The Crosscut Saw

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Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
When buying a used saw, examine it carefully. More than likely it will have some rust. Also, it will probably need to be sharpened and have the set adjusted correctly. All of these things can be done without too much trouble; the only real deal-breaker is a broken tooth.

Before electric and gas powered engines, no homestead could have existed without a good crosscut saw. Indeed, saws have been essential to woodworkers since biblical times, aiding in all manner of construction, from sailboats to horsedrawn wagons to frontier trading posts. Continual improvements over the centuries in steel technology and tooth design made the saw a vital tool all the way up to the 1920’s. But then came the faster, more efficient buzz saw and chain saw, and the old crosscut just couldn’t keep up. Sadly, this once indispensable tool now hangs by the thousands on workshop walls around the country, souvenirs from a fading past. My old saw was no exception, until about eight years ago, when I found a reason to bring it back from retirement.

I was trimming logs for a cabin project and the cumbersome chain saw I was using just wasn’t getting the job done. The cuts were too rough and unfinished. So I dug out my old crosscut from the tool shed and found that it gave me a much smoother finish. I was so impressed that after I’d finished trimming out the logs I took the crosscut saw out to the wood lot and sawed some firewood just for the fun of it. It went so well that I put away my chain saw and have hardly used it since.

Buying the Right Saw

The saw I have is a three-and-a-half-foot champion tooth, one- or two-man crosscut saw, and if you buy a saw like this one in an antique store you can expect to pay $30 to $40. A new one will run you $120 to $185. An old one-man saw like mine probably won’t come with supplementary handles, but I recommend you buy a couple extra so that you can mount one on the saw tip to make it a two-man saw and a second one near the handle to improve stability for the operator.

When buying a used saw, examine it carefully. More than likely it will have some rust. Also, it will probably need to be sharpened and have the set adjusted correctly. All of these things Can be done without too much trouble; the only real deal-breaker is a broken tooth.

There are several types of tooth designs on these saws, but the most common are champion (or tuttle) and lance. The lance tooth is best for softwood and the champion best for hardwood, but they are always interchangeable in a pinch. If you find a saw with a chipped tooth point, don’t worry, it’ll eventually be sharpened away. But if a tooth is broken off completely, don’t buy the saw. Also, avoid buying a saw that is so rusty it is pitted. Even after you clean it, it’s not going to slide easily through the wood.

Cutters, Rakers and Jointing

To restore a used saw, remove the handles and clasp the blade to a flat surface. Use a small fine cup brush in an electric drill to remove the rust. Don’t use a big coarse brush on a grinder because it will scratch the surface and may damage the teeth. Once you’re done brushing, finish with fine sandpaper and give it a coat of kerosene or fight oil before reinstalling the handles.

The next step in getting a saw ready to use is jointing. On any crosscut saw there are two types of teeth: the cutters, which are longer, and the rakers, which are shorter. To joint a saw means to file the cutters so that they line up with each other on the cutting edge. If a cutter is even a bit shorter than its adjacent cutter, it will not cut.

You can check the jointing by using a flat piece of 1/4″ steel. Lay the flat metal on a workbench and place the saw, teeth down, on top of it. Rock the saw back and forth observing closely each cutting tooth. If you find one longer than its neighbors, file it bluntly until it is the same as the others. Sometimes, if I find a tooth that is noticeably shorter, I don’t file the others down to it. I just mark it and move on to the rest. After a few sharpenings, the longer cutters will be even with the shorter ones and you can start filing them all together

Use the same flat metal guide to check the raker teeth. Since rakers have to be a little shorter than cutters, we call that length difference the raker depth. The Crosscut Saw Company Manual recommends a raker depth of 1/64″ to 1/32″, whereas Warren Miller’s Crosscut Saw Manual says it should be .008″ to .030″. Regardless, the measurement is very small; so when I’m checking the rakers, I just make sure there is a tiny space between the raker and the metal guide and that the spaces are about the same under each tooth. Under no circumstances can a raker be longer than the cutters or the saw will run rough.

Once you’re finished lining up the cutters and the rakers, you’ll want to check and adjust the set of the saw. You’ll notice that the cutter teeth on your saw are bent slightly to one side, alternating so that one tooth bends to the left, the next to the right, and so on. The amount of sideways bend in the cutters is what is known as the set, and this is what makes the cut a little wider than the blade and prevents the saw from binding in the wood. If a saw has too much set, you will be removing more wood — and spending more time — than is necessary for each cut. On the other hand if a saw has too little set it will bind in the cut, so you might have to adjust the set a few times to get it exactly right. You can make a set gauge out of an old combination square, but be sure to use a square that you won’t need for other things. Once you get it set tight, you won’t want to change it.

