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Last updated on March 27th, 2021
To make good furniture and woodworking projects you don’t need expensive power tools. You can still complete those projects with hand tools. All it takes is good woodworking skills and the right set of tools. Oh, and your cutting tools must be sharp enough to cut accurately without hesitating. Otherwise, you are off to a bad start if you cannot make quality cuts on your lumber.
Hand saws are some of the most common hand tools for cutting. They have a serrated cutting edge that cuts material either by pushing or pulling through the material. Although there are many types of hand saws, they all use the same principles to cut effectively. First, the saw teeth of a hand saw must be sharp and well set, and second, you must know how to use your saw. In this post, I will focus on how to keep a hand saw sharp. In the process, you will also learn how to set the teeth of your hand saw for straight clean cuts every time.
How do you know when a hand saw is dull?
Probably the only sign you know of a blunt hand saw blade is the difficulty to push or pull the saw through material. But to your surprise, there are a lot more signs. Most of these signs are similar to those of a dull circular saw blade.
As a blunt circular saw blade, a blunt hand saw blade burns through the wood, requires a lot of effort to cut, and results in very rough. The only thing that is unique to a dull hand saw blade is that it tends to bend when it can’t cut and may break. Furthermore, the teeth of a dull saw tend to lose their set, which causes the blade to bind at the back. This also makes it difficult to cut in a straight line. The following is a list of common signs of a hand saw with blunt teeth.
Signs of a dull hand saw blade
- Burning smell when cutting wood
- Very rough cuts with tear-outs
- Burn marks in wood
- Lots of hits and misses
- Saw skids when beginning the cut
- Hard to cut straight
- Saw blade bends when cutting
- Saw requires a lot of effort to push or pull through the material.
- Poor quality cuts
- Saw gets stuck in the kerf
- Very thick kerf
What to do with a blunt hand saw blade
When a hand saw is dull, worn out, or cannot cut properly, there are only three things to do. The first option is to clean the blade to ensure that pitch, resin, and dirt are not causing the blade to cut badly. Read my blog post on how to clean dirty blades to make them cut like new again.
The second alternative to deal with a dull blade is to sharpen the teeth. This option is good for restoring the sharpness of the saw teeth. Sharpening hand saws involves jointing, setting, and filing the teeth. Unfortunately, you cannot sharpen hand saws that have hardened teeth. Examples of such saws include most Japanese-style hand saws (pull saws) and all hardpoint saws. However, these saws come sharpened very well at the factory and cut very well for a long time before becoming blunt. On the other hand, western-style saws (commonly push saws) do not retain their sharpness for long but you can sharpen them. In the next sections, we shall delve more into the art of sharpening hand saws.
The last option for dealing with a blunt saw blade is to replace it. If a hand saw does not cost much and cleaning does not change how it cuts, replace it! It is faster and easier than trying to sharpen, especially if you do not know how to do it. For hand saws with hardened teeth, there are only two options; cleaning or replacing. Most Japanese hand saws are designed with this in mind and that is why they have replaceable cutting blades. For many western-style hand saws that cannot be sharpened, you have to buy a new saw.
How to sharpen a hand saw
Time needed: 30 minutes.
There are many ways to sharpen a blunt saw blade. One of them is what you are about to learn. The tools you need include a triangular file, flat file, saw set, saw jointer, workbench, two wood pads, and a vise. You also need enough time and patience to learn. Let’s go!
- Secure the saw in a vise
Setting up the saw on the vise is very simple. Simply place the saw plate horizontally between the jaws of the vise. Add the wood pads on both sides of the blade and adjust the jaws to hold the setup in place. Ensure at least 2 inches below the tooth line of the saw sticks out of the wood pads. This will give you easy access to the teeth for jointing and sharpening.
Do not hold the saw plate directly in the vise without wood pads as this would cause damage.
- Joint the saw teeth
Jointing a saw is simply leveling the teeth to ensure they all have the same height from the tooth line. This is the first step of sharpening a saw blade. Grab a saw jointer or make one using a file and scrap piece of hardwood. Make a few strokes from end to end with the jointer to level the teeth. The strokes should be towards the direction of the teeth.
To know that the teeth are level, mark them with a colored marker and then make a few passes with the jointer. When all the marks are gone, your saw teeth are level. Now you can go to the next step.
- Set the teeth using a saw set
The next step after jointing the saw is bending the teeth to the proper angle. This is known as setting the teeth. Different types of saws have different set angles. Even the purpose of a saw determines the angle of bend of its teeth. For example, the teeth of a rip cut saw are bent away more than those of a crosscut saw. Similarly, the teeth of a thin kerf saw are more straight than those of a wide kerf saw. So, it is good to know what type of a saw you are dealing with before setting its teeth. A saw set is used to bend the teeth of a hand saw to the proper angle. This is how to do it on a rip saw:
Place the saw set on one end of the saw. Adjust the Teeth-per-inch (TPI) on the set to match that of the saw. Place the tooth that bends away from you between the button and anvil of the saw set then squeeze the handle to set the tooth. Repeat this for all the teeth that bend away from you. Turn the blade over and repeat the process for the unset teeth.
- File the teeth
This is where the real sharpening takes place. Use a triangular file to sharpen each tooth of the hand saw. This is how to do it:
File the edge of each tooth with a triangular mill file. For a rip cut saw, hold the file horizontally between two adjacent teeth. Let one flat side of the file sit on the tooth edge that makes a 90-degree angle with the blade axis. Make a few horizontal strokes with the file, working from one end to the other in the same direction. Repeat this for all the teeth bent towards you then turn over the saw and repeat the process on the rest of the teeth.
For crosscut saws, you will see that the teeth have a beveled edge, and bend toward you while others bend away. Start with the teeth that face away from you, making strokes with the flat side of the file towards the direction of the bevel. Tilt the end of the mill file slightly towards the handle of the saw so that there is an angle of between 45 and 60 degrees between the head of the file and the tip end of the saw. Turn the saw and repeat the process for the remaining teeth.
Finally, try to cut a piece of wood to find out if the saw cuts any better. If it does, you probably need to take it to a professional or buy a new saw. A properly jointed hand saw with the tooth angle set properly, should cut like new when sharpened. Unless it is totally worn out.