Vises with vices…

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that a good saw vise is hard to find. It’s not a matter of quantity…finding one is very easy…they are everywhere on ebay, antique shops and tool dealers. The problem is finding one that functions well.

As I learned to sharpen saws early on, my experiences with saw vises paralleled very closely with my experiences with women. At first, I didn’t know what to look for, so I would just buy everyone I found and stick my saw in it to see how it worked. Soon enough, in addition to lots of sub-par vises (and unsavory ex-girlfriends) I ended up with a very clear idea of what was required of a solid, functional vise. It wasn’t until then that I was finally able to find a great vise that could serve all of my needs, because until then, I never knew what I needed.

So, now I know exactly what I require in a good vise (and in a good woman! 😉 )

 And what it all boils down to is that because I do a lot of retoothing by hand, I need a vise that is as solid as a Nazi bunker. When you’re retoothing a 4 or 5 point rip saw, any weak point in the vise will flex with your file stroke…and this robs your file of its work. Not good. So I can now look at a vise and tell if its going to be any good without even picking it up. 

Now before you start lauding me with praise, I should probably tell you that being able to tell a good saw vise from a bad one is not rocket science. In fact, it’s probably common sense for your average second grader….in most cases, bigger equals better. Why it took me so long to figure this out, I don’t know (I never was very smart anyway). Perhaps, just like those many ex-girlfriends, I wasn’t paying attention to the right….details. 😉

Anyway, I figured I would share my experiences and critiques with each vise I’ve been enamored with over the past few years.

It all started 8 or 9 years ago the first time I sharpened a saw. At that time, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a saw vise, so I did what any power tool woodworker would have done and used my Black and Decker Workmate. With two pieces of MDF as vise jaws, I clamped my vintage Disston dovetail saw into the Workmate and had at it….with surprisingly good results. The Workmate performed admirably, and if all I ever needed to sharpen was back saws, then this would probably be all the saw vise I would ever need. The jaws held the work more securely than you’d ever need, it was easy to operate, and didn’t deflect under my file stroke at all. Again, I was filing a 15 point DT saw, so the stroke had minimal force behind it, but this set up could easily handle anything up to an 11 or 12 point saw with no problem. Go figure!

Alas, the burgeoning saw disease was destined to soon metastasize to my brain and completely take over my life, so when I started to file hand saws I quickly outgrew my Workmate. I did try to make it work, but the poor bugger just didn’t have the mass to pull it off, and with its splayed steel legs, getting a stool close enough to the vise for long filing sessions was an exercise in futility. Oh well….who doesn’t like an excuse to buy a new tool?!?!?

Here’s the point in the story you all know so well…..your first love….and boy, was she a looker! A vintage, turn of the century Disston #2…you know…the one with the raised lettering proclaiming her father’s name…

Ahhhhh…I can still remember the moment I saw her on the table at an antique tool auction…she looked at me, and I at her, and that was it. $20 and she was mine. The first few times with her were life changing…she was beautiful, firm and responsive. Wait a minute….what are we talking about again?!?!?! 😉

Anyway, back to saw vises…when I found this Disston #2, the  cam lock had plenty of life in it, the jaws were straight and true, and the screw mechanism that holds the vise to your workbench was solid. Truly, this vise changed the way I looked at saw filing…it was great to be able to stand up and file at a comfortable level. And once again, if all I ever needed to file was smaller saws, this little gal would be fine….but there in lies the rub.

Because this vise has the common design that elevates the saw high off the bench, it kind of turns the whole unit into a sky scaper….and you know what they say about the top of skyscrapers in the wind. Well just imagine the toothline of your saw is the top floor of the Sears Tower, and your file stroke is the wind…you can do the math.

So, unfortunately, this beautiful tool was limited in its function….it just gave too much deflection with larger files and work. I would say the limits of this vise are in the 9 to 10 point range. I can remember filing a 20 inch Disston #7 panel saw with 10 points and being very pleased with this vise. But I can also remember a week later when I tried to file a 6 point Atkins rip saw in it and that was the moment that my eyes started to glance longingly at other women…I mean vises.

Enter the Sargent #95….this vise is one of those fancy ones with the ball and socket that lets you turn, bevel, and slant the saw any which way you please. It also had more mass than the Disston, and it had a screw closure, as opposed to the cam lock for the vise jaws. That meant I could dial in heavier clamp pressure on the saw plate….

Once again, all was well in saw filing land….my new love was solid and oh so flexible. Sweet! I really fell for the ball and socket mechanism too…not only was this just a damn cool feature to play with and look at, but I didn’t have to unclamp the saw to file from the other side of the plate for saws with fleam. I’d just unclamp the ball in the socket and swing it around…voila!

But, just like the others, this romance wasn’t meant to last…the now glaring issue of retoothing the big saws came roaring back with a vengeance. No matter how hard I tightened that socket (NOT A GOOD IDEA!!! OLD CAST IRON IS BRITTLE!!!!) I couldn’t counter act the skyscraper effect….deflection with the heavy files. Oh well…..back in the mix of cheap bars and disco-techs I went….still determined to meet my dream girl.

