Hand Tool Olympics: The Big Rip-Off | Popular Woodworking Magazine
 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Sawing Techniques, Saws

One of the (10 million) highlights of the Woodworking in America conference last weekend was getting to watch woodworkers participate in the Hand Tool Olympics sponsored by the Society of American Period Furniture Makers and run by Mike Siemsen.

By the way, I got my bottom whipped by Dean Jansa in the ripping contest. Of course, I was using Adam Cherubini’s homemade rip saw, the only food I’d eaten that day was a cup of coffee and I’m a terrible ripper.

However, watching me lose wasn’t the highlight. If you’d like to know how fast you can rip a board with a handsaw, watch the short video above. Mike Siemsen, who runs Mike Siemsen’s School of Woodworking, challenged Ron Herman to a sawing contest.

Both are long-time professional handtool users. Siemsen has been a cabinet maker and teacher his entire life. Ron is a seventh-generation housewright who uses hand tools almost exclusively. These two trials were run with Mike’s saws. Later, they jousted again with a variety of different saws. Check it out.

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Showing 16 comments
  • Mike Siemsen

    Donald Mayfield wrote:
    "Why must every task be made into a competition. Isn’t there enough competition in life?"
    The goal of the Olympics is to put good, sharp tools in peoples hands and get them to stretch their skills and experiences a bit. We gave a prize to the person with the best time and raffled an equal prize amongst all the competitors in that event. We also had young kids "compete" in the events along with the adults. there were no losers, only winners, having fun.

  • John Minster

    It wasn’t like that at all. Mark and Ron were sawing in the low 20s, I am horrible at sawing, let me rephrase that, I was horrible. I gave it a shot and came in at 43 seconds, slow but I had a lot of fun competing. I was thrilled just to saw alongside of these guys.

    To anyone who will listen,
    Ron Herman was absolutely fantastic. A wealth of knowledge, a great story teller and very entertaining. Every time I saw him I learned something new. In his hands on class he corrected all my mistakes quickly. Not only did he tell me what was wrong, he explained why and that goes a long way to making it stick. His skill and knowledge are extensive, I would love to take more classes with him. He improved my sawing 10 fold, I’m now a sawing and sharpening fool.

    Do you have contact info for Ron or his shop. I have some saws beyond my skill level I would like to send to him for repair work.
    Thank You

  • Dean Jansa

    Donald —

    I think Mike said it well when he said, "All those who took a shot at the competition are champions in my book."

    It may not translate well to small video clips and blurbs on blogs, but there was really no competitiveness going on in the booth. It was all good natured fun, and I didn’t get the sense that anyone took any of it seriously.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    I sucked so bad that everyone was just too shocked to move….


  • Michael Rogen


    How come we don’t see any of your sawing???


  • Roger Wicks


    A happy coincidence of business meetings in NY,NY just ahead of the WiA conference enabled me to attend from South Africa.

    The entire weekend was most enjoyable and much to my surprise, I won the rip sawing event – finding out just before the closing on Sunday morning and being given the saw used in the competition as a prize. My thanks to Mike and his team, both for the prize and for all the effort it took to run the competition over the three days.

    It was a real priviledge to hear you and the other practioners and the tool makers – all "masters in their fields" – in the lectures and hands-on sessions and during conversations in the market place. This sharing of knowledge in person – especially after reading about all of you and your tools, techniques and projects for so many years, was wonderful. If I had one refinement to suggest, it would be to consider head microphones and modest amplification for some of the softer spoken lecturers. Especially in the hands on sessions, there were sometimes several rows of spectators and speakers had to compete with surrounding sessions and the market place, to be heard.

    I concentrated on the hands on sessions and only found out on Sunday morning that the lectures upstairs seemed to have had accompanying printed notes which make for useful reference documents. I managed to secure copies of the Making Mouldings and Understanding Western Handsaws sessions, but not others and I wondered whether registered participants might be permitted the opportunity to download notes from all the lectures?

