Why you must absolutely run out and build a sawhorse right this minute!

I came home the other day and marched up the stairs and yelled out to Rita,

“Sawhorses! We must make sawhorses!”

Why so excited about sawhorses you say? Because they are awesome!

About a year or so ago during some project or other I decided I had the need for sawhorses. I went over to Harbor Freight to check out what they had and came home with some metal and wood ones that fold up for easy storage.

I disliked them almost immediately. The legs were flimsy and wobbly and they didn’t stay together well. I lost some of the screws and bolts that hold it together. They are not a pretty sight. I got them, though because I needed them. I didn’t stop to consider the purchase too much, since they were only 30ish bucks. In hindsight I can see that it was a mistake.

This is what my current sawhorses look like. They are in pretty poor shape. They flex and bend and are missing some screws.

This is what my current sawhorses look like. They are in pretty poor shape. They flex and bend and are missing some screws.

You can see here where some screws fell out.

You can see here where some screws fell out.  The thin gauge metal of these legs isn’t very sturdy and flexes too much.

For some reason or other I found myself looking at sawhorses last week. It was probably a good procrastination attempt so that I wouldn’t have to do some other boring task I was supposed to be doing. Both Rita and I love procrastination projects. Our home is filled with them. Anyway, if you haven’t done so, try typing “sawhorse” into Google images and see what you find.

This (sorta) Old Life:  sawhorses

https://www.google.com/search?q=sawhorse

I spent quite a lot of time looking. It was really cool. More than cool. It was awesome.

There are hundreds of different sawhorses out there. They all take the same basic form but the variety is endless. What really struck me about them is that they are a perfect embodiment of the form follows function philosophy. It looks the way it does because that’s how it needs to look in order to function the way it is supposed to. You would think that because of that there would be a perfect sawhorse form. One that was the most functional of all. There is not. Though the forms are all very similar there is a huge variety in how it is expressed. That’s because the expression is personal. (More on that in a minute.)

Anyway, I got really excited about the “sawhorseness” of the sawhorse form.

Is there a perfect sawhorse form?

Why are they shaped like that?

If there is a universal design principle involved how do you express it?

There are a zillion tutorials out there that talk about how to build a sawhorse. I really wanted to know why you should build a sawhorse “It’s cheaper to build your own” is a simple answer, but I wanted something deeper. (At this point Rita was smiling at me and calling me a geek.)

This (sorta) Old LIfe:  geeky is the new sexy

(Why, yes: Rita does edit these posts!)

The why is important, you know? We are very interested in the Why of DIY. What is it that you can express by building one of these things? Can the sawhorse be an expression of what we value and how we choose to live our lives in this home we are creating?

I drank a double latte and thought on that for a bit. I know it’s lofty thinking for something as simple as a pair of sawhorses, but we like to think big.

And then I found a great little post that not only tells you how to build a sawhorse but WHY!
http://www.breadandbuttress.com/2012/01/carpenters-rite-of-passage.html

He calls building a sawhorse a rite of passage for a carpenter. I’m picturing that part in Star Wars where Luke gets his light sabre and is ready to head out on his own to rescue damsels and such. Maybe building your own pair of sawhorses is just that. When you build your perfect pair of sawhorses you can sit back and look at them and think, “You are a Jedi now!” Yeah, something like that.

This is not exactly the scene but as close as I could find online…

After looking at a bunch of tutorials and reading about sawhorses, I realized that a good sawhorse is a perfect expression of unDesign.

  • Function-Good sawhorses are built for function above all else.
  • Meaning-The meaning is derived from the function.
  • Experimentation-The wonderful variety of variations on this form are breathtaking.
  • The Ordinary-The sawhorse is one of those forms that is so ordinary you might not give one a second glance.
  • Responsibility-Often built from found and salvage materials.
  • History-Ask any carpenter… You will hardly find a more beloved piece of equipment than the trusty old sawhorse.
  • Honesty-No false pretense here. The sawhorse is all business.
  • Originality-Each one is different and reflects the values, skills, and  ethics of the builder.
  • Simplicity-A perfectly good sawhorse can be built with found materials and simple hand tools.

