Canadian Woodworking

Handsaw showdown – East vs West

Author: Jason Klager & Tom Fidgen
Photos: Jason Klager, Tom Fidgen; Lead photo by Rob Brown
Published: August September 2011

With a number of differences between Western and Japanese saws, it can be confusing when it comes to making a purchase. Learn why two woodworkers reach for the saw they do.


Western Style Hand-Saws by Tom Fidgen

I believe woodworkers should be encouraged to use what­ever tool feels better in hand and will perform the tasks we ask them to. Working with the same tools over a period of time brings a sense of comfort, control and most importantly, confidence.

Why do I tend to use Western-style hand-saws (WSHS) in my wood shop? The truth be told, it starts with simple geog­raphy. I’m from Nova Scotia and guess what? We didn’t have any Japanese saws where I grew up. Like many woodwork­ers, I eventually purchased a few Japanese-style saws (JSS) through the years due to my own curiosity and as an inexpen­sive option when starting out in woodworking, but the truth is I barely touch them anymore. Why? Probably because I was so used to using Western saws I seemed to naturally gravitate back to them; remember – comfort, control and confidence. This is important while you’re working wood.

saw pistol grip
Pistol Grip – Some woodworkers prefer this type of grip because it feels more familiar and therefor more comfortable.

My earliest hand-saw memories start with panel saws and from there onto back saws and a mitre box would soon follow. These were the saws used in the wood shops I grew up in and these are the saws I got used to using over the course of my life working wood. Today we have many choices and it’s up to us to get comfortable with a style and try to master it.

What I find the most appealing about WSHS is basic com­fort and form in hand. I can work much longer using a ‘pistol grip’ handle and once in hand, the motion seems to allow my arm to ‘track’ much better while sawing. This is especially true while performing rip cuts.

saw points per inch
Consider this Point Carefully – When purchasing a saw, make sure you take ‘points per inch’ into consideration. A saw with fewer points per inch will cut better in thick material, and vice versa.

Sawing on the push stroke over a decent saw-bench makes sense to my body type and the style and methods of work that I do. Working with only hand tools, the first stages of material preparation is usually a cross cut followed with a ripping cut. If you’ve ever tried to rip a strip off an 8′ plank of 2″ White Oak with a JSS, I’d be curious to hear how it went.

I work with mostly domestic hard woods and buy my stock from a mill either rough or pre-dimensioned. Either way, I’m ripping large panels and this is where a Western-style panel saw makes the most sense for me. The longer saw plate allows for a longer, more fluid stroke with much less of a back and forth motion. My body weight and gravitational force, when combined with a properly set-up panel saw takes much of the strain or effort out of the process.

Having a thicker saw plate, as most WSHS do, makes for stronger saw teeth and less chance of breaking them in hard-working applications.

While Japanese saws seem to be easier to start for the begin­ner, with their finely set tooth pattern they seem to cut faster on first impression. The truth is they require many more strokes to get the job done and eventually that leads to more effort from the sawyer. A quality WSHS is no more difficult to start once you get used to the process and in my own experi­ence, will win the race for speed of sawing every time.

Once lumber is dimensioned, joinery is soon to follow and from delicate dovetails to deep tenon cuts there is a Western-style saw designed and suited for each stage of the process.

Where to begin?

I think a safe place to start is with two panel saws; one filed rip in the 5 to 8 ppi (points per inch) range and the other a cross cut in the neighborhood of 8 to 12 ppi. You can add more to your nest but those two alone will cover most of your dimensional sawing needs. When we discuss points per inch, a good rule of thumb is: the thicker the wood, the less teeth you want on your saw. For heavy ripping cuts in thick mate­rial, a lower ppi is generally preferred, with the opposite for working thin stock. Material less than ¾” in thickness will be better suited to a finer-tooth saw with a higher tooth count, somewhere in the range of 10 to 12 ppi. These are general guidelines and you should experiment with your own personal preferences. From the panel saw, we’ll need a few decent back saws; again a cross-cut and a rip tooth are desirable.

Western saws
A Good Selection – It’s nice to have a number of saws that are better suited for the task they are asked to accomplish. Working with the right saw will be easier and the results will be better.

Most wood workers will want a dedicated dovetail saw. Filed with a rip tooth, the dovetail saw may meet some of your rip­ping needs in joinery applications but I’d recommend a larger back saw for more joinery options. Most dovetail saws are made in the 8″ to 10″ range but again in my own work I prefer a larger saw plate between 10″ to 12″ in length. This translates to less strokes and I find it’s easier to guide and sight the longer saw blade.

A second, slightly larger back saw specific for cross cutting stock at the work bench is the next to consider and these four or five saws mentioned will take care of most of your sawing needs. A saw bench and bench/mitre hook will also make life easier for you when using a back saw at the work bench.

helping hand
Helping Hand – A saw bench and bench hook will make working with hand saws much nicer.

