Author: Eli Jensen
“KILL IT! END IT NOW!” Yells the team captain. The crowd is screaming and I have just a few more inches of my saw log left to cut. I reached the point of maximum pain in my legs about 10 inches ago. I don’t know what to call the feeling in my legs at this point. Ten inches ago is also when I thought I ran out of steam, despite the lower elevation (3,500ft, down from my normal 7,500), but somehow I kept going with all I had.
“KILL IT!” the captain yells again. It no longer helps me. Then he slowly and deliberately, but with equal gusto bellows “THINK ABOUT ALL THE TIME YOU SPENT ON THIS SAW, ALL THE SACRIFICE, ALL THE THINGS YOU GAVE UP, ALL THE PAIN.” I bump up the steam to 110%. I feel the kerf end, and I swear I hit the ground before the cookie did. I collapse twice when a teammate tries to help me up. Eventually, two guys carry me off the field.
That was my memory of a David and Goliath moment. A 54” saw in a 20” larch saw long somewhere between green and dry. The pain in my legs and subsequent collapse was a result of being 6’2” and hovering over a log just 12” off the ground. Why was I using such a short saw? That explanation comes later. Did I win? Not even close, if the metric for winning is time, although I did beat 6 other men. No, my metric for success was different. It wasn’t about the time, it never was. I’m not that great of a sawyer to be honest. It was all about the saw, because I tapered and filed it myself, something no other collegiate timbersports competitor has ever claimed, to my knowledge.
Rewind six months. Early November, 2015. I am attending the Society of American Foresters Convention in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am a graduate student but traveling with the undergraduates, to share on travel and lodging expenses. Initially, I was fairly apprehensive about traveling with undergrads, strangers. But they ended up being a really good bunch of kids, and most that were attending the conference were also on the logging sports team.
I had always wanted to be on the team, but was never able to. Which was a shame, because I had always been into axes, tools, wood, chopping trees, and all things sharp. In fact, as an undergraduate, the reason I never had time for timber sports is because I was too obsessed with knives. I tinkered with kits and such and then when I graduated with my B.S. in Forestry in 2012, I forewent the field to become a full time knife maker. I eventually retired from that for a multitude of reasons, which I will sum up in saying there are a whole lot of people buying knives that want them to look cool, “tactical”, epic, all that jazz but a knife’s actually ability to cut was overall a lower priority. For me, however, having a truly sharp knife, that slices well and is comfortable, is one of the greatest pleasures on this earth. Oh yeah, it’s also a niche market flooded by thousands of hobby makers undercharging for their work; it’s hot, messy, painful, dangerous, hazardous, lonely, and pays about $0.50 an hour. So I went back to school to get a Masters in Forestry.
My Master’s program was a three semester program, and the SAF convention was near the end of my second semester. So I had one semester left. My first and my last semester on the logging sports team. After the convention, I show up to practice. A key event happened at this first practice – they gave me, for my first cut ever, the absolute dullest crosscut saw that has ever existed on the entire planet. I joked that I could literally make it cut better by gluing sandpaper to the bottoms of the teeth. Nice big, fat, shiny flat spots, perfect to glue sandpaper onto. If they had given me a sharper saw, it’s likely that I would have taken a different path. I may have accepted its efficiency and put a serious amount of time into training and technique. But they gave me the dull one, and didn’t tell me it was dull. So I could only assume that they thought this is what a good crosscut saw was, that all their saws were like this, and that if I wanted a decent cutting saw I’d have to get one myself. So that is exactly what I sought out to do.
The first things you need for any job are tools and knowledge, and I had no clue where to start for either. Let’s talk about knowledge first. Where does one find out information on a largely forgotten craft? I started with the Forest Service manual on crosscut saws. A great first step, and gives a great overview of saws and how they operate. Secondly, old books. There is a group of amazing people out there that have decided it would be a good idea to take old books and reprint them affordably, and so I was able to get a copy of H.W. Holly’s The Art of Saw Filing, originally published in the 19th century. This book had a ton of information on not just crosscut saws but also on all types of saws.
After I gleaned as much information as I could from that, I took the opposite approach – I consulted the internet. The first thing I learned was that there was a ton of information to sort through. And by sort through, I mean learn what to ignore and what not to. A short career as a knife maker already taught me to more or less completely avoid forums. Forums can be a great place to connect with others that share an interest, and I’ll probably get a lot of flak for this, but I think forums are the worst place for beginners to start. That’s because online, everyone has an opinion and all opinions are taken more or less equally. The problem with that, is that a lot of people’s opinions are flat out incorrect. A beginner has no way to tell what’s right and what isn’t. At least in the knife making world there is a ton of misinformation, and having only a couple months before competition, I couldn’t risk it. I already had enough wishy-washy ideas of my own without help from others.
