So You Want to Sharpen Saws....

Sharpening a handsaw may seem intimidating. There are just so many small teeth! Just as a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, so does saw sharpening. A typical handsaw might be 26 inches long and have 10 teeth per inch. That's 260 teeth to keep track of. Still, the process starts with a single tooth, a plan, and a small set of tools. Let's take a look at the tools that I use.


Vise - The first thing you need is something to hold the saw securely while it is being worked on. There are three avenues here - vintage, new, and DIY. I'll tell you straight off that using a vintage vise is tempting. There are lots of them out there at garage sales, flea markets, and online auctions and, let's face it, they are old tools so they must be cool, right? Well, they are also the most frustrating to use. Unless you are lucky enough to find one that has never been used (I've never seen one...), then they will likely be worn, rusty, broken, or all three. They can, of course, be cleaned up and repaired to make them functional again, but I still say that you will not be satisfied with their performance.

I started with an old vise myself. It was an unmarked model with 8-inch-wide jaws and a thumbscrew for clamping. It had no clamp, so I rigged up something out of scrap metal to clamp it in my bench vise. While attempting to file my first saw, the whole thing vibrated and jumped around. The resulting filing job was, well, very ugly and my file was worn out completely. I tossed that vise and went in search for a better one. I found a Sargent with 10-inch-wide jaws and an unbroken clamp. Did it work? Not very well. It had many of the same issues as the first vise. At this point, I decided to ask for help. I started reading about what others were using and asked questions of folks who sharpened saws. Responses were split between a vintage Disston D3 vise and building one from wood.

Since I still thought that using vintage tools was a neat and cool thing, I searched eBay for an affordable Disston vise. I found one that appeared to be in good condition and bought it. Upon arrival, I looked it over carefully, noting the missing Japanning, rusty body, gouged jaws, and balky clamp. As any good tool guy would do, I took it apart for cleaning and lubrication. It took several work sessions to clean out the rusty metal dust that was packed into every corner and crevice and to remove the rust, scratches, and burrs from the surface of the jaws. Once done, I clamped it to my bench and put it to work. I used it for more than two years before concluding that the "best saw vise ever made" was hampering my sharpening. It vibrated during filing (especially big rip saws), the clamp did not hold tightly to the bench, and the lever that actuated the jaws was a high-wear point that required at least two repairs.

At that point, I gave up on the Disston and placed an order for a new Gramercy vise. Based on the Wentworth No 2 vise design with its pivoting actuator, the Gramercy is made from welded steel. It is very sturdy. From the very first use, it was clear that the Gramercy was far stronger and less prone to vibration than the vintage vises I had been using, even out at the end of the jaws. It was a game changer for me. The quality of my filing improved immensely and file usage went down since they vibrated less. Saw filing became enjoyable. Sometimes, new is a good thing.

Regarding the DIY vises, I’ve never built one, so I cannot comment on their performance. One benefit is that you can make them as wide as you like. Clamping a 26 inch saw in a 14-inch-wide vise has not been an issue for me, but there are some folks that would rather clamp a saw in a big vise once and be done with it. There are many examples and tutorials on the internet, so take a look at those and decide for yourself. There are some real beauties out there.

Files – I like vintage files. There used to be 100s of big and small file manufacturers in the U.S., but now they are mostly gone. There may be a couple of companies still operating in this country, but I think their saw files are made elsewhere. I could be wrong, so please send me a message if you know otherwise.

Anyway, vintage files – the last good files were made more than 50 years ago by Nicholson, Simonds, Heller, Johnson, Kearney & Foote, and others. They can still be found, but the supplies are dwindling rapidly and the prices are going up. Sealed boxes of Nicholson files can still be purchased, though be prepared to pay upwards of $60 per box.

Decent new files made in Europe can be purchased from a number of sources. The brands of tapered files to look for are Bahco, F. Dick, and Corradi. For the budget-conscious, the Stanley-branded files available on are actually not too bad and are only about $2 each. They don’t last as long as the others, but will work okay if you are only sharpening one or two saws. For small teeth, I prefer to use a three-square needle file made by Glardon Vallorbe. They have a much finer arris (the edge between the faces), so the gullets are cleaner and better defined than if a larger file were used.

File size charts are found in many places, but these are the sizes that I like to use.

160mm #2 cut Needle File

16 ppi and smaller

6 inch Double Extra Slim

12-15 ppi

6 inch Extra Slim

10-12 ppi

7 inch Double Extra Slim

8-10 ppi

7 Inch Extra Slim

6-8 ppi

8 inch Extra Slim

4-6 ppi


The actual file selection may vary with the geometry of the given file and the desired tooth geometry of the saw. Feel free to go up or down one size to achieve the desired results.

File Guide – Some folks think that file guides are crutches and that good filers do not need them. I do not believe this malarkey. These are a tool intended to promote consistency of angle while repeating the same stroke with a file literally hundreds of times per saw. I use the Veritas filing guide from Lee Valley, though a simple block of wood stuck on the end of the file works just fine too. Regardless of the device, it is intended to guide the eye to ensure that the file isn’t being twisted out of proper alignment. These tools really are a time-saver since it helps to get the filing right the first time.

Saw Set – My all-time favorite saw set is the venerable Stanley No 42X. Its reputation is well-deserved since it just works. The key is the double plunger design. The large outer barrel pushes the saw blade into contact with the anvil, so that the hammer can make consistent contact with the tooth. There are times where the 42X cannot be used, like when the tooth line runs close to the handle. Here, I like to use an Eclipse No 77 set. It has the same double plunger design as the Stanley (In fact, they are interchangeable. Weird huh?), but the handle design allows for more clearance.

Jointer – Most people have seen saws with an undulating tooth line. It’s because the owner did not joint the teeth before sharpening. Over time, the teeth get out of alignment even if they are sharp. To prevent this, the teeth need to be jointed with a file to straighten out the tooth line and to even up the heights of each tooth. Jointers can be had in a variety of styles. Even a block of wood with a file inserted at a right angle to the face can be used.

Optical Aids – Many saw sharpeners have a few years of “experience” under their belts and their eyesight isn’t as keen as it used to be. A lighted magnifier, an Opti-Visor, or even simple reading glasses can be a big help to bring the teeth into focus. You cannot sharpen what you cannot see!


One of the most important tools of all is knowledge. Here are some of my favorite saw sharpening reference books, most of which were written in the Golden Era of American sawmaking.

“Hand Saws, Their Use, Care, and Abuse”, Fred T. Hodgson, 1883

“The Art of Saw Filing”, Henry Wells Holly, 1864

“Disston Handbook on Saws”, 1911

“Saw Filing and Management of Saws”, Robert Grimshaw, 1906