Chris Schwarz's Blog

Mike Wenzloff and the Remarkable No. 77 Backsaw


As we age, we tend to become more set in our ways. With saws, the opposite is true: The older I get, the less set I want.

For those of you who didn’t get the (lame) joke in the previous sentence, “set” is the amount that a saw’s teeth are bent left and right during the sharpening process. The set allows the tool to slice through a board without its plate jamming in the work. Sawing generates heat, which can make the wood swell and pinch the blade. Game over.

Set is not always your friend. If you have too much set, the saw is impossible to steer and it is difficult to push because you are removing so much wood. Oh, and it makes the resulting cut surface a lot rougher.

So you need to find the sweet spot. And that spot is moving. Rapidly.

If you make furniture, I want to make the argument that your saws can run with almost no set. The wood is dry. The cuts are usually shallow. And the more you saw, the less you want any appreciable set. Why?

Skill, baby. Skill.

Set allows you to steer a saw back on line if you have wandered off because your hands are made of canned hams instead of sensitive sawing instruments. As you get better at handling a saw, the less steering you want to do. You start on the line and you follow the line. And you can almost do it blindfolded.

So having a saw with little (or even no) set has its advantages. It’s easier to push. It tracks a line well if started well and it leaves an amazing surface behind. How amazing?

“Here, touch my wood,” I said to everyone in the office a few weeks ago. Normally I don’t make a stupid human resources/sexual harassment error like this. But I know that Executive Editor Bob Lang won’t report me.

I had just finished sawing some tenon cheeks with the new 16″ Wenzloff & Sons No. 77 no-set backsaw, which is based on the No. 77 from Disston. I was stunned at the surface the saw left behind. It was like the surface you would get from a machine planer. (And with our planer with a Byrd Shelix head, that’s quite a high mark.)

So everyone touched my wood (cue the wife-swapping music).

What’s the secret of this saw? It has no set. Zero. And it has a sawplate that is tapered in thickness from the toothline up to the brass spine. My dial caliper read the plate at .025″ at the toothline and about .018″ up near the spine.

That tapering gives the saw an effective set of about .005″ when you saw deeply. That is remarkable and is what produces the remarkable surface finish.

Using a no-set saw is a little different than one that has set. I’ve used the Acme 120 (Disston’s no-set handsaw) and I can report that the thrust pattern is different when you run any saw without set. The focus is on keeping the saw moving back and forth smoothly. Hesitating in the stroke is what kills you. And what makes you hesitate is the feeling that the saw is going to bind. Keep it moving and it won’t bind. Waxing the blade can reduce this interesting sensation. But I got used to running without wax after a dozen cuts.

Wenzloff hand-files this saw so it has a progressive pitch, starting at 14 points per inch (ppi) at the toe and ending up at 10 ppi at the heel. Wenzloff’s version has a 25° rake and 25° fleam, which is different than the 45° fleam reported on the originals from the Disstonian Institute.

While those numbers suggest that Wenzloff’s saw is for crosscuts only, don’t believe it. It is a fine ripping saw for tenon cheeks and the like, owing to its sizable teeth. In fact, I think you could get away with this saw and a dovetail saw and do most furniture-making operations.

But let me end with a warning. When Disston made this saw it announced on the etch that it was “for mechanics, not botchers.” It might seem like hype, but it’s true. This is a sensitive instrument for making furniture. It’s not a saw for rough work of any sort. If you encounter wood that is a little wet, you will jam up the works.

That sounds like saw snobbery, I know. But it’s not. The Disston No. 77 saws are rare birds – the company didn’t sell many. That’s probably because they weren’t versatile. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that the tool is simply remarkable.

The No. 77 is available from Wenzloff & Sons of Forest Grove, Ore., for the introductory price of $265. I paid that price. It is a steal.

— Christopher Schwarz

Other Saw Resources
• All things Disston are covered at the Disstonian Institute. Awesome.

• Want to restore and sharpen a vintage saw? Visit VintageSaws.com.

• Build a sawbench. Every mechanic needs one. This DVD “Build a Sawbench with Christopher Schwarz” (that’s me!) shows you how.

