Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tom Law: HandSaw Sharpening Guru

Last night's woodworking club meeting featured Tom Law, an expert in sharpening handsaws. Tom is well known in the handtool world, and I was excited to meet him in person. He brought with him a bevy of saws and talked about the specific differences in each. He made the cherry handle on the saw, shown below. When you grip the handle in one hand, you rest your other hand on top of the handle and hook your thumb inside the smaller of the two holes in the handle. So, it's a two-handed operation.

I like unusual tools, so my eye was immediately drawn to the saw in the last photo. According to Tom, it was used to make access holes in flooring, by making a drop cut. I thought it looked like something from a Civil War doctor's tool kit.

Tom talked about the "hang" of a saw when you pick it up and grip it to see if it feels right. He said a saw will talk to you when it's the right one for you. So weird...I was just having a conversation the other day with my block plane, Jack, about that very subject.

Prior to the Depression, a variety of handsaws could be found with different teeth configurations, and saws were custom made according to specifications. He swears by the old handsaws for their superior craftsmanship, saying that a saw must be hand sharpened to achieve the best results—that subtleties can be made by eye that can't be made with a machine.

Knowing virtually nothing about handsaws, I was interested to learn that the line of teeth are either in a straight line or have a crown in the middle. The crown adds some oomph when the saw cuts through the wood at the point at which you are applying the most force.

He showed one saw (the one he brings to show how not to sharpen) where the fellow who sharpened it must have been a hair stylist. Because the line of teeth, instead of being straight or with a crown, had a permanent wave.

Tom produced a video on saw sharpening and travels around to various clubs, freely sharing his knowledge with woodworkers. He also teaches classes on sharpening all kinds of tools and on tricks of the trade. I bought a copy of his video. Now I just need to hit some antique stores to find some old saws. I'm not willing to cut my teeth on my Lie-Nielsens.

13 comments:

Luke Townsley said...

I know what you mean about the saw with the wave. I purchased an old rip saw on ebay. It was in decent shape, but mostly used up. However, the blade does indeed do the wave, and it was sharpened as a crosscut saw, not as a rip saw. It was reasonably sharp, but after I jointed the saw, I realized that most of the teeth wouldn't have been touching the wood.

After jointing it to the point where some of the teeth were all but gone, I commenced to reshaping the teeth. I am still working on it, but I have high hopes. Maybe I will be able to finish it tomorrow.

You really piqued my interest with that video. Hopefully I can get it one of these days.

I have the feeling that my saw is going to be a lot better when I get done, but still not that close to perfect.

My biggest question at this point is how the crown should be shaped. I know that some saws are crowned, but I don't know exactly how it should look. Anyway, I am going to finish it as it is, and see how it cuts.

Dorje said...

I just heard about Tom Law in the last week or two, so of course this seemed timely to me...

Gave me a bit more background on the fellow!

I've been learning to sharpen and the more resources the better...

Re: Luke's question about crown - I believe that I've read that crown on a handsaw should be around 1/8" higher toward the middle than the ends...this is from memory, so could be off, and you'd want to double check it for sure, but my sense is that it's on target....

VC - you may not be willing to "cut your teeth" on your LNs, but what about a light filing/sharpening when the time comes?

Enjoy! Thanks for the post!

The Village Carpenter said...

Luke, I don't know what the height of the crown is and I'm not sure that Tom addresses it in his video or not. Once I have time to watch it, I'll let you know if he covers that. Good luck finishing up with your saw! Where did you get your files?

Dorje, Tom said he learned to sharpen from the old timers when he worked as a carpenter in D.C. Prior to that, he was in the navy, was an electrician, and a barber.
He attends the PATINA auctions each year and sells his refurbished handsaws for very reasonable prices (half of what you pay on ebay).

I figure, I'll try working on some old saws and if I get the hang of it, will try to sharpen my beloved L-Ns when the time comes. : )

Luke Townsley said...

I think I bought my files from www.toolsforworkingwood.com. I believe they are Nicholson files. Vintagesaws.com sells the Sandvik files which are supposed to be slightly better. I might try them next.

I will have completely worn out my saw file by the time I am done (I am trying to save one side for the final sharpening) with this saw. Really, I should have replaced my file about halfway through. I am not an expert (I am barely an amateur), but I have been reasonably happy with the files I have.

Luke Townsley said...

Part of my question about the crown is where the high part should lie. Should it be in the middle of the saw, or a bit more towards the heel or toe? Should it form a radius, or should it be a different (wave?!) shape?

The Village Carpenter said...

Luke, I didn't look very closely at the saw he brought with the crown, but it seems to me it was in the middle. I bet Stephen Shepherd at FullChisel blog or Chris Schwarz could tell you.

Anonymous said...

Great write-up!

I've watched Tom Law's dvd a couple of times, loaded up on old saws, a file or two from TFWW, an old saw vise off the bay and a handful of new and used saw sets. A couple of more reviews of his lessons and it's off we go for me - and nice to think I'm not going down this road without company!

It's been a few month since I watch the dvd, but I don't remember any mention of a crown.

I don't know if you allow links in your comments phase, but here is one anyone approaching saw tuning or sharpening might find encouraging... it pulls a bit of the mystery down to earth, at little, anyway...

http://www.bobvila.com/RoughCutShow/Podcast_044.html

Take care, and thanks again!

The Village Carpenter said...

Anon, yes, definitely ok to post a link. Sharing information is what it's all about. ; )

I picked up an entire box of saw sets at a tool auction recently. I only wanted one, but they were all grouped together. I paid only $7 for the entire box!

axeman said...

Saw sharpening is a skill worth learning. Where I live there’s only one guy in the area that sharpens saws. He’s getting up in age and I’m sure he will be retiring soon. If you look at yard sales and antiques stores (especially ones that do not specialize in tools) you can pick up some high quality saw that with a little attention can last another 100 years. My three best saws cost a total of $11.00. Of course I had to find someone to joint and sharpen them and that cost about $15.00 each.

Ron

The Village Carpenter said...

Tom said that he thinks it's ridiculous what people pay for new saws when, like you, Ron, they can buy an old one and have it resharpened for a fraction of the cost.

XTL said...

So weird...I was just having a conversation the other day with my block plane, Jack, about that very subject.

So what's yout jack plane called?

The Village Carpenter said...

Oh, my jack plane is named "Scrubs".

XTL said...

This must be a clever scheme to introduce all your tools :)