The Buzz Saw is a variation on the magical illusion of Sawing a Woman in Half. Technically it is a "sawing through", rather than a true division illusion, as the saw just passes through the assistant and they are not separated into two halves.
The Buzz Saw version of the sawing in half illusion was developed in the late 1920s by American magician Horace Goldin, who marketed it as "a living miracle". It dispensed with the large bulky boxes used in earlier versions of the sawing illusion, and used a large circular saw to cut through an assistant who lay exposed to view throughout the entire performance.
A large apparatus is presented, consisting of a sturdy frame supporting a large circular saw and a table sufficiently large to carry a person laying flat. A shallow slot, around three inches wide by an inch deep, runs the full width of the table at its mid-point. It is shown that the table travels beneath the saw, the edge of which runs through the shallow slot leaving little or no gap, so that anything placed upon the table in the path of the saw would be completely sliced through. The table is moved past the saw either by an electric mechanism or by some form of manual crank, while the saw is generally driven by an electric motor.
To demonstrate that the saw is completely genuine, a thick piece of wood is placed on the table and sliced in two in full view. A female assistant is then introduced and placed in a horizontal position on the table with their waist in line with the saw. Sometimes the magician might give the impression of hypnotizing the assistant into a rigid trance before having her lifted onto the table. In some versions of the illusion, the assistant is placed face-down, while in others she is placed on her back. Sometimes, she is then secured in place with two metal "straps" that close over her waist and have a narrow gap between them for the saw to pass through, although many performances omit this. She might also be further secured with straps or manacles at her wrists and ankles. A strip of wood is pushed beneath her waist into the slot in line with the saw.
The saw is then started and the table set in motion, moving the assistant past the blade. The saw visibly passes through the assistant's waist, clearly cutting her completely in two, and generally sounds like it is sawing through something. Once the table reaches the end of its travel and the saw is switched off, the assistant is released and shown to be in one piece and uninjured. The strip of wood that had been placed beneath her is shown to have been sawn into two strips, thus proving that the saw really did cut through the assistant in the manner it appeared to.
In some versions of the illusion, rather than the table moving past the saw, the saw is mounted on a pivoted arm that allows it to swing back and forth. This allows the use of a smaller, lighter, and more easily transportable supporting framework. This is taken to an extreme in the modern "mini buzz saw", which uses a lightweight metal frame and a small saw blade that is usually driven by an electric drill.
Although many performances feature no covering over the assistant, some, such as the "mini buzz saw" or the sawing performed by Mario Kamia, do feature the use of a thin plastic semicircular cover over the assistant.
In many performances, the assistant wears clothing that completely covers her waist, and the saw cuts through the costume in addition to the assistant. However, in some performances, the assistant's waist is left bare and the saw can be seen to cut into her exposed skin, which can be seen to ripple as the teeth of the saw cut into it.
In most performances, the wooden strip is placed below the assistant after they have been secured to the table. In a number of performances, however, the strip is placed into its holder on the table before the assistant is placed onto it. This variation further reinforces the fact that the assistant cannot avoid the saw and it actually does cut through their waist.
One rare variation is where the saw is placed with its axle below the table and cuts through the assistant from below. This is considered to be the most baffling version of the illusion, as it is obvious there is no way for the assistant to avoid the blade as it cuts through them.
- Although invented by Goldin, the illusion is probably best associated with the American father and son magicians Harry Blackstone, Sr. and Harry Blackstone, Jr.. Blackstone, Sr. began performing the illusion in the 1930s, and he is often credited with popularising the illusion and bringing it to a wider audience through his extensive tours of the American Midwest. Following his father's death in 1965, Blackstone, Jr. also performed the illusion using his father's original apparatus. Although Blackstone, Jr's performances usually used his wife, Gay, as the assistant being sawn, he did on one occasion perform the illusion on actress Stefanie Powers.
- Goldin's original method for performing the illusion was revealed in the fifth Masked Magician TV special.
- Actor and magician Orson Welles used a Buzz Saw in his Mercury Wonder Show magic performances. He originally performed it on his wife Rita Hayworth until Columbia Pictures banned her from participating in Welles' show. He then regularly performed it on Marlene Dietrich and, later, on an up-and-coming young actress named Marilyn Monroe.
- In 1956, Indian illusionist P. C. Sorcar used a buzz saw to cut his wife in two during a televised performance. Just when he had divided her the host quickly signed off and the show ended. This caused horrified viewers to believe she had accidentally been killed. In reality, it was a live broadcast and time had run out.
- Live performances by Peruvian magician Richiardi Jr are often cited as the most horrific presentations of a sawing illusion. Richiardi used a buzz saw, but he greatly added to the shock value by incorporating fake blood and entrails, which were sprayed over the stage (and sometimes beyond it) as the saw went to work.
- Having purchased it at auction in the early 1990s, David Copperfield now owns the Buzz Saw built for and used by Orson Welles. Having restored it to working condition, he sometimes performed it on his then-wife, supermodel Claudia Schiffer. He has also performed the illusion on a number of other guest celebrity assistants including actress Penélope Cruz and TV presenter Cat Deeley, who was sawed in half by Copperfield at a 2007 UNICEF fundraiser. Copperfield's performance of the illusion is one of those in which the assistant's waist is bared and the saw can be seen cutting into their exposed skin. He also inserts the wooden strip into its holder before the assistant is placed on the table above it.
"Even though I'd been sawed in half lots of times before, it was still quite scary, because the saw blade was huge and all too real. And, with no box over me, I was able to look down and see the saw going right through my bare waist and into the wood underneath me - I could even see my skin rippling as the saw cut through it. But it didn't really hurt, just tickled a bit, and it was quite an honour to have the chance to do it, as David doesn't usually use it in his shows and just saves it for special occasions." - Cat Deeley.
- In the 2007 French movie La fille coupée en deux (aka The Girl Cut in Two), the movie ends with the lead character of Gabrielle, played by Ludivine Sagnier, becoming a magician's assistant and being sawed in half by a buzz saw.
- Brazilian magician Mario Kamia has often performed the illusion on celebrity assistants, including model and TV presenter Ana Hickmann. Kamia's Buzz Sawing also appeared in the 2011 Brazilian TV show O Astro, in which actor Rodrigo Lombardi (supervised by Kamia) sawed actress Ellen Rocche in half. When not performing the illusion on guest celebrity assistants, he usually performs it on his regular main assistant Diny Oliveira, who can usually be seen in videos of the celebrity performances providing reassurance to the celebrity being sawn. In some of Kamia's performances, the assistant is sawn face-up, while in others the sawing is done with the assistant face-down. Sometimes he uses the wrist and ankle restraints, and sometimes the assistant is unrestrained (Hickmann, for example, is so tall that he was unable to use the restraints on her, and she had to be sawn face-up). In all of his performances, however, he uses a thin plastic cover over the assistant's body.
- The illusion was featured as the "forfeit" in Season 1, Episode 2 of the BBC TV programme The Magicians. Having lost the audience vote, TV presenter Amanda Byram found herself being divided in the illusion as her "punishment" for coming last.
The Buzz Saw is often considered to be one of the most dangerous of all illusions, due to the fact that the saw is demonstrably real and clearly does pass completely through the assistant's waist, dividing their body in two. If incorrectly performed, the illusion can be fatal, and at least two assistants are known to have died during rehearsals or performances. Even those skilled in performing the illusion are not immune to the dangers, as an experimental modification to their Buzz Saw led to Gay Blackstone suffering minor friction burns to her waist during a live performance on British TV.