11 thoughts on “Mike Wenzloff and the Remarkable No. 77 Backsaw

  1. Bear

    Speaking of back saws:
    I ordered a Bad Axe dovetail saw from Mark Harrell at last year’s show in Cincinnati. I spent last weekend cutting dovetails in some cherry and I can’t imagine a better saw for bench work. It starts easy, cuts smooth, stays straight in the cut and has a very thin kerf (little set).

    I have a dovetail saw from a famous New England maker but I wanted a little more depth under the back to judge the line of the cut and so I bought the the Bad Axe. I did a side by side test and there is no comparison. I’ll admit I wouldn’t know fleam if I stepped in it, but I sure like the way that saw cuts!

  2. matt

    With all this talk of zero set saws, just hoping someone could enlighten me as to how best to remove set. Can it be done on wetstones? How do we move the blade? Should I just squish my teeth 5 at a time in a pair of vise grips? Thanks in advance.

  3. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini

    What I think is exciting about these products is that Mike has apparently successfully developed a way to efficiently taper grind saw plates. That’s a fairly big deal. He’s been offering tapered saws for some time, but I always got the impression that this was laborious for him. I’ve had disasterous results tapering saw plates. Remember that a even few thou off such a wide surface is a great deal of metal. Worse still is that thin metals overheat so easily. So kudos to Mike.

  4. Daryl Weir

    Hey Chris,

    I’ve been wondering when someone was going to reproduce the Disston No.77 no-set back saw and Mike was the first one to the punch. I have an old one in my possession and they’re a wonderful saw. I’m curious if the spring steel Mike is using is harder than his regular saws. Not that I’ve checked the Rockwell hardness on my older No.77’s and ACME 120s but they sure do file harder than a regular vintage saw.

    I had made some back saws about 8 years ago, when I still had access to good equipment such as sheet metal brakes, mills, lathes & a surface grinder. I actually surface ground old Disston No.12 saw plate down to the thickness I wanted. Bent the backs (steel and brass), made the split nuts and cherry handles. My next step would have been to make a taper ground No.77. In the past I had mentioned this on a couple of other forums, wondering when or if someone would make the No.77. They are somewhat specialized but I’ve always thought they would be a good seller.

    Now I wonder if someone will produce a ACME 120 no-set? They’re a fantastic saw too.

    Take care,
    Daryl

  5. BLZeebub

    I use an old #77 Disston with ZERO set. I had it done about 15 years ago and have to remind the sharpener NOT to put any set back in when I have him touch up the teeth. All I’ve ever used to combat any friction is a couple of swipes with a plumber’s candle. The kerfs are more like Japanese saw kerfs than Western.

  6. Derek Cohen

    Hi Chris

    Interesting. Of course Mike makes great saws, and more to the point he has great insight into aspects of design. I have a few of his saws and they all provide a great deal of pleasure in adiition to working so well.

    But the aspect of set is the topic here. By coincidence I have been running my LN 15 tpi dovetail saw without set, and thinking about the effect over the past month. I have had this saw for several years and it was not one of my favourites due to the fact that it was catchy on starting and it left a rough kerf. I finally got up the nerve to tone down the set with a diamond stone and, then in a moment of impulse, removed it all.

    Now the difference here is that the LN’s blade does not have the taper built into it as does Mike’s No. 77. Consequently the dovetail saw will bind a little in thick very hard wood (e.g. 3/4″ Jarrah). It benefits from a little wax on these occasions. However in moderate hardwood (e.g. Tasmanian Oak – similar to White Oak) it cuts superbly without any binding! I can place the blade on the line and it will track it and leave a slim, clean kerf. The absence of set makes it easier to saw accurately (tightly) to a line.

    Regards from Perth

    Derek

  7. Joemac

    Unfortunately on March 2, Mike posted the following:

    “Due to personal health issues and family tragedy, I have decided to temporarily remove the ability to purchase any products from wenzloffandsons.com until we get caught up on orders. I expect to have *all* outstanding orders caught up within the next two weeks.”

    I know that Mike’s Dad was very ill and that Mike himself hadn’t been feeling very well. I certainly hope that he recovers soon.

COMMENT