My Saw Filing Technique


"I Can Afford Only One Saw Right Now—So Which One Should I Buy to Suit My Needs the Best, and What the Heck is Your Hybrid-Cut all About?"

(How Bad Axe Creates and Sharpens a Toothline that works for you)

It's early Thursday afternoon, and your PowerPoint presentation for the three o'clock meeting is done as it's ever going to be. You're surfing the web on your lunch break, sick of the virtual reality grind of your job, and frustrated by those who answer to you, or to whom you answer, because these people—coworkers and clients alike—do not share your ethos that excellence is simply not optional wih all things. Everywhere, it seems, people beg the question: "Who is John Galt?" They don't actually say it, because they have no clue what the phrase even means; they just live the question, day in, day out, apathetic slapheads all, with an unearned sense of entitlement. That's when you realize that you're not in the best of moods, and your mind wanders to the project awaiting you for the weekend back in the solace of your shop—where you can quietly ply your craft with no one bothering you. Let's face it: you need some quality self time, right?.

You've been taking your frustrations out on the 4/4 quartersawn cherry and walnut and white oak you have paienly cobbled together over the past several months while developing a pronounced hand tool problem. And your lovely wife—commonly referred to as SWMBO (She Who Must be Obeyed) in Old Tool Galoot parlance—has confronted you about the amount of tools you've been snapping up on eBay with money you should have set aside to purchase the next iKea chest of drawers for your five-year-old. You sigh, wipe the corners of your mouth from the chicken alfredo she packed away in your lunch, and glance compulsively at your computer screen. You want a saw. eBay beckons.

Then you realize that you would far rather buy a great—not just good, but a GREAT—hand or backsaw to slide into your arsenal unbeknownst to SWMBO's all-knowing gaze. And you dream of cutting pristine hardwood in the quiet of your home, along with a sip or two from a fine merlot or microbrew of your choice while listening to your music on your iPod. Your cursor eventually rolls over a link to my site, and here you are.

Welcome to the dark world of Bad Axe, and the various saws and accessories we offer. Be warned—some of them are known as Darth Vader saws, gullet.jpgtricked out in gunsmith-blued steel backs, black-oxide fasteners on premium-grade American Black Walnut, and the very best Swedish spring steel. Who's the man behind the curtain?You'll find me not behind a curtain, but in an alleyway in the old part of town next to the bus stop. An Aqualung sort of fellow with saws clanking inside a trench coat. I only sell the best, and you won't be disappointed. And it is through this dark portal I offer you my saws. But first we have to understand what it is that makes a Bad Axe a GREAT saw, and it can't just be phony marketing hype. There is hard sharpening theory that goes into the toothline of any well-tuned saw that you will reach for time and again.

Many of our cusomers new to the hand tool world often ask which saw they should purchase first, given budget constraints. I always respond by asking them to tell me about the kind of projects they want to make, and the choice of wood species they intend to use. This is important feedback, where quantity of detail counts. Once I figure out what it is they're trying to do with associated typical cut dimensions, I can then recommend a saw size with commensurate pitch and filing pattern most suited for their needs.

And so here's where it all starts—let's get some definitions going and then we'll discuss some scenarios I hope you'll find useful prior to clicking through a deposit for one of my saws.

First of all, let's review some common saw filing terminology for reference:

  • Three angles apply—rake, fleam, and gullet: Sharpening a toothline requires consistently filing three angles on every tooth with each stroke, because they are all interrelated with pitch and set to maximize efficiencies for the type of cut you want to make. One configuration, as you can imagine, will not apply for all species and cut dimensions. As a minimum, you need one configuration for hardwoods, and another for softwoods. And not all hardwoods are created equal, so these configurations might well adjust again if one chooses to work predominantly in hard maple or white oak, vice a softer hardwood, such as walnut. Therefore, it's important to recognize that degree settings for rake, fleam and gullet all work together with pitch and how the teeth are set to cut effectively on softwoods, hardwoods, and really hard hardwoods.

So let's now examine these configuration concepts and ultimately how they apply to my methods of filing with an eye toward why a hybrid-cut may be desirable for your saw—particularly if you're just starting to slide down that proverbial slippery slope of hand tool hell (or paradise, depending on whether SWMBO has blessed your endeavors).

