Saw Filing 101: never stop learning on the job

Trevor Shpeley
March 26, 2018
By Trevor Shpeley
March 26, 2018 - Congratulations. You have served your four-year apprenticeship and passed your schooling with flying colours. Your head filer told you that you have done very well, the mill is pleased with your work and your job is even becoming, dare I say it, routine. So, are you done? Not even close. In fact, you’ve only just begun.


A journeyman certificate is only a piece of paper. Sure, you might be doing an excellent job in your mill; you might even think that you have quite a few tricks up your sleeve. But trust me, it’s not enough. Sooner or later something will change, and you will be pushed out of your comfort zone. Techniques you have used for years might not work anymore. You might start getting cracks, or your saws just won’t run even though you haven’t changed a thing. Of course, that is the problem, you haven’t changed a thing because despite your experience you are in a self-imposed rut and you don’t know how to adapt.

Back in the day, there was a lot of movement in the sawfiler population. It wasn’t unusual to change mills several times during your career. Working in different conditions with different people exposed filers to old-timers who had seen a great deal and were willing to share their experience. In this way, the sawfilers’ education was continuous.

These days, it’s not unusual to have a filing room full of long-term filers who have never worked anywhere else or studied the trade since the day they got out of school. They are probably very good at their jobs and proud of how their mill runs, but if you take them out of their familiar environments they are guaranteed to struggle. The struggle is not from a lack of skill, but from knowledge stagnation that over-specialisation encourages.

That leads us to the obvious question, “Where does the modern sawfiler go to continue his or her education after the schooling is over?” Here are several good sources of information that aren’t hard to access for any filer with a will to learn.

Your school books. I know you think you know those things backwards and forwards — after all, you studied hard when you were in school — but take another look anyway, you may be surprised by how much of it you have forgotten. Skip the “how to bench saws” sections and instead search for background theories such as the reasons for saw snaking, the causes of cracks, and the differences between saw applications. Look for formulas and don’t just memorise them, understand what they mean and why you need to know them. Re-learn the technical background you will need to design saws, work on unfamiliar equipment, and diagnose problems you’ve never run into before.

Sawfiling conventions. There is no better way to learn new practices, tools and innovations than by talking to your peers. Preferably you want to meet as many as possible in a relaxed environment where everybody is there to talk about saw filing. Throw in a dozen or so presenters lecturing on the latest techniques, an army of salesmen falling over each other to be the first to tell you about their products and a generally cheery atmosphere and you have a recipe for some very condensed learning indeed!

Social media and the internet. Yes, even in the stodgy world of saw filing the internet has arrived and changed everything. Got a filing question? There’s a Facebook group for that. In fact there are dozens of them for sawfilers. Go ahead and Google your sawfiling questions; you will be led down some amazing rabbit holes as one topic leads to another and before you know it you are reading somebody’s PhD thesis on circular saw vibration. As for the accuracy of anything you get online, well, it’s caveat emptor. Use common sense and try to get more than one source for anything you read.

And finally, just talk to other filers. Go for a cold beverage and talk about whatever you like. The conversation will naturally circle around to what’s going on in your various mills and the successes or failures of recent experiments with new tools or techniques.

In the end it doesn’t matter where you get your education as long as you keep learning. Knowing how to do your job isn’t enough; that only makes you a good worker. Being able to apply your skills in the face of constantly changing conditions is what makes you a tradesman, and isn’t that what we all like to call ourselves?


Trevor Shpeley is on the executive of the BC Sawfilers Association and works as a filer at Kalesnikoff Lumber in British Columbia.

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