My Tools #4: A new handle for my 3' crosscut saw

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 04-08-2010 05:31 PM 14224 reads 1 time favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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When my chainsaw broke the other day, halfway through a log, I reached for a secret weapon I’ve not really brought out into the light in the exactly 6 months (as of today) since it arrived: my 36”, German, hand-hammered, regular-tooth, one-man crosscut saw from Traditional Woodworking. Here are pics from early October that I’ve had squirreled away. The saw was so much bigger than I’d even imagined, and I had imagined it even bigger than I would ever have imagined it to be just to prepare myself:

huge crosscut saw

Look at the teeth on this thing:

huge crosscut saw

It’s a serious saw, and I had a serious beard at the time:

huge crosscut saw

This is how it arrived:

huge crosscut saw in packaging

I wanted a rip saw, because the idea here was not so much to final-slab huge logs, but to rip them down to turning-blank thickness slabs so I could then with a smaller, crosscut saw trim out pieces to use as turning blanks. Unfortunately, nobody I could find anywhere, including this company sells a rip saw of serious proportions like the handful of crosscuts saws on display. I got this 8” triangular saw file with the saw to reshape the teeth myself to a rip profile – my growing feelings being that if the world won’t sell me something, I’ll just have to go ahead and make it myself:

8-inch triangular saw file

To file a rip tooth profile, you flip the saw so the teeth point up, clamp the back in a long vise (a saw vise) with the teeth protruding above it, and take a triangular file and sharpen straight back and forth, with the file held level. This creates flat, simple, triangular teeth that cut like chisels as they scrape over the wood. This is good in rip cuts, as the fibers stack up like straws packed tightly together, and this runs across their tops, shearing each free.

A crosscut profile is filed in similar fashion, only the file is turned so it passes diagonally between the teeth on either side – either the tip or the base of the file will be closer to the tip of the saw. Alternating this angle every tooth creates 2 beveled edges on one side of each tooth, which alternate from tooth to tooth, creating something unlike chisels, but very much like knives. If you try to cut with a crosscut profile through a rip cut, the knife edges tend to wedge between the fiber ends and follow circuitous routes as they pass through them, cutting poorly, and fighting the movement. However, on crosscuts, the chisel-like rip profile teeth tend to wedge under the horizontal fibers and tear them up, creating more friction and making a sloppy, torn cut. The knife-like, alternating teeth of the crosscut blade will instead slice through the sides of the fibers easily.

The angle you turn the file to to create the knife edges of a crosscut saw is called the ‘fleem.’ I need to remove the fleem put into this saw to change it from crosscut to rip. One of these days… I have to slap together a saw vise first. Oh, and as you repeatedly sharpen a saw, or file it to a new profile, the “set” of the teeth is filed away. Set is how much every other tooth leans to one side to help create a wider channel in the wood for the saw back to pass through without binding up. To put the set back in, or “set the teeth,” I picked up this saw setter along with the saw and file – it’s basically a fancy pair of pliers that bends a tooth when you squeeze it:

saw tooth setter

But enough of that stuff. There’s a fantastic treatise on the issue of sharpening hand saws here if you would like to learn pretty much everything about the subject.

Alas, I had tried the saw once the week I got it, and attempting to rip the last half of the Chinese elm log reminded me why I had so hastily hung it from a rafter never to come back to it. The handle is an absolute deal-breaker. It’s made of beech, but it’s only 3/4” thick, and for a saw this large, that’s a small edge pressing against your palm. Too, they didn’t completely round anything over – just kind of. This means there are sharp edges everywhere, especially against my palm as I try to use it. After 5 minutes, I gave up, and my palm still has a swollen spot 2 days later. Finally, there’s no little nub to keep your thumb webbing in place. On every push stroke, my whole hand rolls up and over the top of the saw. I can’t get any downward pressure. Why did they round the top?

Take a look at this replacement. I wouldn’t use it if they paid me that $19.95. It feels like they made the handle upside down. The 3 rivets are almost mirrored about an axis, and that would not only put the retaining flourish at the top, where it would help hold my hand in place – instead of the bottom where it is now – but it would angle the saw handle down a bit for greater leverage. Maybe someone’s been putting these things on upside down???