  • ripprofile2.jpgRake (the degree of lean back from the direction of cut). Rake, working in tandem with fleam, controls how aggressively the saw cuts. It's important to recognize that degree settings for both rake and fleam are predicated by the typical species of wood and dimensions of cut one desires to work (and this is why I always ask my clients for that sort of feedback before building their saws). I file saws with a fairly aggressive rake for both hardwoods and softwoods, (more relaxed for the former and stiffer for the latter), and in both cases modulate that rake with the degree of fleam to reduce tearout opposite the cut. But if a client tells me he wants to rip through hickory, black locust, rock maple, or white oak (throw in another particularly hard wripprofile2.jpgood), then I'll relax the rake even more. Most rip saws, for instance, have a pretty aggressive rake of 0 to 6 degrees, which is great for ripping softwoods. A more forgiving rake of 6-9 degrees is more appropriate when ripping most hardwoods. Particularly tough hardwoods can mandate a rake of 10-12 degrees. But rake and fleam must work together; both angles determine how efficiently or how poorly the saw cuts in a given piece of wood, and that's why it's so important to know why you want a particular saw for a particular purpose—it's no different than when selecting your array of bench and specialty planes.
  • Fleam (how the tooth is beveled): A crosscut filing on a toothline presents a series of knife edges to sever the wood fiber perpendicular to the direction of cut. The degree of fleam for a traditional crosscut filing runs 20-30 degrees. You'd think a more pronounced bevel presenting a thinner knife edge to the wood is desirable, but one must remember that saw steel is softer at Rockwell 50-52 compared to O-1 grade plane iron steel at Rockwell 60-62. I file my dedicated crosscut saws at 20 degrees, because anything beyond that is simply more apt to dull quicker regardless of wood species, and a 20 degree cut (or 17.5 for that matter) leaves a fantastic finish. If, however, a client tells me he wants a dedicated crosscut saw for softwoods, and that he wants the cleanest finish possible, then we'll move up to 25 degrees.
  • Gullet (degree of downward slant when filing fleam). Combined with fleam, creating a slight 5-degree gullet lengthens the toothline, and creates a tad more room to discharge sawdust. I find that it speeds the cut and reduces tearout opposite the cut. I have also found that for particularly coarse toothlines, such as a 4-5 pitch thumbhole-grip ripper, that a 10-degree gullet make that sort of monster rip a little easier.
    gullet.jpgHow does jointing come into play? Everything I've mentioned above is worthless unless the toothline has been properly jointed; that is to say each tooth has been filed to a consistently even height adjacent to its ranger buddy, and stays that way across the entire toothine. Why is that important? So every trooper on that firing line does his duty. Can't let two or three of those guys do the work of a whole 11-man squad, can we? Everyone pulls his weight of the load.

    You can always tell when a saw has been properly jointed. It just rips along the length of your stroke with that horsefly buzz you can feel all the way up your arm, and your nostrils flare with the stink of red oak as the sawdust piles copiously beneath your sawbench into a little pyramid on your workshop floor like the sin of Onan. It's truly a rush the first time you experience this.
That's the moment—the epiphany—that seminal moment, when one plunges headlong down the slippery slope of saw abuse. Be warned. Read Tom Price's 'Daddy Has a Saw Problem,' and get ready for the ride. Set up a new checking or PayPal account SWMBO knows nothing about. Make sure I know your work address before shipping, so you can sneak the contraband home late at night while your household slumbers unaware of your sin. Yes, sin: THE SIN OF OMISSION (I married a Catholic, and yes, I too am a sinner). . . .
  • set.jpgSet: We haven't talked about set yet, and this too is an important consideration when creating or tuning up a toothline. Here's the bottom line: use more set for softwoods (and even more for green softwoods), and less set for hardwoods. Don't dogmatically adhere to the 'less set is better' mentality. Just realize that an overset toothline is no good, because it drags down the action of your cut. Too little set, and your saw will bind in the cut, or as a minimum create more friction and heat-build up that will warp your toothline (more on that in the next paragraph). So the trick is to hit the sweet spot with set. Identify the kind of wood you generally intend to cut with a particular saw, and put in enough set to do the job right. For most hardwoods, I typically set the teeth between .03 to .05 clearance, and .06 to .08 clearance for softwoods.
  • Pitch: How many points per inch (ppi) shall we establish for your saw? In general terms, you'll want a coarser pitch for larger saws, and a finer pitch for smaller saws. Here are the most common pitches I find in the vintage saws I service, and the ppi I typically establish for the Bad Axe saws I make.

