Why?

The result of me showing the difference between a newly arrived gents saw and then one touched up with a half stroke from a fine saw file to each gullet met mostly with wonder and hope from 98% of those following to learn and better understand. Then there’s a cluster of bitter retorts and mocking from those, well, in the so-called professional realms be they carpenters or engineers. Thankfully, their influence is small if existent at all. Their negative comments usuallyshow that they missed the whole point. As an example, one engineer focussed on the fact that I returned the saw file for a second pass and should have lifted it off the metal because keeping it engaged damages the file. Whereas this is true, and generally it something I never do, in the case in question I was using an ultra-fine saw file in ultrta-fine saw teeth. To disengage from the gullet meant it would be most unlikely that I would reengage the same gullet for the second pass and would thus make unequal gullets to the teeth. The engineer discounted the lightening of the reverse stroke in readiness for engagement. The saw file would not be damaged in any way.

Now, these are men who at one time would have quite simply stopped work, pulled out a Stubbs or Nicholson saw file and sharpened up the teeth. Unfortunately, for the last maybe 70 years or so, such men seem mostly to no longer exist. Indeed, they no longer even own sharpenable saws but have bought into the and indeed recommend the throwaway consumerist versions: they would rather buy plaso-handled hardpoints in packs of five or even a dozen than take literally a five-minute break with a saw file to quickly restore the saw teeth to new perfection. Now please, please do not tell me that they can’t afford the time to do that because time is money and so on. Most of the working men I see and know and have worked alongside often take time out for a ten-minute chin-wag. And hear this, if you hand sharpen a saw you can still carry on a conversation or plan your next move no problem. Here is another: this commenter said he had, “been a professional carpenter for 60 years and never attempted to sharpen a saw because it had to be done by a professional technician.” That would likely make him roughly the same age as me and saw sharpening was indeed one of the first sharpening tasks I learned from George. And what about this bit too: “Saw sharpening should only be carried out by a trained specialist otherwise you will only ruin a saw.” This is the kind of thing that once undermined those who wanted to learn and master and do things for themselves. I have a couple of friends, software engineers, who attended different courses over a number of years and made beautiful hand planes with dovetailes steel soles and Norris style adjustment for depth of cut and lateral adjustment. It wasn’t that they wanted specialist planes so much as the challenge of making them and to own the knowledge and skills needed to make them. Watching a man build his 4,000 square foot log cabin from the ground up in the middle of nowhere in Texas when he was “just a welder” working for Union Carbide, Houston all his life was another classic when all of the carpenters building a house a couple of miles away were waiting for the cabin to fall down. Three decades later it’s still standing and though he is gone his kids and grandkids are still weekenders there and loving it.

I’m in Israel teaching saw sharpening to a handful of woodworkers. They brought saws to sharpen that were dull and took home saws sharpened to a good and working quality.

In the same way, some men will say of a good woodworker, “And she’s just a girl!“, so too some will say, “And she’s just a software engineer.” or, “And he’s just an accountant.” Just as woodworking is non-gender specific, it’s also available for anyone who wants to take the time to learn it.

I didn’t know I couldn’t draw so I drew. I didn’t know I couldn’t make a cello so I made one. So many things I didn’t know I could do so I did them. I didn’t know I couldn’t write a book so I wrote half a dozen. I didn’t know I couldn’t make two credenzas for the Cabinet Room of the White House so I designed them and built them with men I trained as boys and men so I just did it.

So, thank goodness for us amateur woodworkers and whatever else we are. Like me, everyone has a lot to offer the craft and we have replaced most of the so-called professionals to carry the craft forward. Thank goodness some of us want a handsaw or a tenon saw we can own for a hundred years simply by learning to sharpen and set them. Thank goodness I can now safely say that the craft and art of saw sharpening, a cultural craft 300 hundred years old to date, is now safe and sound in the hands of those who will take the baton from me and pass it on for generations of amateur woodworkers yet to come and worldwide. This is a true success for the work we at Rokesmith do. It may only be a tiny percentage, but it is a cog in self-sufficient and sustainable and responsible crafting. Reversing the trend of buying disposable pull-stroke saws and western hardpoint push-stroke saws is as yet incomplete. Still, thankfully we can take dominion where we can and the more opposition I get from professionals in every sphere the more I can measure the success of the work we do.

