Musical saws see sales soar sharply

Katie Ellis works at a saw makers in Sheffield who also specialise in the musical saw. Katie demonstrates how the saw is played
Katie Ellis works at a saw makers in Sheffield who also specialise in the musical saw. Katie demonstrates how the saw is played
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IT is the somewhat unusual musical instrument that has been played by everyone from Keane to Korn.

Neil Young was a regular user. Marlene Dietrich famously entertained World War Two troops with hers. Before that Richard Hawley’s granddad performed with one in Sheffield’s musical halls.

Not that everyone is a fan - Simon Cowell once described it as sounding “like a cat being stamped on”.

But did you know the only place in the UK which today manufactures musical saws is right here in Sheffield?

You do now. Harvest Lane, Neepsend, to be exact. Stick on your Mercury Rev album and read on...

“It’s a bit of a niche instrument, isn’t it?” says Katie Ellis, partner in Thomas Flinn and Co, the firm in question. “We only started doing them about five years ago but they’ve quickly become one of our most popular lines.”

The company - founded in 1923 and better known for its proper cutting edge, top-of-the-range saws - now sells the instrument across the globe. Just this summer they signed a deal with a distributor in the US to handle orders on that side of the Atlantic.

Not bad to say saw-playing is thought to have started in America’s Appalachian mountain range in the first place.

“We took over a company which made them about 2008 so we started doing our own,” says Katie while she gives The Diary a tour of the factory. “It was just an experiment really but they were a hit straight away.

“We’re selling hundreds every year. To individuals and music shops. We had Richard Hawley buy three from us as a gift for a friend’s wedding. This time of year, we notice they start to sell well because they’re seen as novelty presents.”

Does she play one herself, The Diary wonders?

“I don’t think I’d have the patience” she answers. “When it’s done right, though, they sound amazing. It’s different to anything else really.”

Indeed. The instrument as featured on records by the likes of Tom Waits, Eels and The Dillinger Escape Plan. You know the musical score to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest? That’s done on a saw. Simon Cowell may not be a fan but the piece he called cat-like was described as “genius” by fellow Britain’s Got Talent Judge Piers Morgan.

“You can tell when it’s appeared on a TV show like that because you’ll get a sudden rush of people wanting to buy them,” explains Katie.

So how does a musical saw differ from a regular tool? It doesn’t really, it seems. The teeth aren’t quite as sharp and there are fewer of them. It also comes with a bow and some rosin. But basically they’re the same thing - made from steel and with a wooden handle.

They sell for between £60 and £112, which might seem a lot for a saw - “but, instrument wise, try buying an electric guitar for that amount,” notes Katie.

The addition is a relatively new line for Thomas Flinn, a firm which celebrated its 90th anniversary this year. The five-staff company has been in Katie’s family since 1936 when Thomas Flinn himself sold it to his apprentice - and her grandfather - Frank Ellis. She, her father, also Frank, and brother Christian now run the company.

“When you think you’re the only firm in the country to do something it makes you proud, especially considering there were once 75 saw-makers in Sheffield alone,” she says. “It’s that ‘Made In Sheffield’ thing. It’s nice to carry on that tradition.”