Common Back Saw Pitches 

      • 9-10" Dovetail 14-16 Dovetails
        10" Carcase 14-15 Dovetails & small tenon
        12" Carcase 12-14 Fine joinery & small tenon
        14" Sash 12-13 General purpose
        16" Tenon 11-12 Robust cuts (tenon cheeks/shoulders)
        18" Large Tenon 9-10-11 Larger cuts (tenon cheeks/shoulders)
        20"+ Miter 11-12 Large, controlled cuts in miter boxes

Common Hand and Panel Saw Pitches

28" Rip: 4-6 X-Cut: 7 - 8 Breaking down stock
26" Rip: 5 1/2 - 6 X-Cut: 7 - 9 Breaking down stock
24" Rip: 6 - 7 X-Cut: 8 - 10 Breaking down stock & finish work
22" Rip: 8 - 9 X-Cut: 10 - 11 Finish Work
20" Rip: 10 - 11 X-Cut: 11-12 Finish Work

  • Plate Thickness: Finally, it's important to understand why plate gauge choice is an important factor for the type of application you want to use. Thin plates have become quite popular recently, given their ability to slice quickly through wood. But like the three sharpening angles and set considerations I've discussed above, proper utility for a thin-plate saw is entirely predicated by wood species and length and depth of cut one wishes to make. I find that a .02 guage plate is best suited for dovetail and carcase saw work, less suitable for a 14" saw, and not suitable at all for 16" and above. Here's why:
    • Physics: I'm no Einstein, but in my humble saw world, einstein.jpg I know enough to say that length + depth = heat. When you're ripping big tenon cheeks, the heat generated by the friction of a saw deep in that cut will expand the metal plate, causing warpage and drift along the cutline. Try it out by taking a thin-plate saw and sawing all the way up to the back in some white oak. Check out the toothline, and you'll find that it is now bowed in the middle, perhaps even floppy from heat. It will cool down after a minute and straighten out. Now look at the cut you just made—you may find it drifting off your cut-line. While this can be mitigated by increasing the set, you have to ask yourself—what's the purpose of a thin, .02 or .018 gauge plate? If I add more set, then why not just use a thicker gauge, reduce the set, and be done with it?

The answer is obvious: The .018 and .02 gauges are great for dovetail and carcase saw work, where depth under the back is shallow, and cuts seldom exceed an inch deep in 6/4 stock. At the end of the day, 14" hybrid, 16" and 18" crosscut saws should have .025 plates: that's just enough increased thickness to serve as a heat sink and prevent the warpage. 18" saws for hybrid and dedicated rip filings should always have a .0315 gauge plate for the same reason (length + depth = heat).


    • carcase.jpg12" Carcase saw: Here's where a .02 thin plate truly excels. My Bad Axe 12" Carcase and Hybrid Dovetail/Small tenon saws use these plates because there is only 3 1/8" of usable depth below the back for the carcase saw, and 2.5" below the back with the hybrid dovetail/small tenon saws.

    • 14" Sash Saw: When I make this saw for dedicated crosscut work, I use a .02 thin plate. This is where the sawyer needs to exercise caution, because this saw has 3 5/8" usable depth under the back, and that is in my opinion the frontier of utility for this size of saw. That said, most crosscuts for this size of saw seldom exceed 2.5", so you can get away with a thin plate—again, if you're using it as a dedicated crosscut saw. So—if you seek my 14" Sash saw for hybrid use or as a dedicated ripper, I always recommend that you go with the slightly thicker .025 gauge plate filed 12 ppi hybrid-cut or rip.
    • My forthcoming 10" Dovetail Saw: I'm about to bring out a great little open-handled 10" dovetail saw with a Wheeler Madden Clemson-inspired handle. This saw will have 2 1/8" under the back at the heel, and 2" under the toe. I have chosen to use a .018 gauge plate for this little guy, since depths of cut will seldom exceed an inch and a half in 3/4" stock for the reasons I've already listed.
  • Hybrid-Cut: With the above filing angles, jointing and set considerations, and plate gauge choices in mind, I offer a general-purpose filing suitable for those who are just starting out with their initial saw purchase, and don't have the budget to purchase more than one or two saws a year. There is nothing magical about the filing, I simply set the angles for the broadest applications, based on the kind of projects, species of wood and typical cut dimensions my client wants to make.

