On backsaws…

The more I read old woodworking texts, the more I am convinced that 18th and 19th century cabinet makers did not file their backsaws for dedicated ripping and crosscutting. Instead, I think they filed all of their backsaws–from the little dovetail saw to the mammoth tenon saw–with a combination of moderate rake and fleam to make cuts both with and across the grain.

And the more furniture I build, the more I am convinced that this is the way to go.

What’s that you say???

I know some people would say this is crazy talk, but rest assured, I have not been huffing denatured alcohol fumes in my shop (much). ;) In fact, I think I’m on sound historical ground here. Exhibit A…

This past weekend I was feeling nostalgic. I realized it was the two-year anniversary of my starting this blog, so awash with sentiment, I started looking at old posts and recalled this one about two early 20th century woodworking texts reprinted by Gary Roberts over at Toolemera. I pulled ‘Woodwork Tools and How To Use Them’ down from the shelf and started reading the section on saws. Big surprise, I know.

Fairham goes on and on about dedicated rip and crosscut handsaws…how rip teeth are filed like chisels and how crosscuts are filed like tiny knives.¬† But then he gets into backsaws…and he does not mention anything about dedicated filings for rip or crosscut, and in fact, he writes about how tenon saws can be used to cut cheeks and shoulders of tenons. Clearly, he is indicating that a backsaw for joinery can and should be filed for both. Right? This book, by the way, was originally published in 1922.

Exhibit B:

If you’re not familiar with Fairham (which you should be btw…its one of the best intro books to hand work) perhaps you’ve heard of ‘The Joiner and Cabinet Maker’? If not, I’ll wait a minute while you go outside a smack yourself¬† in the face with a tree branch. (Whistling………..whistling………..whistling……..)

Ok. Back? Great. (How’s your face? Seriously though….buy this book. I’ve read it twice since buying it a couple of years ago and I love it.)

Where was I?

Oh…right….the Joiner and Cabinet Maker….So this incredibly important book (which was first published in 1839) provides wonderful detail and insight into many common tools used by 19th century joiners and cabinet makers, including lots about saws. The author, who is in fact unknown, talks at length about ripping and crosscutting timber for use in several projects like a small dovetailed box as well as a chest of drawers. He clearly identifies the rip saw and the crosscut saw for said tasks, and when it comes to backsaws, he identifies two as well: the dovetail and the sash saw. However, he indicates that each of these can be used for both ripping and crosscutting. Once again, you would think that if he went to the trouble of explaining the difference between a rip and crosscut handsaw, that he would as well be inclined to define a backsaw for ripping and for crosscutting, if such a tool existed, right? After all, which cut is more critical…a rough dimensioning cut for a plank, or the shoulder of a tenon?!?!? If the former deserves a dedicated tool, should not the latter especially???

I think the reason why the author of ‘The Joiner and Cabinet Maker’, nor Fairham, nor any other book that I know of from before the 20th century talks about rip filed backsaws, or crosscut filed backsaws, is because for most woodworkers, there was no such distinction. I think most craftsmen filed their backsaws with a bit of rake and a bit of fleam and did both tasks with their tools….just like a sash saw.

Still not convinced? Try Exhibit C: Saw Makers.

19th century saw makers like Disston, Bishop, Wheeler Madden Clemson, Woodrough and McParlin, Harvey Peace, etc. were wonderful marketers and never missed an opportunity to highlight the salient features of their wares. They were constantly trying to out maneuver and out-sell each other and this is clearly evident in their catalogs. We get a very detailed look into the product lines of these tool makers, and once again, we see a dizzying array of rip handsaws and crosscut handsaws. We get filing patterns and patented crosscut teeth and on and on when it comes to handsaws…..but what about backsaws??? Especially Disston–who was the master marketer and had the broadest product line–why would he/they miss an opportunity to market a crosscut backsaw???

