Two Strokes Beat One

In saw sharpening, generally anyway, two file strokes per gullet will deliver a better cutting tip if you understand what you are doing and the reason behind why your are doing it. Until I began teaching others about my daily working, subtle nuances I generally took for granted remained hidden away. Most of them were things I’d thought through for myself by questioning myself as to why I did this or that. So it’s been with sharpening tools like saws. Anyone can shove a triangular file through a saw gullet but that is not what intentionally defines and redefines the saw teeth.By that I mean we can make subtle changes that profile the teeth three dimensionally to make them cut slightly differently for different needs, different woods, different densities and so on. To get teeth to cut a certain way with a certain reaction is to stop, look, feel and listen as the saw file strokes the teeth and then to the saw when the saw teeth themselves stroke into the wood. When people say saws from this continent or that work better because of this and that I think to myself  of my own history and the history of all the other continents knowing that somewhere in the mix they all delivered some of the highest quality craftsmanship regardless of the dirt they stood on. It’s unfortunate that those levels of fine craftsmanship, craftsmanship commonly held amongst the more commonest of people, are so diminished they have indeed all but gone. Culture demanded cheapness and a way to provide ever cheaper goods for the masses. Surprising work will be ever harder to discover as ‘progress’ shuns loveliness and lovely things.

Saw sharpening is a common task to every hand tool enthusiast. Every other day or even most days I should say, I take one of my saws and lightly touch the teeth to optimise its cutting capabilities. This can seem obsessive but my work demands fineness and it means the teeth are never so dulled that they need many passes with the file. Sometimes I will take the added step to change the shape of the teeth of a saw to sharpen it more aggressively or more passively. If, as now, I am working in virgin pine taken from an early piece made from eastern white pine, I need a sharp saw passively set and sharpened. Wood like this came to the UK two centuries ago from ancient forests on the Eastern seaboard of the US, What another woodworker discarded in his burn pile, was a treasure I couldn’t let burn. So I redefine the teeth from my general ripcut and add some slope to the pitch and then another slope, not too much, to the bevels. These unwritten thoughts were taught by man to boy. Things I take things for granted were left unknown to most, safely in my head. The internet has a way of changing things as we now know. Knowledge is cheapened, often, I think. `We welcome its free resource yet pay the high price of confusion. Many decades of skill, knowledge and learning has died with most craftsmen I knew but passed on by word of mouth. Today such sources carry no weight as one copies down another’s video as though skill can be mastered in minutes and posts it from their half hour experience. A dozen more join and then the core information from the skilful past is somehow swallowed up and the true source of real skill becomes permanently buried under the razzmatazz of fast speaking entertainers.

There is indeed more to saw sharpening than just passing a file into a saw gullet. It must be understood and internalised by practice, experiment and, yes, even risk. Reading of course may well be the good beginning we need in the absence of one to one teaching as in the past, but it’s not the experiencing of it. When we begin sharpening saws for ourselves we begin to unwrap the mysteries a a new journey becomes one only we can take. A video is merely the skeleton, we must put flesh on the framework. It is for every crafting artisan to master this art and then to continue learning according the the work he or she encounters along the way. Don’t rely on the professional carpenter today. In the past 45 years I have not met one that sharpens his saws though I always ask. Look to the amateur. Don’t think it’s hard to sharpen saws either, it’s not.

Most often saws slowly develop issues and before we know it we are the owners of a saw that somehow swerves in the cut, jars  or causes us to sweat sooner than we ought to. This is especially so if we’ve neglected sharpening for too long and over used the teeth. This type of procrastination results in a severely round tooth tips no matter the saw or the maker. Often it is intimidation about sharpening through our self doubt and inexperience that holds us back. Other times it’s just plain not knowing how to, and then lastly and commonly it’s just plain laziness. Not the way of the craftsman at all.

Most people do not realise that saws often rely as much on the shear-cutting sides of the outer faces of the teeth to part the ways of wood into two separate sections as the central cutting edge or tip. By that I mean that a ripcut saw has three forward cutting edges not one alone, nor two as with crosscut saws. Whereas the cutting chisel tip rakes out between two side walls, the side walls are sheer cut with a slight relief caused by the saw’s set to both sides of the offset teeth. If we miss this we miss the essentiality of sensitivity in our file strokes. Harsh filing breaks edge of the steel point and edges at the out-cut edges of the teeth. This causes fractured corner rather than a crisp and sharp corner. In sharpening, the best result comes not from a single hard thrust stroke but a gentle and light second one. That’s why hand sharpening delivers a better result than a machine sharpener in some ways, not all. The first thrust-cut shapes the gullet and the fore edge of one tooth and the rear edge of the adjacent one. This develops the profile and determines the degree of aggression to the cutting fore edge of the teeth. The second pass finesses the surface. This is the light breath into the gullet. the one that perfects the surface. Here then is where we understand the saying, “As iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” As a boy a man told my my saw was too dull. That it was indeed a shame to let such a thing happen. It may seem hard, but I listened. At first I bristled inside, but then I thought to myself, “It’s true. His saws are always sharp. He took down a saw.” and he showed me how to sharpen and I became sharp in the process. Listen for the sounds within the strokes and adjust your attitude until your understanding is as refined as the saw you are working.

