Wenzloff family is on cutting edge with saws

The buzz - Mike Wenzloff of Forest Grove is a master saw maker sought out by collectors

For two years, Mike Wenzloff handcrafted saws in his garage in Forest Grove. As word of his saws spread around the world, he hired two of his three sons - and a nephew - to assist him.

He would have hired more, but fitting four people and assorted tools and machinery into a garage is a tight squeeze as it is.

All that will change when Wenzloff moves to a new facility in Cornelius, going from 187 square feet to 3,500 square feet. He'll hire more employees and start catching up on the 4,000 orders waiting to be filled. 'We tried to find space in Forest Grove, but everything available was too big,' he explained.

Stories about the metoric rise of Wenzloff's company came easily as Wenzloff sat at a dining room table inside the historic Forest Grove home he shares with his family. Built by his wife's great uncle, the house itself is a snapshot of what's occurred over the last two years.

New walls and vintage reproduction light fixtures have been installed and wood trim awaits, because the meticulous restoration has come to a complete halt. Instead, wood for saw making sits in stacks in the dining and laundry rooms. Shipping boxes tower in the study.

Wenzloff, 52, learned to sharpen saws from his grandfather. But his story really begins with meeting his wife, Dina. They worked across the street from each other while in high school. Every evening, Wenzloff asked Dina out and every evening she refused. A year later, they literally bumped into each other at the Safeway in Tigard.

'For old time's sake, I asked her out, and she said yes,' he recalled. They married a short time later, in 1974, while still in their teens.

Wonderful life

They followed friends to northern Idaho with their youngest son, Kris, and built a log home. Sons Albert and William arrived. 'It was a wonderful life,' said Wenzloff, who supported his family for eight-and-a-half years with a logging business.

'One day,' he continued, 'I was on a four-and-a-half-ton log skidder and it rolled down a hill 240 feet.' While recovering from his injuries, he pondered his next move.

'My pastor told me to make a list of things I wanted to do and prioritize them. I decided I want to go to college, so we moved back to Oregon where I went to Multnomah Bible College. It was a wonderful experience,' he added.

To support his family he started a data management service, writing and illustrating technical material, eventually selling his half of the business to a partner. At the same time, he became disenchanted with organized religion. He was hired by other companies, and at one point started a furniture business with Dina, who shares his love of wood. Health issues forced another change.

One thing to another

'I'd learned to sharpen saws as a boy. I started sharpening saws for money. I made some saws for myself. Then I made about 18 reproduction saws for a collector. One thing led to another. Within 90 days of starting Wenzloff and Sons, I called Kris to work with me,' Wenzloff said.

William followed 90 days later, and nephew Jacob Wenzloff later still.

List of woods

Today much of his business is geared toward retail outlets like Lee Valley in Canada and The Best Things in Virginia.

'We also make custom saws,' he said. 'We have saws in China, Korea, Mexico, the United Kingdom and France.'

Wenzloff used saws made in the 1700s by famed British saw maker John Kenyon for models. The list of woods he uses for handles is a long one, including African blackwood, Australian blackwood, Panama rosewood, Oregon black walnut and curly pink ivory.

He can identify some just by their fragrance. Sometimes people send wood. For custom saws, he asks a customer to measure the distance across the palm of the hand. A few customers draw an outline of their hand on paper and send it to him.

It's particularly helpful when the customer has a large hand. Wentzloff or one of his sons or nephew starts out with a block of wood and chips away it, creating the handle.

The blade is made from Swedish steel, the best in the world, said Wenzloff. His knowledge of metal tolerances is important as he works with steel that's 18-thousanths of an inch thick.

Once the saw blade is made, it's put into the handle, using bolts made in Newberg. The finished product is a thing of beauty, but it's meant to be used.

David Trusty of Galgate, England, first learned about Wenzloff and Sons saws while on Fine Woodworking magazine's web chat, 'Knots.'

'I have three of his saws now and they are everything the various people on 'Knots' said they would be,' said Trusty. 'The handles fit very comfortably in the hand and present the blade at the natural angle for sawing. The saws start well and track a line dead-on.

'I've cut a great number of dovetails and mortise and tenons with no deterioration in their performance - they're also still sharp which is remarkable. In short, the saws become 'invisible' to the user and seem to almost cut the joints themselves.'

Exponential growth

Wenzloff attributes the exponential growth of the business to the desire people have for making things with their hands and with hand tools - the same thing that gives him satisfaction in making the saws themselves.

Trusty has other explanations for the company's success.

'Mike is kind, listens to others and always wants to help even difficult customers like me,' he said. 'In fact, I never found a need to be a difficult customer with Mike.'