Not that long ago, in the days before chainsaws, work in the woods was done with an axe and a crosscut saw. While this era is only 50 years behind us, crosscut saws are now viewed by most as a relic from our past, suitable for hanging on a wall or occupying a dusty corner of the shed.
In their day, crosscuts were specialized tools that were precisely tuned for their task, be it bucking or felling, cutting hardwood or softwood, sawing frozen wood or wood full of sap. In general, crosscut saws work by pairing one or more sets of cutting teeth with a set of rakers; the cutting teeth, sharpened on opposite sides, sever the fibers on each side of the kerf, the raker comes behind them and planes out the chip.
Crosscut saws come in a variety of designs, depending on the intended use. Felling saws are used to make a backcut on standing trees, often in concert with an axe for cutting the front notch. A felling crosscut is made with relatively little steel and has a curved back, both of which provide for better balance and less sag when holding the saw sideways against the trunk.
The other common crosscut is a bucksaw, used in the woods to cut felled trees into logs; they are also used for cutting firewood rounds out of larger logs. A bucksaw has a straight back and is made of significantly more steel than a felling saw, to provide more pressure and stiffness on the downward cut.
Also commonly found are one-person crosscut saws with a two-person option; these saws are shaped like a carpentry saw but have a moveable post handle that can be mounted at the far end to accommodate a second person or set just above the fixed wooden handle to give a single operator better control. Virtually all crosscut saws cut on both the pull and push strokes, regardless of whether they’re one- or two-person saws.
Tooth pattern is another variable in crosscut saws. Among antique saws, the lance tooth and perforated lance tooth patterns are the most common and can be very effective at cutting. Each has two sets of cutting teeth per raker; the perforated pattern has each set of cutting teeth joined together with a strap of metal half way up the tooth to provide more stability. Lance tooth patterns were used for cutting softwoods; perforated for cutting either hardwood or softwood.
When well cared for, crosscut saws can still provide a quiet and efficient way of cutting wood, particularly bucking logs. While they don’t offer the bore cutting capability of a chain saw, they are simple and elegant tools that do offer exercise in a quiet workplace without 2-cycle engine fumes.
If you have an old saw that you’d like to try out, clean it up first. For removing rust, use a green scrubby cut to fit a palm sander. Apply a mixture of 1 part each of diesel, kerosene, and bar oil to the saw to help with cleaning (this mixture also works well as a lubricant/pitch-cutter while sawing pitchy softwoods). If the saw isn’t pitted and cleans up to bare metal, it may be a keeper.
Check and see if the rakers are set properly; crosscut saws simply won’t work if the rakers are at the same level or higher than the cutting teeth. Use a straight edge set on top of the closest cutting teeth and a feeler gauge to measure the depth. Optimum depths are 0.008 inches for hard or dry wood or 0.030 for soft springy wood; saws used for a variety of woods are often set around 0.012.
Now give it a try. If you are sawing with a partner, remember to let the saw float in your hands on the “push” stroke, and pull steady and straight on the “pull” stroke. You may find your old saw is more fun to use than your chainsaw.
Carl Demrow is a trail consultant and carpenter when he’s not busy tending his woodlot in Washington, Vermont.