16 comments on “Two Strokes Beat One

  1. I think maybe 2 edges of each tooth are cutting but as you move from one tooth to the next the side face cutting alternates.

    • A most singular article on saw sharpening! Adjusting the saw for the type of wood is an idea that appeals to me, as does “As iron sharpens iron so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” As a young lad my grandfather introduced me to the basics of saw sharpening. Until seeing your tutorials on the internet I had thought this skill pretty much extinct, meeting no one under 60 who didn’t look at me with confusion at such a proposition.
      It strikes me clearer than ever that mans relationship with his work, depends greatly on his relationship with his tools. The tools are the essential middleman so to speak. We have indeed traded so much in life in the name of ‘progress’, but thanks to yours and others work a ‘rebirth’ (if that’s not too strong a term) is taking place. Thank you.

  2. Great post!

    Could you elaborate more on saw sets? For example there are pliers like saw sets here in continental Europe or a simple still bar with small cuts on the sides, what do you think about those?

  3. Paul,
    Your 50 years of intelligent devotion to and love of your craft can’t be copied. That coupled with a pure soul gives your efforts a grace that is luminous. I occasionally watch some of the others you describe. I marvel at how crude their efforts are. They remind me of me.

    I have reached level 70 as my wife says. I’ve been interested I woodworking since I was 16. I never had access to any instruction. I have merely become a tinkerer. Now, with your help, I am learning real woodworking.

    Thank you,

  4. I applaud the fact of risk, and skin in the game in regards to most affairs that are important. Sharpening saws like all aspects of our craft takes practice and concentration. I remember less that a year ago struggling to find a sharp saw in my non-existent till that consisted consisted of several dull and neglected combination, rip, and crosscut, and (miter, back, dovetail,etc..) saws of fair quality. I bought what was to be had at the HD near me, still not satisfied. Shortly after i took the plunge and bought that lovely little veritas dovetail saw, on your recommendation. I then experienced what a sharp saw felt like, thank you.

    The cost of the Veritas saw seemed high, close to $100 w shipping and such, but my work improved because of the saw and my growing attention/ sensitivity to sharpness. Months go by and countless projects and i notice my veritas saw as not so sharp. I proceeded with caution, worked on lesser saws, with mild success. The time had come to lay file to $100 saw.

    I failed miserably my baby was ragged and not performing as expected. I thought about buying another $100 saw. I could afford it financially, but my soul could not afford the lack of self- sufficiency.

    I meticulously re-toothed the the whole plate( as per your video). Sadly my saw was still not perfect, but my skill were growing. A few touch ups down the road got me back to smooth cuts and knowledge about what i was doing, (practice). I might buy that bigger veritas dovetail saw, but i don’t need it. I have refurbished many great saws over the last few months/ year and plan to share these skills and tools with my students.

    If i hadn’t attempted working on my expensive saw i never would have gained the necessary skill to fix it. Sometimes, most times it’s gotta hurt to be any fun, or have any value, or grow in any way. When we embrace the pain of failure we grow faster and stronger.

    Don’t give up! Sharpness is within your grasp.

  5. I recall a story from you I read once, where in your early apprenticeship you were rebuked by one of your elders/mentors for a dull tool (can’t recall whether it was a saw, chisel or plane iron) with the rebuke ‘sharpen up, you lazy sod!’

    Previous weekend I was doing a lot of chisel work in plywood. As I noticed more effort was required for less result as the tool was slowly getting dull, I suddenly heard an inner voice tell me ‘sharpen up, you lazy sod!’, as if coming from over my shoulder. Worst thing was he was right too.

    A man I’ve never known, heard or seen, and who is likely no longer amongst the living for a long time now, told me in no unclear words what was the proper thing to do, and what he thought of me if I didn’t do it. The experience reminded me of Joshu Slocum’s encounter with the Spanish pilot of Columbus’ Pinta. Needless to say, I obeyed.

