From Rusted Metal to Singing Steel; A Crosscut Saw Restoration Part 1

I have been fortunate enough to participate in a crosscut restoration class here on the Daniel Boone National Forest, way back in May. The instructor of the course is a good friend as well as a fellow co-worker in the Cumberland Ranger District, who generously lent me the use of his saw vice and tools to complete this project, for which I am grateful. It is an honor to work with someone so knowledgeable, and I hope to absorb as much as I can before he retires. Good crosscut filers are an invaluable resource to Wilderness trail crews and the land management agencies they represent.

Sometime earlier in the month of December (2017), I purchased a single-person bucking saw on ebay. As of now, good crosscut saws are reaching sky-high prices due to demand from collectors and homestead enthusiasts. Ebay is full of bidding wars over choice brands like Atkins, Simonds, and Disston, and the “sold listings” function reveals just how high some people are willing to pay. It all seems rather ridiculous to me, but that’s a discussion for another time. As it is, this saw cost me less than $50 (including the shipping cost). I didn’t even bother scanning the auctions – I searched the “buy it now” category. This saw was one of four in a low, more affordable price-range between $35 and $65. Of those four, this one appeared to have the most intact blade, with serviceable rakers and teeth and no pitting.

I received the package 2 days later. This saw has the classic “D” main handle, with brass screws and a “Warranted Superior” medallion, which I removed and set aside for later. Its blade measures 3.5 ft long, with a Tuttle (sometimes called “Champion”) tooth pattern. It does not have any visible taper, though most of the single-person crosscut saws I’ve seen and handled don’t have any taper either. This is known as a flat grind (as in “no grind”). Vintage two-person crosscut saws usually have a straight taper grind, though the best ones have a crescent taper. If a saw has no taper, it requires more set in the cutter teeth than a saw with a tapered grind. Crescent tapered saws require the least amount of set.

My saw had some surface rust, which was easily removed with my soft Arkansas stone, some 150 grit wet-and-dry sandpaper, and water. This didn’t take more than half an hour. I wanted to leave as much of the patina as I could. For one, I find it aesthetically pleasing, but it also protects the steel from more damaging corrosion. You really don’t want to remove all the patina anyway, because that will also remove more steel, which may weaken the saw. If your stone runs smoothly across the surface with some cutting fluid (water, kerosene, WD-40, or even a degreaser spray work well), that is good enough. Sometimes this process takes a few hours. Power tools can make the job faster, but you risk taking too much metal off the blade.

Once the majority of the surface rust is removed, some folks switch to pumice or fine steel wool. This extra step often reveals a manufacturer’s acid etch, and because of the finer abrading, it isn’t as likely to damage or wear away the emblem (if there is one). I didn’t notice until a few days later that there was a faint acid etching on the left side of my saw, partially concealed under the patina. I don’t have any pumice or fine steel wool, so I carefully abraded the surface some more with my soft arkansas stone until I could make out the manufacturer’s logo.

It’s a bit hard to see in the photo, but the inscription reads, “The W. Bingham Co. – trade XLCR mark – Cleveland, Ohio”. The XLCR has an arrow etched through the lettering.

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After a bit of research¹, I discovered that the company was founded by William Bingham and Henry C. Blossom in 1841, with the purchase of the hardware stock of Clark and Murfey. After expanding their operations, the business was renamed the W. Bingham Co in 1888. For over 70 years, they remained one of the Midwest’s largest hardware distributors, though a decision to close their main warehouse in 1961 discontinued the manufacture of tools under the company brand.

Beyond this, I haven’t a clue as to when this saw was made; I only know that it was somewhere between 1888 and 1961. As far as I can tell, there is no date etched into the blade, and without an archived company catalogue, I cannot pin-point the date of manufacture to even a decade. Still, it is a comforting thought that I have preserved a piece of American Midwest history. It’s also nice to see a different company’s brand other than the “Big Three” (Atkins, Simonds, and Disston), which is what seemingly everyone desires.

Into the Vice…

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With the rust removed, the next step is to joint the saw. “Jointing” refers to the process filing the tips of the cutter teeth and rakers so that they are all even. A jointer (shown above) is a simple tool that holds a file (or part of a file) at a slight arc with two or more screws. Other tools for later stages can be seen in the lower right of photo (from left-to-right: spider; Simonds raker/pin gauge; setting gauge; saw hammer). From here until the saw is finished, adequate lighting is essential.

Some of you may notice that I skipped the “straightening” step. Typically, after the rust is removed, the saw is checked for any bends in the blade, and is then set upon an anvil so that these distortions can be carefully hammered out with a specialized hammer. Because my saw is relatively short, I’m not too concerned about this. After sighting down the length of the saw blade, I didn’t see any major curves. Oftentimes, the longer the saw is, the greater the chances of it having a bend (or more) that needs to be taken out. A straight saw will run smoothly and has a less chance of binding or buckling in the cut.

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When the tip of every tooth and raker reflected light, I began filing the rakers down to a depth of just under .012 inch, using the Simonds gauge. I then used a specialized file for crosscut saws to remove the rust from the gullets on either side of each raker.

Afterwards, I chose to swage the rakers rather than leaving them straight. Swaging refers to shaping the tips of the raker teeth with a special hammer so that they point outward and away from each other. Straight rakers are much easier to file and maintain, though a swaged raker allows the saw to run “smoother” by pulling more material out of the kerf. Swaging can be painstakingly tedious, and it is not without risk. Because you are striking metal with metal, sometimes a raker tip can break off. This can either indicate that the rakers are too hard and need to be tempered, or filer struck too hard.

