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 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)  

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very good article. Looking forward to further posts.


  2. Saw your blog mentioned at Lumberjocks. I too gave up my powertools, not by choice, ex sold them 😦 So I have gone the route of using handtools. I am in the process of building a work bench to get started. I know absolutely nothing about handsaws. I look forward to reading your posts to learn more as I do not want to make a bad decision when it comes time to purchase some.

  3. Thanks Eric….a workbench is a great project to begin hand tool work with…lots of big joints and hard work!
    Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

  4. I have enjoyed the blog thus far Matt, and I hope you are able to keep it going with this level of enthusiasm.

    I recently finished part of a saw research project that may interest you. It is a 5 volume PDF file on US saw sharpening patents. It totals almost 16 thousand pages of drawing and text for patented American saw vises, sets, swages, filers, grinders, gauges, gummers, shapers, jointers, etc. Each file is in the 200MB range so it may take time to download them. The research covers all tools related to handsaw sharpening, but is not limited to handsaws.

    The URL for volume 1 is below. Volumes 2-5 are linked on the cover page, or you can just change the numeral in the URL if you like.

  5. Hi Matt. Focusing now on tooth alignment rather than gullet height has been a breath of fresh air. Resharpening is now a much easier task thanks to your blog.

  6. Matt,

    I have a question that has been bothering me for years. It started when I was a teenager and never knew if I was sharpening my chainsaw quite right. Now years later the same question comes up in sharpening hand saws. My question is when filling where should the force be directed? To explain my question a little I have three scenario’s. When sharpeing a saw with some rake directing the force straight down will sharpen both the face of a tooth and the back of the next; this will also keep the teeth in the same place along the length of the saw.

    This seems pretty straight forward but the problem is when there is no rake like I file most of my rip saws. In this case if I file straight down the only thing that is being filed is the back of the next tooth. This means that I’m really only sharpening one side of each tooth so does it truely get sharp? If I force the file towards the heel a little I sharpen both faces but the teeth will slowly migrate towards the heel and eventually I will have to cut a new tooth in at the toe. How should this be done correctly then?

    The third case is when there is some negative rake to a tooth. In this case filing straight toward the back will actually change the rake and shape of the teeth with time and I assume the file must be directed toward the gullet to keep the shape. This causes the same problem with the migrating teeth.

    Sorry this comment is so long but I could not find a way to email you my question. If you have some thoughts I would love to hear them.


  7. Mike

    A great question! Before I answer I just want to point out one thing….there is no single right way to sharpen a saw, or do anything in woodworking, or life for that matter…there are many ways to accomplish a task, some better than others, and some you may get yelled at for by those who claim to know better. But I say, do what works for you!

    That said, here’s my thoughts on your question…

    Deciding where to direct the force of the file is tricky. Indeed, I would say that the skill of knowing how and when to accentuate your file stroke is the mark of a skilled filer.

    If the teeth are well maintained in geometry and are even (as in a new saw that has nener been sharpened before) then so should your force be evenly directed to retain said geometry. Regardless of the degree of rake, you should file an even amount of steel from the back, the gullet, and face of each tooth as you stroke the file across so that you maintain the consistent geometry noted above. And thusly, your force should be even as well. In effect, as you allude to above, what you are doing over time is moving the teeth progressively towards the heel of the saw, and yes, this will require you to begin filing in a new tooth on the toe of the saw.

    There are times, however, when you want to vary the force, or weight of your file stroke either to the left or right, as when you are reshaping teeth. This is necessary when filing a saw of some age that has perhaps not been well maintained. In my rust hunting adventures, 90% of the saws I find fall into this category and are in need of major reshaping and often retoothing work. This is why it is absolutely paramount to keep your saws well jointed as well as sharp. I can sharpen a dull but even toothed hand saw in a few minutes, but if reshaping is required, its a whole other story.

    Finally, I’d like to mention some tips to help with maintaining sound tooth geometry, whether just sharpening, or reshaping all together.

    First, always use a rake guide. This is a simple block of wood afixed to the tip of your file and alligned parallel with the tooth line that ensures you maintain the right angle of the rake. For more on this, check out and the section on filing.

    Second, I’d suggest using machinists dye or a magic marker to mark the teeth before you start filing so you can actually see where you are removing steel from, and if you are doing so consistently. This can be of great help, and there’s no shame in it…Daryl Weir, who is one of the most respected saw filers, swears by red Dye-Chem and uses it religiously.

    Other than that, I would recommend reading all you can, or getting a DVD on sharpening. I think Tom Law has one that’s supposed to be pretty good, and you can also see Thomas Lie-Nielsen sharpening on YouTube.

    Good luck, and keep it up!


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