Refurbishing An Old Crosscut Saw: Part 1

Originally, I planned on doing this in one article, but realistically, it would be a lengthy read – I think it is better to upload this project in a 2 or 3 part series. This is a learning process for me, and up until I worked with the Forest Service to help manage wilderness areas, I had never before used a crosscut saw.

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Big John the Badass under-bucking a fallen Black Oak with a Disston in the Rock Pile Mtn Wilderness. Notice the axe technique used to help guide the saw.

My supervisor was (and still is) a crosscut instructor, but due to our working schedules, we didn’t have much time to dedicate to crosscut use or restorations. Luckily for me, I was able to catch a few tips from Dolly Chapman (you may know her from the 1990s USFS documentary Hand Tools For Trailwork) during my short time time at the Wilderness Skills Institute in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. At the time, she was teaching a crosscut restoration course.

Unlike developed recreation and semi-primitive recreation areas, wilderness areas designated by Congress require specific management practices. Under most situations, chainsaws are not allowed for trail work (motorized and mechanized equipment is prohibited), and it is impractical anyway, because carrying a bucking crosscut saw and a full-sized axe or two for 8 miles into the backcountry is much easier to manage than one or two chainsaws, plus adequate fuel and bar oil. The US Forest Service is the primary federal agency that continues to offer crosscut saw courses and certifications.

Thanks to Big John, one day in the middle of summer I was given a few hours to work on a couple crosscut saws that the Potosi-Fredricktown Ranger District had recently acquired.

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Here I was using a pumice stone and water to remove the surface rust from this tuttle-tooth pattern bucking saw. The advantage to using pumice is that it leaves much of the patina intact, and won’t remove the acid etchings of a manufacturer’s brand. The disadvantages with pumice are that it is slow to work on a saw that has a lot of surface rust, and the pumice itself can wear away quickly.

Inspired with the way these saws turned out, I started scouring the local antique shops in Potosi for old crosscuts. Later in September, I found my prize, a 5.5 ft bucking saw with the original handles. The price tag was marked $150, which is rather high, but after inspecting everything, I bought it. The handles were in very good condition, and though the saw blade was covered in surface rust, the teeth and rakers were still intact, retaining their original set as an added bonus. Another interesting characteristic I noticed in the store was that it had a crescent taper, which is a good indicator of a high-quality saw. After showing the saw to Big John, he gave it the thumbs up :).

Two weeks later on one of my days-off, I started working on the handles. The metal parts were tricky to remove. I needed the help of an adjustable wrench and WD-40 in order to twist off the wingnuts, and all the metal bits were rusty. I couldn’t get the threaded rod and pin mechanisms to come off, so I just removed the wingnuts and clamps. They were immersed in vinegar for 24 hours, followed by some vigourous brushing with a file card, and then a sanding to bring out a little shine. They aren’t anywhere near sparkling, but they sure look better than before, and I like the rustic look the patina gives.

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The two wooden handles were extremely dry and cracked in places, and much of the wood was discoloured from years of dust and dirt. I sanded them down, and then started applying multiple thick coats of linseed oil. I’m not sure exactly what kind of wood the handles are made out of. Regardless, the remnants of the dirt and dust trapped in the pores of the wood gave the handles a very lovely, rich walnut-colour when I applied linseed oil. I sealed the wood with a beeswax finish. They feel very comfortable in the hand and appear to be the “Triumph”-style made by the Henry Disston & Sons company.

Later on, I managed to take off the thread rod and pin mechanisms with an old file, using the tang as a punch to knock out the pins. I used a lot of WD-40 to help loosen the rust. After removal, they were soaked in vinegar for a day, and then scoured with a wire brush and 100 grit sandpaper. With those final bits off, I could begin the rust removal process on the saw blade, starting with a double-sided, medium and fine grit waterstone (more abrasive than pumice).

Before:

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…and after:

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It took about 2 hours to clean-up both sides with the stone followed by fine-grade steel wool. I lightly passed the stone across the teeth to confirm that they were still in set. The waterstone left most of the patina untouched, though I could not see any acid etching left by the manufacturer. You don’t need a mirror polish on crosscut saws – in fact, going to that length is often discouraged because you can take off a lot of metal from the blade, making it prone to warping and breaking. If the surfaces on both sides of the blade are smooth, it’s good enough for functionality. With all the metal parts cleaned, I rubbed on some WD-40 to prevent rust buildup from moisture. I do not recommend using linseed oil (raw or boiled) on any kind of saw blade, because it will harden, forming a slightly rough surface, which will cause friction in the cut and can lead to binding issues.

Due to my work schedule, I was unable to make any more progress with the saw, though before I left Missouri, I purchased a 6×9 canvas drop cloth to use as an improvised sheath. Fire-hose also works well as a durable, lighter-weight sheath, though a drop cloth allows the entire blade to be protected.

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Today, I took out the saw for a trial run on some seasoned Norway Maple from a tree that was felled on our property. The teeth have not yet been sharpened – this was just a test to see if the rakers are set at the correct height, as I currently don’t have a raker gauge.

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From what I could determine, the rakers appear to be near the correct height. The saw cut nice and smooth, considering that the teeth have not yet been sharpened. The rakers probably need some fine-tuning, but so far I am quite impressed.

That’s it for now. Until I can make myself a suitable saw vice, I’m not going to attempt to fiddle around with the teeth and rakers. I have been using the US Forest Service Saws that Sing Guide for research, but any additional insight or advice from sawyers is welcome :).

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