And here’s where the story gets interesting. At some point, I remember reading Joel’s blog at Tools For Working Wood about his old Wentworth vise….I was intrigued. Could this be? A saw vise that delivers?

Luckily enough, I was happy to score a box lot of saw vises at local tool auction that included one of these Wentworth vises…..sweet! One of the cool things about this vise is that it has an integral rubber liner on the clamping jaws that help to prevent the dreaded screeching of the file across the teeth. Not only that, but they help keep the saw firmly in the jaws. But the real selling point of this vise was the compact nature of jaw fixture to the point where the vise clamps to your bench…

Here’s the reality with saw vises: the shorter the distance from your bench top to the vise jaws, the more stable your vise is going to be in use. And this vise by far had the shortest distance of any I’d seen. And what a difference it made! Coupled with the rubber jaw liner (which I did replace as the original was all dried up and crumbly) this vise was a real winner! It was short, which made is solid, it was easy to operate and clamp thanks to the cam lock, and it was easy to store do to its compact size. I loved it. And yes….it handled big saws and big files just fine. 🙂

The only down side to this vise was the short jaw length….at 1o inches long, it required two repositionings to file a full size hand saw. Not a deal breaker, but certainly a nuisance when you’re in a filing groove….it just turns into a hassle to unclamp, move, line it up and reclamp over and over. Call me picky, but at this point in my life, I wanted it all in a partner. 😉

But honestly, I was resigned to accept this vise as my mate for the long haul. I didn’t think it could get any better….at least not without shelling out $150 for Joel’s wonderful GramercyToolsVise. (And thus far, I have held out on selling a kidney on ebay to finance that one…)

But, like all those before, this little lady was ultimately doomed as well. I just got tired of the unclamping…clamping…unclamping…clamping dance and decided it was time to move on.

So, much like the two enterprising young men in the John Hughes 80’s teen classic WeirdScience who decided to make the perfect woman, I decided to make the perfect vise….

And what it turned out to be was nothing more than a simple hinged saw carriage for use in my Moxon twin screw vise….two scraps of plywood, two strips of hardwood for the jaws, a couple brass barrel hinges and….

Held to my bench with hold fasts, you could drive a Hummer into this vise and it wouldn’t move….let alone deflect it with a saw file. The only limitation? In order to fit my already existing Moxon vise, I had to limit the length of the saw carriage to 24 inches to fit between the screws. That means if I had to file a saw longer than 24 inches, I had to remove the tote. Not cool.

So, how does this story end? Well, it doesn’t. In fact, another recent chapter has been added very recently. A brief stop on my way home from work a few Fridays ago at a local antique shop yielded this most amazing saw vise…

She’s big, she’s brawny and she’s a solid as a brick house. I had to tap in a new screw to clamp the jaws closed, as I had to drill out the original (it was rusted solid). But without a doubt, this is the biggest saw vise I have ever found in the wild. The jaws are 14 inches wide…very big for vintage iron! The castings are HUGE…this thing weighs a ton!!!! It is amazingly solid….the file deflection is minimal and certainly the slightest I have ever found in a vintage vise. I have no idea who made this vise, as it has no markings of any kind….but it is old…very old.

Anyway, for now, it seems my search for the perfect vise is at a still point…..

We’ll see…


Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 8:00 pm  Comments (15)  

The Big Tillotson…

Last year, after I rehabbed a LittleTillotson saw that I found in an old barn,  JoshClark emailed me and said that he had the saw’s big brother for me. So, more than a little intrigued, the next time I saw Josh at a local antique tool auction, he presented me with said ‘big brother’ and I quickly understood why Josh had referred to it as such.

Here she is as found and delivered from Josh…

18 inches of pure, refined Sheffield cast steel a fixed to the most gorgeous saw tote I have ever laid eyes on!!!! 

Here’s a shot of the makers mark…

Sure, she was beat up as all hell….and the saw plate was as crooked as a mobster…but I was in love!

I thanked Josh profusely and upon returning home, hung her in a place of honor in my shop along with the dozens of other saws on my Waiting to Be Rehabbed wall. The next several months passed and every few weeks I would take down this big, beautiful British beast and caress her in my hands. Sometimes my wife would come down with a load of laundry and find me drooling, eyes glazed over and rocking back and forth with the saw in my arms. I cannot describe the look to you, but I’m sure you’ve seen it before.

Anyway, a few days ago, I figured her time had come to move from the Waiting to Be Rehabbed wall to the Tuned-Up and Ready to Be Used but Only on Special Occasions wall….a notably loftier location in the antique tool hierarchy.

My first step was to remove the handle and carefully mark the nuts with their placement in the handle…when I put her back together, I wanted every nut to go back in the original spot. Next, I gingerly removed the folded steel back from the saw plate.

