Sharpening: An important lesson…

The most important lesson I have ever learned about sharpening saws, and about woodworking in general, came to me some time ago when I sent a saw out to be resharpened. I was still learning how to sharpen saws and wanted to see what a perfectly sharpened saw was like. I wanted to know how it felt, how it cut, and what perfect teeth looked like. I did some research and found a very well respected sharpener that was recommended to me by craftsman, hobbiests and even one very well known saw maker. I picked a nice old D-8 rip saw as my specimen for sharpening and sent is away with great anticipation. Soon after, it was returned to me all sharpened up.

As I unpacked the saw, it was like Christmas morning as a kid…I was excited to finally see what a classic saw was like when it was sharpened properly. And I was certainly not let down….the saw was indeed a dream to now use….it was sawing nirvana. Swift in the kerf, clean of finish and smooooooth. I was in heaven.

After a few test cuts, I cleaned off the teeth and inspected them under a magnifying glass…I wanted to see the perfect geometry of these sharp teeth.

Hmmmm….I was surprised. Why was I surprised? Because what I was expecting to see was absolute mechanical perfection in the gullets….every one filed to the micrometer-ensured exact same depth. But that’s not what I found. What I found was just a few gullets in the middle of the saw that were a little uneven. The tips of the teeth were of military precision, but those three of four gullets were a little uneven.

Wait a minute, I thought….this saw was so smooth and perfect to use….I thought all the literature i read….from Vintagesaws.com to Disston’s Saw and File manual…said that each gullet must be of uniform depth? I checked the teeth both under the glass and with a straight edge…they were indeed of perfectly uniform height, but those gullets…I could see the three or four that were waivy. How was this possible? I was perplexed. The saw performed perfectly….shouldn’t those waivy gullets make the saw jump out of the kerf like a derranged meth head?!?!

The more i thought about this, the more I realized this one truth: Sharp is as sharp does. A well sharpened saw CUTS perfectly, though it may not look perfect. I realized that in my own sharpening efforts I was focusing far too much on how the teeth look while I was sharpening them….and in particular, the uniformity of the gullets. And this gullet uniformity thing had been plaguing me for months…I just couldn’t seem to get them to all line up perfectly. I was paying far too much attention to looks, and not enough on function.

 Now, before you speed down to the comment section to reprimand me and ramble on about the importance of gullet uniformity, let me be clear. I am not saying uniformity of teeth and gullets is not important. It is very important to maintain uniformity for each tooth to work evenly…but there is a practical limit to this. You can become far too focused on the LOOKS of a tool and not enough on its function.

This was such a revelation for me…I realized I was wasting poor ole saw plates away to nothing with jointing after jointing in pursuit of a goal that was practically unattainable, and more inmportantly, not necessary any way.

I was extatic! I now shifted my focus to leveling the teeth and getting them uniform in height instead of the depth of the gullet. I started sharpening quicker and sharpening more because it was taking less time. I sharpened more saws and used them more and you know what? I got better at sharpening. Why? Because I let go of the ridiculous notion that a tool should look perfect if it is going to perform perfectly!!!!

The definition of a perfect tool is one that performs its given task with perfection, not one that appears perfect. A revelation to me indeed!

The second lesson I learned from sending this saw away to be sharpened was that I could learn to sharpen saws as well as any of the well respected saw guys. This gentleman that I sent my saw to unknowingly showed me that you can sharpen your own saws if you allow yourself to make mistakes, learn from them, and discover where to demand perfection, and where to allow for error. I suppose you can liken this to another tool truth widely held…that in order for a hand plane to function perfectly, it must be flat in three areas….at the toe, in front of the mouth, and at the heel. Once these are attained, continuing to flatten the sole gives no improvement in function.

It is important to note that this gentleman who sharpened my saw was, and is, one of the most respected sharpeners today. His saws continue to demand the highest prices in all arenas. He continues to impress me with his work and I continue to recommend both his reconditioned saws and sharpening services, as do many well respected saw makers in the U.S. The fact that three of the gullets on this sharpened saw were out of alignment by a few micro-fractions of an inch did not then, nor will it ever, affect the functioning of a perfect saw.

I am thankful for this lesson….it changed my work forever.

Published in: on November 7, 2010 at 11:52 am  Comments (7)