Where is the Point?

I am never sure if it’s a unique phenomenon to woodworkers alone or whether it is an element that only affects them, but for some reason upcycling a plastic-handled throwaway saw costing £7 to become card scrapers somehow gives credibility to an otherwise limited tool, a tool that’s lost the point.

I suppose salvaging the tool to live a second life beyond its built-in obsolescence might just justify its low-cost purchase in the first place, except it is not really such a low cost if it only lasts for a few months of daily use. But lets face it, if you have some periodic home carpentry to do a few times a year, saws like this can be the obvious answer and they do work well anyway. The issue here is what do we real woodworkers do for the best in our bench shop? At least upcycling a saw plate might be a way we are saving the earth from choking up on steel and plastic, or is it? Also, just how many card scrapers does any woodworker need. I’ve had one of mine for over 45 years and it seems as big as when I first acquired it. Of course, we all know that the tool will not be landfill fodder and neither will it clog up the arteries of our rivers before starting on the seas. Both steel and plastic can be melted into another amalgam type to come to full resurrection as a pair of kitchen scissors, knife and a few lightbulb connectors, according to global demand.

Much of our consideration as hand toolists is to be advantaged by this free thin plate beyond life as saw. I am regularly asked if the blued teeth can be snapped off or softened to recut or sharpen then and rehardened with a blow torch. Well, I’m a busy maker teaching others, and guess what! It’s a full-time job for two people done by one. I think sometimes some things are what is just an interesting thing to do in what might otherwise be a dull and dulling day. I don’t have such days because I disallow them. But in some ways I liken this interest to the man who took off after a rattlesnake, caught it, killed it and cooked it and an hour or two later said, “Mmm, tastes great! Just like chicken.” So why not just go along to Kentucky Fried Chicken? My question back might be why buy so ugly a saw that’s designed only for crosscutting and engineered boards like pressed fibreboard, Oriented Strand Board (OSB) and plywood and not one that you can sharpen straight out of the box for the next hundred years?

Of course, the thing that justifies the purchase of a disposable saw is that it has teeth designed to cut only across the grain and not along or with the grain. These pinnacle points sever the fibres perfectly well and it makes no difference if it cuts on a pull or push stroke. The hardened teeth do keep their sharpness up to about five times longer than a saw with a conventionally hardened plate and that is that it can be readily sharpened in about four minutes, thus allowing the sharpener/user to sharpen it throughout a lifetime of use. I have been resharpening my saws for 56 years and by that I mean the same saws. Responses I get from ‘professional’ carpenters are, “Time is money!” or “I can’t afford the hours it takes to sharpen a saw.” Nearer the truth is that they don’t have a clue how a saw is even sharpened never mind the skill. Not altogether their fault if they never believed that they could. This is of course a matter of personal choice though. Everyone can learn to sharpen any saw in a matter of an hour or two spread over say a year. Even a badly sharpened saw will cut well enough and certainly as well as a disposable saw that’s gone dull. It will prove economically viable if you take time to learn saw sharpening as a skill. It is worth the time to at least think about it and the benefit is that you can change the saw pitch of tooth and even tooth type to match the work you are about to do. Of course, the needs of a construction site carpenter on a busy site is not the same as a furniture maker or a more general woodworker. It’s competitive work and then there is of course peer pressure too. Here at the workbench we mostly do not cut sheets of OSB and pressed fibreboard – not part of our remit.

This Japanese-style tooth pattern saw has a thick plate instead of a thin one. The triple ground teeth are highly effective, especially when combined with a triple thickness of steel plate Teflon coated. On every forward-thrusting power cut the saw penetrates 2″ thick oak and 3/4″ plywood as the wood is not there. This is where western and eastern technologies combine in a single tool. As a power-stroke saw it crosscuts exceptionally well. With the grain, of course, its not quite so good.

