Singing Saws

It’s uncommon to use a crosscut saw. It’s even rarer to know how to tune it up. Fred Flint is Northwest Montana’s resident expert.

By Clare Menzel | Photography by Sally Finneran

It didn’t take the chainsaw long to outmode the crosscut saw. In the early 1950s, when light, small, and portable chainsaws came to market, most sawyers — whether loggers, wildland firefighters, or trail workers — upgraded practically overnight. Within a half-decade, American crosscut manufacturers disappeared. You couldn’t even buy a good crosscut if you wanted. Why would you? There were chainsaws, fast and powerful. They became king.

The crosscut, a manual one- or two-person saw with teeth that angle ever so slightly in alternate directions, became an anachronism. The old tool earned a new nickname: the misery whip. But it lived on in one place, or in one particular kind of place: capital-w Wilderness, which enjoys the highest level of conservation protection for federal land.

To preserve unspoiled wild character, the Wilderness designation stipulates exclusive usage of non-mechanized, “primitive” technologies, like horses and mules instead of trucks, or crosscuts and axes instead of chainsaws. Those working or recreating on wilderness land couldn’t turn their backs on the crosscut. Even so, they have other reasons to stand by the tool.

“I don’t use the word ‘primitive,’” said Aaron Klug, trail manager at the Flathead National Forest’s Spotted Bear Ranger District, one of five U.S. Forest Service districts that manage Northwest Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The crosscut, he continued, is actually an “extremely layered and nuanced” tool. And the labor is what he considers “almost the purest form of human work.” Klug also objects to the nickname. A crosscut can be miserable to use, he agrees, but only if the sawyer is untrained, or if the saw is dull.

A saw sits in a vice waiting to be sharpened.

In recent years, some people raised on chainsaws are starting to see the crosscut the way Klug does. What’s old is new again — and though some saw companies are selling crosscuts again, they just don’t make them like they used to. The manufacturing equipment from the golden days doesn’t exist anymore. Technically speaking, there’s promise in modern manufacturing methods, like automated watercut technology, but the market is still too small to support commercial adaptation.

If you take good care of a crosscut, and nothing particularly bad happens, it can run smoothly for two or three years. Then you’ll need some help. The shoddy work of a well-intentioned filer could very well ruin a saw, and you can’t replace a vintage crosscut.

Klug, along with a handful of others on the Spotted Bear district, keep their own 20 or 25 crosscut saws in good working condition. Most everyone else in Northwest Montana — from the Montana Conservation Corps and the Bob Marshall Foundation to outfitters and civilians — turns to Fred Flint. The board president of the Bob Marshall Foundation, Flint does it well, and he works for “dirt cheap.”

“Fred’s taken it upon himself to do that service,” Klug said. “He’s a crosscut nerd.”

“It takes patience; it takes time,” Flint said. “In the winter, it’s something to do. I come out here, turn on the music, and put my mind into the tool.”

Somewhere between 80 and 100 vintage crosscuts come through Flint’s workshop, on his Columbia Falls property, every winter. Some just need to be sharpened. Some are full-blown, rusted-out salvage projects — misery whips with the potential to sing.

The rate Flint charges varies, based the condition of the saw. It’s $8 per foot if it’s just a tune-up; $9 to $11 if it’s the first time he’s seeing it. Add an extra $5 per foot if it’s rusty. A lot of saws that Flint sees were filed by people with “good intentions, and no knowledge.” Every farm has saw-filing tools, he said, but there’s a specific way to tune the crosscut. Flint learned the trade during an intense, week-long course at Ninemile Wildland Training Center. He’d just retired from a 30-year career in the Forest Service, and had always wanted to take the training. One of five students in the course, which is always booked full, Flint spent the first few hours learning about saws and the process, and then the rest of the week was dedicated practice. Only after days of practice do you start to get the feel.

Fred Flint stands with a saw in his shop. Flint will sharpen hundreds of saws in the course of a winter.

A saw filer has three main goals: make sure the saw is straight, make sure the teeth are even and sharp, and make sure the set, or the offset between the teeth, is precise. The tools to do the job aren’t complicated, but they are specific. The work requires exactitude, down to mere thousandths of an inch.

