Cleaning a saw plate…

If you’re not familiar with Josh Clark of Hyperkitten then do yourself a favor and surf on over to his site. Josh is without a doubt the coolest damn antique tool dealer this side of the Mississippi.

Case in point is the recent package of tools I got from Josh….he knows I am an avid saw-freak and always manages to find the nicest scratch for my particular itch. Josh can find just about anything, and his prices are extremely fair…even bordering on ridiculous at times.

As it were, this latest package of booty from Josh contained a couple very nice older English saws, and some saw parts…take a look…

A tisket, a tasket, a mid-19th century English sash saw and other sundry goodies. 🙂

One of said goodies was a decent 24 inch Disston #7 saw plate with 8 points that was begging to be cleaned and re-united with a proper tote. So I figured this would be a great opportunity to blog about my methods of cleaning an old rusty saw plate and use the #7 as my model.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been experimenting with lots of different ways of cleaning saw plates, and recently, I have settled on a method and materials that are efficient and readily available.

To get started, you really only need two basic items….Simple Green cleaner and 400 grit abrasive paper….

If you were to conduct a survey of those who clean saw plates regularly, you will find that most use mineral spirits as their abrasive lubricant, and no doubt MS works well on cleaning rust and grime, but it also excels at causing neurological damage….a fact that motivated me to find an alternative.

That search lead to all sorts of things, some petroleum distillates, some other types of solvents. Eventually, I found Simple Green. I recalled a member of WoodNet mentioning that he had used window cleaner with good results, and I thought how great it would be if I could find a regular cleaning product that would work on my saws, AND would have the added benefit of not shortening my life. So, I picked up a bottle for $5 and had at it…

…with outstanding results!!!! This stuff has  pleasant minty scent and cuts grime and rust just as well as mineral spirits….I truly cannot tell the difference in its ability of to disolve rust and grime, nor in the lubricating properties of the S.G. nor its ability to prevent clogging on the abrasive paper. This stuff rocks! So,  save your precious brain cells for beer drinking and retire your mineral spirits. 😉

The other item you’ll need is 400 grit abrasive paper….automotive wet/dry paper will hold up better, but Norton 3x aluminum oxide paper is also good. I use both, but tend to use more of the Norton stuff ’cause I can buy it in bulk from Woodcraft.

Now that we’re ready to start the saw cleaning, there’s just one more thing…make a paper pad for the saw plate….this is an important step that I recommend.

What is a paper pad and why should you use one? Well, a paper pad is basically just a piece of heavy craft paper cut in the shape of your saw plate, and you should use one because of this simple reason: as you’re sanding away on your saw plate, the abrasive breaks up and gets carried away by the slurry from the cleaner, and this loose abrasive invariably ends up getting all over the bench top you’re working on. The last thing you want is that loose abrasive getting embedded into the work surface you are pressing down on so that when you flip the nice clean saw plate over to work on the other side, you grind all that abrasive back into the fresh steel on the clean side and scratch up your saw. I used to go crazy trying to figure out complex ways of cleaning my bench top between sides until I came up with this little “saw pad” trick.

To make one, just lay your saw plate on an over sized piece of brown craft paper or resin flooring paper. Place your saw plate on the piece and trace around it with a razor….

What you’re left with is a perfectly shaped paper pad for your saw…

Now you’re ready to clean!

Place your saw plate on the pad and spray generously over the plate…squirt about four or five pumps worth for one side. Grab a square of 400 grit abrasive paper and start scrubbing. Always scrub with the length of the saw….NEVER scrub across the width of the saw. Steel is just like wood….always sand with the grain….cross grain scratches on steel are just as tough to get out!!!

You’ll notice that I don’t use a sanding block here…and there’s an important reason why. If I was trying to preserve or uncover the etch on this saw, then yes, I would use a sanding block over the area of the etch…but ONLY over the area of the etch and not anywhere else on the plate. Why? 

I’ve found that using a backing block over the whole saw prevents the abrasive from getting into the subtle undulating texture of the saw plate, and you end up with a saw that has varying spots of cleanliness and polish…very uncomely. So use a block over the etch if you want to save it, or skip it all together if you are not worried about the etch. I’ll write about how to resurrect an etch in another post…that’s a fun little exercise that deserves its own spotlight. 🙂

Back to the saw….

