Friday, April 22, 2016

How to Learn to Sharpen Saws

Note that I did not title this post, "How to Sharpen Saws." I am not going to write about that. I am not anywhere near an expert. Instead, I'm here today to point you to some resources and methods that will have your saws tuned up in no time.

I went on a saw-filing binge last week.
If you are like me, when reading about rake, fleam and slope you'll get about halfway down the first page before you start to nod off. Saw filing texts for the uninitiated are the perfect cure for insomnia.

There is a reason for that. It is, you might not be ready for that yet. Take it step-by-step.

Saw filing has a few fundamentals and a plethora of brainiac minutia that can get in the way of a beginner. There are a million different theories on saw tooth geometry, but you first must get in the swing of things and learn the mechanics of "how" a saw is sharpened.

Think about it this way: I guarantee you that a professional saw sharpener will do a better job at sharpening saws than you will, but I also guarantee that you will make your saw cut better after sharpening than it did before.

With that in mind,

  1. Get an overview of what it's all about. Watching it done is best for this. I highly recommend Paul Sellers' recent YouTube video on sharpening a crosscut saw.
  2. Sharpen some saws. Don't skip this step. Get your butt in the shop and do it. The next step will not make sense otherwise.
  3. Learn some more by reading up about it. The Vintage Saws website is a great place to start. 
  4. Go back to Step 2 and repeat until you know it all.
This works in your brain by giving you a few of the basics that you will remember when you are in the shop, cementing what you just saw, and giving you a foundation upon which to build. I would expect you to have more questions after sharpening one saw than you did before. This is good. it means you are ready to learn something else.

All you really need is a saw to practice on and a file of the right size. You will need something to hold your saw tight while you sharpen, so either buy a saw vice, or make the dead simple one in Paul Sellers' video. One should be able to do that even with a dull saw!

If you don't want to wreck your favorite user saws, many saws are out there for cheap that will be good practice for you. Vintage Saws even sells saw filing kits, which include a beater saw with freshly punched but not sharp teeth, and the correct saw file. This can be a good way to build your confidence before tackling your favorite user.
Here is a pile of freshly sharpened saws. Some turned out great, one didn't cut the way I expected. That's a good lesson, too!
Here are some free resources that might help. If you know of others, please leave a note in the comments as I want to learn, too!
  • YouTube - Paul Sellers has another excellent video on sharpening a rip filed backsaw that is excellent, plus there are a zillion others. Some good, some not so much.
  • Wiktor Kuc's excellent site. Lots of excellent saw stuff there. Start with one of the articles by Mike Hagemyer.


  1. Great post. It look intimidating, but once you get going, it really is simple.
    A great example of the KISS principle :-)


    1. Thanks, Bob! You're right. The trick is to just do it. Learn something you can use next time.

  2. Probably the most comprehensive saw sharpening video series ever produced -- and it's free!
    The man's name is Andy, but he goes by Brit (he's from the UK)

    1. Hey Johnny! Thanks for the link. I will indeed check it out.

      There are a lot of great books and DVDs out there, but I thought I would focus on free resources here, so thanks. Perfect!

    2. Hi Johnny,

      I watched the video. It is long at about 2 1/4 hours, but is full of excellent information.

      To keep from being overwhelmed, I broke it up and watched it in several different sittings.

  3. Hi Brian,

    some additional thoughts, wich came to my mind in 10 years if weekly saw filing:

    The most important thing is the light. You can't file good, if you don't see what you do.

    To get the reflections, you need to joint the teeth every time you file. Very light is enough. Just as much as you see a flat on every tooth. File until this tiny flat vanishes. Saw is sharp now. (It's like the burr in plane sharpening.)

    Don't lift the file on the back stroke. Leed it back in the gullet without downward presure. Your sharpening will become better, becaue you keep the direction and the shavings will but pulled out of the file gullets. I know the amrican tradtion tells you to lift, but it is worth a try.

    Whenever we meet, we should have some saw filing experanza, too. :o)


    1. Hi Pedder!

      Wow, thanks!

      I hadn't thought of that before. My habit with rasping wood is to lift the rasp and not drag it backwards over the wood, as this causes premature wear on an expensive tool. I had carried that over without thinking to saw filing.

      I can see the benefit, as all of your angles are maintained, and you don't accidentally drop the file in the wrong tooth!

      I would love to pick your brain about saw filing some day.