To make sure the saw is straight, Flint first uses his eye, and then a straight edge, to confirm there are no bulges or bends. Those will cause drag, no matter how sharp the saw is. If it’s crooked, he “beats on it very carefully” with a saw-filer’s hammer.

Once it’s straight, he clamps it into a hand-hewn vice, for which he got blueprints at Ninemile. “If you don’t have this, you’re dead in the water,” he said. It mirrors the mathematically pure arc of a two-man saw, which is rounded, just a fragment of a great, big circle.

To make sure the teeth are even and sharp, Flint uses a series of files and pre-set gauges. There are two kinds of teeth: the cutters and the rakers. The approach to filing the cutting teeth is straightforward. Rakers are a little trickier.

These special teeth, with a tip shaped like an inverted V, move ribbons of wood fiber into the gullets, which are inverted U-shaped voids between the teeth. Shavings are stored there, out of the way of the cutting teeth, until the saw is pulled out of the log. To fully file the rakers, Flint needs to work on both the valley of the inverted V and the points.

Finally, there’s the set. This is the crosscut’s most distinctive and vital feature. It’s a measurement of how far the cutting edge leans out from the midline — by 12 thousandths of an inch, for general use. This reduces the chance that the wood will pinch the saw.

To make sure the set is precise, Flint uses a small anvil and taps the tooth, “very gently but firmly,” and “hopes it bends out just the right amount.” To measure the set, he uses a tool called a spider set gauge, which has two legs, one of which is shorter by the degree of the set he wants to achieve. When he places the spider on the tooth, it shouldn’t rock. It takes 60, 70, 80 dings to get it right.

If someone’s only cutting drywood, Flint might drop the set down to 8 thousandths of an inch; grabby greenwood requires a wider set. But the set also varies by the thickness of the saw itself. Vintage saws have a varied thickness, side to side and back to back, so that the saw doesn’t bind up in the log. This is called a crescent ground, the “Cadillac saw,” as Flint says. Think of it as built-in set. This is the X-factor that modern equipment hasn’t yet replicated on a commercial scale. A crescent ground is achieved with massive stones as long as the saw. It seems simple, but nobody has these stones anymore or a system for using them safely. And so, on modern saws, Flint puts in a bigger set to compensate for the flat ground.

As with all vintage things, the number of crescent-ground saws is continually diminishing, never increasing. All old-fashioned-minded sawyers can do is put faith in experts like Flint, and hope that they will keep the good saws kicking season after season.

The crosscut is not a tool of nostalgia. Some people, like Bob Beckley, are convinced that if a sawyer is trained on a crosscut, they’re better at their job.

In the 1970s, when Beckley started working for the Forest Service, as a timber technician, he asked the old-timers if they’d show him how to use a crosscut saw. Someone obliged, reluctantly. Why would he want to use a crosscut? Remember: chainsaws.

“When I started [using a crosscut], it was kind of a novelty,” Beckley said. “Now that we’re relearning, [people] realize it’s a pretty good tool.

Now, he’s employed at the Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center as a “traditional skill guy,” as he said, where his job is to keep crosscut expertise alive. He’s working with experts, including Klug, to develop more educational courses and materials. He’s not just a romantic; the program he works for is forward-thinking.

“If you start somebody on a crosscut, you can wind up with a better sawyer,” Beckley said. “When you have a chainsaw, that motor is going to do the work (and) power through any mistakes or binds.”

The crosscut demands more: a better, more thoughtful cut. It teaches problem-solving, awareness, patience, and, in the case of a two-man saw, verbal and unspoken teamwork. It also offers more. Beckley describes running a crosscut with a partner as a “dance.” It’s easy to use in the backcountry and frontcountry. It doesn’t tire the body like running heavy machinery. It requires less protective gear and equipment. It doesn’t eat up gas. It’s sweaty, but it’s efficient and elegant.

“When you get that saw moving, it has a rhythm — it sings,” Beckley said. “If you have a well-tuned saw, it’s a pleasure to cut with.”

Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the winter edition for free on newsstands across the valley, or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.