A late medieval chainsaw

With a little bit of luck, history is just around the corner. A couple of weeks ago my neighbor walked in the shop. In his hand a plastic shopping bag with a lot of mud streaks on the outside. “You should have a look at this” he said. In the bag was a piece of rusty iron, with something that looked like a chain attached. The whole thing was covered in mud. “I found it while plowing the field, heard a clunk and there it was. You’re always fussing with that old stuff, maybe you know what it is?”

Kettingh zaag

My first guess was something like an old hacksaw, from the type I still use at the shop. A quick rinse to remove most of the mud confirmed that. But on second look there was a strange thing at the upper end of the saw. Like a spring mechanism. The weirdest thing was that the chainlinks were held to the points were normally a hacksaw blade was attached.

The ingenious tension system to keep the chain straight.

The ingenious tension system to keep the chain straight.

I began the careful process of cleaning and removing some of the rust. At the top there was a wingnut and a spring, which looked like they were meant to keep tension to the chain. I contacted the local archaeologist, dr. T.R. Offel and asked whether he knew more.

Officially Tim is retired, but still works on local history. He’s an authority on the history of our town. I’ve known him for years, and he is a dear friend. Tim immediately became enthusiast; that’s a Kettingh-saghe, the earliest chainsaw we know.

Original Osteotome, a hand powered chainsaw for bones

Original Osteotome, a hand powered chainsaw for bones

It’s a little known fact that the chainsaw was invented much earlier than most people think. Often people trace the invention back to WWII, when the two-man chainsaws were made famous by the Army Corps of Engineers. Others will say it was the osteotome invented around 1830 by German orthopedist Bernard Heine.

But it was in fact a Dutchman, Gerrit Janszoon Kettingh who made the first chainsaw in 1483. It looked like a normal wooden frame saw but already had the chain. He used it to fell some big oak trees to make vats for storing salted herring.

St. Vidit

13th century depiction of the martyrdom of st. Vidit

13th century depiction of the martyrdom of st. Vidit

Apparently the first models weren’t without problems, chains would slip or break, resulting in personal injuries. Kettingh lost his lower left leg, his apprentice Stompje Klein was known for  ordering a maximum of 7 beers at a time. The biggest problem was that the chains would break at the weakest link. One day a miracle happened. Kettingh and Klein were sawing a trunk which was destined to become a statue for st. Pluteus, patron of the local shriners guild. When they were halfway down the chain started to slip and almost broke. Stompje started to curse the saw, but all of a sudden a figure walked in. There was a bloody bandage around his head, and he wore an old bishops robe. He reached out and catched the saw. He looked at it, took one of the links and pulled. The saw didn’t break, but the man had one loose link in his hand. He gave the saw back to Kettingh and walked from the room, taking the link with him.

They later realized the man was st. Vidit, a local bishop who died a martyr 500 years earlier. When the vikings plundered the village, they tortured Vidit. They had sawn open his head and taken the top of his skull. It had taken weeks before he finally died. During those days he was still preaching, and his sermons are rumored to have been very open minded. Strangely enough the only relic left in the town church was the said skull cap…

After this incident the saw never broke again. The saint had taken the weakest link from the chain…

After this miracle there was a large increase in the devotion for st. Vidit. The small town church attracted pilgrims from all over Europe. Vidit became a patron saint for forest and swamp loggers.

Secret Brotherhood

The model my neighbor discovered was made somewhat later. It’s metal body suggests it was from the 16th century, probably used by a nobleman from the nearby Doorn castle. Maybe it had a ceremonial function, as there was a secret society called the “Brotherhood of st. Vidit” in town.

Only known photo of the st. Vidit Brotherhood

Only known photo of the st. Vidit Brotherhood

They gather at moonless nights to fell trees in the many forests around Doorn. In 1795 they caused great commotion when they cut down the Christmas tree in the town square in protest of the new mayor. After this the group went underground.

The last known grandmaster of the brotherhood was Wilhelm II, the german kaiser, who lived here in exile after losing the Great War. With his one functioning arm he managed to cut nearly all trees around Huis Doorn, the castle where he lived.

My workshop and the field were the saw was found is right behind this castle, so maybe there is a connection somewhere?

I am very pleased with how well the restoration of this unique tool went. It will find a nice place next to the other almost obsolete tools. Like the shorthand-saw


Please note that this little article is complete nonsense. Written just for amusement, wonder and confusion. Don’t attempt projects like this without a responsible parent nearby. I’m not responsible for any damage to saws, trees or bodyparts coming forth of using the Kettingh-zaag or other completely nonexistent tools like these…
This entry was posted in Articles, History, Nonsense, Research, Think different, Tools, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A late medieval chainsaw

  1. Isaac says:

    Do you write some of the April fools stories for the online Woodworkers journal? If not you should talk to them.


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