varied career, and I’m lucky in that sense, and despite having faced redundancy quite a few times, fortunately I’ve never been out of work for long,” he says.

The husband and wife team behind Skelton Saws pride themselves on having a very positive attitude when it comes to work: firstly if they don’t enjoy what they’re doing then they reassess things, which seems like very good advice; and secondly: if they’re fully passionate and believe in what they’re doing, then that comes across to others. Returning to the story, Shane tells me that the next step on his journey was a return to engineering, but I come to learn that after three years, he felt a desire to go back to working with wood – particularly carving. Enquiring as to how this move subsequently led to the creation of Skelton Saws, Shane comments that “out of all the tools on the market, the saw is the one that always appealed to me. I enjoyed the feel of the saw in my hand as well as in use, plus the fact that making them incorporates both metal and woodwork techniques.”

Shane says that for many years, he thought he could make a better product than what was currently available commercially. Describing himself as an “inventor at heart,” Shane had talked about making a saw for the past 12 years, then one day, with redundancy looming once again, he and Jacqueline found themselves at Snainton Woodworking Centre, which is situated just a few miles up the road from where they live. “In the corner of the machine room was a really nice piece of walnut at the bargain price of £50,” Shane recalls. “Jacqueline told me to buy it and have a go at making a saw handle, so I did. She thought the end result was amazing and felt confident – despite having no knowledge of tools whatsoever – that with my skills in this area, we could potentially create a viable sawmaking business.”

The next steps were setting about registering the company name, tracking down suppliers for machines and materials, as well as developing a website. Fast forward just a few months and Skelton Saws was up and running. “Looking back now,” says Shane, “we can’t really believe how we did it.”

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Gentleman Jaq Saw – gent’s saw with purpleheart handle and ebony collar

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Damascus Steel Saw with hand-chequered handle, incorporating Shane’s gunsmithing skills

New premises & saw range
Looking back to 2015, Shane was working out of a tiny garage workshop near Scarborough, but having relocated the business back in 2018, although the workshop is still small, it’s a lighter environment that’s benefitted from a custom fit-out as well as being insulated for warmth. Importantly, Shane explains that his tools are now set out much better, allowing for ease of use and efficiency, and it’s definitely a happier and brighter space that’s gladly free of children’s bikes: “All in all, it’s a proper workshop that’s fit for purpose.”

Those familiar with Skelton Saws will know that Shane produces two ranges – Sheffield and London – both of which are loosely based on saws manufactured in these locations during the 18th century. I ask him to briefly explain the sawmaking process, doing his best to paint a picture of what happens in the workshop. The logical place to start is with the wood for the saw handles, which are bought in boards, then planed down to size by hand before the handles are cut out. Next, the brass, which Shane mills himself, is tapered and shaped by hand. Blades are cut to size, again by hand, using his grandfather’s old heavy-duty tin snips, then every tooth punched out individually using the fly press and tooling, mainly made by Shane, or designed and custom-made by him.

Moving on to handles, these are slit for the blade and let in for the brass, before being shaped using rasps, then sanded down the grits. The blade is then ready to be fitted and tensioned into the brass back, fitted into the handle, and secured in place using traditional split saw nuts. Everything is then straightened, the blade checked for alignment and corrected if necessary. Next, the teeth are set and sharpened, then the saw is used to carry out a test cut in oak before it’s finely tuned. Finally, the handle is subjected to a traditional oil finishing process, which can take upwards of a week to complete.

After polishing, the tool is then ready for the customer. “Everything is handmade,” Shane confirms, “and a saw, depending on the type, can take anywhere from 20-60 hours to make.” In terms of the types of tools employed in the sawmaking process, Shane utilises many he’s made himself, ensuring to buy the best available wherever possible. “Hand tool-wise I have lots of chisels, rasps and files,” he explains, “and since a young age, I’ve always had sets of Ashley Iles’ chisels and I really like Auriou rasps – there’s a great YouTube video showing how these are made. I also have a lovely Blue Spruce mallet and a large assortment of Lie-Nielsen planes, although the Bill Carter mitre plane is one of my favourites.”

Shane’s main piece of kit, however, is the fly press, not forgetting the lovely anvil and custom-made hammer, plus a few small machines, such as the milling machine, bandsaw, drill press and bobbin sander. With regards to quality control, Shane maintains that he approaches the making of each tool as if he were doing it for himself, and all saws are test cut when complete in order to measure their accuracy. We’re also lucky enough to be let into one of Shane’s trade secrets, as he explains: “When I’m using chisels, I always have a piece of leather with a little Autosol applied to it, which I use as a strop and keep within reach on the bench. This time-saving technique allows me to maintain a sharp edge on my chisels without having to keep going back to the sharpening stones.” Shane’s saw range, all made to his own original designs, has grown dramatically since setting the business up seven years ago.

Shane explains that he draws each design freehand after a period of being able to visualise it – almost in 3D – in his mind. “Before I even commit it to paper, in my head I’ve already worked out how the saw will look and perform and any snagging points ironed out.” Shane explains that each range has a number of different sized dovetail, carcass and tenon saws covering all the woodworker’s sawing needs. He also makes fully taper ground by hand panel saws for larger work, as well as limited editions, and higher end bespoke saws for specialist furniture makers and collectors alike.

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Archer Saw – 7 1/2in fine gent’s saw with tapered semi-symmetrical octagonal handle in flamed beech. Rear of the blade features a unique Cupid’s bow, plus a skilfully crafted complementary Cupid’s arrow in the brass back

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Limited-edition 9 3/32in Seaton Chest Kenyon Dovetail Saw, featuring a handle in Wimbledon beech

High praise
Shane’s saws are revered by some of the most well renowned furniture and cabinetmakers in the industry, with his dovetail saw heralded as “fantastic” and “the perfect product.” According to Shane, praise such as this inspires him to keep moving forward, all the while developing and honing his designs. Only when the end user is satisfied with the results and the functionality outperforms their expectations, can Shane finally sit back and relax.

