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On Saws

January 4, 2012

Well this is embarrassing. I thought I posted this ages ago.

It has been a while since I wrote about how various tools work. My first entry was on Bit Braces. Today the subject is saws.
There are a couple of ways to subdivide saws. The can be divided into cross cut and rip cut or by Japanese style vs. European style. And then there are many specialty saws within these broad categories, I use some of each category and, not surprisingly they each have their strengths. The primary difference between Japanese style and European style saws is the direction of the cut.

European style panel saw


Japanese cross cut saw


Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke. The advantage of this arrangement is that it allows them to be made with very thin blades. When they are sharp, they are very sharp and result in a very thin kerf (the groove created by the saw) and very little saw dust (ie. waste). Given the near perfection exhibited over the centuries by Asian craftsmen in their joinery, it’s hard to say that there is an actual disadvantage to this style of saw. However, if you have grown up using European style saws, it takes some time to develop the same accuracy with these saws, as the blades are thin enough to “wander somewhat when cutting thicker pieces. That said, every woodworker should have a Japanese cross cut and rip saw. There are times when they are so much faster than a European style saw that they are almost like having a power saw around. European (or American) style saws cut on the push stroke. They require a blade strong enough to maintain its shape when pushed through wood, so it must be thicker. A thicker blade means greater resistance, more waste, more saw dust. But Europeans were not ignorant of this fact. There are a couple styles of European style saws that attempted to address that issue. Some saw blades were held between two points so that the blade was pulled through the wood. Coping saw, bow saws, buck saws, and fret saws allowed for thinner blades regardless of the direction of cut.

coping saw

. The back saw and dovetail saw both have thin blades at the cutting end, but have a thick “spine” or back affixed to the blade for support. The gent saw is a close relative of the back saw, but with a straight round handle.

gents saw


If you grew up cutting on the push stroke it is likely you will take some time to develop the same accuracy with the Japanese style saw, but where speed and ease take precedence over accuracy Japanese saws are great. And with a little practice accuracy will come.

The other major division in saws is between cross cut and rip cut. Wood has a grain or the fibers that give the tree its strength and transport water and nutrients throughout the living tree. A branch or a board has an orientation of these fibers and the direction of the cut through these fibers determines which saw one should use. To cut perpendicular to these fibers, that is across the grain, one uses a cross cut saw. The teeth on a cross cut saw are filed to form a “V” when viewed from the front of the saw. This “V” is made up of alternating teeth which are sharpened at the leading edge of each tooth. Pushing or pulling the blade across the wood creates a slicing action on these fibers. When cutting with, or parallel to the grain a cross cut saw will feel as though it is skating across the surface of the wood and will not penetrate easily. This cut requires a rip saw. The teeth of a rip saw don’t form that same “V”, and are filed more like a row of chisels with the leading edge of all the teeth parallel to one another. These teeth gouge into the grain and carry away the wood rather than slice the fibers. Both Japanese and European style saws can be filed for cross and rip cutting. These are the broadest categories of saw type and there are many many variations and permutations.
In my kit I keep two gent saws (see above) one with a rip and one with a cross cut. I bought them years ago and thought they might be a little too “precious” to actually use. I was also wary of the handles, but they fit nicely into the door of my rustic furniture tool chest and I use them all the time. I also have a coping saw with a coarse blade. I should have discussed this earlier, but “coarse teeth” means there are fewer teeth per inch (meaning they are bigger). A coarse blade generally cuts quicker but leaves a rougher surface. The opposite case is “fine teeth”, wherein there are more teeth per inch, meaning they are smaller and leave a smoother surface. A fine blade cuts more slowly and are easily clogged with saw dust. When making rustic furniture (especially with green wood) a coarse blade is less likely to get bogged down. I like to use a coping saw with a coarse blade when working with twigs and its very thin blade is designed to cut curves, such as when cutting out spoons. In my woodsman’s kit I have a small pruning saw – curved blade with largish teeth filed for cross cutting on the push stroke.

Here's my pack with the hatchet, axe, and pruning saw


In my shop I have panel saws for rip and cross cutting (see the top picture of the cross cut panel saw), Japanese style saws for rip and cross cutting, a bow saw, and as part of my original fine furniture tool kit I have a small back saw and a dovetail saw. That’s all for now. Next I’ll try to cover drawknives and spokeshaves.

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