I own lots of these catalog reprints from the 19th and 20th century and I can’t for the life of me figure out why none of them show or reference or offer a crosscut filed backsaw. You can pick the length of the saw and the tooth spacing, but why not the tooth geometry? This choice is always offered for handsaws, but why not backsaws??? Because, again, I think there was no such distinction. Or, they simply left it to the consumer to decide how he wanted to file his dovetail saw, or tenon saw. Which, I also believe further supports my theory that most craftsman filed their own saws for both ripping and cc’ing. If not, Disston, et al. would clearly have pounced on the opportunity to offer one already filed as such.

So if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know how much I love sash saws…and now you know why I increasingly believe that this ‘sash filing’ was standard on all backsaws. Am I 100% convinced? No…its hard to be 100% anything (besides pregnant).

And just for the record, I don’t want to discount the value of dedicated rip or crosscut backsaws. I love a dedicated crosscut backsaw. Especially miter saws, which I file with 25 degrees of fleam, or my trusty Tillotson dovetail saw with 15 degrees of rake and 20 degrees of fleam. These saws scream through wood. I wouldn’t file them any other way.

So that’s what’s been on my mind lately….I’d love to hear all of your thoughts.

Now back to my huffing…



14 Responses to “On backsaws…”

  1. Mr Fairham wrote a lot of books on woodworking. I have 3 of them and while I don’t go nutso poring over the saw pages I do do that with the plane irons and how they are sharpened. My thing with them is the “micro bevel”. I don’t see this mentioned just like you don’t see sash saw filing patterns mentioned. By the way, are you going to offer a class on a canted sash saw?

    • matt says:

      Thanks Ralph. :) I’ve had lots of requests to offer a 14 inch sash saw building class. It could be done…..perhaps soon ;)

  2. Marv Werner says:

    Hi Matt,

    Very interesting indeed.

    I have no doubt that a backsaw filed partly as rip and partly as crosscut will cut both ways. Hybrid, I think is the name for that kind of tooth profile. Bad Axe Tool Works sells a lot of saws filed that way and I read rave reviews from buyers.

    Buying one saw that can do both is a great selling point. It’s not just an opinion on my part, but experience that demonstrates to me that when filing the teeth to do both, compromises the ripping aspects of the saw and also the crosscutting. What it boils down to is, quality of the cut.

    Another point to consider is, when the saw is freshly sharpened, it will cut at it’s best. When the hybrid saw gets a little dull, it will begin to cut worse than a dedicated rip or crosscut when they begin to get dull.

    One problem that people experience are rip and crosscut saws that have not been filed properly. I include even some of the new saws on the market. They then get a hybrid in their hands that is freshly sharpened by a professional and use the comparison to determine that the hybrid cuts better. And they are right.

    There is a maze of variables that affect how any saw performs. It is nearly impossible to do a legitimate and accurate comparison of one saw to another without taking into account all the variables. To do that, you’d have to write a book on the subject.

    Just my two pennies…

    • Steve S. says:

      Fascinating discussion.

      I doubt that professional craftsmen in the 18th and 19th centuries let their saws get very dull. I recall a reference, perhaps in _The Joiner and Cabinet Maker_, to getting saws resharpened weekly. (No wonder we don’t have many 18th century saws around anymore.) It may even be that the “sash filing” made such frequent resharpening necessary.

      Just a hypothesis.

    • Joe Federici says:

      Per Mav’s comment on Bad axe and his sash. It’s interesting to note he’s using a bit more fleam at 17.5 (with a little slope) to Matt’s 10.

      I tend to lean more towards Matt and don’t find the increase in fleam really helps although the wood type comes into play as always.

      TFWW also sells has a Sash but uses a thinner plate 0.20 and files is 5 rake 7 fleam.