I own two disposable hardpoint saws and both suit my needs well but on a limited basis. These are my preferred outdoor saws for garden carpentry of the type I have been doing at my house in the building of fences, bed curtilages, sheds, decks and greenhouses. Most of the wood I used there was pallet wood, treated 9and very wet decking and siding and old wood salvaged from skips. If I hit a nail or staple I still get miffed, but less so than I would with my workshop saws. In other words, these saws have their place. The term ‘universal cut‘ emblazoned on the package and plate means I cut well across the grain but I am useless along the grain. All compromise means less effectiveness in one way or another. In woodworking that means with or against the grain, along it, or across it. In the construction trades, 95% of woodworking comes from a machine while the remaining 5% is in awkward corners and hard-to-reach places where a machine just will not boldly go – think circular saw and jigsaw up against a wall or post. Another ninety-five-percenter is that 95% of cuts are in fact across the grain on construction-type, two-by stock. Stud walls, floor joists rarely get rip-cut on site. Again, in a bind, a hand saw will usually get you out of a fix – in this case, think birds-mouth and foot-cut two stories up on a roof to fit a hip rafter. OSB, a common construction sheet product, is always a cross-grain cut really and that is because the grain striations or omnidirectional except that the strands are laid somehwere near parallel to the outside faces of the board. It relies mainly on its constituent strand elements which greatly vary in size and aspect ratio, making the strands wider and more apt to span greater distances because of its larger and wider strands. Combining this with fillers and a range of different resins means that the material is particularly hard on saw teeth. A hardpoint saw is ideal for such rugged materials and will therefore work longer on solid woods whether softwoods or hardwoods.

This ‘universal’, twin-bevel tooth pattern means it is intended for cross-cutting generally with some rip-cutting potential too. In action, it cuts well across the grain and less well with the grain.

So, for all of my general opposition to throwaway saws, I do keep a hardpoint saw in the garage workshop for crosscutting rough boards to length before further dimensioning with my ‘good‘ handsaws and the bandsaw. Hard, gritty particles like sand lodge into the rough bark and even bandsawn surfaces will house dirt and grit when kept around in warehouses for a while. It seems to me that one of these saws will last me for a year or two but when they are done and past their best, I usually put them out for recycling.

40 thoughts on “Where is the Point?”

  1. I must admit that I bought a hard point tenon saw for £1:50 when it was being sold off as an end of line, for similar situations to those you describe. It is a lot better than I was expecting for the price. It actually has a solid handle, many plastic saw handles are not really up to the job.

  2. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    I agree that your SECOND saw should be one you can resharpen. By that, I mean that most of us probably have a hardpoint saw when we stumble into finer woodworking. No problem using that saw until the teeth go dull, but I would not recommend replacing it with a new hardpoint.

    Of course, one comes to a point where the demand for better tools dictates an investment. I’m expecting a set of Ashley Iles chisels within a week or so. I haven’t found any decent, cheap chisels yet, and there is no point spending money on inexpensive maybe’s or second rate tool over buying high quality tools when one reaches a certain level of skills.

    It is the same as with musical instruments. I can play on any keyboard you lay in front of me, but to bring out the finest nuances and feelings in a piece do require the very best keyboard action possible. The subtle kickback of the key when the hammer falls back, the lighter weight on the treble notes…

    As for hardpoint saws – the “best ones” (if we are to believe the PR department, apparently any VENOM -marked tool is the game changer) do cost as much if not more than a S&J 9500R WITH shipping. Easy choice, really…

      1. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

        Did you contact Ashley Iles about the issue? If so, did they not replace it cost-free? I would expect no less, really.
        Have you had any other problems with the chisels, if you still use them?

        1. No. Even returning tools is time-consuming except with larger companies like Amazon and eBay who issue lables and have simple drop-off points nearby. And this was many years ago too. I am sure they would replace it but I lost confidence in their narrow-sized chisels.

    1. “I haven’t found any decent, cheap chisels yet”

      Since the blog is a bit about finding limited uses for mass produced things with blue plastic handles…

      A couple of years ago, when I was starting to get into woodworking, and before I knew of many alternatives, I bought a set of “Irwin Marples M444” chisels (the ones with solid blue plastic handles, not rubber grip ones). Currently on Amazon £24 for a set of 5. After Googling how to sharpen them I discovered Paul’s videos. After sharpening them up following Paul’s instructions they have worked fine for me for the past couple of years.

      1. And they will go on forever too. I used a set for 25 years and still have them in my archives. Funny that Aldi chisels are the ones I reach for on a daily basis. At £2 a piece they fit me perfectly and they have never snapped or bent.

    2. I brought a set of Narex chisels as they are about the only company that still sells firmer chisels. These seem good quality and reasonably priced. I still follow the dictum of my school woodwork teacher that you should not hit bevel edge chisels only push or tap them as the outer corners are inherently weak. If you need to hit the chisel use a firmer chisel or a mortise chisel.

  3. Paul makes a good point. For rough work in the garage or yard, I have a hard-tooth cross-cut saw and a landscaping frame saw. Both work well on wood that is warped, treated, a bit wet, or even a bit dirty — or all of the above.

