What To Know About Sharpening a Handsaw

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Thinking of learning how to sharpen a handsaw? As an experienced woodworker, it's a skill I personally find largely unnecessary. Here's why.

Though electric woodworking tools are better designed and more readily available than ever, handsaws still have their place in every workshop. If you’re an aspiring or seasoned woodworker, you most likely own at least one. If so, you’ve probably wondered if it’s worth learning how to sharpen a handsaw. The short answer is, probably not.

A Case Against Sharpening a Handsaw

A few highly skilled master woodworkers still sharpen their handsaws, but they’re rare. I don’t know a single serious woodworker besides myself who’s ever attempted it.

This doesn’t mean it’s never worth doing. But for most beginner and intermediate woodworkers, it’s probably a waste of time, and here’s why.

Hard-point handsaws don’t need sharpening

Many modern saws never need sharpening. You simply replace them when they get dull. The design and construction of modern handsaw teeth make this possible.

The teeth come from the factory razor-sharp. And they’re made of hardened steel, too tough to be ground down by files used to hone traditional handsaws. This toughness means the teeth maintain their edge for a long time. Woodworkers call these tools “hard-point saws.”

Not all modern hard-point saws cut well. One that has been consistently great for me for more than a decade is this handsaw from Irwin. It crosscuts extremely fast and accurately. It can even handle rip cutting in a pinch.

Sharpening handsaws requires specialized skills and tools

A good portion of woodworking skill involves keeping cutting tools sharp. Proper sharpening takes lots of time, skill, practice and often special equipment. That’s why it makes sense to minimize the amount of sharpening you have to do.

For tools like chisels, gouges and planes, sharpening is unavoidable. But for handsaws, hard-point models make sharpening unnecessary.

In the past, before hard-point saws were invented, many woodworkers sent their saws away to be sharpened by a specialist who had all the specifically shaped guides and files needed to sharpen each saw tooth. Those brave few who attempted it themselves were usually in for lots of boring, finicky work.

Hand-sharpened saws don’t stay sharp for long

Even if you invest all the necessary time and money to learn how to sharpen a handsaw and do a perfect job, the saw won’t stay sharp for long.

Like all woodworking cutting tools, the steel of sharpenable handsaws is soft enough to be ground. That means these saws can never stay sharp as long as hard-point saws. I’ve personally tested a hand-sharpened non-hard-point handsaw against my hard-point Irwin. I found the Irwin cut about 10 times as much wood before getting dull.

How To Care for a Handsaw

Whether you opt for a modern hard-point handsaw or stick with an older sharpenable style, it’s important to take good care of it. Here’s how:

  • Keep it in a safe, dry place to avoid rust.
  • Never store it with the teeth near any other metal tools that might dull it.
  • Always fit a handsaw blade guard over then teeth before putting it away.

When Should I Sharpen My Handsaw?

Some skilled woodworkers still like to kick it old school and sharpen their non-hard-point saws. There are a few situations when employing this skill still makes sense:

If you’re interested in woodworking without power tools

Having begun my own woodworking career with this impulse, I can certainly understand the desire to challenge yourself as a true woodworking purist and not use electricity at all, except to light your shop.

If this is your goal, hand sharpened rip cutting handsaws will rip cut better than general purpose hard-point saws.

If you don’t have a table saw or circular saw

Most modern woodworkers use a table saw or a hand-held circular saw for rip cutting. Both give faster, better results than handsaws.

The problem is, table saws are big and expensive. Not everyone can afford one, which leaves the smaller, more budget-friendly option of a circular saw.

Unless you clamp a straightedge to your workpiece for every cut, making perfectly straight cuts with a circular saw takes considerable skill. It takes skill with a rip cutting handsaw, too. But because the cut doesn’t happen nearly as fast or aggressively as with a circular saw, beginners are less likely to mess up.

If you like the idea of skipping the table saw and circular saw for rip cutting, learning to sharpen your rip cutting handsaw makes sense.

How To Sharpen a Handsaw

If you’re determined to sharpen your old handsaws by hand, know that saw sharpening techniques vary greatly, depending on:

  • The shape and size of the saw’s teeth.
  • How many teeth per inch (TPI) your saw has.
  • Whether it’s meant for crosscutting, rip cutting or both.

Fair warning: It’s not easy to do a good job. The first step is purchasing the necessary tools.

Tools for sharpening a handsaw

  • Saw set tool: A plier-like tool used to bend each saw tooth outward slightly.
  • Set of saw files: These triangular files grind away metal on each saw tooth to make it sharp again.
  • Handsaw clamps: These long, thin clamps fit in a benchtop vice and grip the blade of your handsaw as you sharpen it. It’s possible to make your own by rip cutting most of the way through the center of a 1- x 1-in. strip of wood of equal length to your saw, then positioning your saw blade in the cut and clamping the wood strip in your vice.
  • Benchtop vice: This holds your saw clamp in place on your bench as you sharpen.

Here’s how to sharpen a handsaw:

Clamp your handsaw in place

Choose a handsaw clamp of sufficient length to hold the entire blade. Fasten the saw clamp to your work area with a benchtop vice. Place the saw upside down in the saw clamp with the teeth protruding from the top, with not much of the blade itself showing.

Set the saw teeth

Handsaw teeth need to be bent outward at a specific angle to work properly. This ensures the kerf of the blade is slightly wider than the blade itself, and prevents the saw from binding.

With use, saw teeth bend in. That’s why the first step is resetting the teeth with a saw setting tool. Adjust the tool for the number of teeth per inch of your handsaw, then set each tooth individually.

Choose the right file for sharpening your handsaw

Whether you’re sharpening a rip cutting or crosscutting handsaw, you’ll need a saw file with a shape that matches the tooth profile. The side thickness needs to be at least twice as wide as the height of your saw’s teeth to ensure even file wear.

Level each tooth

Pass the file gently over the tips of the teeth once or twice, holding the file perfectly level. This will level each tooth so the newly sharpened points are all in the same plane. The tiny flat spot created by the file on the end of each tooth will be shiny, a good visual reference for not grinding away too much metal.

File each tooth

Beginning with the tooth of your saw nearest the handle, hold your saw file with two hands and perform short, controlled strokes against the blade. If your saw isn’t too dull, it might only take one or two strokes per tooth. If it’s really dull, it might take more.

Sharpen each tooth in sequence, one at a time. Make sure you maintain the same pressure and angle on all file strokes.

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Robert Maxwell
Robert Maxwell is a writer, videographer, photographer and online strength coach based in Northern Ontario, Canada. He grew up on a rural self-sufficient homestead property where he learned the skills to build his own home from the ground up, do all his own vehicle repairs, and work with wood, stone and metal to find practical DIY solutions to many everyday problems.