I did find, however, videos on Youtube by Warren Miller. I can’t say enough great things about these videos except that I wish there were more. They were easy to understand and very comprehensive. I then sent an email to John Starling, head saw filer for the Sierra Pacific Industries, and owner of Starling Saws, specializing in restoring antique crosscut saws. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to John for taking time out for a beginner. John filled in all the gaps and was extremely patient with me.
When I was learning to make knives, I learned a little about the modern history of knife making. Long story short, there used to be a sizable handmade knife industry for centuries, but as the world moved towards automated production, the art was almost lost. A few craftsmen kept the art alive, operating on old knowledge and superstitions, but was eventually revitalized and modernized, updated with state of the art knowledge on metallurgy, materials, and methods of production. After doing my research on the world of crosscut saws, it was my impression that the art of filing crosscut saws was in a very similar state, following the same pattern, but not yet modernized. A lot of the knowledge available seems to be old knowledge from the golden years of cross cut saws, yet to be updated with new information. I was both right and wrong.
No article about restoring saws is complete without talking about tools. When I started, I barely knew what I needed to do let alone what tools to use. My friend directed me to a complete crosscut saw tool kit made by Crosscut Saw Co. out of Seneca Falls. I’m not here to trash talk or to make enemies, but there is absolutely no way I can recommend these tools. I was new to saws but not new to tools. Coming in at about $200 for their deluxe kit after shipping, the only things in the kit I ended up using were the tools that the Crosscut Saw Co didn’t make – the files and the feeler gauges. I don’t want to go into much detail about the quality of the tools, so the only thing I’ll say is that filing plates should be made with hardened steel, not brass. If I were to do it again, I would have invested the extra money into antique tools, developed and used back in the day.
I ended up buying three crosscut saws. First, 3ft champion tooth with a couple missing teeth for about $15. This one was for practice. Everyone screws up, might as well get it out of the way on a tired old saw. The next saw was from The Axe Hole. A 6ft lance tooth. I spent a considerable amount of time on this saw, and intended on competing with it, but it all ended up being practice. I had a very limited amount of time, because as fun as all this was, it was second priority to finishing my masters. In the end, I decided to shelf this saw for two reasons. First, the pitting to the teeth (and saw in general) was far to sever to justify any more time. Second, I had some ideas about weight and length that made me want to work on a smaller saw.
I wanted to try a smaller saw for several reasons. First, the larger the saw, the heavier it is, the slower you can go. My idea was that I could get a saw so much sharper than most saws, that I could make up for the lost weight and cut just as well, but be able to pull faster, and therefore complete the cut faster. Every bit of information I saw online and offline shows the teeth being sharpened with a file. It’s inherent in the name: saw filer. What I knew from knife making was that a finely honed and polished edge is infinitely times sharper than a filed edge. I didn’t know why you would stop at a filed edge for a racing saw? Spoiler alert: I was wrong. The pros do hone their edges, but more importantly, the extra sharpness was not enough to make up for the loss of weight and cutting pressure.
The second reason I wanted to try a different saw was geometry. Two man saws are for two men, and one man saws are for one. Pretty obvious right? Two man saws are symmetrical, with the widest part in the middle. Each end is pulled by a sawyer, and when flexed, it flexes evenly throughout its length, more or less. When used by one man, the saw is pulled and pushed on just one end. That means the sawyer is pushing on the smallest and most flexible part of the saw. That seemed suboptimal to me, and if you look at the one man saws used in professional saw races, they are still symmetrical (so that can be used with two sawyers) but altered, being wider near the ends. My idea was that an asymmetric design, with the widest part being near the handle, would be far better for a single sawyer.
But I had to try out my ideas. I got another saw from The Axe Hole. A 4-1/2ft perforated lance tooth. Unfortunately, this is the longest asymmetric saw they made, to my knowledge, but it tied into the idea I had at the time. Light and fast.
I immediately encountered a problem. The saw was advertised as being taper ground. It was not. Taper refers to a saw that is thickest at the cutting teeth and is less thick at the opposite end. Remember the really crappy saw they gave me at practice? Also not taper ground, and near impossible to operate without binding. Taper is important because the kerf must be wider than the saw, or it will bind. Flat ground saws (not tapered) must have wider set on the teeth to cut a wider kerf. Wider kerf means more wood to cut. More resistance. Theoretically, if a saw has enough taper, it doesn’t need any set in the teeth. Typically though this is too extreme and there is a compromise, taper with some set. It gets complicated, as taper also affects the weight of the saw, and a saw can be tapered in multiple ways (thinner near the handles, thicker in the middle), but I had already decided I wanted a tapered saw. So like normal, I had to do it myself.
