Many years ago I had to make a saw cut for some long since forgotten project, and although I’ve forgotten the exact nature of the cut, I remember the saw binding, sticking and flexing.
Frustrated, I tossed the saw aside and swore I’d stick to power tools from then on; they were obviously more superior, and had replaced the old, cantankerous handsaws of the past for a good reason.
Today however, I have tempered my view of hand tools and I am as likely to reach for one of my handsaws as I am to head for a powered version; often it’s easier and faster, and with the right saw, more accurate to make the cut by hand. I have learned that specific saws are designed to excel at specific cuts and it’s all about choosing the right saw for the cut.
‘General purpose’ is a term that tends to be a bit of a misnomer when it comes to handsaws. You will find that specific tasks require specific saws. There are two major factors that affect the performance of virtually all saws, the tooth pattern (rip or crosscut) and the amount of set of the teeth.
Rip saws are designed to rip with the grain, along the length of a board. They tend to be about 26 inches long with 5 teeth per inch, the flat-topped teeth tipped forward toward the front of the saw, which essentially turns them into little chisels, chipping away at the wood as the board is ripped down its length. A better quality rip saw will be taper-ground, with the blade left thickest closest to the teeth for strength and thinner towards the top leading edge to keep it from binding in the cut.
Crosscut saws are designed to cut across the grain, along the width of a board.
These saws tend to be within the 22 to 26 inch range and will have 7 or 8 teeth per inch. The teeth on this saw are designed to act like knives and sever the wood fibres while clearing the waste between them. Crosscut teeth are sharpened to points to accomplish this task, unlike the rip saw teeth which are left to ride flat against the bottom of the kerf. Crosscut saws tend to have a more aggressive set in order to keep them from binding.
How a saw performs in a cut is a function of the amount of set the teeth have. Set is the amount that the tooth is bent to one side of the centerline of the blade. The more the teeth are bent away from the centerline, the more set the saw is said to have. The maximum outside distance of the teeth will determine the width of the kerf. The kerf is the area of wood that the teeth remove. In general, the wetter the wood, the wider the set should be to clear the wet stringy fibre from the blade and keep the blade from binding in the cut. For dry wood the set could be reduced considerably without affecting the cut as the fibres will tear more easily and be easier to eject. For example, on a dovetail saw the most control is achieved with a bare minimum of set. With this type of saw, the minimum set is ideal as the sides of the cut then naturally support the saw, keeping it cutting straight and true. Saws that are designed for flush cutting have no set at all. These can be used up against a finished surface without causing any damage to the adjacent surface.
Saws are often referenced by the number of teeth (or points) that they have per inch of saw blade. In general, saws with more teeth (and less set) make finer cuts, but they cut more slowly. Saws meant for ripping typically have fewer teeth.
A backsaw has either a steel or a brass spine along its back, opposite the teeth.
This spine stiffens the saw, giving it strength while allowing it to be made from thinner, harder steel than is normally used in a basic handsaw. This category of saw includes dovetail and tenon saws.
Dovetail saws are likely the most useful. They are from 6 to 10 inches long with anywhere from 14 to 22 teeth per inch. What you want is a saw with a very narrow set so that it will cut a fine kerf. Dovetail saws can have one of three different types of handles: closed, open, or a cylinder-handled gentleman’s handle. These saws are used for very fine work so when choosing one pay particular attention to the handle and the way it balances in your hand. I find that the gentleman’s style handle doesn’t offer enough control for fine work. My preference is for the open style handle.
Tenon saws are larger than dovetail saws, with a blade length of 10 to 16 inches wide, a depth of 3 or 4 inches, and 12 to 15 teeth per inch. Aside from cutting tenons, this saw makes an excellent saw for finish carpentry.