Depending on how dirty and rusty your saw is, you’ll probably need to clean the slurry away and switch to a fresh sheet of abrasive paper every couple of minutes. Don’t be stingy with the abrasive….its cheap and this is drudgery you want to end ASAP, no doubt. Make sure you focus particular attention along the toothline…I always give the teeth special attention and use two sheets of abrasive to ensure I’m getting it good.

After about ten minutes of work and three or four squares of paper, here’s what you get…

Now, as Pete Taran says on his site, no ones going to mistake your saw for brand new after cleaning, but then again, why would you want them to? Right? As you can see from the pic, the plate has a bit of sheen, but is free from loose dirt, rust, corrosion and crud. To me, this is the perfect balance of cleanliness, polish and vintage look….if you were to go one grade of abrasive finer, you’d start to really polish the high spots on the saw plate and it would begin to look strange….like a high-carbon skin disease. 😉 For me, 400 grit provides that perfect balance between too clean, and not clean enough.

Now you can flip the saw over and repeat the process on the other side. You’ll notice that your saw pad has gotten wet and started to dissolve along its edges, but no fear, it is still doing its job of keeping you saw off of loose abrasive that could now scratch it up.

After you finish the other side, make a point of abrading the edges of the plate as well….run the abrassive paper along the spine, nose and heel of the saw. The fine edges clean very quickly, and add another level of refinement to your new prize. You can even work a little folded up piece into the nib and clean it of the rust and grime.

Next, I take my saw over to the sink and rinse the hell out of it under warm water…yes, I said water. This is the easiest way to clean the saw of gunk, slurry and abrasive. Don’t worry about the water rusting your saw…you’re going to dry it next. I wipe down the saw right from the faucet, but don’t worry about getting every drop of water because now its over the shop vac, which I’ve reversed into a high-powered blower, and I blow it thoroughly dry…focusing on the bolt hoes and teeth, in particular.

Here she is all cleaned up…

Now that she’s all nice and rust free, we want to keep her that way…a quick coat of paste wax will work wonders. I’ve tried different kinds of waxes, and they all work, but stay away from Briwax as it has caustic solvents like xylene and toluene that really serve no purpose here other than making you light-headed and possible giving you cancer. I like Minwax paste wax ’cause its cheap and readily available…

A minute to buff and dry, and here she is….ready for her next life…

Finally, I dig through my pile of orphaned saw totes and select a nice patinated apple tote with a lamb’s tongue. It’s not a historically correct match for this Disston #7, as its tote would be beech, but the two look so damn good together I just can’t help it…

So, that’s about it…nice and simple. Like I mentioned at the start, I’ve tried all sorts of ways of cleaning saw plates, but most of them use too much materials for very little improvement over this simple approach.  One cleaner, one grit and you’re done.

As always, thanks for stopping by….

Happy sawin’

-Matt  🙂

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Published in: on May 22, 2011 at 6:52 pm  Comments (18)  

Rake and Rip saws…

The first time I got my hands on a proper rip saw was, unfortunately,  a bitter-sweet experience.

It was sweet because it was the first moment of the rest of my woodworking life….like a door had been opened to a place that was fun, fulfilling, and free from the threat of lung cancer and systematic dismemberment. But it was bitter because I was frustrated with the performance of the saw….and just so you know, the saw wasn’t from Home Depot or Ace Hardware. The saw was a vintage Disston D-8 with a thumbhole from the classic 1896 to 1917 era…we’re talking about the greatest rip saw ever made by human hands. And it was professionally sharpened by a well-respected saw guru. So what was the problem?

Well, the saw was gorgeous, perfectly tuned, sharp as English wit, but to my inexperienced hands, every time I stroked the saw through wood, it was not a pleasant experience. The teeth felt like they were sticking in the wood…and like I had to push really hard to get them to cut. I could feel the moment each tooth sheared a chunk of fibers from the board, and that feeling reverberated from the teeth, to the saw plate, to the tote, to my palm, and up my arm to my shoulder. It was jittery and rough and un-nerving. And I was pissed.

What the hell?!?!? This was not the zen like experience I had read about in the pages of books and magazines…this was a hands on demonstration of why people started the asinine folk art craze of painting on hand saws instead of using them!!!

Well, like most things in life, it turns out knowledge really is power. And in this case, the knowledge I didn’t have about rip saws was disempowering me to use them. What I quickly learned was that hand saws, much UNLIKE powered saws, require an intimate knowledge of their form and function to use properly.