This was an unwelcomed and costly operation, both in time and money. But I got it done. The trick is to taper the saw more or less evenly, and without overheating it. I didn’t have a huge grinding stone like they used back in the day, but I did have an angle grinder. My method was simple. I drew 4 lines with a marker down the length of the saw. I would make a pass with my angle grinder armed with a 24 grit fibre disc down one of the lines. I would let the saw cool, and grind down another line. When all the lines were gone, I’d redraw three of the lines, excluding the line near the teeth, and repeat. Then two, then one. Flip the saw, repeat. In this way, most of the metal removed is near the spine.
I learned two things. First, the oxidation that forms on the outermost layer of steel is extremely tough. All I’ll say is that I did not start with a 24 grit fibre. Second, I don’t want to ever taper my own saw like this again. It worked, it is now tapered. But it took a couple of days.
Another one of my ideas was that a rough pitted surface creates unnecessary drag. So the optimal surface of a saw is a mirror polish. I ran out of time, but I did manage to bring the plate of the saw up to 400 grit, which is pretty dang spiffy for a crosscut saw. I would put marker on the plate, and then go to town with the next grit up until the marker was completely gone from the previous grit. I’d marker again and repeat with the same grit to make certain those pesky lower grit marks were gone.
I was bogged down with school work until about 4 weeks before the competition. That’s not a lot of time to learn to file a saw and to work out the kinks. The basic operations (tapering aside) were pretty straight forward. File your desired angle straight and clean. As I alluded to earlier, I didn’t use very many tools. I jointed the saw without a jointer. I used only a protractor to guide my angles. A little bit of experience with a file and I think anyone could do it, although in the future I plan on getting a decent jointer and raker gauge.
Time to introduce another one of my crazy ideas. What is the limiting factor when cutting? What is the source of most resistance? For any cutting instrument, you can have infinite sharpness, but once it cuts in, your blade is in the way. So I went with a compound bevel to minimize the size of my cutting blade. This basically means after I filed my fleams, I filed a steeper bevel until my original bevel was about 1/16”. This gives the cutting edge more clearance and reduced the surface area I would have to polish and hone. Of course, everything ended up polished. Every surface that would ever touch wood, including the gullets, got polished (except the plate, due to lack of time). The additional bevel could be easier to polish without having to worry about messing up the cutting edge.
And it worked. My saw cut very deeply. In fact, too deep. I originally set my raker depth to .012, the established depth for ponderosa pine. And this ended up being .022, the established raker depth for cutting poplar, before my rakers didn’t get caught up. I’m pretty proud that my saw was cutting pine as if it was poplar. But it was also a huge pain in the butt and had me working and stressing until the day before competition. I’m not going to lie. Saw filing is not for the meek. I would walk out of the college workshop I had set up in with my entire right arm completely numb, and then I’d go back in and file for 4 more hours. I cut myself many times, despite a conscious effort to be careful. Saw work is like knife work. Loud, messy, hazardous, painful, tedious, and not all that lucrative. It was also very expensive. But also like knife work, there is something that just keeps you coming back for more.
The competition finally came, and most of it was as I would expect. My teammates laughed and teased me, and I knew I’d have a better chance competing with one of the team’s saws. But was also honest about my skill and strength as a sawyer, and the competition from the other teams, and I wouldn’t have placed anyways, so I went with my saw.
Most of my ideas were right. My saw was extremely sharp. It pulled long, decent size ribbons. And there was absolutely no resistance at all, even from a 20” saw log. However, my miscalculation was a big on. My saw was very light, and it just needed to be heavier, especially after I got tired. And tired is an understatement. Regardless of resistance, moving your body back and forth like that in place even with no saw in your hands, and you’ll get tired. Contrast that with pro racing saws that weigh easily four times as much.
So I didn’t win the single buck competition (didn’t come in last either), but I did impress a number of people. One of those people was Alvie Marcellus, timbersports extraordinaire. Alvie really knows his stuff. Yes, he did chuckle at my saw, but he understood what I was trying to accomplish and why. We hit it off and I have no doubt we’ll be friends for years to come. He even put me into contact with Jim Taylor, one of only four gentlemen in the world currently making racing saws.
I can’t tell how far I’ll pursue saw filing. I doubt it’ll become a career or anything so spectacular. But now I know what I did right and where I went wrong and which direction to go in. Northern Arizona University is hosting the western collegiate timbersports next year, and wouldn’t it be neat to have a handmade Eli Jensen saw in the race?