Here she is disassembled…

You can see the line of crud and rust that marks where the back has been improperly resting for the last few decades or so…

See how the line from the back gradually angles downward towards the toe? That shouldn’t be like that, but is a very common occurence on old back saws, and is often the cause of a wave in the tooth line due to uneven tension along the spine. These waves then make the saw bind in the kerf and cause kinks. Thankfully, the fix is relatively simple….though sometimes a bit risky, as kinks require hammering out and this must be done delicately in such relatively thin steel.

But before getting to the smithing, I clean the plate thoroughly with rust remover and 400 grit paper. For old saws like this Brit, I have stopped going up to 600 grit and beyond…I’ve found that the polish is too garish. The dull sheen from 400 is a much nicer compliment to the saws natural patina and plenty fine enough a finish for the steel.

So now back to the hammering….the plate on this saw did have a very pronounced wave and two requisite kinks…one going in each direction. Thankfully I was able to remedy them with some judicious hammering on my little anvil…

As I’ve been teaching myself saw smithing over the last year, I keep the words of master smithers like Ron Hermann and Bob Smalser in my mind at all times… can never remove a kink fully, only compensate for it and correct 80 or 90% at best. I was actually very pleased with the result of this plate….I was able to remove most of the kink and straighten the toothline properly. Again, not 100%, but for 160 year old cast steel, I don’t need perfection anyway…just so long as I can sharpen her up and use her occasionally.

Now that the saw plate is all cleaned up and hammered true, I can re-install the folded back, and for this, I use my Moxon twin screw vise. I’ve found that clamping the saw plate in the vise jaws with the exact depth of plate I want buried in the back makes for a much easier task than the tap, tap, measure….tap, tap, measure….tap, tap, measure procedure that most employ.

Here’s the saw plate in the vise…

I like to use a small dead blow hammer to install saw backs…it makes for much more accurate and safe back installation. Plus, the one I use is coated in rubbery plastic, so there’s no risk of damaging the steel of the back. I rub a healthy amount of paraffin wax on the saw spine and tap away…

Here she is all reunited with her partner to a uniform depth…

On to the tote….which was in miraculously fine condition considering the age. I simply gave it a good scrubbing with mineral spirits to remove the crud from the crevices, then a light coat of dark brown Briwax…

And next, I reinstall the tote to the saw using my dandy little new split-nut driver (maybe I’ll post soon on how to make this very handy tool)….

Now I turn my attention to the teeth….which are quite coarse for a tenon saw…9ppi (or 8 tpi, I should say, as this is a British saw). This is certainly just about the coarsest tooth spacing you will find on a back saw….but they do make for great big cuts!!!

I use my Moxon vise once again with a saw vise carriage made for re-toothing. I’ve been using my Moxon vise more and more for saw filing lately…you just can’t beat the solidness of it…

It took two jointings and filings to correct the very misshapen teeth, but once completed, they look ready to chew lead and spit bullets. 😉 Given the coarse spacing, I filed them with 10 degrees of negative rake…

And here she is all tuned up and ready to fight…

Hardly able to contain myself at this point, I hastily chucked some 8/4 cherry into my leg vise and had at it with my new British blade…

Now I have to say, I wasn’t expecting much from this old girl…but when she flew through this cherry like a spring (steel) chicken, I nearly crapped myself…the old lady can cut!!!!!!! And the action was sweet right from the vise….dead nuts straight to boot!

How about some close-ups?

The mark all cleaned up…

The back side of the tote and split nuts…

And how about a reunion? Two saws…separated at birth for 160 years….two Tillotson’s together again…

Excuse me while I insert  myself into this little party….



Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm  Comments (18)  

Hand Saws: Not just for the shop….

Over the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have begun the first of many home remodeling projects on our modest two bedroom ranch. And like any willing woodworker, I relish the opportunity to take my hard-earned skills from the shop and apply them to the home and beyond. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to crack the whip on my new bride and flip the otherwise skewed power dynamic by playing foreman. 🙂

We decided that the first of our projects should be removing a section of the wall dividing our kitchen from our living room and installing a bar top style eating area.

So when I first told my wife that our goal was to complete this entire project —which includes building two temporary support walls, removing a large section of the main load bearing wall, and framing in a new header and rough opening for the bar top—with only the use of meat powered tools, she thought I was crazy. (Actually, my wife already thinks I’m crazy…but this further confirmed the previous assumption)

As demolition and framing got under way, however, she quickly saw (no pun intended) that I wasn’t completely off the reservation. And further, she even enjoyed some of the work.

I’m happy to report that the only use of a power tool was when I had to whip out the Sawzall to cut back about two dozen protruding nails from a stud that I couldn’t access. Not too bad!

Here’s a shot of me cutting down some studs (which will become cripples for the new half-wall) with my trusty 20 inch panel saw…

Anyway, the most fun part of this whole project was framing in the new wall…who doesn’t like cutting 2x4s with a hand saw?!?!?

