Mike Wenzloff and the Remarkable No. 77 Backsaw
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.