How to Maintain your Bad Axe (or Vintage) Back Saw
You just bought a really nice saw for somewhere north of $300 USD, and you may be wondering whether to hang it up over the fireplace for public view, or to actually use it. Because if you use it--then over time, you're going to fingerprint it, dull the teeth, and maybe even put a kink in the toothline. Oh, my.
So let's take true ownership of not just your new Bad Axe--but any other saw in your arsenal--and know how to keep it tuned up without having to ship it back to us or anyone else.
Download this file! It consists of free knowledge that will serve you well! You'll find that the .pdf file contains the key takeaways that we teach to our students who attend my saw sharpening seminars, which orients them on how to disassemble, clean reassemble and retension a Bad Axe or any other traditional vintage backsaw.
Though you can do the same with your new Bad Axe, it's likely unnecessary that you'll need to completely break down your new Bad Axe, as long as you keep it clean and dry, but it's useful information to know regardless, because all Bad Axe saws are built in the same traditional manner in which a century-old Disston or Simonds was back in the day.
When it comes to saw maintenance, the last thing you want to do is put it up on a pedestal. Haven't we all at some point purchased an old Stanley No. 4 off eBay, then proceeded to tear it down, fettle the parts, then put them back into working order? Well, count the parts--over 16 of them. So look at saw maintenance this way: if you can disassemble 16 parts of a hand plane, you can certainly disassemble the four components of a backsaw, consisting of the fastener set, handle, sawback and plate. So let's take the mystique out of saw maintenance. There's honestly just nothing to it. The main takeaway is knowing when to completely disassemble a saw. Let's start with the traditional folded sawback for starters.
Understanding the Traditional Folded Sawback:
Bad Axe follows the traditional folded sawback design for securing the sawback to the spine of the plate, because that is the reason why saws still abound on eBay well over a hundred years after their manufacture. It is a little known fact that the traditional folded sawback allows for minute slippage if the plate is torqued hard in use, and also allows the user to retension the toothline at will.
Many sawmakers today will mill a slot into brass bar stock, and epoxy and/or pin the sawplate into place, making for a static sawback. While this is a perfectly serviceable method of attachment (and lowers production costs to boot), the static sawback leaves no room for error if the plate is accidentally kinked in use through poor handling. It is for this reason Bad Axe incurs the additional expense of making the traditional folded sawback that can be sprung tightly onto the spine of the sawplate, allowing it to slip under duress rather than kink.
Think of the traditional folded sawback as a ski binding that releases your ski and saves your knees in a nasty fall.
Because a traditional folded sawback is sprung onto the spine of the plate, the plate will slip under duress before it kinks, requiring only a simple retensioning process to make arrow-straight again. It's why vintage backsaws originally made well over a century ago still proliferate eBay today--it's a time-proven design that simply works.
Static-backs are a recent invention from the past twenty years. Though they will make a saw plate rigid, the epoxy bond sealing it into the slit milled along the underside of brass bar stock will decay over time and promote a rippling effect along the toothline. And should you stress the plate through 'inelegant' saw technique, or ask more of your saw than that for which it was designed? Imagine the effect of gluing your boots onto your skis with no bindings, and you'll find out!.
Remember to clasp the underside of the sawback AND the plate where it enters the sawback with thumb and forefinger. Upon tapping, you'll feel the plate slip very slightly into the sawback. Your goal is to get the plate to slip no more than 1/32 per tap, and to NEVER cram the sawback down so much that the spine of the plate actually touches the inside fold of the sawback. The air gap is deliberate, allowing for a teeter-totter effect of the sawback along the spine, which equalizes clamping tension along the spine, which in turns straightens out the toothline.
In summary, it is the traditional folded sawback that underwrites the longevity of any saw. It is a simple, straightforward technology that has withstood the ravages of time for more than 300 years.
Keeping your saw serviceable is about 95% wiping it down and storing it in a safe, dry place. The bulk of this imperative involves refreshing the handle from time to time with wax or furniture polish, and wiping the plate down with metal protectant. That said, here are some key points to remember:
- Once you're done using your saw, wipe it free of fingerprints. The oil in your skin will print your plate, and eventually etch your print into the metal that will never go away.
NEVER spray your plate down and simply leave it. Regardless of whether you're using WD40, Spraybees, or any other metal protectant. ALWAYS spray the plate, then wipe it down with a clean cotton cloth.
- NEVER scrub the sawback or plate of a brand new saw with any abrasive pad, like a 3M pad, Brillo pad, or steel wool. You will swirl scratches into the metal or finish if you do so. Of course, vintage saws like the one pictured below will require more aggressive measures, so do what you gotta do to get the rust and scale off. The plate will never be bright as it was the day it was made, but the intent is to mitigate friction in the cut with a clean plate. Just remember to wipe down your brand new Bad Axe with a clean t-shirt and a can of Spraybees, which does the trick.
While Bad Axe offers cleaning and maintenance supplies to keep your plate rust-free and the wood freshened up, there are many other products out there that will do the same. Here are some of the products we use every day in our own shop that makes sense to us.
Fine Woodworking's Editor Asa Christiana was kind enough to visit our shop in 2015 for a photo shoot in support of an article I wrote for the Nov-Dec 2015 issue about the Bad Axe method of what we call 'clock-sharpening,' the technique we impart to our students attending our quarterly seminars.
Frankly speaking--there's no secret sauce to it. We at Bad Axe just do the simple things really well: that is to say we hammer-set the toothline, and sharpen to joint. Everything else is superfluous. Sure, you can read the latest saw geek arcana online about precise geometric angles and which bevel is best for a particular cut, but at the end of the day, sharpening to joint with a consistently set toothline is what matters most.
The article Asa pushed for publication with me addresses how a hammer-set toothline when dressed with an Arkansas hard stone delivers dead-nuts consistency that can be assessed with digital calipers. It also addresses how to use a simple clock method for reference when orienting your file, and how sharpening to joint is paramount, so every tooth cuts.
So pick up an old Disston No. 4 beater off eBay and have fun with it. The worst that can happen is you'll burn through a couple of files and mess up an already compromised toothline. But if you stick with it, you'll figure it out, because experience truly is the best teacher. And don't hesitate to check out our saw restoration and sharpening seminar dates--we're all veterans here at the Bad Axe workshop, and we'll line you up with a saw vise and make it real.