If you’re new to hand saws and want to wade into the waters slowly, then I can think of no better first project then building with construction grade lumber. Soft, white pine boards cut like a song with even the worst tools…never mind if you’ve got a half-way decent cc saw and a proper saw bench. Pure Zen baby!

I know what you’re thinking…this sounds like real work man! And it is…but what sweet work, at that! The cool breeze….the soft zzzzzzzrrrrip, zzzzzzzrip, zzzzzzzzrip of the saw cutting through the pine….no cords, no 80 decibel squeal from a power saw, no cloud of dust blowing back into your face when the wind changes….just peaceful, satisfying work. And one of the coolest things about doing work like this with hand saws is that its like practice for your woodworking without the pressure of furniture grade accuracy.

So, I always mark my 2×4 cuts on two faces….it makes it much easier to ensure an accurate cross cut….square and plumb….

And you can see here how I brace the work with my body…the thrust of my downward stroke pushes the board into the kneecap of my right leg and my left knee and left hand hold the board down on the bench…

And here’s a shot halfway through the day…all that’s left is to double up the new cripple studs and the framing is done. You can also see the old fashioned balloon framing and brick and mortar fire blocking in the open stud walls….

Damn, this was a good day!

-Matt  🙂

Published in: on April 5, 2011 at 7:49 pm  Comments (2)  

Ripping on the super saw bench…

If you fancy yourself a craftsman of wood, then you are no doubt familiar with the countless people that ask you to build/repair/customize/take a look at/help them with all manner of projects involving wooden goods and furniture.

I am always amazed at the boldness of people like this, whether they are complete strangers or quasi relatives, they always seem to assume I/we are the most capable people in the world. How do they know I’m not some half-crazed nut job that likes to chop the legs off  of Hepplewhite highboys with a chain saw??!?!??

Anyway, I’ve been mistakenly referring to myself as one of these alleged “craftsman” for some time, and thankfully, over the last few years, I’ve gotten quite good at dodging these oh so tactfully poised inquiries into my willingness to work on whatever jackass crown molding job or shoddy antique refinishing boondoggle people have laid at my feet. I will say, however, that there are some requests that I am more than happy to oblige. Those are the ones that come from parents and grandparents.

Call it respect for one’s elders, or reverence for those we owe our existence and prosperity to, but I do enjoy helping close family. Hell, I often suspect that the only reason my family hasn’t disowned me by now is that I may be the only one in the family that has half a chance at not cutting off a limb or burning the house down when home projects are undertaken.

Anyway, when my mom asked me a few weeks ago to make a table leaf for her antique white oak dining table, how could I refuse? I know its something she’s wanted for a while, and seeing as its her birthday next week, I figured it would be a marked improvement over my usual gift of, well…nothing.

Fortunately for the readers of my blog (or not, depending on your preferences) this little project actually contains some great saw work…..YAHOOOOO!!!!

So let’s get down to brass tacks…

The table is made of quarter sawn white oak, and thusly, I purchased a nice 8 foot board of about 7 inches wide. Since the leaf will have a finished width of 11 inches, and you always want to balance your laminations, I need two 5 and 1/2 inch wide planks. And you know what that means, boys and girls……….its rrrrrrrrrrrripping time!

This is a great chance to show off my new SuperSawBench that I finished a few weeks ago. I’ve been doing a lot of cross cutting on my new bench, but haven’t had a chance to do a lot of ripping….so lets try it out….

I’ll use my trusty Wenzloff/Disston #9….here she is all limbered up…

When I first started ripping on a saw bench, it took me a little while to adjust to it…especially the ripping notch, but now that I’m used to it, it certainly is the go to spot. And I start by marking my cut line on the board and aligning it in the center of the ripping notch…

Positioning your body correctly is the most challenging part of learning to rip at the saw bench…..because it has to FEEL right to you. And what feels right to you may not feel right to someone else, so its difficult to describe how to do it correctly for that reason. The point is, you need to be relatively comfortable as you start the rip, so you can focus on keeping the saw moving and the cut square, not on how much your back hurts. In this case, a picture is worth 1000 words…

If you recently read BobRozaieski’s article in Popular Woodworking about ripping with a hand saw, then you know how important it is to center your eye over the spine of the saw plate…this is how you are most inclined to saw straight, square and true. Here’s what you should see as you are about to start sawing…

Can you see my pencil line marking the cut? Nope! That’s how you know you’re lined up straight…and that’s how your view should be from start to finish….if not, you’re liable to cant your saw out of square. Not good.

After I get the saw started, I have to inch the board forward every few seconds to keep the saw from cutting into the bench top. Once you get the hang of this, you kind of instinctively nudge it forward as needed with your rear foot or left (non-sawing) hand. Here you can see clearly how the ripping notch functions: each side of the notch supports the work while allowing you to cut deeper into the board without cutting the bench…

About halfway into the rip, the board starts to cantilever out into nowhere, and ripping can become a little tedious….so here’s why many craftsman of old recommend building saw benches in pairs…

…for outfeed support!

