So the other day we had this storm come through that I thought might actually break some windows. I was down in my subterranean shop working, when one of the cats came scuttling down the stairs and disappeared around the corner. That’s never a good sign, is it, when the wildlife vanishes. I had only a few moments to ponder this odd behavior before debris began hitting the house and everything shuddered. Then came the faint wail of the tornado siren. It was like being on a movie set—“Release the frightened animal! Storm! Siren! Action!” I obeyed my cue to action and went upstairs. I couldn’t believe it. The last time I’d been upstairs it was sunny out, but now it looked like a scene penned by Bram Stoker. Horizontal rain. Stuff flying everywhere. The windows creaked and the lights flickered. Hmm. What to do? What to do? Grab a putter and run outside like the priest from Caddyshack? No. I don’t golf. And besides, isn’t a captain supposed to go down with his ship? Maybe I should don a Gorton’s Fisherman rain slicker and grimly head for the wheelhouse. That would have been the stoic thing to do. But I don’t own one of those sweet rain slickers. So I did the next best thing—I slipped a small flashlight into my pocket and went back downstairs. I figured I might as well just keep working until the power went out. But to my surprise, try as it might, the power never stayed out. And after awhile, not only did the thunderstorm subside, but the finishing touches I was putting on this handle came to an end as well. And all of the woodland creatures reemerged from wherever they’d been hiding—an ending that Bram Stoker would have never seen coming.
Sucking in radon and making saws takes a lot of concentration. It’s nice to have a shop notebook handy where I can write things down so I don’t have to think about them anymore. I do this all of the time. It helps me focus on my work without either forgetting whatever it was that was worth writing down.
The shop notebook isn’t always the place where the most important things get written down—I don’t need to write that stuff down. That stuff gets written straight into the saws. But even so, and perhaps for that very reason, the notebook has a unique proximity to my work—not the most important stuff, but indispensable stuff. New ideas, sketches, problems and how I solved them, nitty gritty details about more peripheral things I don’t have occasion to make every day.
I can’t imagine that anyone who spends a significant amount of time in their shop wouldn’t benefit from keeping a notebook around. It’s amazing how clearly you can focus on your work when you have someplace to unload your thoughts.
A really huge difference between me and the old makers is that I work the way I do by choice; they worked the way they did because that was the only way to work. It was work. If they’d had access to cell phones and CNC capability they probably would have torn off their puffy shirts and run around yelling, “Goooooaaaaaaaaaaal!” Big breath. “Gooooooooaaaaaaaal!”
Which isn’t to say they didn’t care about their work; guys using CNC today care about their work. But the reality is that most of the Western saw tradition is in fact that of production saw making. The West doesn’t really have an artisan saw tradition like the East does. Which is too bad. Because Western saws are fascinating and subtle tools that lend themselves to just the sorts of refinements that are best rendered by careful individual work. They’re capable of holding and responding to those refinements not unlike how boxwood is capable of holding fine details when it is carved.
When you point out that you use hand tools you risk people thinking that you’re being kind of ideological about it. Nevermind that I use machines for some things too. Ideology isn’t what interests me—I work the way I do because it’s such a powerful exploratory and creative tool. It agrees with me for that reason. It allows me to work at the resolution I want to. Here are a few pictures of my old school CNC—some of it anyway.
I think there’s a lot of potential for saws to be refined in the Western tradition. There are a lot of nice saws being made these days. Nicer than have been made in a long, long time. But the thing is that Western saws have pretty much always been production tools. There will always be a home for good production saws. It seems to me the really interesting frontier for Western saws is in the artisanal direction, just the opposite trend that you’d see with something that started out artisanal and that was subsequently productionized.
It’s like sometimes you have to go backwards in order to go forwards.
Saturday nights, homemade pizza is a big deal around here. I make no claims to being any kind of chef, but it usually falls to me to be the architect of these things. My wife is a vegetarian, and I’m not, so my side of the pizza looks like something was sacrificed on it, and hers looks like a still life from the farmer’s market. We just pretend that none of the poison from her side will run over on to my side. We’re good with that.