Any toothless caveman can go to Home Despot, buy a $99 table saw, plug it in, and be ripping white oak all day long like he was Norm Abrams. But to do so with a hand rip saw requires knowledge of the physiology of wood, body mechanics, and saw tooth geometry.

So which one was I missing?…..the one about saw tooth geometry, and in this case, that was the most critical absence. You see, what I did not yet understand about rip saw teeth was the fundamentals of tooth rake. And the rake was what was making this saw cut like a jack hammer.

Rake, or “pitch” as it also is traditionally called, (not to be confused with the common, modern designation of pitch meaning tooth spacing) is the measure in degrees that the face of each cutting tooth is rotated back from 90 degrees relative to the tooth line. The illustration below (from Disston and Sons “Lumberman Handbook”, 1907) demonstrates two different rakes….

In the first image is shown a saw with 0 (zero) degrees of rake. The face of each tooth is 90 degrees to the tooth line, and in effect not raked forward (like Japanese saws) and not raked backward.

In the second image is shown a saw with 12 (twelve) degrees of rake, meaning that the face of each tooth is rotated back 12 degrees from vertical (90 degrees from the tooth line).

So, what’s this have to do with how a saw cuts? Lots. And lots. And….well, you get the idea. Which is this: the greater the teeth are raked back from vertical, the less resistance the teeth encounter as they cut the wood. So teeth with zero rake–meaning the cutting faces of each tooth are 90 degrees from the tooth line–will cut more aggressively and meet with more resistance than teeth that are raked 5 degrees back from vertical (relative to the toothline). Make sense? Good.

I should also point out that the more teeth are raked back, the less aggressively they cut. So before you go and file 25 degrees of rake into all your rip saws, you should know that by doing so, you’re effectively turning them into giant bread knives. Not good for wood!

So, can you guess how much rake was on the teeth on that fortuitous first D-8?

Zero degrees. And if you’re paying attention at home, you now know that means that the face of each cutting tooth was 90 degrees from the tooth line…just like in the first illustration above.

And that’s why my first nice rip saw–though perfectly tuned and filed with a precision that would make even ole Henry Disston proud–made me want to call the guy I sold my table saw to and beg him to sell it back to me!!!!! But I didn’t give up. In stead, I started filing my own saws and here’s what I figured out…

The reality that I discovered about rip saws, is that there’s a sweet spot relating to the rake of the teeth. And by that, I mean you have to strike a balance between relaxing the rake to cut smoothly, and still have it be aggressive enough to actually do some work. For me, that sweet spot is about 5 degrees of negative rake for most saws with 6 or 7 points per inch, and about 5 to 10 degrees for more course toothed saws. You can play with the range of rakes, but anything much past 10 and you start to lose a lot of performance from your saw.

The other important point to mention here is that I work mostly with hard woods, and hard woods are the ones that respond nicely to a little relaxing in the rake department. If all I was ripping was white pine and even a little poplar, I’d probably be okay with zero rake rip saws. But the truth is, I work a lot with white oak, maple, cherry, locust, walnut, etc….some very hard woods. And believe me….a little relaxed rake goes a looooooonnngggg way. Those 5 little degrees that each tooth is swept back turn them into sweet little stanley #80 scraper blades….very nice! As opposed to zero rake teeth, which act more like a dull scrub plane iron on end grain. Ch-ch-ch-ch-chattering teeth anyone???

And just in case you’re curious, here’s some pics to illustrate…

First, is a 5 and 1/2 point saw with zero rake…given the tooth spacing and rake of this saw, I can comfortable rip pine, fir and poplar…

And here’s one of my favorite rip saws….a Wenzloff 5 point with 10 degrees of negative rake….and she is a sweet ripper! This is the saw that I used to make TheBigRip. Mike Wenzloff, smart guy that he is, recommended this rake and damn if he wasn’t right as rain. 🙂 I use this saw to do all of my heavy ripping…anything 8/4 and up in white oak and the like….

So, that’s the skinny on rip saws and rake. I encourage you to pick up a few and check out the rake, start filing and never stop trying new things.

I have to remind myself every day that this slippery slope of hand tool work is littered with unsolved mysteries and long-lost skills begging to be rediscovered.

Here’s to the next revelation!