As I get towards the end of the rip, I need to pay close attention to securing the board. I no longer have the benefit of using my right knee as a home-made hold-fast, so I make use of my other meat clamp (my hand) and apply firm pressure…

The other way to accomplish a rip like this is to cut halfway through and then turn the board around and cut the other half from the other end, that way you don’t need to worry about the out feed support. But then you have to get a little more creative with holding the waste side of the cut…kind of a pain in the butt, and much easier to cut off a thumb nail….DAMHIKT. 😦

All done!

I think ripping a board like this is just about the most fun you can have in the shop (at least without strippers, anyway).

Yes, its work, but if you’re afraid of work, what the hell are you doing in the shop, right?


Published in: on March 28, 2011 at 6:31 pm  Comments (8)  

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)  

Check out these nuts…

Wiktor Kuc of (the finest old tool site on the web!!!!) requested some close up shots of the domed brass saw nuts on my recent Cresson saw rehab. Wiktor is one hell of a guy, and I’m always inclined to oblige him, so I disassembled the saw one more time and took a bunch of pictures for him. I figured I might as well share them with all while I was at it. I’m a nice guy. 🙂

So, here ya go!

Here they are all together…you can see the blank medallion nut, which is larger than the others. Before the advent of true stamped medallions, saw makers would include one, larger blank nut…don’t ask me why…

Here’s some shots of the larger nut….the underside is actually recessed, not solid…

A comparison in size to one of the smaller nuts….

That’s about it…thanks for looking at my nuts.



Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm  Comments (3)  

A Cresson saw with class…

You never know what you’re going to find at the bottom of a bucket of rust, and that tantalizing  few minutes after spotting a rust-heap is enough to keep me diving into dumpsters, yard sale piles and flea market bins for the rest of my life.

Case in point is a great old Cresson saw I found a couple weeks ago in a 5 gallon bucket lot of old rust…

She’s rusty for sure and the tote is in pretty bad shape, but those brass dome nuts and steel plate just look sexy as hell, as JoshClark likes to say. You can clearly identify the “Cresson” stamp on this saw despite the rust.

Walter Cresson was an early Philadelphia saw maker in the 1840s and 50s who was bought out by Henry Disston some time before the Civil War. His saws are characteristic of the early American style that drew heavily on English tool forms, but what makes this saw truly unique is the steel plate over the tote and domed nuts. You can read more about Cresson at Wiktor Kuc’s wonderful site here.

This saw is a wonderful candidate for restoration as the plate is dead straight and still rings true as the day it was smithed…impressive for its age! Here are some more pics as found…

You can see the crack in the tote that goes clean through under the steel plate…

Here’s the stamp…it clearly reads “IXL…W. Cresson…Philada…Spring Steel….Warranted…Extra”

The toe…unfortunately missing its nib…

And the back side of the tote…

I disassembled her gingerly and set about cleaning up the saw plate….I use a biodegradable rust remover to start. The great thing about cleaning up really old stamped saw plates is that you don’t have to worry about obliterating an etch.

Here’s the plate all cleaned up…

Now I can turn my attention to the real challenge of this rehab…the tote.

I cleaned her up with a good scrubbing in denatured alcohol…

The first step is determining exactly what kind of wood the tote is made of….tradition would suggest apple or beech. Further, the “Extra” distinction on the saw plate suggests that this is a top of the line model saw, warranting the nicer species of apple. However, the open pores and grainy nature of this wood says it is def not apple. My first thoughts were walnut, and after cutting away the broken section of the top horn, the choclatey color of the untouched wood inside further confirmed my thoughts.

Mahogany would be the other possibility for species, but to me, this grain seemed too varied in color for mahogany. After doing a little research in some old saw catalogs, I found that all of Disston’s steel plate saws in his 1876 catalog indeed had walnut handles…and since he bought out Cresson some 10 or 15 years previous to that year, maybe he was taking a cue from Cresson to continue using walnut in steel plate saws? Disston certainly had a habit of maintaining the characteristics of the saws made by makers that he acquired.

So, I decided on walnut….here’s some close up pics of the tote for your curiousity….tell me what you think….

Before I started on patching the upper horn, I first glued up the crack that goes clearly through the front section of the handle. As soon as it was dry, I planed the broken top horn smooth and patched in a chunk of walnut to make the new horn. I used Titebond II for dark woods to hide the glue line as best as possible…

It will be very tricky to start shaping this tote, as you can see where the new patch starts to encroach on the upper hounds tooth detail…those are always a challenge to blend well, as the glue line does not take well to fine detail. You can see where I’ve started to sketch out the new horn shape.

Here it is rough cut after the glue dried…

I shape the new horn with my GramercyToolsSawHandleMakersRasp (have I mentioned this tool before? 😉 ) Here she is starting to take shape…

Now on to that tricky area of the hounds tooth to blend….

