Thursday, March 24, 2016

Oh The Saw-Geekery Of It All

There's that moment when you're working on a project for a while. You're dialing in the details, creeping up on perfection, and you realize you're too close for clarity. You've weighed too many variables to avoid doubt. 

Too close for clarity. 
The solution calls for a fresh set of eyes. Every so often I am fortunate enough to get a call from my friend Mark Harrell over at Bad Axe Toolworks to act as that set of eyes . . . or maybe just hands, because with Mark's saws I could probably saw to the line with my eyes closed. 

I wouldn't dare to . . . the threat of traumatic amputation looms too large. His saws are damn sharp. 

If you spend just a few minutes visiting with Mark about the design in his saws you discover there is not one detail that's an accident. Consideration in everything. The folded back to tension and re-tension the saw plate, The design of the handles, based on treasured and tested antiques, but dialed in to just the right degree of grip and sized to fit different hands. The specs of the saw plate, thickness, teeth per inch, amount of set, the method of setting the teeth . . .  

For christ sakes he's dialing in the plates to optimize reduction in the heat build up that occurs in the act of sawing. The heat can warp a plate temporarily and Mark just expects his saws to be able to do more. The wood selection for the handles and the finish options on the fasteners is even a consideration to make these saws more desirable. Every one of my (eventually) four saws uses a different species of wood for the handle. It just makes it easier to be sure which I'm pulling from the tool chest. 

It's all thought out with a purpose. And I'm only flashing on the surface of what I understand. Talking saws with Mark must be akin to talking chess with Garry Kasperov. 


He gives me a call and I make time because I know it's always something special. This was no exception. The final decisions were being made for his new take on the carcass saw. 

How much more basic does it get than a carcass saw? You take a backsaw, usually a 12" saw plate, file the teeth crosscut and go to town. My Bad Axe carcass saw follows this recipe, I've used it for years and never thought once about using anything different. I had my carcass saw needs covered so why go through a re-design phase in something that works great. 

Because you might come up with something that works better!

I know, . . hold on. The process started with a saw Mark calls the Stiletto. I've never asked Mark to authenticate my theory, but here's how I see it rolling out. It starts with competition. There are many more tool makers on the scene today than when he decided making saws could be a good idea. Competition is a good thing for those of us making sawdust. Everyone wants to sell us a dovetail saw, because all of us want to buy a dovetail saw. 

The influence from The Cult of Perfect Hand-cut Dovetails is strong. I understand they're a subsidiary of the Illuminati.  


What does an innovative maker do? He steps back and rethinks his dovetail saw from the teeth up. He brings years of obsessive saw-geekery and experimentation to bear, and produces a fantastic saw. The Stiletto works so well, but I, personally, was able to resist. I cut a lot of dovetails, but time and experience in the shop has opened my mind to what saws are most important and I use my carcass saw at least three times as much as my dovetail saw. 

Then I found out Mark was bringing the same redesign thinking to the carcass saw and now I was intrigued. Last week, I had the prototype Bayonet (because what else would accompany a Stiletto?) put in my hands and set at a bench with a pile of dried hard oak offcuts to tear into. I ran that saw until my shoulder was sore. 

The final decision was on the prefered saw plate thickness. I ran one, then waited as James (One of the Bad Axe Spec Ops) to switch out to a thinner plate. 

I'm not sure he knew I was taking his pic as he worked. I hope it's OK.
First time I've met James but it was a pleasure. If you can follow him
on Instagram @0352devildog.
If I remember right we changed from a 0.02 thick plate to a 0.018 plate. To my mind it sounded ridiculous that 0.002 (that's half the average thickness of a human hair) would make a difference. I was wrong. 

The thicker plate worked well made the cut, moved through the cut, and sold me on the saw, but moving to the 0.018 plate was like hitting the perfect pitch in harmony. Suddenly the saw was singing in the cut. You could see it in the smile on Mark's face too. 

"Yup, that's the winner!" 

It's inspiring. The work of a man obsessed with finite detail, a ground up redesign of a workshop staple, and the ability to carry out consistency in those details. Every time I visit him I try and steal just a little of his work ethic to bring back to my shop. 

The day wasn't all Bayonet. I spent quite a while working with the Stiletto too, enough that I couldn't walk away from that upgrade either. Before I left I'd shaken Mark's hand on acquiring both. They're in his quene now and I'll have them in my hands and at my bench in a few weeks. 
 

I use these saws and use them hard. Dovetails to dados I cut all my joinery by hand, and this is where the Bayonet really grabbed my attention. I'm not sure if it's the lower profile to the plate, the 14" length, the hang of the handle, or a combination plus more. A carcass saw to me is more than a finer crosscut. It handles dados, tenon shoulders and sliding dovetails. The Bayonet really feels specifically built with joinery work in mind and I love that. 

Standing on the shoulders of a historic product, with all the things that made it great, yet raising it up to a higher level. 


I call Mark a friend, it's easy to call him a friend, but even if I hated his guts, his saws are the ones I want to rely on day in and day out in my shop. I've tried a lot of different backsaws, nearly all of them (including legendary makers long out of business). Some come close and I'd consider just as good. None are an improvement over Mark's. 

You don't have to believe me, You should just give them a try for yourself. 

More news when the new recruits arrive in the shop. 

Ratione et Passionis
Oldwolf

2 comments:

  1. I'm a huge fan of Mark's saws and share your views on the importance of a carcass saw. What file did you get on it? I've got his 16" tenon filed hybrid and I think all of my saws except the dovetail will by hybrid.

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  2. I have the BeastMaster, the hybrid tenon and the dovetail. All are excellent saws.

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