It goes without saying, there is a large percentage in the carpenter’s fraternity who don’t diss the work we do and both learn from our efforts and contribute to it. Hopefully, we can keep on encouraging people to gain mastery. First efforts are the first steps. Rhythms of working, measured strokes, pressures of even measure, things like this, take time to establish, but fear should always be questioned and then challenged and the best way to challenge fear is to simply do what is needed.

33 thoughts on “Why?”

  1. Fabulous websites and material you publish for free Paul and team. I’m a civil and structural engineer nearing retirement. I took up woodwork a couple of months ago and initially followed advice I found from some very well presented Youtubers. I then found you. It is night and day difference to the positive and I have now unsubcribed all except your content . Your philosophy resonates deeply with growing concerns I have had over the past five decades in industry but which I’m unable to articulate as you do.
    You critique and analyse as a scientist balanced with a clear love of the artistry and the magic of crafting the wonderful organic stuff we call wood. Preservation of these dying skills is part of the bigger picture of creating a more sustainable society – this gives me hope and happiness. Thank you.

    1. I was exactly the same as you, Karl. And then I found Paul’s content.

      It has literally changed my life for the better.

      Thank you, Paul.

  2. Paulo Moura Guedes

    Ditto Karl.
    Paul is the only one I know that uses hand tools to get real things done, not just for teaching or fancy videos.
    I’m a Software Engineer and had zero experience with woodworking. I’m so grateful to Paul for seeing what is possible to achieve with such a simple and beautiful approach, that actually makes you feel better.
    I started of course with machines and following other youtubers. I had always the feeling I was limited by the machines. The kind of equipment and jigs I had to have was proportional to what I could do, so at one point I lost interest in it. All that noise, respirator, hear protection, dust extraction systems also contributed…
    Then I started to see hand tool advocates that actually used machines for the real projects. This is even worse that critics cause it makes one think hand tools are too slow or impractical.
    So what Paul did and is still doing was absolutely needed and we couldDitto.
    Paul is the only one I know that really uses this hand tools to get real thinks done, not just for teaching or fancy videos.
    I’m a Software Engineer and had zero experience with woodworking. I’m so grateful to Paul for seeing what is possible to achieve with such a simple and beautiful approach, that actually makes you feel better.
    I started of course with machines and following other youtubers and I had always the feeling the I was limited by the machines. The kind of equipment and jigs I had to have was proportional to what I could do, so at one point I lost interest in it. All that noise, respirator, hear protection, dust extraction systems…
    Then I started to see hand tool advocates that actually used machines for the real projects. This is even worse that critics cause it make one think hand tools are too slow or unpractical.
    So what Paul did and is still doing was absolutely needed and we could very well say he single-handedly saved this craft from dying.
    Above all, thanks for the beauty you put in everything.

  3. “I didn’t know I couldn’t draw so I drew.
    I didn’t know I couldn’t make a cello so I made one.
    So many things I didn’t know I could do so I did them.
    I didn’t know I couldn’t write a book so I wrote half a dozen.
    I didn’t know I couldn’t make two credenzas for the Cabinet Room of the White House so I designed them and built them with men I trained as boys and men so I just did it.”

    This too is a beautiful poem

  4. I’m just a software engineer. I didn’t know I couldn’t make a 1/4 scale leaning wall shelf for my wife’s knick-knacks, so I made one.

    For someone, anyone, regardless of their credentials, to say it takes a professional technician to sharpen saw is just asinine. I didn’t know I couldn’t sharpen a saw, so I absorbed wisdom from the videos of a true master and did it … and continue to do it regularly.

    Thank goodness for you, Paul. You have changed my life for the better, and I’m sure countless others.

  5. I am also a software engineer. 😄 It seems to be a pattern for those of us that are “technical builders” to channel that creative energy into woodworking. It satisfies so much of our natural abilities (problem-solving, creativity, patience, persistence) but we get the added joy of the physical, tactile nature of wood.

    Thanks for the article, Paul.