Now I can smooth the new patch to the surrounding area by feathering it in with 220 and 320 grit paper.

The challenge now is to match the color of the old wood to the new. And to complicate things, I’m going to use boiled linseed oil on the whole tote to bring out the warmth and age of the wood. The BLO will darken the color of the tote significantly, and much more so on the older wood of the tote and less on the new patch….so that means I have to stain the new horn darker to match the resulting darker walnut after oiling. Confused? That’s why you should always practice on scraps.

So, after settling on a color after some experimentation, here’s the new horn stained. You can see how much darker it is before I oil the whole tote. Once I oil it, it will blend beautifully…

This is often times the trickiest part of handle repairs….you can stain the new patch to match the old wood as it is, but as soon as you put a new finish on it, the old wood and new wood absorb finish in totally different ways and don’t color the same. So you have to anticipate this difference ahead of time and color the wood to the finished product, not in the raw.

After the BLO, I apply two coats of 1lb cut amber shellac and then clean up the steel plate and nuts.

And here she is reborn…

I’m very pleased with the way this saw came out…I’m giving her a place of honor on my historic saw wall next to my recent Disston#99. 🙂

Thanks for stopping by,


Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 12:07 pm  Comments (13)  

A Bad Axe Review…

BE WARNED: Mark Harrell is a dangerous character.

Not only because he is a retired Special Forces Colonel and could probably kill you with a tooth pick, but also because he is now the purveyor of fine back saws at BadAxeToolworks…and quite frankly, to an obsessive saw nut like myself, that is the more foreboding distinction.

A few weeks ago I got an email from Mark asking if I’d like to try out one of his new saws…the 12 inch Hybrid Dovetail/Small Tenon saw.  So, like any eager and simple-minded galoot, I of course replied in the positive….duh. And I think Mark knew to expect my answer, because barely a few days had gone by and the new saw was at my door. Oh…and just so you know what kind of corrupting agent we’re dealing with here, Mark was “kind enough” to also send me a set of his new bench hooks. Nice guy, right? HAH!!! (As you are reading this to yourself, please ensure that you read that last exclamation with a heavy dose of sarcasm -Editor)

Now, If you’ve never been the recipient of one of Mark’s saws, then prepare yourself……and I literally mean to prepare yourself, because opening one of his shipping packages is an experience that I can only relate to high school. How’s that? Well, because just like my 10th grade girlfriend, you’re going to need a good 45 minutes of cajoling, levering, tearing, fighting and lubricating to get at the goodies contained in the box. No kidding….Mark packs his saws for shipment like there’s a chance they might fall off the truck and get used for target practice….with a rocket launcher. Let me tell you, it’s a good thing Mark only uses environmentally friendly packing materials, because if he didn’t, he’d single-handedly be responsible for deforesting a small South American nation. So rest assured, if you make the grave mistake of welcoming Mark into your otherwise quiet life by ordering one of his saws, then at least you know the saw will arrive as safe as a new-born babe upon your steps.

After that, however, your life will never be the same.

Before I share with you my impressions of the saw, I should make a full disclosure: At first, I wanted to hate this saw. I really wanted to find things wrong with it. I wanted to use it and dislike it from the first moment I let it cut wood. Why? Because maybe as a born skeptic, when I hear nothing but positive things about a product, or person, or theory, I think that people are just being duped. So, I wanted to be the guy that bunks the collective impression. Call me a subversive.

Well, damn if I wasn’t duped too. Upon the first moment I held this saw I was sold.

The tote, which Mark tells me he has made by CNC, is a replica of a 19th Century Wheeler, Madden and Clemson back saw and is finished by a professional piano re-finisher. Well dang if that boy can’t lacquer the hell out of a saw handle, too!!! This thing fit my hand like an old pair of jeans. I told Mark that it does look a little lifeless compared to a hand shaped tote, but in all honesty, the thing is a work of art…

Not only is the tote nice, but the whole aesthetic of the saw is amazing. This saw looks like no other saw that I’ve ever seen. Mark calls them his Darth Vader saws…and I would say that is an apt moniker. I could prattle on about the looks of the saw, but this isn’t a tool fashion blog, it’s a sawing blog. So how does the thing cut?

In a word: lovely.

Here’s a few more: Smooth. Sweet. True. Effortless. This saw is amazing….and I mean that in its literal sense…it amazes me the level of refinement and subtle perfection that Mark is able to build into this saw. In fact, to even call it a dovetail/small tenon saw is perhaps an insult…it is capable of so much more. I used this saw to make deep ripping cuts for tenon cheeks in cherry, walnut and maple….the saw flew through the wood like balsa. I made cross cuts in 1/4 inch thick strips of purpleheart, oak and locust….very splintery, hard woods: the saw handled them with noteworthy adeptness and even left an acceptable finish thanks to the 5 degrees of fleam on the teeth from Mark’s well-seasoned filing skills.