They are generally made with simple materials and very little “decorative” extras. This doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful. When you look at them you can see where the craftsman really got the lines just right. They can be downright gorgeous.

This (sorta) Old life:  sawhorses

How about these! Look more like modern art sculptures than simple work benches. Any modern furniture maker would be proud to have made these. Beautiful, simple, clean lines. (image via christopherfaiss.com)

Their beauty comes from the simple constraints of the form. They are low design–design where things are beautifully functional. Nothing extra is added, so the creator has to make them beautiful with only the simple parts of the form.

There is nothing extra in these. No real decoration at all yet they are absolutely beautiful in their functional simplicity. (image via.woodfever.net/2010/09/beths-built-in-some-new-shop-helpers.html

Within those constraints are endless chances for creative variety though. The angle of the legs, the taper from top to bottom, the thickness of the materials, the height, the width, the support structures… all these things allow chances for someone to inject some meaning into the finished design. Each sawhorse is a perfect expression of the creators idea of what it is supposed to do. Regardless of your carpentry skills you can make a perfectly functional and useful sawhorse.

This (sorta) Old Life: sawhorses

Even a clunky chunky guy like this has nothing to be ashamed of. It perfectly does what it needs to do. (image via graceknowltonart.com)

This one was obviously crafted with care and meticulous craftsmanship. It showcases the skill of a master woodworker. (image via woodworkersworkshop.com)

Sawhorses are as individual and varied as the people who create them. One person’s expression of the sawhorse is no more valid than another person’s. That’s the beauty of the form. Some sawhorses are built on the job site using scrap materials and some use complex wood joinery and show the pride and skill of a master craftsman. This personal expression part is very interesting to me. The simple quickly assembled ones send a completely different message than the complex skillfully built ones. I don’t think that one message is better than another; they just represent different values. That’s the cool thing about it.

This (sorta) Old Life: sawhorses

Here’s a pair that look like they could have been made fairly quickly on a job site with found materials. (image via breadandbuttress.com)

(Editorial note: When asked why this post needs a million different pictures of sawhorses, Cane responded:  “Cause their f-in’ cool sawhorses!” How is one to refute that? That’s why this post has a million different pictures of sawhorses, in case you were wondering.–Rita)

This all got me thinking about not only how to build mine, but what I want them to say. Everything you design sends a message, you know?

I don’t want pretty sawhorses that I’d be afraid to mess up. I want to be able to spill paint on them, accidentally cut them with my skill saw, and maybe back into them with my car. Not that I plan on doing those things, but you never know.

stenciled sawhorse

I could never have a sawhorse this pretty.

I want mine to be working sawhorses. I want them to inspire confidence. Go ahead and put that heavy door on them. They aren’t going to buckle from the weight. I don’t want them to be too fussy. I don’t make fussy stuff. No exotic wood. No fancy wood joinery. I’m not going to stain or paint them. I want them to say “Go ahead and use me. I can take it.” When I go out to the garage to start a project I want to be able to look at my sawhorses and smile and think “I made those cool things!”

With that in mind I set out to build my own pair. My criteria was fairly simple.

  • They must use simple, inexpensive materials.
  • They must be easily made and require no special knowledge or expert skill.
  • They must be build-able using simple tools–a hand saw, drill, hammer and tape measure.
  • They must be perfectly functional.
  • There must be no extra parts or decoration or anything that does not serve the intended function.
  • They must be easily reproduced.
  • There must not be too much measuring or cutting of damn angles! I don’t remember much geometry from high school and I don’t want to start learning it again now.
  • They must function well. If they can serve multiple functions or have some extra features that make them more useable that would be best.

OK–Now for the actual building of the things.

