A Special Pair of Saws

A couple of months ago, I saw the very saddening news that Stephen Shepherd, proprietor of the Full Chisel Blog, had suffered a serious stroke. I have been a follower of Stephen’s site since its very early days and had communicated with Stephen somewhat regularly through email and our two blogs over the years. While we have never had the chance to meet in person, being physically separated by almost an entire continent, I have always considered Stephen a friend. So it was very hard for me to hear of this event. I was and continue to be very thankful that Stephen survived the ordeal and that his condition continues to slowly improve with therapy. But it is still hard to think that he may never put a tool to wood again. 

Recently, I was browsing the big auction site as I occasionally do, and I stumbled across two auctions for saws that looked very familiar to me. The seller advertised them as “Shepherd” gentleman’s saws. When I inquired with the seller if they were a friend of Stephen’s, they simply replied that they did not know Stephen. I didn’t ask where the seller obtained the saws from, but I did press the Buy It Now button on both to ensure that they continued to stay together and that they continued to do the work that they were so carefully crafted by Stephen’s hands to do.

I do hope that you continue to recover Stephen, and that by God’s blessing you are one day able to put tool to wood again. In the mean time, I hope that you can at least find some satisfaction in knowing that these saws will become a permanent addition to my tool kit, and that they will continue to live on and work as they were intended to do for at least the rest on my days. Godspeed my friend.


The Naked Woodworker – A Must Have for the Beginner

Naked Woodworker
Recently, my friend Mike Siemsen and the folks over at Lost Art Press put out a DVD called “The Naked Woodworker“. The DVD is aimed at the new woodworker who has no tools and no idea where to start. I picked up a copy to watch and then donate to my woodworking club’s library. After watching it, let me just say, that if you are the new woodworker I just described, you need this DVD. It will be the best $20 and the most valuable 4½ hours you can spend before you start woodworking.

The first disc of the 2-DVD sets starts with Mike at the MWTCA meet, buying tools. He tells you what to look for and what to avoid when shopping for tools. But most importantly, he focuses only on what tools you will need to complete your first two projects, a sawbench and a workbench.

This section alone is the kick in the pants that so many new woodworkers need to stay focused. I’ve long suggested that when you’re new to the craft you should focus on a project and let your project dictate the tools you start with, not the other way around. But far too often, the focus of new woodworkers is to try and buy every tool they think they might someday need before they ever cut a single piece of wood. Mike’s no nonsense approach to tool shopping shows you how to focus only on the good user grade tools that you will need to get the two projects done, without spending a fortune in the process.

In the second half of the first disc, Mike talks about how to get your new tools ready to go to work. Regardless of whether you go the new tool or old tool route, you need to know how the tools function, and more importantly, how to maintain them and keep them working like they should. All tools get dull in time, so knowing how to keep them sharp is the most important skill any new woodworker can learn.

The primary focus on this part of the disc is on sharpening plane irons and saws, but Mike does briefly discuss the setup of the rest of the tools he bought as well. Then, using a simple and inexpensive sandpaper setup, Mike sharpens the blades for all of the planes he bought in the first part of the disc, and shows you how to adjust the tools and get them working properly with minimal fussing. There’s no uber tuning and shaving measuring going on here. These tools are set up to build stuff, not show off on internet forums.

After the planes are set up, Mike moves on to the saws. The difficulty of sharpening ones own saws is so over exaggerated it can be sickening. The fact of the matter is that it’s really not that hard. It’s no harder than learning to sharpen a chisel or plane iron. It takes some practice, and while your first sharpening is not likely to result in perfection, it will still result in a saw that cuts better than a dull one. Mike shows you how simple it is and discusses both rip and crosscut saws, again, focusing on getting the saws to an acceptable working level, not striving for perfection.

Disc 2 is all about getting to work with your new tools. Mike builds a sawbench and Nicholson inspired workbench in this disc. The saw bench is straight forward, simple and inexpensive. The design gives you plenty of sawing practice, requires no complex joinery, and results in a rock solid, sturdy sawbench. Oh, and he builds it using only a pair of 5 gallon buckets to work on, because that’s probably all you will have to work with.

Then Mike goes on to build a full sized workbench, again, only using the sawbenches to build it, because that’s all you will have. Mike’s modified Nicholson bench design is really simple to build and incorporates a bunch of really great, inexpensive workholding options. Maybe I like the design because the way he built it is so similar to how I built mine, but it’s simplicity is only outdone by its functionality. Mike has made this bench so easy to build, using no complex joinery, that I’m betting my 9 year old daughter could almost build it with very little help from me. This is the first workbench every new woodworker should build.

So to repeat what I wrote above, if you are a new woodworker, just getting started, buy this DVD before you do anything else. If you follow along with Mike’s teachings in this video, you could have a basic tool kit, a sturdy place to work, and be on your way to building furniture in no more than a week or two.

Maple + Hand Tools = Hard Work

The December 2013 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine recently came out. In this issue, I wrote a piece for the Arts & Mysteries column in which I talked about choosing woods based not just upon their looks, but for the application and the ease with which they are worked. Well, on the heels of that article, I’ve recently found myself working with a couple of kiln dried species that I specifically suggested be avoided if possible, ash and hard maple. Working with these two kiln dried woods has reminded me once again why I typically try to avoid the dried versions of woods this hard. In my defense, they’re intended for very high stress applications, so I need their rigidity and strength. However, that doesn’t make them any easier to work with.