Take my 14" Sash saw, for instance (aka 14" Carcase saw): In this scenario, I typically recommend a filing of 12 ppi hybrid-cut with the .025 plate. Here's why: a 12 point pitch is fine enough for 3/4 work, yet coarse enough for 8/4 work (and beyond—but that's where length becomes a consideration too). I'll file this saw with 17.5 degrees of fleam (more aggressive than a 20 degree dedicated crosscuset.jpgt filing), and 10 degrees of rake (more relaxed than a dedicated rip angle of 6 degrees, but not as relaxed as a 12 degree rake for a crosscut saw). In rip mode, my hybrid filing cuts at about 80% compared to a dedicated ripper. The gullet remains five degrees. I will relax the rake 30 teeth in from the toe, and about 20 teeth in from the heel of the toothline. This eases the start and finish of the cut. I usually apply the hybrid-cut on my 14 and 16" saws, these being the most versatile saws in my line-up. The bottom line with my hybrid filing is you will get a crosscut finish—a great crosscut finish—with decent ripping action to boot. The same considerations apply to my 12" carcase saw filed 13 ppi hybrid-cut on a .02 plate for those who wish to cut the smaller dimensions, and my 16" tenon saw filed hybrid-cut on a .025 plate for those who wish to cut larger dimensions.

"So how do these three saw filing angles, pitch, set, and plate gauge configurations work together for the saws I want to use?" Great question—the following paragraphs denote typical questions and scenarios I encounter when building my Bad Axe saws for clients, or filing the vintage saws they send me:

  • For the big rippers:
        • slip.JPGTimber-framers use big saws, such as a 28" long Disson D8 filed 5 ppi rip, and perhaps my Roubo Beastmaster filed 9 ppi rip. These are saws with robust .0315 plates intend to make cuts four inches and wider across a big beams, often softwoods like Southern Yellow Pine, Doug Fir, White Pine and so on. They like to often sink that puppy down the full five inches of depth to the back, such as when creating the sliding dovetail tenon joint for the Roubo workbench they're working on (if they have the courage to tackle that particular joint, lol). So—a stiff 0-4 degree rake with a slight fleam of 5 degrees and a 5 degree gullet works great for these kind of woods for this kind of purpose. Why the five degrees of fleam? It reduces tearout. The gullet discharges the sawdust a little more efficiently, and the rake plows right on through that softwood.
    • But what if you want to rip hardwoods? That's easy—adjust your configuration. For those of you wanting to rip big wood in White Oak, Rock Maple and so on, I'll adjust the settings to 8-10 degrees rake, maintain 5 degrees of fleam and 5-10 degrees of gullet.The relaxed rake makes all the difference. Set counts too—more set for softwoods, particularly green softwoods, and less set for fully cured hardwoods (more on that later).
    • "What's the general-purpose catch-all big sawsetting that can handle both softwoods and hardwoods" (read: I'm already catching hell from SWMBO for the amount of saws I've been collecting—I mean, using): This is the most frequent scenario for the big 16" & 18" Bad Axe saws I make. Unless a client tells me he wants to work predominantly in softwoods, I'll file the saw for the same hardwood setting I described above, with just a tad more set for the occasional softwood cut (but not so much that it slows down the hardwood cut).

"I'm just starting out, can only afford one saw, and just want a general-purpose saw, sort of like a No. 5 Jack plane."

  • Here's where I recommend my 14" or 16" saw with a .025 gauge plate filed 12 ppi hybrid-cut. Either length is fine—the 14" sash saw would be a tad more versatile, and can range from fine to medium to some of the larger cuts (say, will consistently handle 4/4 up to 3" thick by 3" wide, with cuts up to 2" deep). The 16" tenon saw is for those of you who want to start out building a massive workbench, yet can still handle medium cuts and the occasional finer cut (ranging from 6/4 up to 4" thick stock by 4" wide, with cuts up to 3.5 to 4" deep.
  • I often get asked which two saws to purchase up front for the beginner, and here's what I generally recommend for those who intend to work in smaller dimensions: the 12" hybrid dovetail/small tenon saw filed 14 ppi dedicated rip, and the 14" sash saw filed 12 ppi hybrid cut. For those who intend to work in more of a general purpose fashion to include larger dimensions, I recommend the 12" carcase saw filed 14 ppi dedicated x-cut, and the 16" saw filed 12 ppi hybrid-cut.