I’m going to try to break this down into steps and talk a bit about why I built these things the way I did. My intention was to make them as simple as possible while maximizing function. I wanted something that could be built with a minimum of tools and expense.

I went with both 2 x 3 and 2 x 4 lumber. I figured the 2 x 3 lumber would save me some weight and still be plenty strong.

Materials

  • 3- 2×4’s at 8 foot
  • 6- 2×3’s at 8 foot
  • One box of  2 1/2 inch screws
  • 4 metal 2×4 hanger clips from the deck hardware section.

Total cost was around 20 bucks.

This is my handy compound miter saw that I used to make all the cuts. You could get away with using a hand saw though if you don't mind all that sawing.

This is my handy compound miter saw that I used to make all the cuts. You could get away with using a hand saw though if you don’t mind all that sawing.

IMG_3267

Here’s the pile of lumber. I ended up using it all.

 Step 1 was to cut the pieces for the top of the sawhorse.

I decided I’d just cut the 2×4 in half and make the widest sawhorse I could from the lumber I had. This would give me a sawhorse 4 foot wide. The top is made from cutting a 2×4 in half and screwing it together in an upside down T. You certainly don’t have to make them this big. 32 inches is a more normal size. These will be 48 inches.

  1. give the top strength and set the angle for the legs.

    This configuration gives the top strength and set the angle for the legs. The pieces here are 48 inches in length. If you want a smaller horse then 32 inches is more of a standard size.

    I used 5 screws to join the 2 pieces together. No glue as I want to be able to replace pieces as they wear out.

    I used 5 screws to join the 2 pieces together. No glue as I want to be able to replace pieces as they wear out.

Next I cut the legs out of the 2×3 material.

The legs are 32 inches long each. I needed 8 legs. I had 4 short pieces leftover that I’ll use for support braces for the legs.

Here are all the legs cut and stacked. The short pieces on the top were extra pieces left over. I'll use them to make support pieces for the leg structure.

Here are all the legs cut and stacked. The short pieces on the top were extra pieces left over. I’ll use them to make support pieces for the leg structure.

 The next step was to lay the top T beam on it’s side so I could dry fit a leg in place to see how it would fit and where to put the screws.

The angle of the legs is not something you need to measure. Just lay the leg against the beam and the angle you get is the right one. The bottom of the T  beam creates the angle you need. You can mark where to drill for the screws while you have the leg against the center beam.

I've already drilled the screw holes in this one so you'll have to imagine me dry fitting it without the screws in place. It's important to make sure the top of the leg sits below the top of the sawhorse so that the T beam will get all the weight of whatever I put on top. I determined that I should place the top of the leg one inch below the top of the T beam to make sure.

I’ve already drilled the screw holes in this one so you’ll have to imagine me dry fitting it without the screws in place. It’s important to make sure the top of the leg sits below the top of the sawhorse so that the T beam will get all the weight of whatever I put on top. I determined that I should place the top of the leg one inch below the top of the T beam to make sure. You can see how the bottom of the beam creates the angle for the legs in the picture above.

The next step was to mark the location of the legs using my framing square.

If you hold the pencil against the edge of the square you can simply move the square down the beam and it'll give you a straight line. I decided to place my legs 2 inches from the side and one inch from the top of the T beam.

If you hold the pencil against the edge of the square you can simply move the square down the beam and it’ll give you a straight line. I decided to place my legs 1 1/2 inches from the side and one inch from the top of the T beam. These measurements aren’t super critical as long as the top of the leg sits below the top of the beam.

 Next I lined up the legs with the marks and screwed them in.

I made sure they were square to the T beam by using my framing square.

After I drove the first screw in I used my framing square to make sure the leg was square to the top before I drove in the next screw.

After I drove the first screw in I used my framing square to make sure the leg was square to the top before I drove in the next screw.

Repeat 8 times and the legs are done!

Legs done. Next we'll need to add some support to make them really sturdy.