Some time back, I timed myself ripping a 40″ length of a 4/4 board of black walnut. It took me about 2:00, give or take. For a similar sized piece of white pine, I’d expect it to take about half that long. For this similar length of 8/4 hard maple, it took just over 13:00. Same saw; same sawyer. But it took almost 7 times as long.


You may have seen the podcast “Flat & Square” where I timed myself facing a piece of walnut about 10″ wide. It took about 5-1/2 minutes to surface one side of that wide board. The maple, again, took about 13:00, for a face a bit longer than the walnut board, but about 1/3 of its width. Once again, same tools, same craftsman, much more difficult material.


Finally, there’s the mortises. Two 3/8″ thick through mortises in 3″ hard maple. Let’s just say they took a bit longer than the same sized mortise in pine. The Ray Iles mortise chisel worked like a champ though. It was ready for more after these two maple mortises, no sharpening required.

The mating double tenons took much longer as they had to be much more precisely fit since maple does not compress nearly as much as a softer species. After some paring here and there, they were finally “persuaded” into position.

The final result was certainly worth the extra effort, since, as I mentioned, these are high stress items where rigidity and strength were much more important than workability and appearance. But working these timbers made me ready for a nice piece of Eastern white pine.

Straightening a Backsaw

I get a lot of questions about straightening saws. I’ll be the first one to admit that hammer straightening a bent hand saw is as much art as it is skill. Do I think anyone can learn to do it? Absolutely! But it does take a bit of practice and the ability to get over the fear of permanently ruining a saw (it’s likely that you will ruin several during your education).

Backsaws are a bit easier though. Most backsaws that I’ve worked on have not needed to be hammered. This is because the spine typically prevents the blade of a backsaw from being kinked to the point of needing to be hammered.

A backsaw may seem more complicated to straighten, however, because they typically don’t require hammering, they’re actually easier to straighten than an unbacked saw in my opinion. The trick is to take it one step at a time in order to isolate the reason for the bend and only fix the true cause. In a backsaw the wave could be caused by a few conditions. The blade itself could be bent, the blade could be buckled inside the spine and held by the tension of the spine, the spine itself could be bent, the spine itself could be twisted, the spine could be applying uneven pressure to the sides of the blade, or it could be a combination of all of these things.

I will caution you not to just tap the spine lower on the blade to try and fix the problem. While this can sometimes work, it is a somewhat inelegant bandaid type fix that often results in the spine being knocked all the way down at the toe and pivoting up off of the blade at the heel, giving what is actually a rectangular blade the appearance of a canted blade but lacking the support of the spine along the full length of the blade that a true canted blade would have. See the link for the podcast below if you aren’t exactly sure what I’m talking about.

So with that said, here’s how I approach straightening a backsaw, in this order.

  1. Remove the handle. Clamp the heel of the saw, right under the spine, very tightly in a metal working/machinist’s vise, with smooth, flat jaws that won’t mar the saw blade. Using a hammer and a scrap block of hardwood as a “drift”, rap the back of the spine (don’t hit the blade) in an attempt to slide it forward on the blade. Sometimes the saw was dropped on its toe, moving the spine rearward or moving the blade rearward. In either case, the drop causes the blade to buckle inside of the spine. Being under tension, the spine will hold the buckle and not allow it to straighten out on its own. “Sliding” the spine forward can stretch things back to straight if this is the case.
  2. If #1 doesn’t solve the problem, remove the spine. I did a podcast on this if you’re unsure how to do so. With the spine removed, check to see if the blade itself is straight or bent without the tension of the spine. If the blade is not straight, it will need to be hammered straight before reinstalling the spine. If you’re not comfortable doing this, it might be a good time to employ the services of your nearest saw smith. If the blade is straight (or after you have straightened it), check the spine to see if it is straight. If the spine is straight, reinstall the blade per the podcast. If the spine is not straight, it will need to be straightened prior to reinstalling the blade. This is done by a combination of light hammering, pressing in a vise, and hand bending until it looks straight. Once the blade & spine are straight, reinstall the blade into the spine per the podcast. Then go back and do #1 again. Reinstalling the spine can put a small buckle in the blade so it will need “stretching” again per #1. This will also allow you to reposition the spine if you didn’t get it installed exactly in the right spot.
  3. If #1 and #2 do not make things straight, then the spine is either twisted or pinching the sides of the blade unevenly (or a combination of both). The fix for both of these issues is the same, so it’s really not necessary to identify the exact culprit. To fix these issues, I put the assembled spine/blade back into the metalworking vise, held by the toe of the spine, with the teeth facing up. Sight down the toothline and see where the wave is. Using a pair of adjustable wrenches, you need to gently apply twisting pressure to the spine opposite the direction of the wave, to line things back up straight again. This is easily over done, so go easy. You will probably have to apply the opposing twists at various places along the spine with the wrenches held at different points and varying separations between them in order to straighten things back up. There’s no real science to it. It’s kind of a feel and eye thing. Just take your time and go easy with the twisting and you’ll be fine. It will quickly become apparent where you need to place the wrenches along the spine and where you need to twist in order to even out the pressure. Just make sure to always use two wrenches to do the twisting. The vise is to hold things only. Don’t twist with one wrench against the pressure of the vise. Always use two wrenches lightly twisting in opposing directions.

Follow those three steps and you should be able to get things all straightened out. Just take it slow and don’t force things. If the metal in the blade gets stretched too much, it can’t be repaired, so it’s better to go slow and take longer to get things straightened out than to try and do it quickly by hammering or twisting harder. That almost always results in making things worse.

Once I get my computer issues sorted out, I do plan to do a podcast on this. Until I can do so, hopefully this post will help.