I was so struck with the smooth action of the saw that when I first used it, that it took me about 20 minutes to remember I was trying to hate it!!! Well, try though I did, I could find no flaws in the tool.

I even liked the slight canting of the sawplate…slight though it may be, it has really sold me on the effectiveness of this historical element. Canting refers to the tapering of the width of the plate as it progresses towards the toe. Canting the saw plate, as it were, is intended to smooth the action of the teeth in the cut. I really liked this, and to my knowledge, Mark is the only maker offering this on a new back saw today. You can see the slight canting in this pick…

Having used this saw for a few weeks in my shop, I have reached the conclusion that if I were only to have one back saw at my disposal, then this would be that saw. I don’t know any other more effective way of describing it. It is smooth, cuts true, and can handle any nature of work you may throw at it. And believe me, in my shop, I throw a lot of things. 😉

So, now after trying to convince myself I don’t need another saw (a most ridiculous exercise in futility!) I find myself fully enamored with this most Bad Axe Saw, indeed.

Damn it!!!! And in case you’re wondering, yes….I had to pay for the saw. Now I’m just hoping that Mark doesn’t find out I’m lusting after his 18 inch tenon saw……that would be the end of me. (And my marriage!!!)

So, now that I’ve told you the story of Mark Harrell, do you finally understand why he is such a dangerous character?!?!? He is one of the notorious “Tool Pushers” that Chris Schwartz so vehemently warns us of!!!! Your shop is not safe from his saws!!! Your bank account is not safe!!! Your wife will hate you (more)!!! You will never see your children again (you’ll be sawing all day and night)!!!! You’ll grow a long, scraggly beard and stop bathing (what few people congregated with you before will now most surely be scared off)!!!!

Lock your doors!!! Turn off your phone!!!! Cancel your internet connection!!!! Don’t pay your tool club membership dues!!!! Stay away from the lumber yard!!!! Don’t bring in your mail!!!! And whatever you do, do not, under any circumstances go to and look at Mark’s saws.

You have been warned!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

-Matt 😉

Published in: on February 22, 2011 at 2:53 pm  Comments (7)  

The Disston Mystery…..solved???

Its been a very busy few weeks in the shop lately….I’ve been neck-deep in saw rehabs and sharpenings. I’ve had a lot of requests for saws over the past two months and I’m just catching up now, plus I finally finished the SuperSawBench, and have tried to squeeze in some sharpenings for my own saws, plus the normal rigamaroll that goes along with it all.

I have been stealing time here and there to make progress on my mysterious original Disston #99…a saw that I found at the last Spicer auction. I fell in love with this saw the moment I laid eyes on its truncated handle poking out from the bottom of a rust pile. You can check out my initial thoughts on it here.

Here’s a pic of her that day after a cleaning…

I’ve conferred with other saws geeks and hand tool punditry and it seems that this is indeed an early Disston #99. I was perplexed at first given the beech tote with a lamb’s tongue, but my above sources say that was indeed the way the originals came before they switched to an apple tote of more subdued styling, as seen at the Disstonian Institute and elsewhere. So, it appears that that means this little lady is a bit of a rarity…… 🙂

Anyway, knowing she was special motivated me to be extra particular with the impending rehab…..and it took me a good six weeks of hemming and hawing to decide how to patch the tote, which was the major focus of the process and biggest obstacle to overcome.

The first step was to find a nice piece of beech to perform the critical patch to the handle, and I searched high (, low (my dad’s firewood stack) and in between (Josh Clark and Mike Hendershot…fellow tool geeks)  to dig up that special piece….which, by the way, needed to be quartersawn and seasoned by about 150 years to match properly. 😉

In the end, I took Josh’s advice and dug into my ever-expanding pile of old transitional planes to scavenge the necessary flesh for the transplant. And it turned out to be a genius idea! The reason is, that if you get addicted to antique tool auctions, like so many of us do, then you invariable end up with piles and piles and racks and racks full of tools that you swear will be of some use to you some day, either to rehab and use, or sell and become rich, but which equally invariably, you never end up doing anything with except giving to friends who come over and drool on them, or selling for a song just to get your wife off your back.

Anyway, the point being that it turns out I actually have a supply of well aged and quartersawn beech to rival the New Brittain, Connecticut Stanley Works at the turn of the century. Go figure! So I picked a poor old transitional jack plane from the rack–ensuring first that it was way beyond its useful years– said a prayer to the Tool Gods (don’t laugh….they exist and will curse you with crappy tools if you don’t pay heed to their power!!!!!) and cut into the little buggers body to extract the necessary meat. Once I stopped crying, I quickly sawed and planed the chunk down to finished dimensions for the patch.

Here’s a pic of the first stage of the glue up for the handle…

My leg vise was surprisingly handy for this application…it worked like a charm….I can see myself using it often for small glue ups like this.