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Before the swaging process, I started the initial shaping of the raker teeth by filing the raker gullets (the valley between the raker tips) around 3/16 inch deeper, and then rounding them so that the angles were gently sloped. This makes the tips easier to swage and less likely to break (but not a guarantee).

I used the pin on the Simonds raker gauge to check the depth of each swaged raker tip, set to .003 inch using a feeler gauge.

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Unfortunately, I broke-off not one but two raker tips whilst swaging. This was a bummer, and in hindsight I should have had the rakers tempered. The saw won’t run as efficiently as it would if all rakers were intact, though it is by no means useless, as some may think. One of the broken tips is in the middle portion of the saw, whilst the other is near to the “D” handle. I was less concerned about the latter because that part of the saw receives little use. For the one in the middle, however, I carefully filed the unbroken tip to .005 inch shorter. The saw will still run smooth, just not to its maximum potential. I am perfectly OK with that because this is a learning process, and becoming a skilled filer takes years of experience to master.

Typically, a lot of people who purchase vintage crosscut saws send them off to an experienced filer to joint, swage, sharpen, and set (often for a cost), rather than doing it themselves. Personally, I prefer to do it all and learn as much as I can, because good filers are scarce, and “tuning” a saw is an art in itself. Most of the old-timers who used and maintained crosscuts prior to the invention and later introduction of chainsaws for land management are already gone, and those to whom they passed-on their knowledge are few. It is because of the efforts of folks like Warren Miller, Dolly Chapman, Ian Barlow, and others that we have programs like the Wilderness Skills Institute and the National Crosscut Saw Workshop, as well as publications, so that this knowledge will not be buried in the graveyard of history. It is also wonderful that we have over 109 million acres of Congressionally-designated Wilderness areas, where primitive tools such as crosscut saws are still used used to maintain the countless trail systems that traverse these treasured places.

With the rakers done, all that’s left for the saw blade is to sharpen and set the cutter teeth. I sharpened the cutters on mine with a relatively acute angle, knowing that the Clifty Wilderness has a diverse population of hard and softwoods. When it comes to setting the teeth, there are two primary methods. You can use what’s called a spring-set tool, which is basically a lever that you put torque on to achieve the desired set, or you can use a saw hammer and a small anvil. A variation of the latter employs a specialized tool² to achieve the same result with increased precision.

As with swaging, setting the cutter teeth involves a lot of micro-adjustments and checking with a gauge. Patience and consistency are valuable assets. I used the hammer-and-anvil method, using my wrist to control the saw hammer whilst striking the teeth lightly (I call these “love taps” :P). Most people use a gauge known as a spider (shown in the second photo in this article), which may have to be adjusted first using a feeler gauge to determine the amount of bend, or set, you want for each tooth. Setting the proper set requires a lot of cross-checking so that you achieve the desired set without over-setting, and that’s all to be set about that – ha!…I know, that’s a bad one, but I couldn’t resist :D.

I set my cutter teeth to .018 inch, and though I had access to a spider, I chose to use a different tool for checking the set. For bucking saws, a set of .015 is generally recommended, but because my saw is flat ground (as in not ground or tapered), it requires extra set.

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I don’t know if this tool has a specific name, but it is used much like the spider. Unlike the spider, this tool can be used on a variety of crosscut saws. A spider is best to be dedicated to one saw, or one type of saw for a certain task (like a bucking saw with a perforated-lance tooth pattern, used primarily for softwoods). It isn’t uncommon for crosscut filers to have 3 or more spiders in their tool box, each of them uniquely adjusted for different kinds of crosscut saws.

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Whew! Now that that’s done, we’re all set!

Really, Jay??? This is getting old…

With the saw blade finished, all that’s left is to make a sheath to protect it, fix-up the handle, and finally put the saw to work again. Fire-hose makes a great lightweight sheath, though it only covers enough to protect the rakers and cutters. I chose to make a full-cover sheath using a 4.5 x 3 ft piece of 8 oz cotton canvas. I paid around $9 for a 6 x 9 ft canvas drop-cloth from the hardware store, cut it in half, and then folded it into a 3.5 x 2 ft pattern which I sewed together using jute twine (because I had nothing else…I’ll replace it with floss once the jute wears away).

The handle and brass pieces didn’t require much work. I polished all the brass bits with a brass wire brush, some 150 grit wet-and-dry sandpaper, and WD-40. For the wood on the handle, I removed all the old shellac with sandpaper and gave it a finish of what I call BLO-wax (boiled linseed oil and beeswax). It certainly looks and feels a lot better.

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In Part 2, I will take the saw into the field for Wilderness Trail-work. My other saw, the larger two-person bucking saw, is a project that I’ve had to put aside because of lack of materials (jointer, raker gauge, etc.). I didn’t think to bring it with me to Kentucky, and in hindsight, I wish that I had. With any luck, I’ll be able to finish that project eventually. I hate starting a project only to it aside for months, but sometimes, that’s just the way things go. Get busy living, or get busy griping.

Research

  1. Case Western Reserve University, Encylopedia of Cleveland History

2. Page 18, photo lower left of Crosscut Saw Manual

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