Sawfiling 101: Should I fix my own saws?
Dec. 6, 2017 - Every so often I get a letter from somebody asking me how they can learn sawfiling. Typically, they have a bushmill somewhere there are no services available and they feel that it’s just not cost effective for them to ship their saws out to get worked on.
If all you are looking for is the ability to sharpen a roundsaw on a post grinder and replace the odd tip here and there then sure, you could probably get the hang of that without too much trouble. If, however, your ambition leads more towards fixing bent saws, applying and adjusting tension, welding cracks and optimizing your saws to match your own unique requirements, then you are going to need a lot more training and not a small amount of specialized equipment.
Because the casual observer watching a sawfiler work sees only a hammer, a piece of straight metal and maybe some rolls and such, it is natural for them to believe they could pick it up without too much trouble. Of course, we all know the lie to that; in fact, the less it seems we are doing, the more likely it is that we are doing something finicky and critical. As in any trade, there is good reason why it takes four years to become a journeyman and even then, you are only just starting to learn.
It is possible to learn the trade on your own. I personally know a couple of very good filers who have done just that. But it took them many years and many failures, not to mention a strong natural aptitude for the skill and a lot of good old-fashioned stubbornness. Unfortunately, that process isn’t very appealing to somebody who just wants their mill to cut straight lumber in a cost-efficient way.
So what options are open to them? They could get themselves an apprenticeship and attend a saw filing school. Unfortunately, saw filing is not an open-entry apprenticeship program. You need somebody to sponsor you, typically a sawmill or saw shop. I have also seen employment insurance step up and send somebody to school, but I believe you are required to have a job lined up before they will consider it.
There are self-help books available and although most of them were written at least 50 years ago, a surprising amount of the material is still valid today. The challenge to the would-be filer is in knowing what still applies and what are techniques that have long since gone by the wayside. A good text to start with is the Hanchett Saw and knife fitting manual. It was first written in 1956, long before the days of high-strain, thin-kerf and super-critical speeds but the basics, the bare bones of the trade can still be gleaned from it’s yellowing pages.
Another option is to contact saw filing trade schools and obtain a copy of the textbooks all students use. Again, it would be tricky just to take those books and learn the trade but at least you would get knowledge that is current and applicable to today’s saws. If you combine modern texts with the old standards, you will at least walk away with a general idea of what is going on as well as an understanding of what the various saw trade terms and concepts mean.
In the end though, if you try to learn saw filing without peer-mentoring and proper schooling, you are facing a tough uphill climb with little chance of success, at least in the short term. If you plug away long enough you will probably pick up the ability to do basic work on your own saws, but before taking the plunge it would be best to do a careful analysis of the actual cost plus your time plus the quality of your results and compare them to what it would cost you to hire somebody to do your saws for you. In most cases the answer will be clear that having your saws professionally benched and sharpened is a preferable option over trying to do them yourself, even if it means you must package your saws up and send them out of town. You may well find it more cost effective than you thought and the results you get from quality saws will speak for themselves.
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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