A new edge for an old saw


No, that post title is not intended metaphorically. I am today quite literally writing about an honest-to-gosh saw. Over the past few months I’ve come to realize what a really wonderful thing it is to have the time for occasional idleness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pulling late nights and weekends when necessary to get something done that needs to be done, but by and large I’ve been far more successful in working a full day and then stepping away to enjoy what’s around me. As we’re into winter now, I’ve spent a bit of time the past few months stocking up on firewood. For me, that entails collecting fallen trees then cutting, splitting, and stacking the resulting pieces before you know, burning them.

In the process I’ve become somewhat enamored with the traditional tools of the trade. Surrounded by the sounds of chainsaws and hydraulic wood splitters I’ve found an affinity for bucking saws and axes. I figure it has something to do with a desire for simplicity and something to do with respect for my grandfather. Very occasionally he would tell me of his days spent logging in Vermont — giant stacks of pancakes, men shaving with huge double-bit axes — and I was always oddly attracted to the room in his barn full of tools for every purpose. Perhaps genetics plays a part, too.

After buying a chainsaw to clean up a few trees that had fallen across one of our trails, and then having to spend as much again on safety equipment to protect myself from the thing (chaps, boots, helmet, etc.), I came to wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t have bought a manual saw instead. Not just any saw, of course, a three-foot monster with a profile like a whale and teeth gnarlier than an alligator’s. It’d take less time to set up, require far less maintenance, be far more peaceful to use. Good exercise, too, and cheaper — so I thought. A short amount of research showed that a quality one-man cross-cut bucking saw, the sort that you’d need to tackle a tree of any girth, can actually cost more than a decent chainsaw. (See for yourself.)

I was quite surprised by that, which then led to intrigue about the sort of craftsmanship involved in creating what I had, moments before, thought of as a simple tool. What happened next is predictable: I entered into obsessive internet research mode, as I often do when contemplating a purchase of any sort. I consumed every bit of information about saws, and ultimately decided I had to have one — but I wasn’t going to spend that much. Long story short, I found the saw you see here in the corner of a little antiques shop, caked in rust and resigned to a quiet life amidst rustic wall decor. I brought it home for little more than the cost of a movie ticket, hoping to put it back into service.


The first task was to take it apart, so that the blade and handle could be cleaned separately. The saw came with mismatched hardware, badly corroded and seized in place. Typically I find a blowtorch to be the best tool for the job, but not wanting to turn the handle into a smoldering ruin I instead resorted to the cutter.


Motley bolts released, I got my first glimpse of clean metal beneath the handle. It was my hope to make the rest of the blade this clean, but the rust scales all around made me wonder what I was getting myself into. After watching a video showing the power of pumice for saw “natural” cleaning (here), I picked up a couple of blocks of the stuff and went to town. Hours of hard work turned an entire block of pumice into crimson mush, getting the worst of the rust off of one side in the process. For the second side, I decided to table the “natural” way, starting with some mineral spirits and a metal scraper. This removed the thickest rust. I then hit the rest with the pumice.


To finish, I ran 200 and then 400 grit sandpaper down the length of the blade, again with mineral spirits. This exorcised the most stubborn bits of corrosion from the teeth and base of the blade. I’m not sure how many brain cells I killed in the process from those fumes, and I’m also not sure how many brain cells I killed in the process from those fumes.

The handle was next, which I hit with coarse and then fine foam sanding blocks to remove the ancient sealant that had spent the past few decades drying and cracking. Much of it came off quickly, but the bottom and inner portions resisted. I got everything as clean as possible, not wanting to resort to chemicals again if I could avoid it. The naked handle looked good, but it needed some protection, and I wanted to see how it’d look with a subtle wood stain.


My local franchise big-box hardware store mixed me up a shade of green. I’d hoped to keep it light, but the various blemishes on the handle (some from the rusted hardware, some from the old sealant) meant I had to go darker than I’d like to ensure the result would be reasonably uniform.

Then, returning the handle to the saw, which was more complicated than anticipated. None of the three hardware stores I tried had the appropriate mounting hardware for a saw handle, but a little specialty shop online called Amazon (you may have heard of it) shipped me a bag of screws for a couple of bucks. To give the saw a bit of Vermonter green and gold flare, I painted the hardware bright yellow before slotting it in to make the saw whole again.

Image courtesy of the US Forestry Service

Image courtesy of the US Forestry Service

Finally came the sharpening. After about an hour of research I felt less confident than I had before starting. This is what’s called a champion tooth saw, which uses a pattern a bit more complicated than your typical, plain-toothed saw. It features pairs of teeth offset in either direction for cutting with a raker in between them. The cutting teeth cut the wood fibers while the rakers basically scoop out the loosened wood and clean the path for the next pair of cutting teeth to do their thing.


Reading sharpening guides was like parsing ancient, mystical tomes describing how to summon demons or tune carburetors. This isn’t like honing a knife: each tooth needs a specific profile to do its job. Not wanting to spend ages learning these black arts, nor desiring to ruin the saw I’d just put a dozen or so hours into refinishing, I figured I’d call an expert. Happily, a gentleman with decades of experience sharpening buzz saws and various other cutting implements lives about 10 miles up the road from me. Sometimes, there are conveniences to be found when living in the country.


And so how does it cut? Suffice to say: I’m not selling my chain saw. The champion tooth pattern was designed for harder woods, including frozen stuff, which is perfect for me. Though many of our trees are soft like cedar and pine, we have plenty of hardwood too, and this time of year it’s all frozen. Cutting through a roughly 12-inch section of frozen wood took me about three minutes with this saw. My chain saw would have done the same in more like three seconds, but of course with that I’d first need to get on my chaps and boots and helmet before checking the chain oil and letting the thing warm up. I don’t think I’ll be using my hand saw to fell or process any big trees, but for times when I just need to cross-cut a couple of pieces I’ll be taking it out. Or, when I’m in the mood to do it the way they did when my grandfather was running teams of horses up the mountains.


My saw will never be mistaken for new, and not everyone appreciates the Vermonter green/gold color combo, but I’m satisfied with how the project came out. The pitting from the rust was not bad except around the handle, and after the cleaning it developed a great, deep blue patina that I like. This type of steel, flexible yet durable and able to hold an edge, will soon rust again soon if left untreated. I hope to be able to keep on top of that. (I also have no shortage of automotive waxes around to act as an inhibitor.)


Total cost? About $40 for a well-made saw that I’m quite fond of. And, yes, it’ll still look plenty rustic on the wall when not in use.


What’s next? Though I came to appreciate saws, I have a genuinely unhealthy affinity for axes. I recently invested in a lovely Gransfors Bruks splitting maul from Sweden, but quality modern axes are getting harder to find. So, I decided I wanted to restore one of those too, and found this guy leaning against the wall at another antiques shop. It has a large, flat head that caught my eye. The handle is in rough shape and needs to go, and as you can see I have some more sanding ahead of me. Stay tuned.


Freelance journalist and software architect based in Upstate NY. I write for a variety of different places (as you’ll see) -- maybe even for you if you ask nicely.

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