“It’s a poor workman who blames his tools”                                                                                                                                       Gramps   (Bert Earl Keys)

The first saw that Gramps ever put in my hand was a Disston No. 12, 10 point , Ships pattern crosscut.  I still have that saw and use it frequently, very frequently.  To say that I’m comfortable with handsaws is probably an understatement. As a consequence of my familiarity with these tools, I’m always surprised at how many people are completely uncomfortable with them.  Time and time again, I’ve heard people say “I can’t get the darned thing started” or “I can’t saw a straight line to save my soul”.  Well the truth of the matter is there’s nothing like using a sharp plane and there’s nothing like using a sharp saw.  Which brings me to my first point, sharpness.  New saws right out of the box look great, but they’re probably not nearly as sharp as they could be.  After using one of my saws at demonstrations, countless people will tell me that they simply can’t believe how easy it is to cut hardwood with a really sharp saw.  Filing is the answer.  It’s not that hard to learn and doesn’t require a lot of expensive tooling. All you need is a an appropriate triangular file and a set of “chops” (homemade wooden jaws to hold the saw in your bench vise for filing) or a saw filing vise that can be purchased on ebay for a nominal price (up til about 1950 every self respecting carpenter, millwright, joiner and cabinetmaker sharpened their own saws).  There is a wonderful tutorial on saw filing at Vintage Saws.

The “Grip” and motion

 The best advice that anyone ever gave me about golfing was to hold the club like you would a captive bird, tight enough so it couldn’t fly away but not so tight that it couldn’t breathe.  Same thing with a saw.  Tight enough to control the vertical attitude, not so tight as to produce “writer’s” cramp.

Don’t apply downward pressure!!!  Simply push the saw straight ahead.  Straight ahead and concentrate on keeping the saw at a right angle to the surface you’re cutting.  If you apply downward pressure, the gullets (spaces between the teeth) fill up with sawdust and inhibit the cutting action.  And, of course, while you’re trying to “push” the saw “through” the board with your Herculean effort, you totally loose sight of the fact that you’re supposed to be “steering” the saw.  So, nice and easy!!!  Straight ahead, not down.  It’s like a good golf swing.  Strength has nothing to do with it, it’s all about form.

“Shadowing” for squareness

“I can’t keep it square” (he said tearfully).  Oh yes, you can and it’s very simple!  Look at the illustration below and note how the edge of the board seems to project right through the saw.  The old timers call this shadowing.  If you’re square in both planes the line will appear to be unbroken.  Watch the reflection in your saw, that’s the trick.  Whoops, there I go again giving away trade secrets.  More than once, I recieved that lecture about how “trade secrets are how we make our living, don’t give them away”.


A nice old Atkins 10 pt crosscut - circa 1920 - one of my favorites

Ripping – Use the entire saw

A Rip saw is a big saw.  Plenty of height, plenty of length.  And here’s the point, use the rip saw’s size to your advantage.  Nice easy stroke.  Keep your head steady.  Stroke straight from the shoulder.  No downward pressure, straight ahead and use the whole saw.  (If it binds, there’s every liklihood that you’re bearing down, even if it doesn’t feel like it.)

Ripping with Gramps' No. 12 (bought new in 1913)

Ripping with Gramps' No. 12 (bought new in 1913)

Finishing the stroke

Finishing the stroke


They don’t have to be pretty.  Nobody’s going to be checking their bloodlines.  They just need to be two things: STURDY and the RIGHT HEIGHT.  The correct height for a sawhorse is the distance from the ground to the middle of the sawyer’s knee.  An average height would be around 22″.  Since I’m a little taller than most, mine are 24″.  Gramps, while always able to “pop me a good one” whenever I needed it, was only 5’8″, so his horses seemed awfully short to me.  However, this was a point that I never commented on although on more than one occasion I “tipped” a big rip saw while on the “short horses”.

to the middle of the sawyer's knee (no jokes about skinny legs, please)

to the middle of the sawyer's knee (no jokes about skinny legs, please)

A connection to the past - The wheat pattern handle of my Grandfather's Disston No. 12, London pattern, Silvered Steed, taper ground, 7 pt. rip saw, nib in tact; purchased at the conclusion of his apprenticeship in 1913.  Gramps is always just over my shoulder.

A connection to the past - The wheat pattern handle of my Grandfather's Disston No. 12, London pattern, Silvered Steed, taper ground, 5 pt. rip saw, nib in tact; purchased in 1912-1913. Gramps is always just over my shoulder.

So break out that old saw of yours.  File it up and fall in love with the process of woodworking.  That’s what it’s all about.

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.  Let the rest of your days be spent as one who has whole-heartedly committed his all to the gods, and is thenceforth no man’s master or slave.”                                                                                                                                                                                      Marcus Aurelius

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