    1. I’ve noticed the same pattern. Woodworking is a great creative outlet for those times we’re not channeling it into our day jobs … or soon-to-be prior careers, depending on your age. 🙂 Woodworking has always been an interest of mine, but I’ve never *really* enjoyed it until discovering Paul several years ago and selling all my power tools shortly thereafter.

  6. Paul,
    I have a hardened tooth pruning saw that I bought years ago purposely for cutting brush that sometimes had dirt and pebbles in it. Before I spend the money on one, can I sharpen it with diamond paddles?

    1. The hardened teeth can just be removed once they are dull- use a belt sander. Once the teeth are removed follow Paul’s sharpening video on making new teeth!
      Sharpen normally as needed.

  7. Saw sharpening, for me, is not easy. In fact, I’ve been working with hand tool for three years now and tried to sharpen my saws many time. I always end up with uneven teeth and don’t have a clue on how to repair the damage I’ve done. But, surprisingly, the saw works fine. The problem, is in the long run I’m ruining my saw and I would love to find someone who can teach me one on one. Where I live, no such soul still exist. Maybe with perseverance I will find a way. It would probably make a good “short” on YouTube to show how to tackle uneven teeth or some insight? Thank you for everything you do!

  8. Hahaha reminds me of the whole “Japanese saws can’t be resharpened” thing that sometimes discounts the lovely handmade ones and occasional factory saws without any tooth hardening. Luckily there are diamond covered feather files for the hardened ones. A bit pricey at $16 for the ones you can get on Amazon, but I’ll take it for not having to buy a new blade that’s the same size as the current one on my ryoba. Still trying to get the sharpening rhythm right for both the ryoba and my little 8 inch western dovetail saw. But progress!

  9. I often think the idea that pulling a file back over the work damages it is somewhat like the idea that a plane should be laid on its side on the bench. but in this case it is not understanding what material you are filing and what you are trying to do (you won’t damage a file much on aluminium) and what else happens when you draw back (debris damaging surface finish). the worst damage you can do to a file is what many end up doing (including me) and that is storing them next to each other. nothing damages a file more than another file!

  10. The “sharpen the saw yourself” vs “send it to a professional sharpener” is really quite an old debate. The “Joiner and Cabinet Maker” glancingly touches on it in ca. 1839. Other debates include how perfectly the set of the teeth must be, or if some imperfection helps the cut. My experience with “professional saw sharpeners” – we do have shop here in town amazingly – is that the operator makes an immense difference, and the sharpening machine plus operator can produce a saw where every tooth is very sharp, but the cut quality is terrible. That shop uses sharpening machines that are older than Adam. Under magnification the teeth display wire edges. The cut can also persistently want to turn left or right. All that needs to cleaned up and corrected once you get the saw home anyway. So unless a saw needs essentially a new set of teeth, I have learned to sharpen my saws by hand. My feeling listening to arguments about what is the “right way,” is that unless what is said makes sense, then there’s no point in listening, and “making sense” has a personal component of what feels right to you personally. There are also individual limits on the perfectability of personal practice.

  11. “…never attempted to sharpen a saw because it had to be done by a professional technician.” – this approach creates something unknown between the user and the tool. I can accept this for a complicated system or device (not willingly, I must say; I do what I can to understand it as much as possible). But a tool!? A hand tool which I use!?

    I own three Spear & Jackson saws: rip cut, cross cut, tenon. I really own them! The handles, I have reshaped them. The blades, I took away the laquer stamp with some solvent and steel wool. They run so smoothly with a touch of oil. The teeth, I reshape and sharpen them, I set them, I know them one by one. And when I take these saws and make a cut, in a way they become transparent. It feels like cutting the wood with my thoughts. I don’t see the saws, just the kerf that develops the way I want. I push the saw and I know what every little tooth is doing. That saw is an extention of my hand. My tool is something I know and I use it to its optimal capacity. My tool is not an obstacle, an unknown thing that stands between me and my work.

    Maybe the most important thing I have learned from Paul is the freedom of hand tool working (woodworking in our case, but then it extends to other fields). There is a philosophical aspect to it that is quite important! His best video: Restoring the Bench Plane. It gives you total freedom! The same is true for the saws sharpening videos. The saw becomes yours!