Keep Those Teeth Sharp

The final point I’ll make for the case of Western-style hand-saws is sharpening. I sharpen my handsaws on almost a monthly basis depending on my workload and would encour­age woodworkers to learn the skills of filing and setting their own saws. I’ve met and spoke with hundreds of woodworkers over the past few years and have yet to meet someone capable or confident enough to try to sharpen their own Japanese-style handsaws. Sharpening a Western saw, on the other hand, is something that every woodworker can learn and with a little practice can achieve some fine results.

stay sharp
Stay Sharp – A Western-style saw can be sharpened and used for a long time, unlike most Japanese saws. (Photo by Carolyn Fidgen)

I encourage you to challenge your own methods and dis­cover for yourself what works best for you. There isn’t any one right answer and whether you decide on Western-style or Japanese-style, the important thing is to get into the work shop and start working wood! Enjoy the process.

Eastern Style Hand-Saws by Jason Klager

Japan inspires me. From its high-speed bullet trains to the quiet lantern-lit cobble-stone alleys of Old Kyoto, I have always been drawn to this intriguing country. As a woodworker, my attention is drawn to their well-constructed architecture and iron-plated tansu. The hand-cut joinery of Japan’s accomplished carpenters motivated me to incorporate the use of hand tools into my own woodworking. So when I purchased my first hand-saw, a Japanese saw was the obvious choice. Since that day, over 10 years ago, I have enjoyed using Japanese saws and have come to understand and appreciate their benefits.

The straightforward design of Japanese woodworking tools can give the perception that they are little more than a novelty. However, omitting a tool’s ornate trimmings and keeping it in its simplest form can assist and increase that tool’s effectiveness. The Japanese saw is one of those tools; its lightweight, straight handle and thin blade are what make this tool extremely reliable. The intelligent design of the handle is what I find separates the Japanese saw from others. The handle’s lightweight material, wrapped in rattan and bearing an oval-shaped profile make it comfortable to hold.

The straight handle increases the saw’s versatility, allowing me to be flexible with the position of my hand(s) when adjusting for the thickness of the material I’m working with or the type of cut I’m performing. With larger saws, this straight handle allows two hands to work together: one balancing the saw, positioned near the neck, and the other hand at the end providing the pull force. The Japanese saw’s distinct trait is that the handle is positioned in line with the blade. With one-handed saws, like a dozuki, I hold the portion of the handle closest to the neck, resting the remainder of the handle under my wrist and forearm. I can then place my index finger on the back of the blade for additional control. The saw becomes an unmindful extension of my arm directing my attention to the accuracy of the cut. The saw held this way brings the material closer and allows me to feel the cut so I can make timely adjustments to maintain the blade’s course and govern the speed at which it cuts.

Simple Grip
Simple Grip – Most Japanese saws have an oval handle, which is wrapped in rattan. This allows  many options when sawing.

I value the handle’s versatility, but just as important to the tool’s overall composition is the performance of its blade. Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke, which allows a thin blade to be used. These thin blades will remove a very small amount of material, producing an exceptionally narrow kerf and powder-like sawdust. For fine work, this splinter-free narrow kerf allows me to see the line I’m following, and when cutting down to a line, the thin blade gives me a clear indicator to know when to stop. I find the thin blade makes starting a cut effortless and reduces the amount of energy needed to continue sawing. The teeth on these blades can be multi-faceted, reaching a tpi (teeth per inch) of 36. Although these teeth are next to impossible to sharpen, they will leave a flawless surface, even when I’m working with softer woods. A finer-tooth pattern also means a slower cut, but this allows me to more accurately follow my intended line and make the necessary corrections.

Japanese handsaws
An Extension of the Arm – There are a number of ways to hold a Japanese saw. Klager grips the saw close to the neck and maintains contact of the handle with his wrist and forearm.

Handmade forged saws are made by blacksmiths whose methods have been handed down by generations of experienced individuals before them. In the right hands, these saws perform beautifully. These forged saws come with a high price, so I bought a production saw for my first one. Unlike the handmade forged saws that require professional sharpening, production saws have disposable blades, which can be an affordable and convenient alternative. Instead of discarding a dull or damaged blade, I like to modify them into card scrapers.

Japanese handsaws
Very Thin Kerf – Because the blade is so narrow the resulting kerf is surprisingly thin compared with Western saws. This means each stroke requires less force.

For lighter work, production saws are affordable, precise and very forgiving, making it the perfect choice for the beginner. For the collector and experienced sawyer, the amount of saws available is endless and pride can be taken when purchasing these hand forged saws. Inspired by the carpenters who use them, Japanese saws have found a permanent home in my hand tool collection. Incorporating the use of these saws into my own woodworking has convinced me that when it comes to the composition of a hand tool, less is more.

Japanese handsaws
Tiny Teeth – More teeth mean each cut is easier to start, and the resulting surface is much smoother, when compared to Western saws.
Japanese handsaws
Quick Change – Though a Japanese saw blade tends to last a long time it usually can’t be sharpened. Disposable blades are easily changed and leave you with a super-sharp set of teeth.

1 comment

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  2. I grew up using Western style saws in my father’s workshop. But for a long time I have only used Japanese style saws for the reasons that Jason has outlined and for doing fine precision cutting..

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