When you find the right square, take your hacksaw and saw a point on one end of the square blade. Next, take your saw and lay it on the workbench. Take the 1/4″ metal guide you were using to check the cutters and rakers and place it on top of the saw. This is going to secure the saw and serve as a guide for the hacksawed combination square. Slide the square up and down the face of the metal guide with the pointed blade of the square just over the saw teeth. Adjust the square so it just touches the cutter with the greatest set. Again slide the square along the bar checking each tooth. If a tooth doesn’t touch the point of the blade, gently bend the tooth with an adjustable wrench until the tooth is right. Check and adjust each tooth as needed, then turn the saw over and do the other side. Remember, the cutters are the only teeth that need to be set. The rakers should be in a straight line with the saw blade.

Sharpening and Sawing

Before sharpening the saw, take a close took at its teeth. Some saws are filed only on one edge of the tooth and some are filed on both edges. Whatever the case, file only where it has been filed before. Any small flat file will work, but for best results you can buy specially designed files for crosscut saws. Clamp the saw to a workbench and file the cutters first. Three or four strokes for each is plenty, then turn the saw over and do the other side.

The cutters are filed in a beveled manner, while the rakers are filed perpendicular to the blade and only inside the “V.” Note that rake teeth file quicker than cutters; if you’re not careful, you’ll make them too short. If this happens, just skip sharpening them until the cutters are ground down to the point where you again have the right raker depth.

Once you’re done sharpening the saw, it’s ready for action. These days, most of the crosscut sawing I do is for firewood. I have used my crosscut to fell a tree, but it’s awkward and better left to the chain saw.

I find the best way to cut firewood is to lift one end of a log up on a chopping block so that the length you want extends past the block. Remove any mud or dirt with a wire brush and block the log so it can’t roll. if the log is too short or too light to be kept stable, use a sawbuck.

While sawing, try to maintain the same downward pressure on the push stroke as on the pull stroke. At first, I had a tendency to push down a little on the push and let the saw rest on its own weight during the return. This causes the blade to saw on a curve and to eventually bind. Sometimes, even if you’ve got everything exactly right, the saw will still start to bind. when this happens, wipe the blade with a little kerosene to get it operating smoothly again.

What I like about my crosscut saw is its low purchase and maintenance costs. I also like the lack of noise. But best of all I like the idea that I am rediscovering almost lost technology. And if it takes me longer than it does others to get the job done, so be it. As Ghandi once wisely put it, “There is more to improving life than increasing its speed.”

Lanny’s Sawbuck

Many times when I’m sawing firewood with my crosscut saw I’ll use one of my homemade sawbucks to stabilize the logs. A sawbuck is easy to build and it makes the work a pleasure. The dimensions I include here are not critical, but they do allow for enough space to saw a log into 16 1/2″ lengths of firewood. Plus, since I work best with the logs at waist height, I designed the sawbuck to hold them accordingly. You can change the dimensions to fit your own sawing preferences.

A sawbuck can be built out of just about anything. For mine, I used 8″ x 8″ oak logs left over from our cabin project and the 2 x as were recycled from an old barn. If anything, it’s best to use junk 2 x 4’s to prevent the good oak logs from rotting. Keep in mind that the sawbuck has to be heavy so it won’t bounce around or turn over when in use. Also, it has to be sturdy enough to withstand the weight of logs being thrown onto it. If you build the base like the one I diagram, you might want to cut slants on the bottom so it can be dragged like a sled and moved easier. The only reason I didn’t put sled runners on mine is that I already have a sled that I pull behind my garden tractor.

For the weight on the clamping lever I use a five-gallon bucket half filled with rocks. Also, the pivot holes for the 3/4″ pin did not bore clean so I reamed them with a 3/4 red-hot bar. Believe me, you really want the pin to slide easily or it’s a nuisance to operate.

I only use the sawbuck for pieces of wood that are easy to lift. Sometimes its easier and faster to lift or roll just one end of a heavy log up on a block and saw it there. In any case, after several cuts the log will get light enough that it’ll need to be stabilized on the sawbuck to prevent it from bouncing around. Any wood smaller than 2″ I just chop on, the block with an axe instead of trying to saw it.