    I have avoided and will continue to avoid using any of my higher-quality woodworking saws for such applications, yet I have often turned to the cheap, box-store saws for purposes of carpentry and deck-building. They have served well and lasted a long time, having only modest cost.

    When they wear out, or get irredeemably bent, I discard the handles and keep the steel. The steel can be quite useful, as Paul explains.


  4. I made my Sellers style workbench with a hardpoint saw… I almost give up because it was so slow cutting for ripping and I didn’t know anything about tooth geometry at that time… thanks for your how to video! I still remember the relief I had when I convert that S&J crosscut saw to ripcut and I still rip all my board (including 2″ thick oak) with it. The more you use a saw, the more you sharpen it and the better you get! I like the freedom I get from it, i can change the geometry of the teeth to task which is nice. I will never go back to a hardpoint saw.

  5. Encouraged by Pauls videos and instructions on saw sharpening, I thought I should have a go. I got hold of a 7 TPI Sandvik cross-cut saw probably from the 50’s to practice on. I removed the heavy surface rust with 120 and 240 grit paper, but left the teeth alone, as the set seemed to be fine (I want to take one step at a time).

    When I examine the saw blade now, it is clear I must work on my sensitivity with the saw file, but first of all spend a few minutes to make a saw holder. I can, however, attest to the following: “Even a badly sharpened saw will cut well enough and
    certainly as well as a disposable saw that’s gone dull.”

    A big thank you Paul, and your team, for all you do and are.

    Respectfully from Norway,

  6. “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

    My first saw I sharpened needed to be retoothed. Old Harvey Peace 16” tenon saw. I used your video to make a “jig” out of a scrap and a hacksaw blade. I was surprised how well it cuts even though I know I didn’t do a great job.

    In regards to melting down metal and plastic. I bought a cheap chinese marking knife on amazon and I think the blade is made from melted metal and plastic mixed together. It basically dulls from marking any wood.

    I also heard about those Isles chisels handles splittimg, at least the mortise chisels.

      1. A statement by Lincoln speaking to his audience I think, referring to the need to prepare. So glad u didn’t take it literally like the rest if the net Paul.

        That old growth, never cut before forests would be dense stuff.

        Watching your plane refurbishment video now, such a good idea to use a can with a rag and oil, remember this when I was a child in old workshops in the 80s, never see it today, everyone just uses spray.

    1. I have met a few black locust trees in my day that would challenge even the finest of axes.

  7. What percentage is down to the tool verses the skill and knowledge Paul, I teach in a college, I think its around 80% skill and knowledge and 20% to the tool.

    Meaning having lie Neilston, veritable and others are only 20% of the factor in getting work or joints done.

    1. The makers of modern tools really offer no advantage except that the parts are all, of course, brand new the tools arrive sharp and set so you have no remedial work to do. In terms of performance, my 55-year-old smoothing plane is better now than it was 55 years ago.

  8. Dear Paul,
    I am building a workbench – after your inspiration.
    Could you please advise, if the tool well board shall be (1) glued with the top, (2) joined with screws or somehow else.
    The (1) option result in a very big and heavy struture (2.5 m long workbench) so I am a bit reluctant to glue.

    Best regards,

    1. Have you looked at Paul’s bench building videos?
      The well allows for expansion and contraction of the top. So needs to be loose, either fitted into a rebate or the gap covered with a fillet. Like Paul’s first design mine is held together with coach bolts and screws so that if needed it can be dismantled.

  9. Given that very good quality Spear and Jackson, Disston and Pax handsaws are often available in fair to very good condition for less then $10 in my neck of the woods and once cleaned up and sharpened a lifetime tool I am not sure I see the point (no pun intended ) of buying a hard point . Even if used in poor stock with dirt, debris or manufactured a crosscut 5-6 point powers through well and still takes a decent amount to blunt. With a generous set it does not bind easily, even when used for tree trimming (onsite I have had to do this on occasion for access even though I carry a small pruning saw the handsaw was faster). Whilst I can appreciate the recycling aspect this is only as good as the system in place for waste disposal for each locality. A lot of our scrap steel here is shipped overseas. There can be a considerable amount of embodied energy in the life of a disposable saw and all the trappings associated with it by way of manufacturing, packaging, transport and end of lifecycle processes. Building a culture of maintenance into your own work schedule can sometimes seem like a drain but the dividends pay off in many ways. Paul has already demonstrated this with many specific hand tool blogs and videos. The satisfaction of a well maintained tool is hard to beat. The manner and setting in which a lot of new tools are treated do not achieve this presence of mind. Use it up and throw it out. It doesn’t sit well with me. The plastic handles often don’t sit well in my hand either and certainly do not have the same versatility for methods of sawing by affording multiple handgrips.