      What’s old is new again. ;-)

  3. Jonas Baker says:

    Just a thought, but what if all the back saws were filed rip? Being that they often have between 11 and say 17 or 19 teeth per inch (not sure historically speaking)and they were mostly used to make smaller cuts on tennon sholders, etc, maybe back then they just didn’t care having clean cuts in these areas? Or if they did care about clean lines on their tennon shoulders, etc, then they would use a shoulder plane to clean these up? I’ve used my dovetail saw (out of laziness usually) to do small cross cuts and while it leaves a coarser surface, it does work ok. I think the proof would be in looking at antique furniture to see if you can tell whether certain cross cuts were done with rip says (I suppose you may be able to tell by the rougher cut?)

    Just a thought.


  4. Eric Potter says:

    Exhibit D:
    Paul Sellers, a master artisan who was probably one of the last to come up through an old-school apprentice system, advocates the same as a quick, effective, and historically accurate way to sharpen saws. In his system, handsaws are sharpened for rip or crosscut, but tenon saws (English for backsaw) or extremely fine toothed panel saws (>9tpi) are all sharpened one way, relaxed rip with mild fleam. Essentially the sash saw filing Matt is fond of. And he routinely cuts cheeks and shoulders with the same saw. I’ve become a big fan of this method since I saw him present it.


  5. Dave Parkis says:

    Hi Matt,

    Great article!! As you know, I know zero about saw filing, but I suspect that the craftsman back in the 1800′s-early 1900′s used a “hybrid” saw because it meant that they didn’t have to haul as many tools around. Yes, I’m making that point because I am a lazy slob who would only carry as many as I absolutely had to, but I suspect those guys were almost as lazy. That said, I enjoyed the article very much and I appreciate your correct usage of grammar.


  6. Dan says:

    Hi. Many years ago, influenced by Tage Frid’s fine book on woodworking, I got ahold of a Danish bow saw with a 9 point blade and filed it rip with zero rake and very light set. It took a little while to get used to, but I used that saw on many projects to both rip and crosscut joinery. A finer toothed gents saw filed rip took care of smaller cuts. I have since expanded my saw collection. I have a nice Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw that came out of the box nicely sharpened, an old Simonds 7-point that I filed crosscut, and a few Disston saws. But I never file anything over 9 or 10-points crosscut. I just learned how to use a saw. When the old timers speak, I listen. I’ve since heard the same from others like Frank Klausz, Paul Sellers, my uncle. They kept it simple and learned how to use their tools, rather than whiz bang filing methods. Keep this quiet, though, or you’ll find yourself out of business…. Keep up the good work.


  7. David B. says:

    I certainly wouldn’t have a hard time believing your hypothesis. Do you have a suggestion for when/who popularized dedicated tooth saws? I also wonder if tool shops might have offered refiling the saws to your specs as a service? The saw was a blank pallet then it was up to the local tool reseller to prepare the saw for use by the end user. I’m not basing any of this on fact or evidence, just seems plausible.

  8. Ron Bontz says:

    Hi Matt. Well written as always.
    I agree with most on this. One thing that you did not mention, which Mark at Bad Ax hints at, is a lot of people could not afford to have multiple saws, or many different planes for that matter. These were craftsman, many of whom were common folk, who knew how to “make due” with what they had. They had to carry these tools around as well, as Dave pointed out. I have no doubt they were very particular about the way they wanted their saws sharpened to suit their purposes and get the most bang for the buck. They had to. The dedicated filings we have today are luxuries not necessities. Remember, it is the poor craftsman who blames his/her tools. Well, just my nickles worth.:)
    Keep up the good work. :)

  9. Will Myers says:

    I had never given this much thought until reading it in your blog today, but I think you may be right. I sharpen my own saws and over the past couple of years have sharpend maybe a dozen old backsaws. I think that all of them had been sharpened with at least some fleam no matter what size or shape of saw. You see alot more saws than me; might be a clue.

  10. Michael Blair says:

    I read this with interest. I worked with Viet-Namese carpenters and boatwrights back in the ’80s. At least the boatwrights consistently sharpened their panel saws to work as both rip and crosscut. Essentially, they sharpened every third tooth as raker. I found their saws very functional. They were sharpened daily.

Leave a Reply