Review: Bad Axe Tool Works 18" Tenon Rip Saw
|Figure 1. The 18" Bad Axe Tenon Rip Saw.|
Retiring after 28 years in the army, Mark Harrell began a second career as hand saw sharpener and restorer. Starting with TechnoPrimitives, LLC, Mark began taking in work in his new chosen field and his skills have garnered many accolades, including praise from Chris Schwarz, editor of Woodworking and Popular Woodworking magazines.
As TechnoPrimitives' reputation and business grew, Mark began eying another avenue of the same field he could pursue: saw-making. Instead of just restoring saws, he would manufacture them, starting with a 16" and an 18" backsaw. With that in mind, he started a new division of TechnoPrimitives LLC called "Bad Axe Tool Works" - a name taken from the name of the area of southwestern Wisconsin that is his home.
I'm a big fan of supporting the small manufacturer, as without these industrious and creative individuals the availability of quality hand tools for us to use would be severely limited. These are the people that not only help keep our craft alive, but gives us the means to do so... But on the same note there is a heavy toll that must be paid by these individuals - their work must truly shine to stand out from the rest. For my part, I would be remiss - when given the chance - if I didn't scrutinize the product in that much more detail if I'm going to offer up a review. Here, I'll dissect the Bad Axe saw piece by piece, feature by feature, and for performance in as much detail as I dare - if you want to skip my ramblings and just read my summation of it, feel free to scroll to the bottom of the page.
Now, I've been blogging about the pending arrival of the new line of back-saws from Bad Axe Tool Works for a while now, but have doing it 'from afar'. While Mark has been keeping me apprised of his progress, I've not actually had one of his saws, only photos of them. Well, the time has come. My new 18" Bad Axe rip tenon saw arrived a few weeks ago in fine form, very well packaged using environmentally friendly materials.
The essentials: It's the Bad Axe 18" tenon rip saw filed to 10 PPI rip (there are both crosscut and rip versions of this and 16" back-saws available). I didn't have this size or configuration of saw in my arsenal, so it fills a need I have - one I feel is essential to most general hand tool casework, as larger tenons are far from uncommon and the larger size actually works well for smaller tenons as well. It's size allows for better control during the cut, and makes it easier to keep the saw at the proper angle to the work. The saw has a full 4-1/2" of blade showing below the back, deep enough for some very large tenons, and the thin plate (.025" thick) is allows for a thinner cut - which means less effort cutting. The 18" length gives you a longer stroke to allow more work to happen with each movement of the arm.
So, now that we know the basics of the saw, let's get down the the nuts and bolts of this new offering..
|Figure 2. The Handle.|
The Handle: Pulling the saw out of it's packaging the first thing to catch my eye is the handle. It's gorgeous - a classic closed-handle shape, reminiscent of (if not taken directly from) handles used 100 years ago by major saw makers on their premium back-saws. The wood used is cherry of good stock, and the craftsmanship looks to be flawless - with each line flowing into the next just as it should. All of the lines are crisp and even, and the blade is fitted into it nicely.
Holding it, it feels comfortable and balanced in my hand and the handle feels solidly mounted to the blade, important in a saw of this heft. The size of the handle is comparable to several vintage handles on saws I own - the horns are appropriately sized for the size of the handle and are shaped as to be comfortable to the hand. The angle of the handle in relation to the cutting edge feels good when using the saw.
|Figure 3. Bad Axe Medallion.|
The Medallion and Split Nuts: The handle is held onto the plate with machined brass split nuts of classic design, with a medallion sporting a Bad Axe logo in raised relief with the year 2009 showing in the upper center. While medallions do nothing for the performance of a saw, this one has a classy design, and is well done - the raised relief is evocative of classic medallions used in early Disston and the like, and it adds an air of legitimacy to the saw over an etched logo or the lack of any medallion at all.
The nuts are fit into the handle tightly and are flush with the surface. They were not sanded flush with the surface, they are fitted flush. Having made more than a few saws (and split nuts), you can believe me when I say it shows a level of commitment to get all the elements required together to maintain such uniformity... It's difficult to do all of these things in unison (at least in a small, non-factory setting) to consistently end up with your bolts mounting flush - it requires a great deal of precision.
|Figure 4. The laser-etched logo.|
The Etching: The etch is similarly impressive. It's the Bad Axe logo, laser-etched into the blade deeply enough that it should be there for generations. Take it from someone who's tried - a good, repeatable etch is either difficult or expensive to accomplish. Like a medallion, it also does little for the performance of a saw - but an etch adds to the authenticity and sincerity of the saw maker, and a well-executed one shows the level of commitment behind it.
