Well, that didn't work out too well, but I still remember the book positively and hope that I have absorbed at least a few of its lessons, at least a little bit.
The final habit, if you recall, is of continuous improvement. He called the habit Sharpening the Saw. The idea was to create a positive spiral of growth, change, and improvement by constantly building upon what you'd already learned. By renewing yourself constantly through education, you would propel your self ever upwards along the path of personal freedom, security, wisdom and power.
Lofty goals. So it struck me as odd the other night, as I was sitting at my work bench, that Covey called the habit 'Sharpening the Saw'. One of the first things you learn as a newbie woodworker is that no one with any sense sharpens their own saws. Planes, chisels, even drill bits, sure! But saws? No. That's too hard for mere mortals.
This prejudice was introduced to my mind when I read the bible of old tools: Michael Dunbar's "Restoring, Tuning, & Using Classic Woodworking Tools". In the section on restoring saws, Dunbar says, "As a woodworker, I have a bench grinder and other sharpening equipment, and I sharpen my own edge tools. I will occasionally touch up my saws with a file, especially in the case of a minor accident. However, it requires a lot of time to completely joint, file, and then set each tooth. This is one job I leave to the professionals."
This bias against sharpening saws was confirmed by Christopher Schwartz's excellent book, "The Joiner and the Cabinet Maker". In the section (I can't find it at the moment, so pardon me if I don't get this exactly right) where the book describes how things were done in a professional cabinet maker's shop, back in the day when such places were common, he says that even in a shop filled with master craftsmen with apprentices to do the dirty work, no one sharpened their own saws. A professional sharpener would come along every couple weeks and sharpen all the saws in the shop.
Frankly, not being able to sharpen my own hand saws wasn't a big problem for me until fairly recently, when I decided I'd had enough of the billowing clouds of fine saw dust created by power tools. During the course of this summer, I've pared my power tools down to the minimum -- bandsaw, planer, and drill press -- and gradually taught myself how tune up my hand tools. I went around the shop tuning and sharpening everything in sight, until finally my eyes finally fell on my saws. In particular, two ancient Disston rip saws that were so dull you couldn't cut your way out of a cardboard box with either one.
The first, and by far the oldest, was an old Disston I'd inherited from my grandfather. I'd actually been dumb enough to think it was sharp, back when I used it on my very first woodworking project -- fixing a bedroom door. But it was dull. Really dull. And bent. Oh, and the handle was broken.
The second was a much younger Disston that had been given to me by my Uncle Marty. This had a straight blade and a handle that was intact, even if it didn't have the charm and workmanship of the much earlier saw. But it was also quite dull.
"Simple," I thought. "I'll just send it out to be sharpened."
Now, maybe there are still professional saw sharpeners in the hills of North Carolina, or Maine, or Oregon, but not on Long Island. Not anyone I'd trust the job to, anyway. I quickly figured out I'd have to mail my saws to someone I found on the Internet, and hope they came back properly sharpened. This would be time consuming and costly. Needless to say, I never got around to it. The saws hung on my shop wall as idle decorations.
That wouldn't do in the long run, of course. Almost without thinking about it, I gradually accumulated a saw file and even an old Disston saw set that I spotted at a garage sale hosted by a lady who had no idea what it was. I enlightened her, and she was happy to let it go for a dollar.
But I had no idea how to use these tools and didn't have the nerve to experiment.
Finally, I stumbled across a video by Paul Sellers, a 'lifestyle woodworker'. The video was a revelation.
"That looks easy!", was my first thought after watching the video, which you should watch before reading further. And last night, I finally worked up my nerve to sharpen my saw.
The first thing I did was to make a simple saw clamp. This is nothing more than a strip of scrap wood with a cut down the middle and a hole bored at the end of the cut to keep the wood from splitting.
|Saw held in saw clamp|
|5 1/2 Teeth per Inch Rip Cut|
|'Jointing' the teeth to an even height|
To joint the teeth, you file them down with a flat file, as shown above. In essence, the first step is to make the saw less sharp!
I tried to file the teeth with an old half-round file in my tool box, but only for two strokes. By now, I've learned that files are nearly as disposable as sand paper, and this file was dull, dull, dull. I dashed down to Home Depot to complete my toolset with a new flat file -- a flat bastard (seriously, thats it's real name.)
|All the tools required - saw clamp, medium flat file, 3-sided saw file, and saw set.|
Then it was time to sharpen the teeth with a sharp 3-sided saw file. Paul has a specific technique for filing the teeth and I won't try to improve on his method. If you want to learn how to do this, just watch his video. My only comment is that his estimate of time is about right: it took me about 4 minutes to sharpen all the teeth. It is not rocket science.
|Putting a sharp edge on one tooth|
At that point, I decided to do a test cut with my newly sharpened saw. Clamping a piece of pine in the vise, I gave the saw a try. It was already much sharper than before, but it was still catching about 2/3rds of the way down the blade. Also, the saw kerf seemed too thin. The saw was binding in the cut a bit. It was time to try my saw set.
A saw set is a tool used to push saw teeth over at a slight angle. First you push every other tooth over to the right, then turn the saw around, and push the remaining teeth over to the left. Again, it was a fairly simple process, at least on a saw with enormous teeth.
|Setting the teeth|
I quickly filed that one tooth into shape, then continued to test and tune the saw until it sawed smoothly. The final step was to use Paul's trick to slightly close up the set of the teeth, so the kerf was wide enough to prevent binding, but no wider than necessary. See video for this step, which involves whacking the teeth gently with a ball peen hammer.
Then I used some 000 steel wool and linseed oil to remove the old grime and rust from the handle and saw blade. The result? A beautiful old saw that cuts as well as it looks.
Bottom line: I'm now convinced old masters didn't sharpen their own saws not because they lacked the skill, but because it was cheaper to have a lower-skilled sharpener do the job for them. It just wasn't worth their time to do it themselves. I've never read this theory anywhere else, so take it with a grain of salt, but it makes sense to me.
Anyway, if I can figure out how to straighten its blade, I intend to file all the teeth off my really old Disston, and turn it into a 10 or 12 point saw. That should take some real nerve!
Next Up: The Big Refit