  12. Just acquired an 8” S&J back saw, made in the early 50’s.
    Had just concluded the purchase on ebay when received news that HM Queen Elizabeth 2 had died.
    When it gets here I will engrave her initials in it, as it spanned her reign in a way.
    Looking forward to its long reign.

    Jeff

  13. Paul, one of my earliest memories is my grandfather, a lifelong carpenter, sharpening his crosscut handsaw in his dirt floor basement. This is something he did regularly and took it in such stride that he never thought it was something he had to teach. Using throw-away saws are such a waste of materials and the energy to make them. Sending saws out to be sharpened means you need probably three times the number of saws to keep your work going without interruption. Admittedly, it does take some training, learning, practicing to sharpen your saws well, but then once learned it is simply another tool in your kit. Thanks for promoting and teaching that skill!

  14. Quite funny.
    I grew up thinking that you needed a ‘saw doctor’ to sharpen a saw. Doubtless in industrial settings of some sort there are such people.. Was stunned a few years ago seeing Paul showing how to sharpen a saw. At the time (I had just got a house with a garage for the first time in my life)I had a workmate bench and a few second hand rusty tools, including a saw that rubbed the wood ;). So I tried it with a rusty triangle file and as we know, it worked more than adequately. Have gone on to make a proper bench, few coffee tables and side tables (pallet wood..). Have always made model planes and boats so hand working was not completely foreign.

  15. I’m a carpenter, I guess of medium experience, 8 years or so. Sadly I feel embarrassed but many people I have worked with. Many can not use a hand saw let alone sharpen one. Chisels are a rare sight to see. Mine are the only set at my current workplace. I have also worked with someone who keeps two sets of chisels. One older for rough work and the new for special occasions. He can’t sharpen them so when the special set become dull they are replaced with new and then downgraded. Recently I saw a guy go for a trip the the builders merchants to buy thinner woodscrews (we were putting up stud walls, nail gun was broken again and heaven forbid nailing by hand!!) . The screws we had were 80×6 or something and he was driving them in with an impact driver and they were splitting the wood. I offered him a drill to pilot the holes and he said ‘no I’ll just get thinner screws, we have loads to do and they don’t split the wood’.

    I also blame the materials we have to work with. You cannot cut laminate kitchen pannels with hand tools without it chipping and ruining at least one side of it. The solution – spend a small fortune on a tracksaw. I now live and work in Finland and the art of hanging a door has been lost. Almost all doors are the same pattern, totally symmetrical. Can be flipped to become left or right handed. Same with the frames. They have been designed so the tolerances are so loose that they are impossible to get wrong. Hinges and locks are of course prefitted. The job of hanging a door has been removed so the skill is lost with it.

    This is how skills are lost as I see it. Not just laziness of the workers (sometimes valid, sometimes not) but materials we work with have changed (cheapened) to suit the market. I do handtool woodworking separate to my work as I find it far more engaging.

    1. The part about the chisels is pretty amazing. I imagine the “older” chisels got downgraded further to the chisel box, or worse, the trashcan after they get replaced with the dull “special” ones. In some ways, that explains the occasional plastic box full of totally dull (I’m talking all crumbled and rounded edges) chisels I sometimes see at estate or yard sales. Amazing what you can find in them.

  16. Paul, a good response, thank you! 1971 saw me start in a traditional, family-run joiners shop, Friday afternoons were always the time to ‘touch up’ our saws at the bench. Woe betide anyone with a dull saw on Monday! Hard but formative days, for which I’m still thankful!

  17. I sharpened my tenon saws to a rip cut pattern, as Paul advises (I know he has a cross-cut tutorial too). But I’ve ended up making large gates and entrance doors so I’m usually cross-cutting 4x2s. It’s ok when cutting the tenon shoulders, but I find the saw freezes in the cut when I’m trying to make a dead-square cut all the way through (eg when trying to make an accurate cut for the braces in a ledged and braced door). Are the 4x2s just too big for a rip cut pattern? Did I take too much set off? Is it just me? Should I have a tenon saw with a cross-cut pattern? Or should I be using my big S&J handsaw (‘panel’ saw?) and a shooting board? Advice from all welcome.