If you are wondering about the Latin phrase "Professio, Vires, Patentia", I've roughly translated it - Professio is for a 'profession' (or trade); 'Vires' refers to powers or strengths (usually referring to a strength of several characteristics such as morality, intellect, and physical strengths that one would consider a virtue); and 'Patentia' is patience or endurance.
Mark has told me he that they might change the method of etching from laser to chemical, as the laser etching can generate "too much heat apparently that distorts the molecular structure of the spring steel" - it that's the case, I don't see it's affect... I've experimented with chemical etching previously and am sure it will provide satisfactory results if he does switch.
|Figure 5. The folded back - note the end is rounded off, a nice touch.|
The back: The most impressive feature (to me, anyway) that I found on the saw is probably it's least glamorous - the back. I've always thought that while brass backs are more handsome, the best material for the spine of a saw performance-wise would be steel. Brass deforms too easily, and can be difficult to straighten if the saw is, say, dropped. Steel has less tendency to deform, therefore would survive such a drop better. It's the reason I believe major saw manufacturers switched to using steel for theirs. It's one possible drawback is rusting. Bad Axe addresses this by offering a blued-steel back, done using the same high quality bluing gunsmiths use.
It's also my belief that a folded back is superior to a milled back, for several reasons. First, a milled back isn't going to have the tension holding the blade that a folded back is going to. I have no real scientific data to back this claim up, it's just something I believe, my evidence mostly anecdotal. Often, I see saw makers who use a milled back resorting to using pins or epoxy to hold the saw plate in place - these are poor methods in my book, and should not be resorted to, at least in my opinion.
Folded backs also have the benefit of having literally hundreds of years of testing with literally hundreds of thousands of examples from pretty much every major manufacturer that has existed over that time frame. It's hard to argue with a track record like that.
|Figure 6. Bad Axe Tenon Saw.|
The back of the Bad Axe saw holds it plate straight, as it should. The only deviation I saw was the placement of the stamp in the center of the back was just a little low - too close to the bottom of the back. It is still completely legible, and this is a truly minor and purely aesthetic flaw that has absolutely no bearing on the performance of the saw.
One of the disadvantages of using a folded back is that it can make fitting the handle to it more difficult. Looking at the Bad Axe saw, you can see great care has been taken to fit the saw to the back, as it fits tightly into the mortise of the handle (see Figure 6).
There is an option for a bright-polished stainless steel back available... I can't imagine it's any better than the blued steel back, so I would think getting it would be only if you really didn't like the look of the blued steel.
|Figure 7. An almost mirror-like finish on the plate.|
The Saw Plate: The saw plate itself is polished to a good extent, allowing you to use the "reflection technique" when you want to saw a line perpendicular to the stock (see figure 2). The polish is consistent across its breadth and width. I measured the plate, and it was .025" thick, as advertised. I also confirmed there is a full 4-1/2" of blade available.
One might think - I did, anyway - that having such a deep plate of such thin steel might make the saw plate somewhat unstable, though it doesn't. Also. it's a large saw and one might think that in itself could make it a bit unwieldy - yet in use, I didn't notice any problem with using such a deep saw at all.. Really, it performed admirably to my mind.
The plate was straight and true in my example, which I would expect. It's advertised as "Premium-grade Swedish Spring Steel, RC50-52", which seems right.
|Figure 8. Straight-on view of the "rip-filed" teeth with sloping gullets.|
The Teeth: The saw I received was 10 PPI filed rip. The teeth are hand-filed - as there is not a machine currently out there that can emulate the pattern used. Mark uses a progressive rake, starting the first 20 teeth or so at the heel of the saw at 15 degrees, then gradually reverts the rake to 10 degrees - then reverses that at the toe of the saw.
I found the teeth measured a between .032" and .033", which works out to about 3 thousandths of an in set, pretty much right-on in my book. The shape of the teeth was consistent (save for the progressive rake mentioned above) across the saw's breadth, a beautiful job, if you ask me.
The saw was also filed using sloping gullets (there's an excellent article on sloping gullets by Brent Beach located here) that were filed at about 20 degrees. Most of the time, saws are filed holding the file perpendicular to the saw plate. Sloping gullets are accomplished by dropping the file down a prescribed amount in that relation, lowering the angle in relation to the plate. This shapes the teeth so that the valley between the teeth becomes angled toward the edge of the plate, alternating between each tooth as to which side it is sloped toward.
|Figure 9. Side view of rip teeth with sloping gullets.|
Performance: To test the performance of the saw, I decided to test it doing exactly what I'll be using it for - cutting tenons. To be fair, I chose a variety of woods that run the gamut of the typical woods I usually use - cherry, walnut, red oak, quilted maple, mahogany, and luan. Please note, the following is totally subjective opinion...