On the flight home to see my folks on the other coast of the US this past holiday season, I drew up various possible alternate handle shapes. Some looked like large Ds, some like large Bs, and one had a pole sticking straight up. I decided to go for the elevated D, and to use up some small scraps of birch while I was at it. After drilling the handle off – a monumental task that required drilling both sides (a lot, while shooting sparks everywhere), sawing, drilling, and crowbarring away parts of the old wood handle, Dremel cut-off wheeling away the rivet pegs – 6, 3 per side, which seemed to be pressed through, then welded in place – then polishing the stumps flat – I designed the following shape, based on a handful of competing needs and wishes:

new saw handle design

new saw handle design

I actually used the cut off handle upside down to design the top portion, putting that little cusp at the top where it really should have been all the while to hold the hand in place. Too, I tilted it forward, as I want good downward leverage and pressure when cutting with this thing. The scraps of birch are seen here as well:

new saw handle design

The heartwood was quite pretty, and there was a beautiful, ribbony chatoyance in the one on the right. Don’t worry, though. I forgot what I was doing and later hid that side entirely from view forever :(

birch scraps

This handle would be 10” tall. I decided before making any smaller birch scraps to model up the concept in SketchUp. I even had the textures lined up, but don’t know how to project them over curved surfaces. Oh well:

3D model in SketchUp of proposed saw handle

3D model in SketchUp of proposed saw handle

I used the time-honored transfer method to get the first piece laid out:

new handle design transferred to birch scrap

I sharpened it up with my Rockler mechanical pencil, which I got with a gift card recently. The reviews were all praise, and I’m singing along now. This is a really solid, heavy, accurate little mechanical pencil, with whopping 2.0mm HB lead inside. The eraser comes in a little plastic holder that features a 2.0mm hole in it to sharpen the lead, and it gets it needle sharp with ease, and then that needle point does not easily break:

new handle design transferred to birch scrap

I got this little Craftsman scroll saw back in high school in the early 90s. I shipped it back from my folks’ place in NJ to my place here in LA last year, and it’s just been sitting first on the dining room floor, and for months now on the garage floor in front of the band saw. It was time to fire it up again. The Zip-Loc bag that’s been floating around with it had all of the pieces, thankfully, and assembly took minutes, cleaning another minute, inserting the blade 2 more minutes, and then I was off and cutting. Not bad! This thing is probably 17 years old. Nice to know something isn’t breaking, knock on wood (and there’s plenty of that around here :)

Craftsman scroll saw

Here’s a little movie wherein I slip the blade at the end, bending it up beyond use (luckily I had at least a dozen more, in a variety pack of about 50 waiting around since about 1993!):

It’s on the router table. I’m so out of homes for things now. Anyway, intending only to lightly and temporarily tack these things together while sanding them to match, I used a few too many drops of CA glue and bonded them forever. I also got the faces I wanted showing on the outside glued together on the inside. Sigh… I just went with it. I’d solve what I could later. I had used the belt sander as well as drum sanding bits in my drill press to really smooth up and get the shape I wanted after scroll sawing out the one half.

Now one piece was nice, and one very roughly cut in the glue-up, so I used first a very large flush trim/pattern bit from Incra with a tall, straight cutter and bearing above and below, flipping the piece to put the pretty piece up top or on the bottom and altering the bit height to put either bearing in contact with its center line so I could cut sections with the grain. I had a huge chipout when I got to a section of the handle that sent the flush trim bit against the birch’s grain when I first started, so I decided to play it safe after that. Nice to have that double-bearinged bit handy! It made them nice and flush, and I was able to use the belt sander to knock down the chipout section to remove it entirely while keeping a nice, fluid curve that looks and feels intentional. Phwew! I switched to a 3/8” roundover bit with bearing in my router table (seen in this picture) to round over all the internal and external edges:

rounded handle

rounded handle

It was starting to look like something. Then I used the belt sander’s face and the wide, round belt wheel at the end (after removing 4 screws and the metal end guard plate to access it) to smooth the convex and concave faces, respectively. Then I put a small, very coarse sanding drum in the drill press and used it to manually shape the handle. Wherever I felt a bulge I didn’t like in my closed fist, I’d imagine the hollow area my finger wanted and carve it out, test, carve, hold, carve, round, smooth, repeat:

rounded handle

It’s not as pronounced in these pics as it is in real life:

rounded handle

Testing the fit:

hand in homemade saw handle

I’ll note that I have something like arthritis in my finger joints, so small handles hurt. I really love big handles. I’ve even at times taped a screwdriver to the back of my guitar’s neck so my hand would stay in a big “O” shape while playing, and it felt wonderful. Whereas this handle probably looks too fat to most people, it was a joy for me to hold, and that’s what this was about – making just the right handle for me:

hand in homemade saw handle

hand in homemade saw handle

Now I had to think about how to fix the overly done CA glue holding the halves together. I hadn’t slathered it on. I just put about 5 or 6 drops around it. However, I didn’t want a few drops of CA glue, and the rough seam line between the unsurfaced halves to be the final joint. I opted to set up a fence on my band saw, and carefully slide the saw handle through, pressed tightly to the fence by my Gripper push block. This split them nicely, once again revealing how dull my band saw blade is:

saw handle sawn in half

At least the blade tracked in a straight line for me. I ran the halves over the jointer very carefully making a few very small passes to joint the faces. The low bit still burned from the band saw blade seen in this pic will be covered by the large, crosscut saw blade when the halves are properly joined, so another jointer pass wasn’t necessary:

saw handle sawn in half and jointed for glue-up

I think these faces would have been so much prettier on the outside if I hadn’t messed it all up early on, CA gluing them together and rounding over the wrong outer edges because of it. Anyway, the two 3/4” birch pieces made a 1.5” wide handle, which was a lot nicer than a 3/4” handle in feel, but was actually just a whisker too wide really. Sawing the handle in half and jointing the faces removed probably 3/16” and brought the handle to what feels like an ideal thickness, a lucky break:

sawn saw handle halves

I drilled 3 really hard to drill holes where the circular marks from the previously ground away rivet pins on the solid metal saw were, then used those drill holes to mark one half of the wood for drilling. Then I used that piece of wood with drilled holes to mark the other half of the wood. This got everything lined up perfectly. Then I used the profile lines drawn on the one half (outlining the blade area of the handle), and steady hands with my laminate trimmer set to flat cut to a depth just about the thickness of the saw’s kerf (tested and refined first on scrap wood for a perfect fit), and moved in passes from the edge back, always keeping half the trimmer base in contact with the wood being backed onto. This allowed me to shave away just enough for the blade to sink in flush between the halves. I just eyeballed it to the line and slightly over, a little more in the corner to make sure the back top corner of the blade would seat in fully.

A visual would probably help a lot in understanding that, so in this shot, notice how I’ve routed out space for the blade’s kerf in one handle half. Because it’s the slightly thicker half, the blade (3/64” thick, as per digital calipers, which is 1/64 shy of 1/16) will sink in flush with that half and end up more or less centered in the handle (the blade outline on the other half was from when I was still considering routing both halves, yet does not necessarily line up with the lines I had drawn on the routed half, as you can’t really transfer the pattern between mating surfaces):

kerf routed out of one handle half to accept blade

Here I’ve filed away the raised edges on the holes drilled through the hard steel blade:

blade with holes drilled for new handle

I had some carriage bolts that were just about the right size, and soon had installed my new handle!

new handle installed on saw

new handle installed on saw

new handle installed on saw

new handle installed on saw

I’m very eager to cut with this:

new handle installed on saw

new handle installed on saw

In fact, I was so eager that at 8PM I went out in the dark and gave a few test passes in that Chinese elm log that’s still waiting to be fully halved. It was joyous. It was practically effortless to push the saw and get a solid, biting cut with no hand hurting, and even pressure across so much of my palm. What a difference between this and even my favorite Irwin Marathon crosscut saws, which have served me so well in crosscutting even some larger logs.

Having the handle angled down a bit really adds in that extra bit of pressure for a strong push stroke, and it’s totally the natural angle for such a movement. After the dozens of hours I’ve put into hand sawing over the last year, I’ve really built up a kind of old-school knowledge about what I need, or feel will work. It’s the whole ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ thing. I know where it hurts my hand, and I think I know what to do about it. I’ve been eager to try a profile more like this forever, and it works as I’d hoped, at least in light testing. I have more to learn by actually spending some time with it.

Until then, I don’t know why they don’t make saws this way. I can tell at once that I’ll no longer end up with the webbing between my thumb and forefinger all swollen, red, calloused, burning, and nerve dead after a long sawing session, conditions pretty much all hand saws leave me in, because the top 1/3rd of the handle is where all of the pressure meets your hand, and that’s the webbing area. I guess most people don’t saw nearly enough to notice this, but you’re reading the words of a man who’s spent literally 2 hours on a single rip cut through eucalyptus (1.5 the first night, .5 the next day, both non-stop sessions) with a crosscut saw, and still wanted more, but couldn’t continue with such a beat-up hand. Hopefully this solves that once and for all!

