Saw Sharpening with Mike Siemsen

On Saturday I took my first woodworking class. Mike Siemsen’s School of Woodworking is located just North of the Twin Cities, a little over two hours from me.


With all these saws I’ve come into and been cleaning up, it’s time I learned to sharpen them.

In addition to the usual multi-day or week long classes I see offered various places, Mike offers a number of short, one-day courses. I’ve come to realize that I’m a bit of a cheapskate, and the sticker shock for these one and two day courses isn’t bad enough to scare me away.

I recommend folks consider taking one of his classes, even if you don’t live here in the Upper-Midwest. Mike offers several classes a month. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is easy to fly into, and his workshop is only a half hour or so North of the cities. You could fly in on Friday night, take a Saturday course, and fly back home Saturday night.

If you’ve seen The Naked Woodworker DVD, you already have a sense of Mike’s ability as an instructor. Definitely worth your time and money.

During the class I struggled with my sharpening. I was angling the file wrong a lot of the time.

I think in part that was due to me choosing to learn on a saw that had a lot of issues. The teeth were not evenly shaped to begin with, so I needed to focus on crowding the file first one direction, then another, tooth-by-tooth to get things right.

For shaping, just worrying about the rake angle before you worry about fleam, you need to focus on two angles while working with the file. You need to keep the motion of the file at 90 degrees to the saw plate, and you need to keep the rake angle of the file constant.

Of course it didn’t help matters any that I appear to be flipping blind. I spent the whole day shifting my glasses from the top of my head, to my eyes, back on top of my head again, trying to see where I’d been sharpening at and what I’d gotten done. I’m going to get one of the light/magnifying glass combination apparatus’ to do this kind of work at.

At first my eyes were focusing on the top of the file rather than the guide block we used. Mike would show me where my angle was wrong, I’d get that corrected, and Mike would walk up, and show me that I wasn’t running the file perpendicular to the saw plate. Then I’d see that I needed to focus on the back tooth a bit more because it was inconsistently shaped, and I’d lose track of one of the other two angles for a dozen teeth or so, until Mike pointed out my errors.

I took to focusing on each variable alone until I was consistent, then added the others, one at a time, till I was getting it right.

Mike suggested on several occasions that I could switch to a lower bench. I’m 5’6″, and the saw in it’s vise was right up at shoulder height.

I believe if I’d switched to a lower bench it would have been easier for me to keep the file aligned correctly. However I wouldn’t have been able to see where I was making mistakes, and where I was getting it right. In the interest of my education, I think I made the right choice to stay at that higher-than-ideal-for-me bench. I didn’t like being “that guy” – the one struggling more than all the others – but I learned what I needed to learn. Being able to see what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong was more valuable to me than being more efficient.

On Sunday after getting back home I was messing around, sitting on the couch with the saw vise attached to the saw bench we made in class, looking things over. I got the angle of the rake right on the guide block, and started to slide the file across the teeth one-handed.

In other words I wasn’t holding on to the file with two hands, one on the file handle, the other on the opposite side at the guide block. It was easy to keep the file at a right-angle to the plate. It was also easy to keep the rake angle correct.

This morning I set things up a bit more seriously, and sharpened a rip saw, this time just holding the file with one hand. I had no difficulty at all keeping my angles correct.

In case I’m on to something that another beginner could make use of, I think accurately sharpening a saw is a lot like accurately sawing a board. We don’t hold onto a saw with one hand on the handle and the other at the toe. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it very difficult to do that and saw in a straight line.

My hand on the other end of the file was a big part of what was screwing me up in class. If I treat the file like a saw, align my elbow, forearm, and hand to move the file freely where it is supposed to go, it comes naturally. Since I’m letting my body guide the file, I’m free to focus on irregularities in the shape of the teeth, and correct them without losing the accuracy of my other movements.

I’ve got a long way to go yet before I’m proficient, but I’m confident now that I can sharpen my own saws. It took far less time to reach this point than it would have without the class, for which I’m very grateful.


This entry was posted in Classes, Experts, Saws, Sharpening, Tools. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Saw Sharpening with Mike Siemsen

  1. jbeal32014 says:

    Looks good. I’ll send you my saws one of these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Greg Merritt says:

    You lucky SOB! I bet it was a great experience even with the frustrations you outlined above. I have yet to participate in a live class. Everything is 4+ hours in any direction.
    Saw sharpening is no different than any other aspect of handtool woodworking. You need to train your body to feel the angles, just like sharpening chisels and plane irons freehand. Once you get the feel you can drop into the angles and sharpen a saw in 10 minutes or less.
    Congrats on the experience and learning a new skill. Awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wesley Beal says:

      Yep, I do feel pretty lucky that he’s so close. I probably over-stated the frustrations experienced in the post above.

      Saw sharpening isn’t difficult, but there’s still a lot going on. Listing out the way errors can be made creates a long-ish list.

      I really think – once you get your head around what variations in the different angles can do, and more importantly in the short term what angle you’re aiming for – treating filing a saw the same as you treat using a saw is a real key to success.

      Get your body to work for you rather than against you, and then let the file do the work.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. wb8nbs says:

    I attached a piece of MDF about a foot square to the back of my saw vise. The MDF plate lies in the plane of the filing so I can slide the guide block on it and the rake angle is always correct. I drew/sawed lines in the surface for a visual guide. There are lines perpendicular to the saw plate on one side and on the other angled lines for watching the fleam angle. The system works well. Now if I could just get the hang of setting the teeth evenly.

    One of these days I’ll write it up on my wordpress page.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wesley Beal says:

      I still don’t own a saw-set. Going to have to solve that soon. I looked on eBay this evening to get a sense what they cost. My impression is that if you aren’t looking for a particular model, they’re affordable. If you’re looking for a particular model, just depends. Since I don’t really have experience using one, I’m trying to identify ones that are recommended by others. Everyone I’ve read that has had anything to say has preferred ones with a pistol-grip style.

      Setting a platform behind the vise would work at keeping the angle consistent. I’m going to keep doing it without for now, at least until I’m satisfied with my skills. My efforts today make me feel confident I can do this. Once I feel like I’ve got the hang of this, anything that would let me get more consistent results seems a good idea.


    • Wesley Beal says:

      Second reply. The more I think about that jig, the more I like it. At first I was focused on the platform meeting the block at the end of the file, and keeping it level. I’m thinking more now about how much those lines would *really* assist in keeping things consistent.


  4. gblogswild says:

    I’ve been wanting to do something like this for quite a while. I’m even closer to Mike than you are, though with the baby and such I have a hard enough time getting into my own shop much less making it out to his!

    One of my upcoming projects is a sharpening bench that will include a permanent place to install my saw vise and other things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wesley Beal says:

      My advice: pick a date, sometime in the future, and just do it. It won’t happen otherwise. There’s always something else going on; some legitimate reason not to do something.

      Those reasons aren’t going to go away. So just pick a date, and do it anyway, come hell or high water.


  5. Pingback: My “Naked Woodworker” Bench | wesleyworkswithwood

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