Atwater man turns old saw blades into works of art

Hamlet, in one of his most famous lines, declared, "I know a hawk from a handsaw."

A local artist knows the saw blade — and has turned its old-fashioned flatness into a new dimension of beauty.

Dave Jeffrey, 63, scapes off the rust and applies acrylic colors -- laced with a touch of talent -- and by the time he's done, this carpenter's tool hosts an almost photographic nature scene.

Like most artists, Jeffrey began painting years ago on traditional, flat blank canvases. "But I don't want to paint on canvas," he insists today. "I want to paint on saw blades."

He has done just that for about five years in a tiny studio inside his Atwater mobile home. Using a paintbrush thin enough to apply mascara, he creates barns and cars and horses and teepees on this odd metal surface.

He adopts an almost pointillist approach to his painting, with each dot of color helping form the whole. His colors help detail each grass blade in a field. And his rivers look as if they are actually flowing, says his wife, Jeannette.

"Why saw blades? I don't know," Jeffrey shrugs. "It's rustic. You can take something like that and turn it into something like this."

He points to a rusty old saw blade and compares it to an art piece he had finished that morning. On a large handsaw a pomegranate-red 1958 Chevrolet sits in a grassy field in front of a barn. You can almost hear its dual exhaust, smell its burning rubber.

Jeffrey plans to donate this piece to an auction and raffle his son, Dave Jeffrey Jr., is organizing for his Merced car club, Valve Burners. "Not a whole lot of people do them," his son, 40, says of the saw blade work. "(Dad) does a great job, but sometimes doesn't have the confidence everyone else does in his stuff."

He says his father donated a piece to a Ducks Unlimited event about 10 years ago, and it brought in more than $300 from a bidder.

Jeffrey sells many of his pieces for quite a bit cheaper. They average $40 to $150, depending on how long it takes him to create one.

He finished the Chevy handsaw piece in about eight hours. He often works straight through the day. That's why he uses acrylic -- he doesn't have to wait around long for it to dry.

The artist, originally from San Francisco, first noticed his creative talents around age 10 or 11. "Back when I should have been learnin' things, I was drawin' pictures," he laughed.

Cartoons were his first love. He sketched people to make them laugh or make them angry, he explained. He soon graduated to acrylic paintings on canvas. About 10 years ago, he noticed other artists' saw blade art in stores along Highway 49 in the Mother Lode.

And he wanted to try it himself.

He began to concentrate on this specialty after retiring two years ago from his job as a painting contractor for Downey & Son Painting in Winton. His work experience helped him with his art because it taught him to mix colors, he says.

And he would leave his cartoon sketches all over the office, remembers former co-worker Melvin Downey Jr., a partner at the business with his father. "We've probably got 20 or 30 of them laying around here," Downey said. "He just has that ability to pick up a person's personality that he's drawing. You look at the cartoon and know exactly what it is."

Downey also has two of Jeffrey's saw blade pieces mounted on his walls. One is made from a 6-foot-long two-man saw and shows a scene of deer in snowdrifts. Another depicts a barn surrounded by trees and lakes. "It's quality work, but I really like his cartoons," Downey admits.

Jeffrey's son also has saw blade pieces hanging on his walls. "I'll have them forever," he says. "The kids will get them, the grandkids will get them."

While his art might last, the barns he enjoys painting will most likely disappear as the farming industry goes the way of handsaws in a chainsaw age. "I kind of like painting barns because they aren't going to be here that long," he sighs.

Old farm equipment is one of his favorite subjects. He likes pictures of ancient artifacts in a modern environment. The saw blades themselves are always old and used. He finds them at yard sales or people just drop them off on his porch.

Jeffrey often paints scenes from his memories, although clients also send him photographs or describe a picture they want to commission from him.

Is it dangerous work? Those sharp serrated edges aren't there for decoration. No, he says. He has never cut himself. The hardest part is sanding rust off the saws.

Make that the second-hardest part. The hardest part is deciding what to paint.

Or as Hamlet put it: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."

Reporter Dhyana Levey

can be reached at 209-385-2472 or