The ability to cut wood quickly and accurately is a fundamental homestead skill. And while it’s obvious that your choice of circular saw blades is important for your success putting up new buildings, renovating old ones, and creating your own furniture, what you might not realize is just how much saw blades have improved over the years. The best are better than ever, and cheaper than ever, too. This blog is an insider’s look at my tour of what may be the world’s most advanced saw blade manufacturing facility. It’s one specific place where some pretty impressive saw blade quality comes from.
When I began homesteading my Manitoulin Island property in 1985, the circular saw blades available for my tablesaw and hand-held circular saws were coarse, primitive and expensive compared to the best of what’s available now. Performance improvements have come mostly from refinements in carbide technology, and while today’s best blades deliver an amazing combination of smooth results and rapid cuts, visually similar carbide blades can deliver very different levels of performance. That’s why it pays to know what you’re looking for.
Carbide is the name for a hard, long-wearing alloy that forms the cutting teeth of today’s best circular saw blades. Carbide cutters are brazed around the perimeter of a steel blade body before being ground and polished to a keen edge. While this design approach is universal these days, the way results happen varies quite a bit from plant to plant.
This past May I traveled to Italy to get a sense of the craftsmanship there. I visited small woodshops, a family-owned workshop where they’ve been building wooden boats by hand since the mid-1850s, as well as cottage industries making glass and lace items. I was surprised to see how so much of what would be considered quaint but impractical here in North America, is a vibrant, thriving industry in Italy. As a guy who’s always been drawn to beauty and craftsmanship – however impractical it might be to achieve – it’s empowering to see that there are other people in this world who hold the same values.
Part of my time in Italy included a visit to the Irwin Marples saw blade facility in Udine. Besides being the brightest, cleanest and most pleasant factory I’ve ever been in, it’s also nestled in a stunning grape growing region. You don’t often see a gorgeous vineyard right outside the rear loading dock of a factory, but it somehow seemed entirely natural there.
This facility is the work of a man named Piergiorgio Pozzo. His father and uncle established the first saw blade factory in the area in the 1960s, and both Piergiorgio and saw blade technology grew up side-by-side in that original plant. Piergiorgio decided to head out on his own in 2005, building his own facility that was bought this past March by Irwin Marples.
They use half a dozen steps to make carbide saw blades at this place. First, disks of German-made steel are cut out from large sheets, using a computer controlled laser.
To even out stresses in the metal, stacks of blanks are heat-treated and cooled slowly in an industrial oven before being bent to a slight cup shape, then flatted out again. This process is called tensioning, and it happens to each blade by hand in the Irwin plant. This key step is important because it results in blades that are much more resistant to vibration during a cut than untensioned or poorly tensioned blades. A steady blade is a smooth blade.
The most interesting part of the process for me was the brazing of carbide cutters onto the metal blade bodies. After this, all the teeth are ground to shape before the blades get paint. This initial grinding process is similar to what happens when you take these same blades into a saw shop for resharpening later.
Irwin Marples blades are new to the market, and you can learn more about them at http://www.irwin.com/promotions-events/marples I’ve been using a few models in my own homestead shop and for outdoor building projects this summer, and there’s something surprising that strikes me about their 10” and 12” models. Even relatively coarse blades like the general-purpose 10” x 40-tooth model cuts much more smoothly than similar blades I’ve used for years. Conversely, fine blades like the 10” x 60-tooth or 80-tooth model are much better than traditional blades of the same configuration at cutting thick materials like solid wood. One blade that can handle more tasks is always a good thing, especially the way homestead cutting work varies so much from one job to the next.
Like I said, blades are getting better all the time, along with a lot of other tool technology. All in all, it’s never been a better time to build your skills and make self-reliance a reality.
Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.