My first impressions on its use through each wood:
Cherry - wanted to bind
Red Oak - wanted to chatter badly
Luan - cut like butter, but clogged with sawdust quickly
Walnut: cut well, but also loaded up quickly
Maple - some chatter and some binding
However for crosscutting and for cutting off the cheek - a crosscut also - the saw worked positively beautifully on all the woods, though felt a tad aggressive. The face of the cuts was very smooth, I can tell that the sharpening was executed very well. Also - the issues with ripping I was having were not game-enders, far from it. More like annoyances. But they still didn't seem quite right.
Having sharpened a few saws in my time, and seeing the quality of the saw itself, I knew right away it had to be the sharpening. I could see it wasn't the execution of the sharpening as that was very well done.. No, it was the methodology used - sloping gullets. Looking closely at the teeth you'll see they really are not filed rip at all - the effect of sloping gullets has essentially made them all filed to what I would call an aggressive crosscut pattern - and they are no longer "rip" teeth, in my opinion. That also diagnoses the issues I was having - it was cutting the tenons just as if I was using a crosscut saw - because that what it is.
I sent an email to Mark regarding my issues with the profile of the teeth, and his immediate response was for me send it back to him and that he would sharpen it to the profile I wanted. I said that I would just do it myself, but he was insistent he do it for me. So I dropped the saw in the mail and anxiously awaited it's return.
|Figure 10. Results of some cut tenons - the large board on the bottom is cherry, the one on top of it is red oak.|
Performance II - now with classic rip filing: In less than two weeks the saw was back in my hands, this time with a more classic rip-filing. This time, while there were still sloping gullets, the angle was much less severe - about 5 degrees or so. Mark kept the progressive rake as before.
I ran the saw through the same boards as previously to see how it compared. Everything about the cut is much better - it's stable and more useful across the gamut.
I can't say perfect.. no saw can be expected to perform well in every single type of wood, as each wood has it's own distinct personality. This time with the classic rip filed profile however, its performance was much more refined across all of them (at least as far as ripping is concerned). It still had a little trouble in the red oak with catching, and it also caught just a little in the curly maple but in that only enough to where I can say that's due to it being freshly sharpened... hose two boards in particular were chosen because they are difficult. The red oak board is from a stash I've had for years that I always dig into when I want a fight, so losing a battle to it is involves no shame (I hate red oak, it’s the devil's wooden spawn - yet it's probably the wood I've used the most over the years for various reasons). It the type of wood that requires either more PPI or an eased rake angle on it’s saws for them to perform well.
In cherry, walnut, and mahogany the saw's performance excelled, it sailed through the wood like it was hardly there. Last time, the luan wanted to choke the saw a bit, not so this time. The cut in the cherry was controllable and smooth through the entire cut and it left a nice, smooth surface in it's wake. The walnut was probably the best of the bunch, it's as if the saw was specifically made for it. You can see some of the results I had in figure 10.
I positively love the progressive rake, it really works well to start a cut and is a real benefit in a large tenon saw like this. I mean it - it really makes a difference when starting a cut especially in tougher woods like that nasty red oak I have. I'm going to have to adapt this style of sharpening into my own...
The saw is now a little more ragged cross-cutting, but then again that's what I'd expect from a rip filed saw. Now - all this does not mean I am against sloped gullets, I just believe that method does not belong on a rip saw. Personally, I don't really see what's gained - it really just changes the fleam angle in my opinion, but then again that's just me.
|Figure 11. Side view of the teeth with classic rip-filing.|
In Summation: Bad Axe has done everything right; the design has been well thought out and tested at every stage, the choice of materials is excellent across the board, the craftsmanship is excellent, and the saw performs absolutely beautifully. If you are looking for the best quality tenon saw available, look no further - you've found it.
The only recommendation I would make is that the buyers of the rip saw ask for a classically filed rip saw rather than the sloped gullets version. It's a much better filing method for rip saws, in my opinion.
As for customer service, Mark has shown he is willing to go the extra mile to make sure his customers are fully satisfied. His correspondence with me has been prompt, courteous, and professional.
The Bad Axe saws are of truly serious quality, and are a contender against any - and I mean any - modern hand saw made of similar style today. The quality is as good as any premium vintage saw I've seen - and is actually better than most. I think any vintage manufacturer would be proud to have had such a quality saw in their line-up. For me, this saw is as good or better than any I've seen.