    1. Thank you for talking about the whole lifecycle of manufactured products, the mining, manufacturing, packaging, and multiple transports add up to a lot of energy consumption. Treating metals and other durable materials as single-use disposables is extremely wasteful.

  10. Many years ago, like a good many others, I fell for the ‘never needs sharpening’ spiel and bought a hard tooth saw from B&Q. The plastic handle had 90° and 45° angles ‘built in’. How very useful if you’re not too fussy about accuracy! But the feel of the thing was ghastly! It gradually rusted in the shed from dampness and non-use.
    Twelve months ago I resurrected it, first by removing and disposing of the awful handle, then by de-rusting with a flap wheel on the angle grinder.
    The next step I took was to grind off all the teeth and level up the edge with a flat file in preparation for recutting the teeth and setting them with my 50 year old Eclipse saw set. I then made a ‘proper’ handle from a piece of scrap beech, to a pattern based on an old Spear and Jackson rip saw. I now have a saw which will certainly outlast me (I just turned 81 a couple of weeks ago) and which is a joy to use. The steel quality seems to be adequate and it readily sharpens just like my other ‘vintage’ saws, one of which incidentally, I inherited from my grandfather! I have been told that it was probably made in around 1870 by Robert Groves. One hundred and fifty years old and still in regular use and the handle feels so perfect I could just sit with it in my hand as a comforter!

    1. Like everything else you get different quality with different manufacturers (brands/badges). That also goes for saws with hardened tips and plastic handles. I do have an old saw that I have taken the hardened teeth down with an angle grinder and made new teeth. I use the original solid plastic, rubber coated handle. It cuts well and is comfortable to hold. It is my believe that with a little work lots of these saws have great potential. Like you have to spend time with new chisels to make them work well.

  11. I have sharpened some of my hand saws (panel) and backsaws and although I am not proficient, they cut better when I am done. I have not used hardened saw nor one with a plastic handle. For many years panel saws both cross cut and rip have been available at yard and garage sales for $3.00 to $5.00 each and I have a good number of Ames and Disston saws and well as some back saws of various sizes . My father , born in 1916, never liked circular saws and always used a hand saw for crosscutting. He did rip with a table saw at times although he had a rip saw in good condition and used it prior to having a table saw in the 1950’s. I don’t think that I will run out and buy a new hardened saw in the forseeable future.

  12. Well I learn something every day. Now I know what OSB means!
    I use general purpose hard point saws mostly and find that with care they generally do the job. But then I’m no carpenter.
    The exception is my S&J tenon saw that pulled out of the grass and recovered, thanks to your videos.
    I only once broke a chisel – a 1/2″ Stanley – trying in my ignorance to cut a slot in very old Jarrah. Good heavens that’s hard stuff!

  13. Used to carry hard point in work truck (tractor mechanic) to cut boards for blocking, didn’t want anything precious to be under such duress.

  14. Paul, have you got any tips on setting a very fine toothed saw? Inspired by your videos I bought a vintage dovetail saw from ebay, sharpened it up and then found it wouldn’t cut. Until I used a saw set and created the kerf, but boy was it hard to see the teeth! I did it, its not perfect but it is now usable and with time it will get better as I get better.

    1. Paul, for the smallest teeth, Tage Frid used to recommend a screwdriver to twist the teeth to one side and the other.

  15. Stephen Tyrrell

    I still have the hardpointsaw bought many years ago for building a pergola, although I now have a couple of excellent rip cut saws for the Selkers projects that fill my weekends.

    As you say Paul, the hard points have their place, especially when cross cutting thick boards.

  16. I started resharpening the induction hardened teeth of those cheap saws, and the croscut teeth of the japanese saws, These days you can get triangular diamond files and also files specific for the japanese saws teeth angles. using these diamond files, i would say it works.

  17. Hand saw sharpening is a skill that very few possess or for that matter want to! Having purchased many old hand saws and hand planes it is apparent that many previous owners struggled, at best, with the chore of sharpening/tuning/or caring for their work tools.
    Out of need, I forced myself to learn to sharpen/tune hand saws and hand planes. Many family members/friends found such an ambition to be a waste of time. What I have learned most in this endeavor was a sincere admiration for those professionals who provided these seemingly mundane, but important, services.
    Paul Sellers is a very exceptional man! His patience and focus on detail and broad range of knowledge come from a man who has done these things all his life. Best wishes.