Western style saws are great for cutting in a straight line, but there are times when you will need to make a curved cut. This is where a coping or frame saw will be useful. These saws consist of a thin flexible blade, much like a section of band saw blade. In use this blade must be held in tension in a frame, which can be made of wood, metal or a composite material. There are three basic styles of frame saws and they all function the same way. The largest is a traditional wooden frame saw, for cutting thick stock. Coping and fret saws are much smaller, and used for precision cutting of thin stock. Some of these smaller saws accept scroll saw blades. With scroll saw blades you have access to a wide variety of tooth styles to match the work at hand. I use a small fret saw to remove the waste between the pins when hand cutting dovetails.
Unlike Western saws that cut on the push stroke, Japanese saws work on the pull stroke. This particular feature tends to give the woodworker better control. When you pull the saw the blade is under light tension, which reduces the chances of crimping the blade. Japanese saws are made from harder, thinner metal, which leaves a narrower kerf than most Western saws. The teeth are tempered, which means they stay sharp longer, but are nearly impossible to sharpen. Fortunately you can replace the blade on most Japanese saws when they become dull. The dozuki is the Japanese equivalent of the Western back saw. It was originally designed for cutting shoulders for tenons, but with its rigid back it is pretty much perfect for handcut joinery techniques such as dovetails. This saw tends to be 8 to 12 inches in length with about 26 tpi.
The ryoba saw combines the functions of a rip saw and crosscut saw in one blade. In Japanese, its name means ‘double’. The crosscut teeth are on one side of the blade, and the rip teeth are on the other. You could saw all of the way through a piece of wood with this blade, but the trailing teeth on the second edge would roughen the cut edge and bind in the cut. This saw comes in varying lengths. Try the smaller ones for joinery and the larger ones for general cutting.
The azebiki is a type of ryoba saw that is designed to make plunge cuts. The blade has a curve in it, allowing you to start a cut in the center of a board for a mortise or to cut a hole in the center of a panel. The curve also helps to pull the sawdust out of the cut as well. If you need to flush-cut some dowels or wooden plugs, then the kugihiki is the saw you might like to take a look at. It has a super-thin, flexible blade without a back to stiffen it. Another very important feature in this particular saw is that is has no set to its teeth – the saw will sit flush on your surface and won’t scratch it. A version of this type of saw is commonly available at most retailers.
For rough cutting 2 x 4s and sheet stock you really don’t want to use an expensive backsaw or Japanese saw. There are quite a few inexpensive, hybrid saws on the market that are suitable for both ripping and crosscutting. These saws, also called ‘toolbox’ or ‘utility’ saws, generally have hardened, Japanese-style teeth that cut on both the push and the pull strokes.
No matter which saw you buy, carefully think about what task it will be used for. There are many more saws out there than we’ve covered in this article. Find one with a quality blade and a handle that is either comfortable to start with or can be modified to fit your hand. Remember that a quality hand saw is a tool you will use for years. The right tool will feel like an extension of your hand, cut clean and straight with a minimum of effort and be a pleasure to use. In addition to being much quieter and more pleasurable to use than a screaming power saw, they are a much safer alternative because they are human-powered, and that is especially valuable when working with children in the shop.
Hand-cut dovetails are the hallmark of fine, hand crafted furniture, yet many woodworkers question their own abilities in the face of such a challenge. The Veritas dovetail saw and guide is an excellent guide to help you meet this challenge. Mark the tails and pins on your stock, and then clamp the stock in a vise, mount the guide on the stock, align it with your marks and tighten the thumbwheel on the back of the guide. With the guide firmly clamped in place, set the saw on the mark and against the side of the guide. A rare earth magnet holds the saw in place while a generously sized surface covered in a low friction material ensures that the saw stays correctly aligned; the saw easily makes a straight, flawless cut at the correct angle. The clamp that holds the guide to the board mounts in two positions; one establishes the correct angle for the pins, the other for the tails. This is by far the easiest way we’ve found to cut dovetails for small boxes. Add a good set of chisels and a fret saw, and with practice you’ll be cutting flawless dovetails in less time than you thought.