38: A Tale of Two Saws, part 3 of 3

Josh Burt, expert crosscut saw sharpener. Master of a lost art.

Several days after meeting R.O. Wilson (see A Tale of Two Saws, part 2 and part 1), I got a call from Tobias, with whom I had consulted about crosscut saws. Toby was calling from a cell, and I could barely hear him because of the spotty reception on my own: "Hey Mike, you remember that guy I told you about?" Which guy? "You know, the one who is probably one of the top crosscut saw guys in the country. Well, he's here in the park now, finally out of the woods, done with his Southwest Conservation Corps program. We're at Guadalupe Cafe, then we're going home, and he's flying out tomorrow. Want to come over?"

I said "of course," grabbed both saws, jumped in the truck, and got to Tobias's house right after they did. Josh was a younger guy than I expected, younger than me and certainly not cut from the same cloth as Mr. Wilson. He seemed too young to know so much, anyhow. He looked a lot like some of the guides and kayak instructors I've known at NOC, but there was something else, some other subcultural element with which I was less directly familiar. That he lived in Tucson reminded me of rangers I've met in the canyon country, seasoned with red dust and baked in the dry red rock oven of a backcountry very different from ours here. Under the spell of this association, he reminded me of an Edward Abbey character, although Hayduke and Earth First with their symbolism and extreme activism aren't in any way like the experiential learning and service-oriented employer for which he works. Not that he was that extremely rugged, either -- bearded and tired from a week of working on trails in the Smokies, yes, but mainly just quiet and competent with a difficult-to-explain desert/Southwest attitude, picked up over the time that he's lived there. Inexplicably, he's from Ohio, but I don't hold that against him. Nice guy, generous about evaluating my saws and sharing his knowledge, and obviously pretty sharp, like the tools he tends.

Josh looked at both saws, and I learned more in the next thirty minutes than I ever expected from a gu
y who's forgotten more than I'll ever know. I learned how cutters are sharpened, and I was told how to set them with a hammer. I learned that for cutting across the grain of green hardwood, the long, snake-tongued rakers needed to be maybe 1/1200 of an inch shorter than the cutter teeth. I learned that some sawyers tap the two wayward points of each raker, bending the edge over, length-ways to the saw, giving them a sort of chisel angle so that they pull more shavings out of the cut made by the cutters they follow. This is called "swage" and pronounced "swedge." Swaging the rakers.

Josh agrees my saw might be an Atkins from maybe the early 1940's, not an "offbrand" like my other saw, and that it has a Champion tooth pattern, usually used for cutting green hardwood. Now, I need to get hold of some tools, and build a saw vice. I have the other saw on which to make mistakes, and learn. Here's the grocery list that Josh gave me (in his words):
A good starting kit for sharpening your saw might include:

  1. jointing: Combination filing tool like the "Anderson" style filing gauge
  2. dressing rakers: 8" triangular file
  3. swaging rakers: Anderson gauge, Estwing Geologist's Hammer (or similar hammer with a small face but enough heft to move the metal)
  4. pointing cutters: 8" slim taper single cut bastard file
  5. setting cutters: Tack Hammer, Setting Anvil (any hunk of metal with a flat side you can hold in your hand up against the tooth)
"As for the saw vice. Saw vices for vintage hand saws are available on ebay regularly, though I've never tried one for a larger "D" handle. Plans for making a larger vice are available through a Forest Service publication called "New Tools for Old Saws" available from the Missoula Technology and Development Center. Those plans can easily be tweaked to fit your saw. "

Here's a photo of Josh and an axe at some work site:

Thanks Josh! This project continues to introduce me to good people and interesting experiences.


  1. "probably one of the top crosscut saws in the country"- very flattering description of an enthusiastic new-b. I've got years and years to go before I can hold a candle to any of the old timers.
    -Josh Burt

  2. Well, keep it up Josh! You're further along the way than the rest of us....


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I use this blog to chronicle certain aspects of my life near the Smokies. I'm building a cabin. I kayak. Sometimes I bike.