Anyway, you can see from the pic that the patch will proceed in two stages. This first stage is actually two pieces of beech glued to the tote to create the main grip. In the next stage, I had to plane down the bottom of the grip section perfectly parallel and co-planer with the lamb’s tongue section remaining to create a sound surface for the patch and glue line.

Here she is glued up and ready for stage two…

Once the two patches were glued up, I proceeded to rough shaping the new handle…

With the hard part over and my heart racing in anticipation, I shaped the lamb’s tongue and grip with my trusty Saw Handle Makers rasp (have I told you I love this tool?!?!?!) I lapped the shaped handle on a granite plate with 220 grit paper to blend the patches and create the flats, as the factory would have at the saws birth…

She’s really starting to take shape now!

Last week when I was working on this, I guess I got so wrapped up in the process that I forgot to take pics of fixing the upper horn, which you can see is also in need of patching. Oh well!

After finish sanding, I turned my attentions to color matching the patches. I used Golden Oak oil stain, a bit of Early American followed by three coats of 1lb cut blond shellac. A judicious buffing with 0000 steel wool, a cleaning of  the three medallions and here she…born again……..the Disson “One Son” Prize Medal saw….

The split nuts were actually in good shape and gripped up very nicely….no stripping or breaks. The medallions cleaned up sweet as well, and the patch looks decent….I’m pleased with the results.

Here’s some more pics….

Now all that’s left is to sharpen her up and let her get those teeth back into some wood….I’ll get to that this weekend I hope. She’s a 6 point saw and I was thinking of filing just a touch of fleam into the teeth….maybe 5 degrees or so…to sweeten up the action. I’ve got way too many 6 point rip saws, so I think a specialized filing for this unique saw may be in order. We’ll see….

Happy sawing! 🙂


Published in: on February 10, 2011 at 9:36 am  Comments (12)  

The Super Saw Bench finale….

So the Super Saw Bench is finally finished… was quite the project, but well worth it…I’m very pleased with the results.

I’ll walk you through the final construction details and then a couple money shots. 🙂

So if you read my last post ARecipeForBetterSawing then you got a peek at the supports that I cut for the leg assemblies. I realized as I was trestling up the bench, that I was going to have a hell of a time attaching the legs to the two top pieces, so I devised these side supports. The idea was, I could glue them to the cross members of the leg assemblies and drill through them to attach the top pieces with lag screws.

Take a look….you can see the side supports glued on. I used some yellow pine I had that fit the bill nicely…

This was my first time working with yellow pine…I pulled this sweet quarter sawn piece out of the trash somewhere. (Yes, I rescue wood from the trash. Doesn’t everyone?) 😉

After I glued on the side supports, I had to true up the two top pieces. I hadn’t touched these since cross cutting them way back when after I ripped the original 6 x 8 beam in half. Planing rough white oak is tough enough, but spotted with knots and reversing grain like these two beasts were, was no fun at all…

With the tops trued up I could lay up the legs and top and mark out the lag bolt holes. I went back and forth a lot about how to join these two together…I could have used massive oak dowels, ala timber framing, or cut dados into the cross members and just glued them. I voted down this last method because of concern for cross grain movement. In the end, I stayed true to my simple values and went with lag screws. Quick, tough, and easy.

Yes, I broke down here and used power tools…the only time in the whole project. Oh well….my arms and shoulders were killing from all that planing and I told myself it didn’t count as a power tool ’cause it doesn’t have a cord. 🙂

Anyway, the impact driver made quick work of the 6 inch lag screws…four in each leg assembly. And here she is….

As soon as she was done, I flipped her on her feet and grabbed the closest board at hand, slapped her on the top, and had at ‘er with my favorite crosscut #7.

All I can say is…..WOAH…she is STURDY!!!! Like a well bred Bavarian beer maid, this lil lady took all of my weight bearing down on her with nary a squeak!!! 😉

Say goodbye to my old saw bench (Sorry Chris!!!)…the Super Saw Bench is HERE!!!!

I’d say she weighs a good 125 to 150 lbs…hard to tell given the size. The bench is touch over 4 feet long and 12 inches wide. I left a space in between the two top beams to allow ripping down the center. The only thing left to do is bore the holes for the hold fasts…

Oh, and once I had the final assembly together, I did true up the top with my jointer plane. I started with diagonal strokes across the ripping trench, and finished up with the grain….just like truing up a bench top.

In an up-coming post, I’ll bore the holes for the hold fasts and show her in action.

Oh, and since this post was a little light on gratuitous saw action shots, I figured I share some pics of my latest saw rehab…I finally finished the handle on that Disston #12 from the  GramercyToolsSawHandleMakersRasp  post a little while back.

Here she is reunited with her other half….

I stained the patch with some red mahogany stain and finished with amber shellac rubbed out and waxed. I think the repair went well. I actually had to carve some wheat leaves in the bottom of the handle to blend the patch appropriately…that was a first! (Look Marv!!!)

Once I get her sharpened up, maybe I’ll break her in on my new saw bench. 🙂


Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 10:09 pm  Comments (17)