Obviously a custom-made, handmade product such as this comes with a price tag that reflects the work involved in its creation, and some may question whether it’s worth spending so much money on, what’s regarded by many, as a relatively simple workshop staple. Shane outlines the making process to me again, but in more detail, starting with the customer selecting their own piece of high grade timber, before taking individual palm measurements to ensure the handle fits seamlessly; this guarantees a saw that’s extremely comfortable in use with a smooth, perfectly straight cut.

Considering each saw has a build time of some 20 plus hours, I believe these handmade products therefore represent exceptional value, as Shane confirms: “There aren’t many other quality handmade items you can buy within this price bracket. Hopefully what our customers are getting is a first-class personal service, whereby Jacqueline and myself liaise with the individual from the point of deciding on the type of saw that best suits their needs, right through to checking the saw has been received and the customer is happy with the end product.” Skelton Saws also offers an after-sales saw sharpening service, which isn’t always available for those bought off-the-shelf.

The traditional methods Shane employs in his work aren’t currently practised by any other sawmaker in the UK and for that reason alone, anyone purchasing one of his creations can be assured that they’re investing in a unique example of handmade English craftsmanship. In terms of target audience, this encompasses the hobbyist, professional furniture and cabinetmaker, right through to the extremely wealthy and famous. Shane believes he can cater for everyone, and his 10-12 month waiting list firmly attests to this while also giving people the opportunity to save up for the model they aspire to own. “To put things into perspective, some mobile phones cost a lot more than our saws, yet unlike them, our saws will last a lifetime.”

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Each handle is hand-carved by Shane

The Rolls-Royce of hand saws
Revolutionary in both design and construction, the main concept behind the Mallard 13 was to produce a saw with an ultra-high tensioned blade, with the woodwork not influencing the blade in any way. “Cosmetically, I wanted it to look elegant,” Shane confirms, “like an 18th century model, but streamlined, with 21st century benefits – these being both a highly accurate and precision-made tool.”

Built almost like a shotgun with its side plates, this model employs clever engineering, echoing techniques used by Karl Holtey, to produce a saw unlike any other that’s been made or seen before. Its bronze construction affords the Mallard 13 an added luxury, and not only is this material much harder, it’s also much more expensive compared to brass. When looking at his designs for this saw, Shane noticed that the front end reminded him of the Mallard steam locomotive – also built in Yorkshire – so it therefore seemed fitting to assign it this name.

On a more personal note, the name was also significant due to the fact that Jacqueline’s grandfather had been a fireman on the old locomotives. As a child, on a number of occasions, she remembers being taken to visit the Mallard at the York Railway Museum.

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A view inside Shane's workshop

Trademark features
Most of Shane’s saws feature the trademark peacock insignia with an acorn in its mouth, which is featured at the top of the Skelton family’s heraldic crest. “My father has an interest in armour and heraldry, and as a gift, I once carved the family crest for him, which is where the inspiration came from. Jacqueline then went on to research the peacock in more depth and discovered that, in some cultures, it’s actually a sign of immortality.”

While appealing to both Shane and Jacqueline, this idea seemed particularly significant. They firmly believe that their saws will live well beyond them and into the future, enjoyed and cherished by many generations of families and sawmaking enthusiasts alike. When asked as to his proudest sawmaking achievement to date, Shane has to think long and hard on this. For him, this is a difficult question to answer as he’s proud of each one he produces, always striving for the next to be better in some way.

Settling on the London Long Stroke 13¾in fine carcass saw, Shane explains that this is probably the most universal example anyone will ever use. He’s also proud of his panel saws, however, originally inspired by those in the Seaton Chest. Incorporating metalwork techniques, these utilise some of Shane’s blacksmithing skills, but he insists he’s also proud of the Mallard due to its uniqueness.

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Jacqueline Skelton manning the stand at the 2018 North of England Woodworking & Power Tool Show

Exciting developments
Having produced a limited-edition Mallard Saw to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Mallard locomotive’s build and speed record, Shane’s also hoping to introduce a new range of saws that are currently still in idea form. It’s not all about sawmaking, however, as their portfolio now also includes a unique range of finishes and oils, as he explains: “In my last engineering job, I was always inventing things and at times a materials scientist, so developing an oil came quite naturally to me.”

Despite being a long time in the R&D stages, Shane’s very happy with his Peacock Oil and despite original plans to only use it on the handles of his saws, it’s proving a bit of a breakthrough in the finishes market. Despite the fact that Shane is responsible for making the end product, he’s eager to point out that Skelton Saws is a pure partnership between himself and Jacqueline, and the business wouldn’t exist without either one of them. Their overall plan is to continue to strive to do the best they can, all the while keeping product quality high and service first class. “We never really plan beyond the next 6-12 months because life is ever changing, especially given the recent COVID-19 pandemic. We prefer to just roll with it and enjoy the excitement along the way.”

Creating the highest quality handmade saws that are as unique and traditionally made as they would have been centuries ago, Skelton Saws really is in a league of its own, especially when you take into account the unique personal service offered. “What we’re doing is quite different and we just plough our own furrow,” says Shane. Given the fact he only produces around eight saws per month, Shane’s belief is that you can’t mass produce quality; it’s simply about the time and passion that’s put into each and every creation. We couldn’t agree more.

To find out more about bespoke saws and other products produced by Skelton Saws, visit the website – www.skeltonsaws.co.uk – and for regular updates, follow them on Instagram: @skelton_saws

COMPANY INFO
Skelton Saws
01723 448 202

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