WHEN I first started with the sawmill, most mills at the time were using ‘swaged’ bands, which were bands with teeth formed by squashing the ends of the teeth. Back then, mills were changing blades every couple of hours. The alternative was bands with stellite tips which, for whatever reason, never seemed particularly sharp. At the time, the saw-sharpening companies were using the same grinding method on both the swaged and stellite-toothed blades. The stellite blades lasted longer but cut slower, but both systems were pretty pathetic and sawing wood was a hard, tedious process.

When I was young and relatively new to sawmilling, I messed around with saws, mainly with old circular blades. Through trial and error I learned what was needed to sharpen them, finding that from a pen knife to a 6’ circular, the same principles apply. I suppose by today’s definition I’d have been classed as a nerd, but this was when I was very young, prior to the discovery of other distractions like girls.

At this time I happened to analyse things in minute detail and retained things with ease. One thing I realised fairly early on was that when a circular blade was gullited and reground it didn’t saw very well – until you took the file and filed off the grind marks.

For whatever reason, a saw will only cut if the teeth are very smooth. Maybe it’s due to the cutting edges or the dust sticking to the grind marks, but either way it has the effect of mimicking a blunt blade. I also learned that when sharpening you need to bite into the dull metal with a sharp file. Fast-forward 20 years and I’m still trying to cut wood with inadequate blades.


I asked Eddie Stanely, who had been sharpening my blades, if he could do anything about the grind marks on the stellite blades, and he told me he could buy a special ‘wheel’, but that it would be very expensive. I offered to buy the wheel for him on condition he didn’t use it on other miller’s blades. Some weeks later, he informed that he was installing a new sharpener which sprayed water and provided a better finish. It seemed, almost simultaneously, that every other sharpening company began employing the same system and the results were excellent. 

Circular saws seem to have followed a similar path of evolution. Back in my early days you had plate blades and you probably spent as many hours with a file as you did cutting wood. You also had Yankee blades which had teeth which bit into the log at a rakish angle, and it wasn’t uncommon for some operators to remove every other tooth. These blades were fine if you had someone really competent operating the machine in a careful and smooth manner; otherwise the teeth would rattle loose.

It was at this point tungsten steel blades arrived on the scene and at first I wasn’t a big fan as they didn’t seem very sharp, which I attributed to the hardness of the steel. Again, fast-forward a few decades and modern tungsten blades are absolutely amazing. We’ve run some on a machine now for over a year and I can’t really work out why they are so good, but Swedex blades really are excellent.

And so we return to chainsaws. Until a couple of years ago I still sharpened with a file and the old ‘v’ holder, which I favoured as you can still alter the hook angle of the tooth. I think this was stopped as people used to make too much hook, which made the saw jumpy and increased the likelihood of kickback. The problem with flat file holders is that the hook angle decreases as the chain’s teeth are filed back. 

At this moment in time I’m nursing a sore wrist due to the flare-up of an old injury sustained while tightening track plates. I made the mistake of holding the top of a socket while nipping high-tensile bolts. On the last couple of turns, just as the nuts were tightening, shock waves went through my wrist. Not a problem, you might think, if you’re just doing a few, but nipping up a couple of hundred with four bolts in each damaged my knuckle joints and this causes a recurring problem which flares up from time to time and is very painful.

At this moment in time we’re cutting up reject logs for firewood and I’m very disappointed with the chainsaw’s performance. I can’t seem to purchase decent files these days, and after using up a stock of old files I came across I’ve resorted to using a bench grinder. I know there’s much debate regarding the benefits of grinding as opposed to filing and vice versa, but in my (fairly lengthy) experience both have major flaws and the technology in this area is several decades behind other types of saw.

With this current wrist injury in mind I decided to call on the skills of an experienced cutter to halve a pile of sawlogs for me. He used my saw, but didn’t like the chain as it had been sharpened on the grinder. However, when he then used his own saw he spent 20 minutes cutting and 45 minutes sharpening. Throughout, he seemed intent on criticising my saws and while normally I would take umbrage I listened carefully to his comments and took them on board. He was right that a ground chain isn’t as sharp as a filed one, but I just don’t have the time to spend sharpening with poor-quality files which slip off and remove skin from your knuckles.

I’ve been having a serious look at the bench grinder. Filing by hand is just too slow and should really be confined to the dustbin. It’s also really hit and miss as to the outcome when you want a consistent top-quality finish, so it’s time to use the accuracy of the bench grinder – but we need to improve the process.

The positives of bench grinding are that every tooth is the same size and angle, whereas the downside is you get grind marks and burring. The other problem is that a filed tooth has a nice hook, while with a grinder it is flat and one blunts too easily while the other doesn’t bite in sufficiently. Looking at things objectively, bench grinding has two positives and three negatives and if we can fix the negatives then chainsaws might catch up with bands and circulars.

Forestry Journal: Our writer found a novel way to bring his Husqvarna 395 back to lifeOur writer found a novel way to bring his Husqvarna 395 back to life (Image: Voice)

My Oregon sharpener has had several modifications and I’ve had some really sharp chains that seem to last a little longer, but I’m still experimenting. I’m trying my ‘experiments’ on experienced cutters which is resulting in all kinds of weird feedback. I’m quite proud of some of the results as the chain cuts really well, and even with my sore wrist I’ve been able to let the weight of the saw do the work. I then hand the same saw to an experienced cutter who sinks it into a log and promptly jams it.

One of the problems I have encountered – which I didn’t expect – is a ‘lack of feel.’ If you get a chain super sharp, then operators will push on the saw too hard. And to gauge how successful any improvements have been it’s worth watching how well the sawdust is spraying. All in all, even though I’ve only done this for my own use, I’ve enjoyed the challenge.

While messing around with saws, I’ve got a Husqvarna 395 which I’ve had for a number a years and which for whatever reason is quite ‘revvy’ and powerful. Over the years, other people have extolled the virtues of other makes, yet when I’ve thrown down the challenge no-one seems willing to accept it.

One person visiting the yard praised a Makita while another swore by Stihl and I challenged them to a log cut, which both declined. Unfortunately, the lugs on my Husqvarna which hold the exhaust have broken off the barrel. Not wishing to spend piles of money on an old saw I started using a new one, but it just doesn’t cut the mustard, so I’m minded to repair the old Husky 395.

When I was 16 years old I had a similar problem with a Suzuki motorbike which I somehow managed to keep blowing the cylinder head off. I learned from this experience that you don’t need to go everywhere flat out and therefore have to spend every weekend crouched over a bench with an engine in bits. After stripping all the threads I made a big clamp to hold the engine together. On my first day in the woods I was teamed with a cutter who had raced at the Isle of Man TT races and as I pulled up I could see him eyeing my clapped-out piece of junk and shaking his head at the crude level of repair. Now, 40 years on, I’ve just done exactly the same with my Husqvarna 395. It now has a clamp right around the barrel, together with a strengthened exhaust.

I doubt Husqvarna would approve of or copy this modification. However, it’s going like a rocket and so... happy days! The new saw will just have to wait.