Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Portland Oregon Crosscut Saw Sharpening

Life is a funny thing.  I started this blog to showcase the forgotten history of the Mt. Hood National Forest.  My intent is to make the past come alive and incorporate classic outdoor skills and tools into our modern world.
  Through my search for the surviving past, and my experiences restoring wilderness trails, I came across a familiar old friend to grizzled veterans of the woods - our friend the crosscut saw.  Little did I know how much interest these old saws would bring; so many people are seeking modern answers for these old relics and continue to require the services of a good saw sharpener.  I was also surprised to learn that it is quite difficult to find someone to sharpen these saws in the Portland area, despite the profusion of forests surrounding Stumptown and the classic historic use of these tools.

I'd like to begin this article with a very brief explanation of the crosscut, why anyone still cares about this old antique, and finish with my experiences sharpening a brand new crosscut saw.

Crosscuts really did change our lands within a generation.  Although they're powered by sweat and muscle alone, those floppy old saws could clear entire forests surrounding the steam powered logging camps.  It's all now just a distant memory.

Crosscut saws are precise instruments from a lost age, impossible to even recreate in these modern times.  Both the equipment to create the saws and the men who knew how to run them have passed into history.  

The era of the crosscut saw ended rather abruptly in the 1950s with the development of a practical gas powered chainsaw.  Although rather heavy and cumbersome, it was clearly a more efficient machine despite its belch of foul exhaust and deafening yell.  The writing was on the wall.

Feb 1938 Modern Mechanix

However, a strange exception was about to occur.  Federal law was about to outlaw the use of the chainsaw - on certain lands of course.  Elsewhere on the National Forests, clearcutting continued at unprecedented levels.

With the coming of the Wilderness Act in 1964 came new rules for ancient lands:


(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

These new rules once again changed the role of the crosscut saw.  Taken down from dusty shelves and rusting in barns, saws were resharpened and put back into use clearing the historic trails that they helped create.  It quickly became clear that those old timers were built of pretty strong stuff as a new generation took to the trails with the sleek silver saws gently flopping over shoulders.

I have written a couple of previous articles on my own experiences with the crosscut saw, including restoring and sharpening old saws, then later using them on the trail.
Let's Sharpen a Crosscut Saw
Let's Sharpen (Another) Crosscut Saw

Now, let's sharpen a brand new saw.

Recently I was contacted by Ray Marsh of Albany, Oregon.  Ray owns L&R Saw and Supply, and he has been sharpening crosscut saws for the past 60 years.  Remarkable, and I was eager to meet the man.

L & R Saw & Supply
438 Queen Ave SW
Albany OR 97322
541-990-0490 cell
We can cut any material up to 6" thick, 5 ft x 10 ft. in size. In some instances we can cut material 40-50 ft long. 
Our hourly charge for computer work is $70 per hour. If customer has the ability to have drawing for auto cad 2005 will save them lots of time. There is still computer time because we have to make sure all lines are connected for reading. 
We can cut logos in existing saws or wood or plastic or glass but no SAFETY GLASS. You give us a design and we can draw and cut it.

Ray owns a full service saw and metal cutting shop in Albany, with the ability to water jet cut any pattern of saw in any material and length.  He needed a local person to sharpen a brand new 6 foot lance-tooth bucking saw, and was having a difficult time, until he discovered the Green Cascadia blog.

Ray drove up from Albany to deliver a brand new 6 foot saw blank as well as a control sample.

"Make it this way", he told me with a smile.  The saw would be used for competition for a local high school.
  We talked a while about his life and business, and then I was left with a shop full of gleaming teeth on silver bands.  What is this, 1935?  Well I wanted to recreate history, so here we are.

Never before have I sharpened a brand new saw - all of my other experience has been restoring vintage saws that had already been used in life and were somewhat set already.  Heck, until Ray contacted me I had no idea there was a local saw manufacturer to begin with.  I was excited for the experience and quickly got to work.

On the bench and ready to go

Brand spanking new!

This saw is considered a blank, which means the outline of the teeth have been cut from bare metal.  In this case, high speed bandsaw steel, strong and springy enough to withstand the rigors of heavy use.  Other than an outline of the teeth and rakers, the saw has no sharpness whatsoever.  

before sharpening

Jointing the saw.  I discover that the process that cut the saw tapered the material slightly, so the jointing must go deep enough to compensate for this.  Of course I found out the hard way, well into sharpening the saw...

Next comes setting the raker depth, then filing and swaging them.  The tooth pattern and size is somewhat unusual - this is a custom designed saw with smaller than usual cutting teeth and exaggerated raker shape.  I find the rakers challenging to swage with a crosscut hammer due to the hardness of the material and the odd shape, but soon get the hang of it.  Just like falling off a log.

After consulting a few metalworking experts, I decide to sharpen this saw by hand, pointing each tooth individually with a hand file.  This becomes unbelievably tedious; next time I will use a small grinder to rough in the teeth first.  It was however a good way to get to know the properties of the material.

 pointing up cutting teeth

Done! (with 2 at least...)  Razor sharp, watch your fingers!

Finished with the cutting teeth after many long hours.  Although I was still very careful I still managed to cut the hell out of my fingers.  A lesson learned: I really (really) need a better saw vice for positioning the saw.

Finally it's time to set the splay of the cutting teeth with hammer and anvil.  Once again this takes quite a solid whack to get this tough material to bend.

 A crossshaped gauge called a spider is used to verify the correct set.  Mississippi  John Hurt's lost words from '28 ring through my ears, "I'm a spider, I'm a spider crawling down your wall sweet mama".  

And then just like that, I'm done.  A job well done no less.  
Be sure to oil the saw or it will quickly rust, ruining your hard work.

And not a moment too soon.

Please contact me if you have an old crosscut that needs restoration or sharpening.  I can also custom sharpen a new saw (like the one shown here) manufactured by L&R Saw and Supply. Just send me an email for more information and I'll be happy to get back to you.  Thanks for reading, and please check out the other Green Cascadia articles if you've enjoyed what you've read.

Happy trails!


  1. I was raised in the Pacific Northwest. I remember my father and his steam powered sawmill. I was born in 1932 and raised pretty much in the logging industry, learning my trade as a filer in the saw mills. One in Shelton, Washington which Saul Simpson founded. That was my first job as an apprentice filer. I was 12 years old.

  2. 2 Mar 2017: just bought my 4th saw,and noticed that although the vertical handle was loose, and the grip handle showed aging, I don't believe this saw has EVER been sharpened. Your description above will be of great help....thanks. MM Krupp old guy. PS recently goy the tools/booklet necessary to learn to sharpen....wish me luck...