I undid the carriage bolts, slathered on glue, put the carriage bolts back in and tightened them up hard (with regular and lock washers), and added 3 K-Body clamps with full pressure to get the rest glued up:

saw handle glued and clamped and left to dry overnight

The handles were nicely aligned when I left things to dry overnight. Soon I can unclamp, remove the bolts and blade again, leaving a nice, dry, fitted kerf, then finish sand and apply a durable finish. I’m thinking water-based, wipe-on poly – a smooth, hard finish that should make the birch pop a little bit – but am open to suggestions.

When I get it all finished up, I’ll post it as a project, hopefully with some example sawing video footage.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

8 comments so far

View Jason's profile


660 posts in 4851 days

#1 posted 04-08-2010 05:50 PM

Nice work Gary. That’s a wicked looking saw.

-- Jason - Colorado Springs

View lew's profile


13489 posts in 5098 days

#2 posted 04-08-2010 06:09 PM

I have two of these saws- seriously!!

I used to teach Scuba Ice Diving. We used these saws to cut a hole in the ice. I found that the set in the teeth wasn’t “wide” enough because the kerf kept freezing shut before the hole could be completed. Had a saw sharpening place reset the teeth on one of the saws and kept the other one for cutting wood.

Nice modification on the handle!!


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View Andrew's profile


709 posts in 4541 days

#3 posted 04-08-2010 06:11 PM

Great job, I want a saw like that now, same reasons too. Just have too many projects and not enough time, or money for that process. One tip, when temporariy glueing the handles together, use wood glue on both sides and paper in between, then they just spit where the paper is with a tap from a chisel. Looks like an awesome monster to use.

-- Even a broken clock is right twice a day, unless, it moves at half speed like ....-As the Saw Turns

View Gary Fixler's profile

Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4724 days

#4 posted 04-08-2010 06:16 PM

Jason – thanks!

Lew – that’s pretty funny. I didn’t think I’d find anyone who knew about these saws, let alone had one, and definitely not two! Leave it to LumberJocks. I would love a second one eventually to use for large crosscutting. I’ve actually contemplated refiling the profiles on the teeth to switch back and forth as per need, but that’s just getting ridiculous.

Andrew – I really like the sound of that technique! Do you think it would hold up against some pretty serious routing worK? That was my biggest fear, and why I went a little overboard with the drops. I wanted to be sure the halves held together while the huge pattern/flush trim bit did its work. I could have actually separated the halves to do the roundover work later if I wanted.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View lew's profile


13489 posts in 5098 days

#5 posted 04-08-2010 06:41 PM

These saws and the “Two-Man” variety (longer and two handles) are quite common around here. Folks buy them at flea markets/antique tool places, paint country scenes on them and then hang them on their walls as decorations.

What a waste of a good tool!!


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View HokieMojo's profile


2104 posts in 5071 days

#6 posted 04-08-2010 10:12 PM

I like it, although it is a pretty crazy looking handle to me. I don’t have thick fingers but I’ve got big hands. A saw that has a little thicker handle would be welcome in my shop. If I were to suggest a finish, I think I’d go with an oil. I really like how BLO looks on tool handles. The best part is, if it ever wears through, you just put another coat on. Since it penetrates, there is no need to sand off the old finish to get a smooth refinish. poly could chip off and you’d be left with an uneven finish. Finally, if you don’t like the BLO’s protection, you could always put a coat of poly over the top, but you couldn’t go the other way around.

My second choice would be amber shelac. heck, you could do BLO then shellac. I just know that tool handles tend to wear in select areas faster than otehrs. The ability to maintain a handle on a tool that gets a reasonable amount of use would be important to me.

Very nice work.

View Dennisgrosen's profile


10880 posts in 4458 days

#7 posted 04-08-2010 11:00 PM

I know the saw from a German uncle (but he has past away 20 years ago)
and it was before I got in to the more woodrelated stuf of all my interreses.
I never try´d the saw but I have seen him work with it many times, and he allso
had another handle different from the new one you show.
I have try´d the dubblesaw and if you not doing it for living it is realy fun to use

and I know that many forest men still bring both saws and different axes with them
when they take the chainsaw and go on the job in the forest.
they say it´s just in case and you never know (maybee they are right but I think it´s
becourse they dream back to the days before the noisymascines )


View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 5305 days

#8 posted 04-09-2010 12:54 AM

About every hunting camp and pack outfit I ever worked for had at least one of these. We used the two man ” Misery Whips” a lot more but always had one of these to take along if you were pulling a pack string by yourself. As you all know, you can’t use a power saw in the wilderness areas of the West. I have an Oregon Saw, 30 inch, that I carry in a scabbard on my saddle to cut blow down on the trail. It works on the pull stroke and is a bigger version of a pruning saw.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

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