  18. “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” John Lydgate
    Keep up the wonderful work Paul, it’s inspiring and very helpful for amateurs, hobbyists, and professionals alike. Personally I like your approach and teaching style and wish I had the opportunity to be your apprentice. Thanks.

  19. your right paul. i have been a woodworker for over forty years and are the same age as you. a lot of people tell me why make it when you can buy it. They just don’t get it or maybe it is me but the satisfaction and accomplishment you receive from doing a project is so fulfilling. Everyone in this world has to have a reason for being here and to make your life a purpose and what ever you do just do something that someone will remember and can appreciate your life on this earth.

  20. I am an old fashion aircraft engineer who actually carried out metal repairs to airframes. Nobody ever told me not to drag the file back across the metal. All those old fighters and bombers flying around and I haven’t repaired them right – oh dear.

  21. Mr. Sellers,
    Yes it is remarkable what one is capable of, if (with suitable safety precautions), one ignores the nay sayers, thinks it through, looks at what has on gone before, refines it in the mind’s eye (also on paper, if necessary) and then goes ahead and takes the plunge.

    One of the things we, as a society, do not teach our children these days, is that failure is a part of learning and that, as our skills grow, our “Mistakes” become fewer and less obvious as we learn how to “Fix” them, sometimes “On the fly”, as it were. (It’s why musicians, as they get better, have “Expressive Dissonance” and not “Clinkers” when they play.

  22. As a former carpenter and current civil engineer, I found this funny. Not wrong but funny. I was like “what did I do to make Paul so angry?”.

    When I was young carpenter I always looked down on woodworking as a hobby for the affluent. At this point though I just see the hand tool thing as a way to spend time with my kids.

    Thanks for all the helpful content.

    1. Matt, thank you. I realised that in recent years carpentry associated with construction splits into specialist areas these days whereas up until say the 70s a carpenter covered all the bases with an expectation from an employer that that was the case. Up until then many skills attributed to the carpenter were of significant importance and dare I say taken for granted. Not really so in general today. Unfortunately, carpentry is seen t title all areas of woodwork but this can no longer be accepted. In some cultures, South America, parts of Europe other continents too, carpentry is the catchall term and title for say carvers and woodturners, furniture makers and joiners. This credits all carpenters with more skill than they actually have when a percentage only have the higher levels I would consider qualifying of a carpenter. Unfortunately, the decline seems to be more obvious through the generations with the lesser abilities being in the subsequent generations. In my personal experience of knowing many a dozen carpenters of various skill and knowledge levels through the years, I have witnessed this general decline in both skill and knowledge levels and it is troubling. Of course, I see this in my own craft of cabinet and furniture making too, hence my working to protect and preserve the culture of western furniture making in the lives of those I consider the ones who care most about woodworking in general, that is the amateur. I consider myself an amateur and not a professional. I do it for the love of it and so do many professional carpenters around the world. Santanadrds dropped when colleges and educationalists replaced or displaced the mentoring of a master with an apprentice and stood as the qualifying bodies.

  23. Vidar Fagerjord Harboe

    Funny thing is that pulling the file backwards does not impact the file in any significant way. I saw a test of this premise somewhere (I cannot for the life of me remember where or who, but it was probably on Youtube as is often the case).
    It does have an effect, but we are talking tens of thousands of file strokes. Compared to what we gain from having the file engaged all the time, the negative effects are insignificant.
    It is like dragging a hand plane backwards when planing. It might have a negative impact on the sharpness (although that one is up for debate), but one has to consider all aspects. I might have to sharpen up one more time when I drag the plane, but the energy spent on that compared to lifting even the light and nimble no.4 every stroke? “From all those atoms, an entire mountain is built!”

    I find that a great deal of people that are really, really smart are pretty narrow minded sometimes – or perhaps just narrow sighted? I am Norwegian, so I don’t always know the correct way to say things in English. What I mean is that they focus on the tiny details and misses the broader picture. Sure, you should lift the file in order to reduce wear. On a really tiny scale, this is true, but with a bit of perspective things change.
    Then there is something to be considered about clearing the cuttings out from the gullets in the file…. Oh, well. 🙂

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