  6. I can’t speak highly enough about how you write Mr. Sellers. Pure poetry. Could you tell us more about sharpening for different woods? I presume, cutting into my beloved Black Locust would require a differently sharpened saw than say cherry or common SPF here in Canada? What should these differences be? Are harder woods better cut with more aggressive teeth or less aggressive? Or does the difference lay elsewhere? Thanks again for your dedication to passing on these timeless skills. I hope my sons will learn from me. My eldest is already interested in watching “Paul Sellers videos” and we’ve started a few small projects in the hope of passing on these skills. Thanks a million,

    • A further thought has popped into my mind as I read through your old blogs. You don’t like hard point teeth for their single use fault. Instead of sharpening them, could the teeth be cut off a small distance above the teeth where the plate is no longer hardened and new teeth be cut such that they could be sharpened again. This might save tossing the saw away or turning it into scrapers etc.

      • This is a little like people who eat rattle snake saying it tastes like chicken. Why not just eat chicken? Saws are inexpensive when you buy say the Spear & Jackson ones that I strongly recommend or you buy secondhand via eBay. In my view, and it is only my view, why even buy into a throwaway culture and plastics unless it’s totally necessary. A kitchen fitter working in particle chip sheet goods and countertops will usually want a disposable saw for good reason, a furniture maker like myself wants something for a lifetime of use that can be resharpened. I am not sure I would want to snap off teeth to recut the teeth. That’s a lot to do for what is a less than worthy saw. I can see that adding a nice wooden handle would make it worthy provided the steel is hard enough though.

        • I have a Nicholson saw. Says “Premium 300” on it. Made in Mexico for something or other tools. Can’t recall. It has a wooden handle that could use a little bit of tuning to fit my hand better but I can’t tell if it’s got hardened teeth or not. I don’t have a saw file to sharpen it and it’s just an 8TPI panel saw. I guess it’s probably got hardened teeth. I’m eyeing the Veritas Carcass Rip saw at this point. Just need to convince she who must be obeyed that I need a saw. She won’t see the need since I already have that 8TPI panel saw right? LOL

  7. Perfect timing as I was just looking at my saw teeth last night thinking I should touch it up a bit. Still haven’t mastered the rip but I’m getting there. So much easier than pulling a power tool out. I even cut all my stock for wooden signs by hand now. Muscle memory comes back quickly. Using saws weekly has improved my sharpening which then improves and increases my use of saws. It’s like a snowball effect as you find more and more uses for a sharp saw in your daily work and tackle projects you never would have done before.

    I have a corner of my workshop full of dusty un-used jigs and wasted time, most of them for the table saw. These days I just do most of my work with a bench vice and hand tools after quickly roughing out the stock on the band saw. Made a bracket and shelf last night for a microwave to hang on the wall of my workshop, Job done at about 10.30pm No annoying dust or noisy machines to wake the neighbours. Reheated my coffee which had gone cold but was dust free. Sat down and admired my hand tool work. Yes it has some saw cut marks that I didn’t plane off. But I like it, proves it wasn’t done on a circular saw.

  8. As a young Marine, I had a sergeant that was meticulous about every piece of equipment issued to him. He would always say, take care or your tools and they will take care of you. His words have always stuck with me. I don’t know how anyone can be a true craftsman if they don’t take care of their tools.

    Thanks for your insight as always.

  9. I always have been frustrated when using western hand saws because I failed to make a straight and clean cut. For that reason I found Japanese saws a good alternative for a while. When starting with the workbench project I wanted to give western style saws another try. So I bought a cross and rip cut saw and again found it difficult to use in comparison to the Japanese ones.

    However, when I saw Paul’s video on how to correct new saws I tried it on my own. It was amazing to see how much of difference it is to have a actually sharp hand saw. It is so important to have a well sharped saw when learning to work with these tools. Now I just love to work with a western hand saw and improving my skills better than before.

    So thanks Paul for sharing your rich knowledge.

    • I’m glad to hear that,David. It doesn’t have to be either or camps, it can be both. I keep a couple of Japanese saws around for different reasons. It’s unlikely that I will change ‘directions’ as both types work equally well in my hands. I am glad that you have enriched your life by experimenting and trying something new. They great thing in my view is you can now sharpen your own saws for the rest of your life. Something you can no longer do with any hard point saws and especially the majority of so-called Japanese saws mass made in Asia that rendered generations of woodworkers in all countries, Japan included, incapable now of simple things like sharpening their own saws. What a shameful thing!

      • Sure, I still like to work with the Japanese ones. And to be fair they have a very long standing time in comparison to traditional saws.

You must enter certain information to comment on this page. We take the handling of personal information seriously and appreciate your trust in us. Our Privacy Policy sets out important information about us and how we use and protect your personal data and it also explains your legal rights in respect of it. Please click here to read it before you comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *