These are my observations about learning to sharpen handsaws, along with some reminiscing about years gone by. I will say at the outset that I consider myself a beginning handsaw filer. I still fall short of what I would call an accomplished filer, and I’m certainly no expert. As I’m still in learning mode, these observations are not intended to be instructional. Perhaps, however, my observations will be helpful, or at least interesting, to other beginners. I doubt that experienced handsaw filers will find anything new here, other than my personal history.
When I was growing up, my father was a trim carpenter, and he operated a saw sharpening service in his home shop as a sideline business. His hobby and passion, however, was building fine stringed musical instruments. As years went on, the musical instruments gradually became a full time job, and he still did saw sharpening on the side. I grew up in Dad’s shop, working on an endless succession of projects nearly every day of my youth. This afforded me a unique opportunity to learn from a master.
When I was a small child, Dad sharpened saws by hand. Perfectionist that he was, he soon developed a reputation as the best saw filer in the area. In that area (eastern Virginia) in the post-WWII period, construction was booming, and the volume of saws brought to Dad for sharpening soon became overwhelming. He had no choice but to go to saw filing machines. I can still remember Mom being mad when he bought the Foley automatic handsaw sharpener. She thought it was a waste of money and would never pay for itself. He completely wore out that machine and eventually bought another. He also had an automatic retoother and a power setter. For circular saws he had a grinding machine set up for jointing and gumming. These saws were then hand sharpened with round-edged flat files. I cannot tell you how many thousands of saws of all types I have watched him sharpen.
When I reached my high school years, Dad farmed out sharpening the circular saws to me. That was in the days before carbide saws. I believe he did that partly due to the large volume of saws he was processing, as well as to give me an opportunity to earn some money of my own. He gave me a little instruction and then turned me loose. By then, after years of growing up in his shop, I was very accomplished at working with my hands. Learning to sharpen circular saws was not a problem. I sharpened many hundreds of saws over the next few years and became a very proficient circular saw filer. I know what a sharp, well-shaped tooth looks like. I am no stranger to the feel of file on steel. Regrettably, however, Dad never taught me to sharpen handsaws. He kept that to himself. I grew up thinking in my youthful mind that there was some mystery about sharpening handsaws. I viewed it as some complex, secret process that could only be trusted to a true master of the craft.
I became an adult, left home, and started a family of my own. I’ve enjoyed woodworking all my life, and handsaws have always been a part of that. When my saws got dull, I would periodically take them home to Dad and have him sharpen them for me. But Dad has been gone for a number of years now, and my saws are dull. Additionally, since I retired and built myself a new shop to pursue my woodworking hobby in, I’ve been picking up some vintage tools here and there to restore and put to work. Some of these have been handsaws, and some of these saws have been very poorly sharpened in the past. I faced a dilemma. Should I find a sharpening service and have them put my saws in order? As best as I can recall, Dad charged $3 for sharpening a handsaw when he started, and that went up to $5 at some point, and perhaps even to $7.50 near the end. To have a saw retoothed, set, and sharpened today could cost 10 times that much. Multiply that by the number of saws I own and – well let’s just say my retirement could be in jeopardy. Alternatively, I could bite the bullet and learn to sharpen handsaws myself. I opted for the latter.
In my limited experience, I’ve found that three things are necessary to become a successful handsaw filer: the proper tools, knowledge of proper technique, and patience. Actually there’s a fourth thing – practice – but that’s a close cousin to patience. You can acquire tools and knowledge from others. The patience and drive to practice have to come from within yourself.
The first step for me was to get some instruction. Fortunately, there are many good sources of saw sharpening instruction available on the internet. The one I started with was Saw Filing – A Beginner’s Primer at vintagesaws.com. Brit (Andy) at Lumberjocks.com also produced an excellent video that is one of the more comprehensive instructional sources I’ve seen. It is especially nice for visual learners, and Andy has very good teaching skills.
It is not my intention here to recommend anything. Rather, I am simply sharing what I am currently using. I reserve the right to change tools if I find I need to after gaining more experience.
After looking at saw vises on ebay for awhile, I decided to make my own. It is constructed from ¾” birch plywood and is 24” long. It works great for most saws, but if I were doing it over I would make it 28” long to better hold the longest saws. I clamp it in my bench vise and I hold the two hinged sides together with C-clamps. It was cheap to build and I think it works as well as any commercial vise you could buy.
For files, I am using a small cache of triangular files in an assortment of tapered sizes that I retrieved from my Dad’s shop after his death. I have some old USA made Nicholsons, some Simonds, some made in Switzerland, in Austria, and in Finland. They will run out soon, and I dread that day because I understand that it has become much more difficult and expensive to find quality files since U.S manufacturers farmed their business out to Mexico, Brazil, and India.
I purchased two used saw sets on ebay for a total of $10. They are a gold and a blue Somax (one for large teeth and one for small), and they seem to work just fine. The only drawback I’ve noticed is that the anvils are a softer metal that tends to disfigure over time. That’s not been a major problem for me so far. I’d like to have a Stanley 42X, but then you’re talking real money.
I have made my own rake and fleam gauges out of blocks of wood as several sources suggest, and this works fine for me. Interestingly, when my Dad was sharpening saws by hand, I don’t recall him ever using any type of gauge. He simply went by sight alone, and his saws were sharpened as expertly as human hands could produce. They had to be, or his business would have suffered. Being an ardent perfectionist, he would have accepted no less. But then, he was expert at sharpening every type of cutting tool, from chisel to chainsaw, to a razor sharp edge.
For jointing saws, I simply use a flat file. I have no holder of any sort, although I don’t think that would be a bad idea. I’ve just not found the need so far. My Dad used only a bare file as well, and that worked for him. Interestingly though, he always broke the tang off the files he used for jointing. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he felt the tang held the back end of the file up off the teeth, or perhaps the tang hit the handle on some saws. Maybe someone who reads this will know why and let me know.
At my current age of 64, my eyesight ain’t what she used to be. This could be a problem. I’ve compensated for the problem by wearing reading glasses and using what I’ve found to be one of the handiest tools in my shop. It’s a Harbor Freight magnifying lamp on a moveable arm. Sometimes I use the magnifier and sometimes I just use the light, but it is nearly indispensable when filing a saw.
I never realized how important jointing was until I started filing handsaws myself. It is critical. It is the base upon which all subsequent steps are built. There’s not much to it, really, but it’s very important that it be done. Looking at some of the handsaws I’ve acquired recently, it is apparent that not everyone understands this. Some of these saws have had toothlines so far out of line that they could hardly be called lines at all. Arcs or random meanderings would be more descriptive. I’ve had to remove up to half an inch of metal on a few of these saws just to straighten the toothline out. That would be a lot of filing, but I’ve found a better way. I scribe a straight line on the saw with straightedge and Sharpie pen, and then I use an angle grinder to remove metal down to the line. One must be careful to not get the plate too hot. Grind a little and then do something else while the saw cools. Then come back and grind a little more. After grinding, it’s quick work with a flat file to apply the final touches.
One thing I’ve noticed about the second-hand saws I’ve bought is that they nearly all are over-set. This makes sawing harder and leaves a rough kerf. Taper ground saws don’t need much set to work well. I’ve experimented with removing set by lightly tapping the teeth with a ball peen hammer as the saw rested on a solid steel backing. I’m unsure at this point how well that works. It’s much easier to add more set if needed than to remove too much set.
Rake and Fleam
Andy said something in his instructional video that I really appreciated. “I’m a simple man, and I like to keep my saw filing simple.” Amen. I’m all for simple. Complexity seems to be in vogue today, what with combination filing, sloped gullets, graduated pitch, and weird rake and fleam angle combinations. I may begin to experiment as I gain more experience, but for right now I’m keeping it simple by using the same rake and fleam on all my saws. My choice was taken from a graphic in Saw Filing – A Beginner’s Primer. I use 8° rake on ripsaws and 15° rake and 25° fleam on crosscuts. At this time and place, that works for me because my saws cut up to my expectations. If you prefer other angles, that’s great – go for it.
Perhaps it was my early experience filing circular saws; perhaps it is my nearly 6 decades of experience working with hand tools; but filing handsaws isn’t as difficult as I perceived it to be. Like I said in the beginning, I’m still learning, and I’m not an accomplished filer yet. But I’ll get there soon. You can too. Frankly, I’ve taken some saws in horrible shape, and fairly rapidly and with more ease than I expected, I’ve put them in good condition and sawing great. That’s pretty good for a beginner. It’s all about those three things – knowledge, tools, and patience. Oh yes, and don’t forget practice. Arm yourself with those and you’ll become a proficient handsaw filer. Then take pride in that accomplishment. You’ve developed a useful skill that almost no one else has these days.
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-- Bob, Missoula, MT -- Of all the tools I own, my favorite is a good sharp pocket knife. - My Dad