The Travelling Anarchist’s Tool Chest Contents: Panel Saws

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Panel saws, huh? Well I have got a few handsaws. A superb old Disston 10 point hangs on my wall gathering dust. I just got out of the habit of using it; lazy really. The dovetail and tenon saws see a quite a bit of daylight as they are bench saws. I could go to the table saw rather than pick up a tenon saw but I am probably quicker with a tenon saw. And I avoid the shlep. I have a nice, big, well-equipped machine shop just behind the studio here. But it’s a bit of a shlep. So a small panel saw seems to be getting more and more use as I get more confident in using it.

That’s an alarming admission. Yes, I have not used a panel saw as much lately as I did when I was younger. You forget a lot in 40-odd years of furniture making. That is the effect of the machine shop. The band or table saw are just too good, too reliable to not be used in this role every day. And the panel saw takes effort, work, sweat. All of which is pleasant to avoid on a warm sunny day – unless really necessary.

But it’s nice cutting down a line with a small panel saw using a sawhorse properly. No screaming router, just argh, argh argh. I wish I had had one years ago. My old Disston is great, but somehow too big, a small panel saw can become a bench tool, like a tenon saw. Saves a lot of shlepping about.

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So what have we got for this young person’s tool chest that will make any sense? The biggest change in saws that I have seen is the arrival of the cheap, throw-away saw. These we have all over the shop; they hang on hooks behind almost every door. These are board saws. They usually have a Japanese tooth pattern and get loads of use quickly ripping up board material or crosscutting the odd bit of solid.

It’s hateful, but we buy them, use them and chuck them away. It’s a scandalous waste of resources that we should be ashamed of, as my daughter would tell me. But saw doctors are getting older and not being replaced. Our saw doc, Brian Mills, is retired now; thankfully he still  does all our hand saws and planer blades. Getting them back into shape after we have mutilated them. Don’t tell him, because he would put his prices up, but he is invaluable. I don’t think Brian has trained a replacement, and when he stops, which will never happen, we are in trouble.

First up are the two cheap throw-aways: the Irwin 990 Fine with a 10-point toothline and a disgusting purple plastic handle. There is also an Irwin 880 Universal 9 point with a disgusting orange plastic handle. They are both razor sharp to a state that they can easily cut you very badly. Both these do a great job, and I will not dwell upon them. Our experience is that the toothline holds up so well that you don’t chuck them away as soon as you should. This means you find yourself working much harder with dull saw than you should. Was that not always the way?

I will keep the purple one; it goes with my purple tool chest. So the orange one goes to our winner. What winner? You must have heard?  Well, we are gathering tools to fill this tool chest. One Chris Schwarz made when he was here with us at Rowden in the summer. And we are giving it to a young maker under 25. Application details are here.

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Now we come to the meat. Two of the best panel saws I could lay hands on. If I missed your saws I am sorry but I can only look at two. These are not “review” saws; I bought these and paid a pretty penny for the Lie-Nielsen 12-point crosscut saw at £174.46 from Axminster Power Tools. The best British saw I could find, and I can’t avoid wanting to support British tool makers, was from Roberts and Lee. Their Dorchester range made now by Thomas Flinn and Co. of Sheffield. This is another 20”, 10 pointer crosscut but at £100.31. Alan Peters had Roberts and Lee saws; my first dovetail saw was Roberts and Lee. So they have history with me. Not all of it good.

These are very different saws apart from the price. One is a stiffy one a floppy. Both are taper ground, meaning the plate of the saw is ground thinner near the top of the saw to give clearance. Both claim to be hand sharpened and indeed both cut very well. The differences come with the handle, the plate and the toothline.

The handle of the LN saw is beautiful, a ripple maple piece of work clearly inspired by Disston. Handles matter. It’s the bit YOU engage with. The junction of handle to the blade matters. This fit on the LN saw is pretty near perfect. The Dorchester saw handle is pretty crude in comparison without the decorative embellishments of the LN. But it fits my hand OK. The fit of the blade to the handle of the Dorchester is tight with five fixings, but the kerf of the cut the plate fits into is still a deal wider than the saw plate. The LN saw seems to be perfectly matched, kerf in the handle, to plate held in place with three brass fitttings.

