Tuesday, January 5, 2016

File this under "western handsaws"

I ran across this video on Youtube the other day by a guy "mad as a hornet" because the new saw files he had purchased were unusable.  Frankly, I was skeptical and thought I would help him out by giving him a link to a supplier of good saw files.  To my great surprise, when I went to the Tools for Working Wood site, this is what I found:
Note: over the past year or so (2014) Grobet, our previous supplier has shifted production from rebranded Vallorbe files to other makers. As stock has diminished we have stopped carrying Grobet files and have gone to the source for files by Vallorbe, Switzerland. However, Vallorbe is in the process of changing their production of saw files and we do not know what the future holds.
 Next I went to the Lie-Nielsen site and, as best as I can tell, they don't currently offer a saw file for anything finer than 5 1/2 ppi.  Ditto for the sites of several other manufacturers of quality western handsaws that I checked.  I did find saw files in most sizes at Lee Valley and, in a conversation with them, am satisfied that they are good quality.

Like most of us, I have read blog posts about the decline in quality of Nicholson files but was under the impression that you could always buy good files from either Grobet or Bahco, maybe not as good as files once were but good enough.  I hadn't shopped for them recently and wasn't aware of the situation.

Curious, I called several of the best companies that make handsaws and talked to helpful people in customer service.  One very knowledgeable person talked to me in depth about the problem.  They can't currently find a source for good saw files and don't know when they will have files to sell.  They are reduced to buying NOS whenever they can find it or using very expensive files from another industry.  They have learned that essential skills required for making saw files have been nearly lost.  Incredible.  I have done a bit of research and learned that making small files is a lot more difficult than I realized, especially as regards heat treatment.  I think that poor heat treatment is what resulted in the warping of the files in the video.  I also didn't realize that a saw file has six sides and that the teeth on the corners are very important and very fragile, but it makes sense to me now.

As a retired economist, I can't help thinking about this in market terms.  Can it really be possible that the market for saw files is so small that it can't support one quality manufacturer?  Is this some sort of short term problem that will get resolved soon?  How come there isn't some technological replacement?  After all, they make little diamond paddles for sharpening, why not a diamond saw file?  Dunno.  My personal guess, admittedly based on economic theory, is that a quality manufacturer of saw files will emerge shortly, but that may be too optimistic.  If there is a small company with the requisite skills and equipment, this is a great market opportunity I would think.

Saw sharpening is becoming a lost skill as well.  I don't know of a sharpening service in Portland, Oregon that sharpens handsaws.  I wonder how long it will be before a quality handsaw manufacturer sells a western handsaw with hardened teeth and a replaceable blade.

This is a sad state of affairs.  We are such a throwaway society we want handsaws that you discard when they get dull.  It is so depressing when a venerable company like Nicholson sells a product that is basically unusable, or so I read.  Truthfully, it is our fault as much as theirs because they have to make what the market will accept.  It's not hard to come up with a list of companies who used to make great tools that debased themselves by making junk in response to market forces.  The positive side is that we really need to support the companies making quality items.  Buy less but buy the best.


  1. Not a particularly upbeat post. I wonder if it is even worth the time and effort for me to learn how to sharpen my handsaws? Especially so if I can't acquire the files to do it.

  2. Probably shouldn't admit this, but if I knew of a local sharpening service that would do a good job, I wouldn't bother. I have so much to learn about woodworking that I'd put my time and energy elsewhere.

    I am optimistic about saw files though, as I just can't imagine that this situation will last for long.

  3. I've been very frustrated with the state of manufacturing in general. The "throw away" mentality has permeated so much that after my generation is gone there will be nobody who even remembers that things (tools, furniture, etc.) used to be made to last.

    There's been a discussion about the saw file topic on the Woodworking Masterclasses forum. Someone indicated that Bahco still makes decent files, but you really have to work to find them.

    You probably know more about this than I do, but capitalism promotes the poor quality and throw-away mentality. The good of society is nowhere in the equation - the good of the stockholders is paramount. I've daydreamed so many times about what a world would look like that promoted the good of all. Companies like Nicholson would be banned from doing business in my country. Maybe the CEO should get a caning, too (just kidding).

  4. Without in any way excusing manufacturers, we have to recognize that it takes two to tango. If we didn't buy the junk, they wouldn't make it. I try not to but I don't always succeed. Sometimes it's their fault, sometimes it's mine.