"How Can I learn the art of sawfiling, and obtain more information about historical western hand and back saws?" Two great website immediately spring to mind:

Pete Taran's

This is Pete Taran's web site. Pete is arguably the Godfather responsible for returning vintage western saws to the forefront of the American fine woodworking ethic, when he and Patrick Leach developed, manufactured and marketed the Independence Tool Company Dovetail Saw in the mid-90's. Pete's robust website is replete with information regarding how to sharpen your own saws, historical information on western saws (primarily Disston), and he also sells saws and saw sharpening files. An incredibly useful web presence invaluable for reference and purchases.

Erik von Sneidern's 'The Disstonian Institute'

The Disstonian Institute

The most complete reference for Disston saws on the net. Want to know how old your saw is by dating the medallion? Want to know the fascinating history behind Henry Disston—the Bill Gates of his day when it came to dominating a market? This is the definitive 'go-to' site for all things Disston.

Both Pete and Erik were kind enough to let me use some of the saw graphics from their websites to convey the principles of rake, fleam, gullet, jointing, set and pitch in this article. They are good friends, and I owe them a public 'Thank you!'

 "What classes can I take to become a better sawyer?"

There are a number of schools across the country, but the following craftsmen I personally know—Mike Siemsen, Tom Fidgen, and Shannon Rogers—these guys are the real deal. They are passionate craftsmen, instructors and artists whose approachability and expertise will serve you well.

Anyone attending Mike's, Tom's, and Shannon's schools as of October 15th of 2010 are entitled to 10% off any one Bad Axe saw of their choice. Here's the lineup:

Mike Siemsen's School of Woodworking

Mike Siemsen's School of Woodworking

Mike Siemsen's School of WoodWorking, located in Chicago, Minnesota, offers quality fine-woodworking training addressing the needs of any student, ranging from the neophyte to the expert. An outstanding craftsman and instructor, Mike's curriculum assures a low student-instructor ratio with a maximum class size of 9 people, so students spend quality time under his tutelage. Mike's shop is located on a quiet rural setting in Minnesota, just 35 miles North of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Tom Fidgen's The Unplugged Woodshop

Tom Fidgen's Working Wood Blog

Craftsman Tom Fidgen builds custom furniture and accessories using fine hand selected hardwoods. Drawing inspiration from early Shaker design as well as the joinery of Japanese craftsmen, Tom shows a modern subtleness to his interpretation on classic design. Tom's blog is replete with excellent graphics that review tools, showcases his work, and conveys a truly elegant approach to custom and traditional design.

Shannon Rogers' 'The Hand Tool School'


Don't have time or the budget to attend a hands-on, bricks & mortar school? Give craftsman Shannon Rogers' online-school a shot. Here's a guy armed with proven techniques and the technical acumen to leverage them on-line through a distance learning process. As Shannon states on his home page,

This is the world's first virtual apprentice program designed to teach woodworkers and aspiring woodworkers of all levels how to work  our favorite raw material using only sweat power!  The Hand Tool School is a new approach to the traditional apprenticeship system that has been in practice for hundreds of years. 

Matt Cianci's The Saw Blog
All about hand saws, all the time

cianci.JPGAnd finally, here's a great blog set up by master sawyer Matt Cianci. Want to see great projects and techniques Matt employs to create them? Visit his blog and take away a wealth of information from a man passionate about his work. Obsession would be an understated description of Matt's approach—my kind of guy!

In closing, the act of creation is usually precipitated by an act of destruction, which, in our case, involves breaking down quality lumber and preparing it for shaping, joining, smoothing, finishing and assembly. The saw is as old as the serrated edge of a chunk of flint our Neanderthal ancestors used to form hide and bone into useful garments and tools. Over time the simple handsaw and backsaw evolved into tools of immense ubiquity and diversity. I believe that American sawmaking reached its apex in the 1870's and '80s, and that's why you will still find these saws on eBay and other auction sites that will still work as well as any other saw on the market today, and often better—and this is why I have patterned my Bad Axe saws after those from that era. I also believe that if Henry Disston was alive today, he would leverage modern technologies, processes, and alloys to maintain his saws' reputation as the very best in the world.

I can only aspire to steadfastly adhere to the ethos evinced by the NCOs who brought this young Captain up in Special Forces; it's the same ethos Ayn Rand advocated in Atlas Shrugged, and the very same ethos that Henry Disston instilled throughout the finest saw works the world had ever known, that. . . .

"Excellence is not an option."

—Mark Harrell, 4 Feb 2011