    Some of the lecturers are way too modest about their own skill levels and were almost shy about elaborating on what it takes to achieve the results they do. Others were just astonishing in their knowledge, ability to communicate, willingness to go over what must be for them relatively boring details – no matter how many times they were asked the same questions. For sheer volume of knowledge, ability to demonstrate and communicate, energy and enthusiasm, my prize goes to Ron Herman – I could have listened to him for a lot longer than I was able to. Jameel Abraham’s benches are simply stunning as is his vice hardware and for those who manged to sneak a peek at the instrument (not sure if it was an oud or a lute) he had with him, it is no wonder he designs and makes with such exceptional skill. Listening to Toshio Odate use his mixture of experience, humour and respectful admonition if one had not already fully read and digested his book, was also illuminating.

    I had a very good time, learnt a lot and was simply blown away by the skills of the craftsmen and tool makers alike. I have returned home with a quite a few purchases from LN and others(and an extra saw!) that I shall enjoy using in the future. Throughout the conference, I was warmly welcomed by all with whom I came into contact, so my grateful thanks to you and the PW/WM team and to everyone who made it such a unique experience.


  • Mike Siemsen

    It is great fun to run the Olympics and meet so many fun and wonderful people. The kids that stopped by the booth and tried the events always drew a crowd and appeared to enjoy themselves. All those who took a shot at the competition are champions in my book. Dean and I had great help with the Olympics from John Priviti, Mark Hochstein and Rob Rozaieski with a helpful stint from blogger Tom Iovino. I would like to thank Peter Follansbee and Ron Herman for stopping by with their tools and adding to the fun.
    The rip saws were 5 1/2 ppi and filed by Mark Harrell of Technoprimitives. I believe they had about 4 degrees of rake and 4 degrees of fleam with sloping gullets. All of that gives you a bit cleaner cut but doesn’t really increase your speed as much as practice does. I hope we can do it all again soon!
    Mike Siemsen

  • Tom Iovino

    Wow… watching those two race made my pathetic times look pale in comparison…

    But, I do have a bid in on a Disston rip saw… watch out next year… I’m coming back as a ringer!

  • megan

    The tools were generously provided by Lee Valley, Mike Siemsen’s School of Woodworking, Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, Bad Axe Tool Works and Di lego Woodshop Supply.

    And the guys working the booth (Mike Siemsen and a crew from SAPFM) kept the tools sharp and in good working order (and provided technique instruction to anyone who asked).

    Dennis, while in the "real" HTO points were taken off for lack of straightness, this head-to-head contest was just for speed (and fun).

    And Chuck, I’m fairly certain they were filed in a riptooth pattern; I don’t know the ppi on the saws or how far the kerf advanced with each stroke — I’ll see if we can dig up any technical info.

  • Frankie Talarico Jr.

    Hand tool olympics. Awesome, wish I had attended. I’m sure they’d put a whooping on me anyway. I know if i entered a contest I’d want my blade extra sharp.

    Were the tools provided? or BYOT?

  • The Village Carpenter

    The handtool olympics were most definitely a highlight. One of the best parts was that kids could participate.

  • Chuck Nickerson

    I’ve done a modest amount of ripsawing (100′ in the last month), and I’m much slower. I can’t blame the saw (Wenzloff 5 pt), or the wood (4/4 poplar), so what’s going on? How much does the kerf advance with each stroke? Are the saws sharpened unusually? The video is fun, but some information would be a nice supplement.


  • Christopher Schwarz

    The complete rules and details are here:



  • Dennis Caskey

    Very cool contest. Were any points taken off for not being straight or accurate?

  • Mack McKinney

    Where in the world are the cards? The try squares? How come no one was there to heckle Siemsen like he did us? What’s up with that?

    Y’all keep setting the bar higher with every show, Chris. Thank you for such a high quality conference!

  • Bob Rozaieski

    Definitely a great time Chris. You guys did a fantastic job putting this event together. Hopefully it will be close enough that I’ll be able to help out again next time.


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