  18. Scott Myerscough

    I rarely purchase new hand tools, with the exception of my Veritas router all of tools have been picked up at little expense at flea markets, garage sales and antique stores. My chisels are an eclectic array of various brands. My saws are much the same but higher quality and much older. I picked up a mid 1800’s Groves and Son tenon saw for ~ $50.00 but the others I paid no more than 10.00. My best “pick” is my Stanley type 6 no. 5 plane, I think I paid $5 for it. It took very little restoration to bring it back to working order. I recently replaced the original blade as I noticed a crack starting at the cutting surface.

    All in all I would have to say that I have done well with my used purchases. 🙂

  19. John Williams

    As a long time painter, I sometimes wonder why I bother to clean my brushes. I promise there is a connection here to throw-away saws! If I take 10 minutes to clean a brush after a day of painting and I make 30 dollars per hour then that 10 minutes is roughly 5 dollars(I do not get paid for cleaning brushes). If a paint brush costs 15 dollars then I am basically throwing my money(really my time) away after just three days of painting. Yet I still clean my brushes. For me this process is connected to pride of doing a good job. I think that the brush itself becomes extremely important, much more so than a collection of bristles, steel and wood. It is the mechanism through which I transfer my hopes for that object I am painting and as such deserves more respect than to be tossed away after just three uses. It seems to me that our tools(saws, brushes, etc.) are much, much more than objects. They become an extension of our intent and a concrete example of how we view our work and even our lives. They are important! Have I ever bought a cheap brush? Of course, sometimes that has to happen but I still take care of it to the extent that it’s materials are able to respond to that care. It is really about the work and I can still paint well using a cheap brush.

  20. Though I’ve only had a few years of using my supermarket-sourced Japanese saw, I love it in several aspects. It cuts rapidly with a fine kerf. It cuts accurately. Even though it can be steered, little correction seems to be required. I like the firm upright stance it demands of me. Cutting on the pull somehow seems to keep the cutting line straighter for me. The long handle with rattan grip ensures both hands and arms share the work and any control torques comfortably. It is now my crosscut saw of choice. I cut high, holding the workpiece in a large 6 inch metal working vice, which seems to suit the upright stance well. I don’t get back pains. Am I a convert? – yes. I recently shelled out for an Axminster version of the Japanese saw which is double-sided, having both crosscut and ripping teeth, a very convenient space-saving design.

    1. I thought, Andrew, I might comment on this if you don’t mind. This gives me the impression that your saw has lasted you through “a few years of using” it, Andrew, which also suggests then that it may not be a hardpoint, non-sharpenable version. I do doubt that but please correct me if I am wrong. The reason I say this is because, whereas I do accept that any hardpoint saw’s sharpness will outlast a sharpenable point by about five times more, it will not outlast a resharpenable saw’s lifespan of a century and more of daily use, and neither will it cut more efficiently in most cases. You say also that “it cuts accurately.” This is unlikely in any way as no handsaw cuts accurately in and of itself but by the hand and eye of the user who most likely has dextrous hand-eye coordination. What you are really expressing is that you have tried both saw types and now prefer the Asian saws over the western types. I am glad. If I am correct and your saws are the hardpoint, non-resharpenable saws, and you work with wood part-time, an hour or two a week, maybe more, but not full time, if that be the case I would indeed expect your saw last a number of years – it will and it should. However, this in no way compares to using a resharpenable handsaw for multiple decades of full-time use, I think. We are not really comparing apples for apples. Just my thoughts.

  21. I thought of you yesterday Paul . I was watching a house rebuild program filmed in the north of Scotland. The chap risking his mortgage and sanity to renovate a big ruin was seen close up sawing a plastic window sill moulding with a really rusty saw . Not an old one. It was a modern hard point with the name printed on the plate . If you could mention to the makers that the name printed on the saws drags on the wood. It makes the work harder .Before the name has worn off the saw has gone blunt. Wire wool seems the a good way to remove these names . I like to use a rotary pink fibre brush with abrasives now. The fibres do not make sparks .
    Almost an Icelandic saw saga . That`s topical .

  22. I have just purchased my very first saw file and will be trying to sharpen my Nash Tysack dovetail saw and Brades Nash Tysack tenon saw.
    Sadly I don’t think even these old timers could help me cut a straight line.

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