Build a Handsaw

August 27, 2011 Comments Off on Build a Handsaw

Prior to sinking deeper into my woodworking hobby, my experience with handsaws was, like many, limited to using my father’s old saws that hung in the garage. They were hardware store saws with dull teeth set so far apart they left a kerf you’d swear was made by a router. By the time I was born he had already purchased a radial arm saw, so the handsaws were used infrequently (and usually accompanied by some swearing).

A few years back I discovered Japanese saws, and it was a revelation to be able to saw a straight line (with some practice), and watch as a tiny, smooth kerf was left in the saw’s wake. The impulse hardened teeth from some of the better manufactures like Gyokucho are incredibly sharp, and cut effortlessly. I still like Japanese saws and will probably always have a few around. But I also want some good western-style saws. Saws that cut on the push stroke work more efficiently, at least for me, when used with raised workbenches and other shop accessories, like sawbenches, benchhooks, etc. Wenzloff & Sons was an easy choice to begin my handsaw collection, as they are located only a few miles from me here in Oregon. I met Mike Wenzloff at a Lie-Nielsen event this spring, and in June of this year I attended his ‘Build a Handsaw’ class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

We had never been to Port Townsend, a small, artist community that sits on the western side of Puget Sound at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. We bracketed a few days around the weekend class to explore a little of the town and the surroundings. The Port Townsend School of Woodworking is located at Fort Worden State Park, an old US army base that was in operation from 1902 to 1953. In the early 1970s the State of Washington opened it as a state park, preserving many of the original army base buildings. (Pop Culture note: An Officer and a Gentleman was filmed at Fort Worden – “I ain’t gonna quit!”). The irony of the woodworking school, as Tim Lawson noted, is that the school is housed in the only surviving concrete building on the base. All others are made of wood.

The officer’s quarters at Fort Worden as seen today.

The weekend class was divided into two parts. The first day Mike gave some background on handsaws that included sidebars on their history, tooth terminology, and differences between western and Japanese saws. He had a few examples of his saws, as well as one of his favorite vintage dovetail saws that we could all pass around and fawn over. Honestly, he could have gone on for three days about the history of saws and nobody would have complained. Each student purchased one of Mike’s saw kits, all from his Harvey Peace models. I got the panel saw (crosscut), others had the dovetail, carcase, or small tenons. Included in the kit is the handle that is shaped to its rough design, hard edges and all. Mike then did a quick demonstration on how to shape the handle of the saw. Of course it took him just a few minutes to shape about 80% of a handle. The rest of us budgeted the second half of the day for ours. The picture to the left is the handle after just a little rasp work (the wood is swiss pear). The picture below is at the end of shaping. Not too bad for my first saw handle. It wouldn’t pass quality control at Wenzloff & Sons, but it felt comfortable in my hand. The arbor nut holes had to be squared with a ¼” chisel to let the square shank of the arbor nuts pass through. That was followed by cinching up the nuts and sanding them flush, and by the end of the day everyone had one assembled saw. We felt pretty good about our saws, and we proceeded to close out the first day with some food and drinks in town with Mike and Tim Lawson. And we were prepared for the fact that the second day might have a few more bumps in the road.

Day 2 was dedicated to sharpening. Mike began by explaining the geometry of saw teeth, and how the fleam, rake, and gullet affect a saw’s attack on the unsuspecting wood. He then took a sample saw plate, secured it in one of his old Disston vices, blunted the teeth with a mill file, and began to sharpen. Watching Mike sharpening a saw is hard to put into words. To say that he makes it look easy would be a gross understatement. As he sharpened, he continued to talk, and occasionally stopped to answer questions. Watching him effortlessly glide through the saw plate was worth the price of admission alone. In just a few minutes he was done. He then showed how to set the teeth, and gave them one final light pass with the file. (Mike fully admits there are many different ways to sharpen a saw. He was teaching us the way he learned, and through years of trial and error the method he has found to get the best, most consistent results). I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was thinking “Well, that isn’t so hard.” If you’ve never sharpened a saw before, however, reality hits you after just the first few passes of the file. Mike provided small saw plates for us to practice on (and work through our greenness).

After a few cycles of jointing, sharpening, setting, and light filing– I thought that I had it. Bring on the panel saw. Yeah, well, I didn’t have it. I bungled those teeth up pretty good. Maybe I should have gotten my teeth filed rip because it was the filing of the fleam that didn’t work out so well. The class ended before I could correct all my mistakes, but I still felt good about my sharpening. Thanks to Mike, I understand the fundamentals, and realize what I need to work on. As soon as I fashion a saw vise I’ll get right back to it. (I was able to see a lot of Mike’s vintage saw vices, as well as the Gramercy vise in the class. One person brought their own home-made wooden vise that worked just as well.) In the meantime I’ll continue to work on a few of the practice saw plates and a few vintage saws I’ve picked up over the years. After sharpening, Mike did some one-on-one instructions on sawing – body position, grip, etc. He answered as many questions as we could ask.

So what do I need to do to become a better hand saw sharpener. Well, practice helps, of course. But if I had to distill it down to one word, it would be this – Concentrate. I need to get good light on the saw, either get my eyes close to the work or invest in some magnifiers, and concentrate on each stroke of the file. And after each stroke, look to see the result, and move on to the next step. It will probably take me a good many sharpening sessions to develop a quicker rhythm, where feel replaces sight as the dominant sense.

Overall, the class was terrific. Besides the fact that Mike is an encyclopedia of knowledge about saws, he is one of most personable and nicest guys you will ever meet. His wife, Dina, was also there to assist. Though she doesn’t make the saws with Mike and his sons, she has picked up a mountain of information just being around the business. She was a great asset to the class, always walking around giving her advice, and being able to answer almost any question that would come up. I know that the school hopes to make this an annual class, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to construct and sharpen a handsaw.

I did a terrible job of taking pictures at the class, and of Fort Worden and Port Townsend for that matter. (Creating a blog had still not completely germinated in my mind at the time.) There are plenty of pictures of the class on the school’s blog here.


Wenzloff & Sons – world class handsaws from great people. You can purchase saws directly from them, and they also have a line of saws specifically made for Lee Valley here.

Port Townsend School of Woodworking – a terrific school in a unique, picturesque setting. They offer an incredible array of classes for all skill levels, and the list of instructors is a star-studded lineup.

Bob Rozaieski has an excellent video on his blog about building a saw from a Wenzloff & Sons kit.

If you want to really geek out about handsaws, check out the Woodnet Handtool Forum. Daryl Weir, Marv Werner, Matt Cianci and others are always discussing all things handsaws (western style, that is). Matt’s Saw Blog is also terrific.


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