From week to week no two pizzas are ever exactly alike. Some pizzas turn out better than others, and over the years we’ve had our favorites. We’ve also had the occasional dog, usually pizzas with some untested idea behind them, like the time we went to make a Mexican pizza and wound up mixing in too many Italian ingredients with the Mexican ingredients. It was like eating Taco Bell in your car and crashing into a Donatos. Just a bad scene all the way around.
I don’t measure a lot of things when I cook. Most weeks the smoke alarm goes off almost simultaneously as I open the oven to remove the pie, which of course makes me look like I use it as a timer. But tonight something really unbelievable happened.
I opened the oven door to take a peek. “Holy $%@#!”
“I think it’s perfect.”
“I think it might be.” To my utter astonishment—see, I’m not real anal and won’t just camp outside the oven door while the pie bakes—I seemed to have opened the door at the exact moment when the pie was at the peak of perfection. The cheese, the crust, the dead animals on my side, the vegetables on her side, it was actually a little mesmerizing. Like opening your oven to learn that the planets have just aligned a particular way—you expect to just look in and see a pizza, but instead find something kind of weird and cosmic. A moment sooner or later and I’m not sure it would have been the same.
I pulled it out and looked at it up close. It was so perfectly suspended between overdone and underdone, it was like you could look at it and easily imagine these other possibilities, kind of like some sort of hologram. I set it down on top of the stove. My wife walks in.
“Oh my god that is perfect.”
“Yeah.” I was still kind of freaked out. Then it hit me. “It’ll never happen again.”
The perfect pizza. Perfect in every way. Delivered like a cosmic mandala into the portal of our oven. But the eeriest part of all? The smoke alarm didn’t go off.
How many times have you heard it said that sharpening a saw is easy? Or worse, that it’s no harder than sharpening a chisel or plane iron? Now, show of hands, how many of you believe that? Yeah, I didn’t think so. I don’t believe it either.
I tend to think that saw sharpening is challenging enough that once you get it you feel as though you’ve accomplished something. It’s neither the hardest nor easiest thing you’ll ever do. Lots of people try it and have trouble. I remember when I first learned to do it I started out like everyone else following all of the steps you are supposed to follow—it didn’t take long for me to realize that some of what I was doing seemed downright unnecessary. So I started to think it all through for myself from scratch, and what I wound up with is a method for sharpening saws that I use to this day. I’m willing to bet that if I showed you how I do it, even if you’ve never been able to do it before you could get it.
Probably most of you already know what Occam’s razor is, but here it is quickly anyway—it’s the idea that given two explanation for something, the simpler of the two should be preferred. That’s basically all I did with saw sharpening. Gave it a close shave with Occam’s razor. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me—when was the last time you saw everyone in woodworking agree about something? I don’t either think the other way of sharpening saws is wrong—that would be foolish; it obviously works and serves many people well. I guess my larger point is simply that I don’t think there is just one right way to do it.
There are a number of smaller differences in what I do, but the biggest and most obvious one is that I file from just one side of the saw. I don’t file half of the teeth then flip the saw around to file the remaining teeth. That works, but I think it is needlessly convoluted for most filing. The only filing for which flipping the saw around is actually necessary is for sloped gullets, but I don’t think sloped gullets are worth doing most of the time anyway. In dry hardwoods, which is mostly what people are cutting, I think what people really need are simply very sharp and well tuned saws.
The thinking behind filing half the teeth then flipping the saw around is that by doing so you equalize any errors. However that isn’t really what happens—that would only be the case if you did the same thing to the saw from both sides. But in reality you don’t do the same thing to the saw once it’s flipped around. Things change. You rotate your file to assume the proper rake angle while now filing with the teeth facing the other direction. On paper you are using the same rake angle, but in practice you are in fact introducing more physical manipulations of the file and more chances for inconsistency and error. It seemed to me that you could skip this whole rigmarole and simply file every gullet while maintaining a single physical rake orientation for the file.
Working this way gives you a big advantage. When shaping teeth you can work directly on any tooth and in any gullet you wish that you see needs adjusted–you don’t have to save any until you flip the saw around. You are freed up to pay attention to the things that are really important when sharpening a saw—you aren’t observing any longer what needs to happen from which side of the saw.