Legs done.  You can see how the legs sit just below the top of the beam and slightly in from the outside edge. Next we’ll need to add some support to make them really sturdy.

We’ll take the left over pieces from cutting the legs and use them on the sides to give the legs some support.

I simply placed the piece as low as it would go on the leg and drew a line to scribe where I’d need to cut the angle so that it would fit between the legs. This will make the legs much stronger without adding too much weight to the horses. I put them inside the legs instead of simply tacking them on to the outside so that there isn’t anything to bump into or catch electric cords on as I use these. A small detail, I know, but it’ll make them function better in the end.

This is as low as the piece would go. If I went any lower with it the piece would be too short to span the gap.

This is as low as the piece would go. If I went any lower with it the piece would be too short to span the gap.

 Next I cut the angles with my saw and screwed them into place with 2 screws on each side.

Repeat 3 more times for both sawhorses.

Here's the supports in place. These will make the legs much more sturdy.

Here’s the supports in place. These will make the legs much more sturdy. Because they sit comfortably inside the legs there is nothing to hit your shin against or to catch electric cords.

The next pieces will serve 2 functions. They’ll give some more structural support to the structure and act as a shelf so that I can sit plywood on  the sawhorse in a vertical fashion should I need to. This makes the horses much more versatile.

Because of this the supports need to go on the outside of the legs instead of in between them. Not much to show here. Simply cut the pieces to length and screw down. No need to measure as you can just hold them in place and draw a line where you need to cut.

I simple placed a 2x3 in place and drew a line for the cut. No measurement needed. Repeat 3 more times and cut.

I simple placed a 2×3 in place and drew a line for the cut. No measurement needed. Repeat 3 more times and cut.

Here's how the side supports also work like shelves to hold wood in a vertical orientation.

Here’s how the side supports also work like shelves to hold wood in a vertical orientation. Look how awesome my green grass is. :) Early Spring fertilizer…

That’s the basic horse done. I added a couple of more things to give them some extra functionality. Take the metal brackets (joist hangers) and put 2 evenly spaced on one side of the horse. I cut the remaining 2×4 in half and slid it into these to make a support for cutting plywood.

You know how when you cut a piece of plywood between 2 sawhorses and it falls to the floor when you finish your cut because there is nothing to catch it? Yeah, that’s what this is for.

2 of these per horse. Evenly spaced.

2 of these per horse. Evenly spaced. I screwed them in using 2 one inch screws.

 

Cut the remaining 2×4 in half and place in the brackets. No need to attach these. They are meant to slide in and out of the brackets as you need them. Because of this they are disposable and easily replaced when you get too many cuts on them from the saw.

Here are the horses all done. You can see the extra 2x4 supports running from horse to horse. This add some support structure. These aren't screwed in because they are meant to be replaced as you cut them with your saw while making cuts.

Here are the horses all done. You can see the extra 2×4 supports running from horse to horse. This add some support structure. These aren’t screwed in because they are meant to be replaced as you cut them with your saw while making cuts.

Well, that’s it!

I’ve been thinking a bit about the why of these since I finished them a few days ago.

I think one of the best pieces of advice I got from my dad was to always try to use the right tool for the job. It’s simple advice but it means more to me now than it did when I was younger.

In my younger days I’d have been happy to stack up some boxes or use whatever I had at hand to hold up a board for cutting. Now, though, the process is as important to me as the finished piece.

I have a sense that if the project is worth doing then I should enjoy doing it. Or even more importantly, if I enjoy doing the project it’ll be reflected in the finished piece. I really think these sawhorses will help do that for me. I haven’t had a chance to use them yet, but I’m hoping that the first time I set a board on them to make a cut I’ll feel a sense of satisfaction at using a well-built tool that’s perfectly suited to the job at hand. I’m hoping that satisfaction will lead to a job well done.

What do you think? Did I earn my light sabre now? (Cause I really want one.)

Sweet victory is mine!

Sweet victory is mine!