The plates of these saws are fundamentally different. The Dorchester is a stiff saw with a thicker blade The Lie-Nielsen saw a floppy thin bladed saw in the Disston tradition. You could play a good tune on the LN saw. This is a personal preference thing. Common wisdom was, stiffies for board stuff and floppies for solid, but I don’t think that is totally true. I like the stiff blade of the Dorchester in this small saw, and it seems to cut well for me. Not that the Lie-Nielsen panel saw doesn’t do a great job.

The last difference which makes me sing with happiness is the breasted tooth line of the Dorchester. If you look down the line of the teeth they are not straight but slightly domed. Not much, probably a quarter of an inch. But that for me makes a difference. It’s to do with the geometry of my arm swinging away and the teeth engaging in the timber. Missed a trick there Tom.

Beautiful though the Lie-Nielsen 10-point panel saw is, I am going to put that saw in the prize winning box and keep the Dorchester for myself.

— David Savage, finefurnituremaker.com

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7 Responses to The Travelling Anarchist’s Tool Chest Contents: Panel Saws

  1. xjumper65 says:

    It’s a shame so few people know how to sharpen a saw especially since it only takes 5-10 minutes once you’re practiced at it. As for the throw-away version, couldn’t you cut them down to make card scrapers or something useful to the shop. I’ve never owned one so I don’t know, but I think the hardening is confined to the toothline. If so, the rest of the plate might be useful. Has anyone tried this? I think having some scraper stock around would be handy to make custom scrapers as needed when making mouldings with hollows and rounds, making spoons, bowls, tool handles, kitchen utensils, unusually shaped workpieces, chair devils, turned spindles, Or scores of other applications where you would rather scrape than sand. For me, that’s just about everywhere.

    • Rachael Boyd says:

      the cheap saws have induction hardened teeth and can’t be sharpened but the rest of the plate is fine. I have a few different saws most are old disston’s.
      I love that they sharpen so easily. I have more panel saws than than the bigger carpenter saws cause the fit in my chest. I also have a hard time justifying the $100.00 or more for a saw when I can get one at a yard sale for $5.00 and clean and sharpen it and it will outlast any new saw on the market,and it’s got a damn pretty handle

  2. joefromoklahoma says:

    I don’t think it is totally true either, Mr. Savage; but it summarizes my experience in a way that I had not thought to verbalize or even turn into a coherent thought. As you might imagine, we didn’t (don’t) see a lot of British saw steel in Oklahoma; but the examples that have come my way have all been, uniformly, thicker, heavier and stiffer than the equivalent American or Swedish tool – I’m particularly thinking of a Spear & Jackson panel saw from the mid-19th century in my possession – heavy plate; but extremely smooth running in solid timber. I suspect this probably derives from basic differences in material and design “philosophy”; but I really don’t know and appreciate your tweaking my curiosity. I’d appreciate anyone with more experience than me wading in.

    “Amen!” to the breasting comment. Sandvik saws from the 40’s, 50’ and 60’s were known for their exceptional tooth line – I’ve seen as much as 3/8” in a 26” plate, from the factory – and some of the older mechanics I apprenticed with would not send their saws to be filed by the company contractor for fear of losing that breast to a straight bar on a Foley filer. The difference has to be experienced to be appreciated.

    That’s a lovely London 112 and probably a joy to saw with – wouldn’t hurt to do so, a little, every so often, just to “keep your hand in,” ya know??

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  3. Joe Eberle says:

    Can’t seem to locate either one of those Irwins here in the colonies. Any thoughts on where I should look? Thanks

    • tsstahl says:

      Menard’s in the Midwest.

    • “Stanley Sharptooth” is a decent throwaway saw too. I had a 26″ that I used for years until I finally learned to sharpen my own saws. Even made a nice walnut handle for it. I’m almost tempted to buy another to use on green wood and wood with embedded dirt and crud.

  4. Brian Mills! He’s still doing stuff then. Used to be our saw doctor from long ago, pass along my regards when you see him.

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