Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Let's Sharpen a Crosscut Saw

Although in my 40s, I am an antique coot.  I disdain technology "HELL IN A HANDBASKET" that sort of thing.  I spend 82% (estimated) of my time seeking out history deep within the Mount Hood National forest, wondering at Native American artifacts and their old trails that still snake through canyons and ply ridges.  I also wondered about the miles and miles of ancient forests from sea to sea that were "cut and run" and survive no more.

  It became clear by the earlier part of the 20th century that something had to be done on a national level, lest we lose our most valuable physical, cultural, and emotional resource - our timber and our wilderness.  Conservation became the new watchword as more and more land was added to a new creation - the U.S. National Forests.
Forests created for, and owned by the American People.

This brings us to our honored guest: the crosscut saw.  We are all familiar with the chainsaw, and thanks to Hollywood it is burned into our collective as a fine way to make people into sausage.  But our noisy friend the chainsaw didn't come into practical use until the 1950s.
  In this earlier era, the crosscut saw was the best and most efficient way to fall and dismantle large timber, using human power to clear entire forests.  What began on the homestead became the logging camp.

The US Forest Service created an outstanding publication in 1977 which details the history and sharpening of the "misery whip", as a poorly sharpened saw was called.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine started acquiring crosscuts and their various sharpening tools.  I became curious.  After an invitation to help cut out trails in the Ochoco National Forest in Central Oregon, I became hooked.  Cutting with a crosscut is a lot of work, but very satisfying.

Trail Advocate and historian Donovan clearing the Wildcat Trail

 Trail Advocate and historian Don (where do they find these guys?) at work

My turn.  You can almost hear the "zing!"

Yes, it became clear that crosscuts were the thing for me.  I am drawn to quality infused objects, and tools especially.  In an earlier era, things were simply made better.  Crosscuts are no exception with their complex tooth pattern, delicate arcs, and special surface grinding.  I began searching online and local antique stores, but it became clear that good quality 70+ year old saws were hard to find, not to mention their special sharpening tools.  But dear reader, luck was on my side.  A fellow Bus Pilot near Seattle heard of my search, and he freely offered (for the cost of postage) 3 old saws that had been rusting away in the rafters since he purchased his house years earlier.

Their only known history from the previous occupants is as follows:
"I'm glad someone who actually is interested in those saws has them.
Honestly, pretty much anything that I can say about them is speculation, but 
this is my best guess:
My mothers father, Edd Helmers, worked for the US Forest Service much of his 
adult life.  And, for many years was stationed in SW Oregon - in the vicinity of 
Grants Pass. When I was a child - probably 5 or so, (so that'd be the early 
1950's) we visited them, and they lived at what I believe was a USFS ranger 
station, with lots of logging-related equipment.
Prior to that, when my mother was a child, so that'd be from about 1920 to 1935 
or so, they lived just N of Wallace ID, also in a remote ranger station.
So, for what it's worth..."

I then became the proud owner of these orphaned saws, a rusty 5 footer and 2 brown 6 footers of unknown make and condition.  After a few more months of scrambling together a vintage saw handle, sharpening tools, and the resources to do the job, I finally got to work.

The ass-saving Crosscut Saw Manual

Saw before rust removal.  60 years of rust!

Here I begin sanding with fine grain paper and WD-40, liquid of kings

Hey!  Words!  I love when the past is suddenly revealed.
Henry Disston 
Spring Steel 
Xtra High Temper 
Four Gauges Thinner on Back 
Recommended for fast cutting 
Philadelphia PA 

Tools of the trade

Filing step 1: jointing.  A small screw slightly bends a file to the arc of the saw.  It then gets gently filed so all teeth show a shiny spot.

Jointer with file attached

Next, the raker teeth must be filed to depth with the same gage.  (Rakers act like chisels to remove wood).

Then, the rakers are filed and hammered to right contours and depth from the cutting teeth.  I set the depth to .015" for cutting trees across trails in our Oregon Cascades.

Then the cutting teeth get filed to a point so that the shiny spot left from jointing disappears.  A funny twisting  hand motion must be utilized so the finished tooth has a curve to its surface.

Next, the cutting teeth need to have the right "set", or splayed distance from the saw centerline.  This is done with a hammer and a spider gage (shown).  Teeth are gently whacked with a crosscut hammer over a small anvil.

After another 1,000 hours of wet sanding with a whetstone to remove burrs and high spots, the saw is shiny new and useful after more than 1/2 a century.  Be careful!  I cut myself pretty badly a couple times while sharpening.

But the proof is in the pudding they say.  (Why?  Pudding?  Oh well.)  The saw made quick work out of this small piece of western redcedar.  And true to form it did indeed sing while sawing, a metallic "schluff-zinnnnngg".  It was hard to get the smile off my face.  I can't wait to try out the old gal out in the forest, as many of our trails are in wilderness where chainsaw use is not allowed.  

I have never set or sharpened a crosscut before, but I had a very peculiar feeling of familiarity while doing the work, a sort of strange stored repetitive motion for a task unknown in this lifetime.  Pretty weird if you ask me.  Now that I'm hooked and have found another archaic career I'm going to need more saws...


After many years of rusty dormancy, the saw is alive!  And man does it sing.  I hauled it out to the ancient Grouse Point Trail, now wilderness - which means only crosscut saws can be used to clear trails.  It was a very exciting moment, and hard to get the smile off my face!  It took about 10 minutes to cut through each tree.  Success!  

Thanks to Randy Matheny for the photographs


  1. 2013, and the saw is still razor sharp! I always carry it with me to wilderness camps instead of a chainsaw. It has never let me down.

  2. Thanks for your story, instructions, and encouragement Bob!

    I have three or four old RUSTY crosscut saws - mainly 2-man, but one one-man as well. I have all the tools and books, but *just* need the time and motivation to get to work. I *did* get the one-man saw in shape enough to hack down a dead tree, so there's hope. Keep up the good work!