I find working this way remarkably accurate. It just doesn’t involve the usual acrobatics of saw sharpening as it’s come to be practiced. I think the received wisdom on the topic is something that sounds so compelling when you hear it, people haven’t really questioned it. But I do think there is some precedent for sharpening saws the way I do—if you read the passages on saws in Moxon, it seems pretty clear that he’s describing a saw being sharpened by filing in every single gullet—he says it pretty clearly actually. He describes filing one tooth then says to file all the rest—no skipped gullets. When he writes about setting teeth, then, he does describe skipping gullets. So I think he writes just exactly what he means. I think the more interesting question would be why people ever started flipping saws around to begin with?
There are of course objections people could raise, so let me address them. What about the burr created by filing? If you file from just one side, it will be all on one side of the saw—won’t that affect how the saw cuts? Not in my experience, no. Not at all. It’s something that sounds good on paper but that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in practice. Saw sharpening is full of stuff like that—a theoretician’s cornucopia. If you are creating burrs that big and intrusive when you file there’s either something wrong with your file, or how you’re filing, or with the steel you’re filing.
Another item like that deals with filing into teeth set toward you vs. filing teeth set away from you. Won’t the ones set away from you get sharper than the ones set toward you, as the steel will cut more smoothly on the ones set away from you? Again, no, not in practice. Maybe under an electron microscope, who knows. But in practice it doesn’t matter at all. What about big and little tooth? Won’t you be constantly struggling to keep the teeth set toward you the same size as the ones set away from you? Not really. You have direct control the whole time over the size of the teeth—you simply remove metal where it is needed and don’t remove it where it’s not needed. It’s very direct and intuitive.
What about crosscut teeth? Do you file them from one side too? Sure. If you were to flip a saw around you’d file fleam in from opposite directions anyway—there’s still less muss and fuss when you don’t flip the saw. You just keep the same rake angle and only change your fleam angle—the back of one tooth is the front of the other on the opposite side of the saw. It’s the same geometry, just filed in from one side of the saw, not from two.
What about tiny errors in tilting your file? Those would cancel each other out by flipping the saw around? Sure they would, if your errors were actually just a single consistent error repeated over and over again the whole time. Good luck being that consistent with your errors. There’s no such thing as filing that doesn’t involve errors. Tiny random errors don’t adversely affect anything. I think this is another case of theory and practice not matching—nobody is perfect, nobody. Our errors aren’t even perfect errors. I think we imagine our errors are more consistent somehow than they are. If we did have some consistently noticeable tick in how we filed that was bad enough that it adversely affected the saw and made it pull to one side or something like that, don’t you think you’d be better served fixing your filing technique? It would take an error of that visibility and magnitude to cause a problem—the normal random sorts of stuff that happens, it doesn’t matter which side of the saw it happens from.
So what do you think? Anybody want to learn to sharpen saws? It works. I promise.
I just want to say thanks to Lie-Nielsen and Popular Woodworking Magazine for putting on such a nice show this last weekend. Having John Economaki there, with Kevin Drake, as well as the guys from SAPFM, it would have been worth going even if I hadn’t been showing my own tools. A big thanks as well to all of you who came from near or far to make the show such a nice time. Here are a few pics from the show.
If you’ll be in the area this weekend stop by the LN event at the Popular Woodworking offices in Cincinnati. Lie-Nielsen puts on these events, and they very kindly invite other tool makers to join them and show their own wares. If you’ve never been to one of these events before, don’t be surprised if you see all of that LN bronze, brass, and steel in one place for the first time and have to take a knee or ask for a glass of water. You might even want to bring an extra pair of shorts to play it safe.
At this event I’ll be there along with John Economaki from Bridge City Tools, Kevin Drake from Glen-Drake Toolworks, members of SAPFM, and of course the staff of Popular Woodworking Magazine. Any one of these attractions would be worth going to see if it was the only one there, so to have it all going on at the same time is pretty neat.
I’ll have with me maybe half a dozen demo saws that people are welcome to try out. It will be very laid back—just me at a bench with my saws. Stop by and check them out up close. I’ll answer any questions anybody has and otherwise will just enjoy hanging out.
Here’s a link to the schedule and directions.
Hope to see you there.