-Matt 🙂

Published in: on March 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm  Comments (17)  

A tenon saw and more sharpening fun…

Whenever I undertake a new woodworking project, I find myself needing to take breaks periodically due to spring steel withdrawal. You know what I mean…the ache you get in your loins for a freshly revealed etch and crisply sharpened teeth staring up at you from your vintage Disston saw vise?

No…you don’t get that feeling??? Hhhhmmmm….maybe my wife is right? Well, anyway….

It’s sad, but it seems I can’t go more than a few days without diving into some old saw rehab to bring another long-lost gem back from the brink of the scrap pile.

This week was wrought with said withdrawl….I’ve been knee-deep in my new super saw bench build…ripping, planing, cutting…actual WOOD working so I had to distract myself with some saw time. And boy am I glad I did, because whenever I do, I seem to take leaps forward in my saw sharpening and fettling skills….this week was no different.

I’ve had this war-era Disston #4 back saw sitting in my short till for a few months and I’ve been meaning to retooth it. When I originally bought it back in the spring, it was covered in rust and looking pretty sad with its purely machine shaped handle (you know the ugly ones I’m talking about that Disston insulted us with right before their fall from greatness).

When i first brought her home, I immediately cleaned her up and reshaped the handle. At 16 inches long, she’s a true tenon saw….def hard to find in this vintage.  The teeth however, at 12 points per inch, were peg filed, as is common to find with older saws, and with fleam to boot….not going to fly as a tenon saw at all!

Here she is after a day at my spa…

After cleaning her up, I put her on the shelf with plans of re-toothing her soon, but you know how that goes….summer…fall….and here we are.

So I took her down a couple nights ago, with arms sore from planing white oak, and I decided the time had come for that re-toothing. I was set on 10 points, rip cut (no fleam), and about 7 degrees of negative rake….my favorite recipe for tenon saw teeth.

The first step of course, as she was a 12 point saw, was de-toothing her before I could re-tooth her.

So, over to the grinder we go…and quick work here (a lot faster than filing them all away….aarrrrrggghh!!!!)

I leave just the bottoms of the gullets left and chuck her into the saw vise to take her down to a clean line with a mill file…

You can see I’m skewing the file here just a bit to make a cleaner cut. And the last two strokes I turn the file 90 degrees to the tooth line and draw file it for a really smooth finish.

Next, I mark out the tooth spacing with a fine Sharpie and threaded rod as a guide. You can use lots of little tricks to mark the tooth spacing…I’ve been meaning to try those templates from Lief at Norse Woodsmith…gotta upgrade my process…

To start filing in the teeth, I use a very light touch and take one stroke across the Sharpie mark to simply create a groove for subsequent strokes…no heavy filing here…its quick and easy…

Now that a groove is created at the correct spacing, I can focus on makin’ teeth. I don’t take more than two or three strokes with the file per tooth…you really want to keep your spacing accurate and its best done bit by bit.

A few minutes and a few passes and the teeth are just about shaped…

After the first shaping, I joint the teeth and then perfect the spacing by paying close attention to the gullets and “moving” certain teeth forward of back by accentuating my file stroke to the left or right. This is honestly the trickiest part of filing….it can get real tedious so I take my time.

Here they are all shaped…

Now comes the part where lots of people do different things…some sharpen now, then set, some set them sharpen…and the fight goes on.

I like to first set the teeth, joint them again, and then finish with the sharpening. I think it’s absolutely paramount to joint the teeth after you set them because the setting process changes the presentation of the tooth point to the wood (Mike Wenzloff explains it better than I do). By jointing after setting, you return the tooth point to a true perpendicular to the wood when you saw.

I set with my Stanley 42 on the smallest setting…

Followed by a jointing, the final filing, a light stoning of the set, and voila….she bites wood again!!!!

I chucked some 10/4 white oak into my leg vise and hastily scribed some plumb lines to simulate tenon cheek cuts. She needed just a little more taken off the right (because I file my teeth all from the same side, my saws always steer to the right and need to stone a little more off that side due to the burr) and after that it was like buttah’!!!

The 16 inch saw plate really helps to keep the cuts lined up and with 3 and 5/8 under the back, I can reach serious depth without needing to switch to a panel saw.

Daddy likey!!!!!

With the ache now abated, I can return my focus to the super saw bench in bliss…..aaaahhhhh…all is well in the world once more!

🙂  Matt

Published in: on December 30, 2010 at 8:24 pm  Comments (13)  

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)