Hand Saw Basics

There are 3 separate sections to this article, as you can see above - I've provided links to the various sections at the beginning and end of each section, so the reader can skip over parts they have read or aren't interested in and get directly to the part they want to see.  There is also a "NEXT" link at the top and bottom right of the page for those who want to go through it all sequentially.

This is intended more as a primer for the novice hand saw fan - but hopefully there is something in here for the more experienced sawyers out there as well.  I will try to cover as much as I know about them, but remember that I am only conveying my own knowledge and experience, which may differ from others on some matters, and surely is not complete.  Much of this stuff may seem like common knowledge to many, but it still doesn't hurt to cover the basics.   

One thing I should also mention - I won't be going over frame or bow saws, that's another subject entirely, at least to me.  Same thing with Japanese saws.  The subject would be too broad to be inclusive of those types of saws in a small article such as this, and as I am less experienced with them, I have less to offer the reader on using them.

Why This Article?

Since I started keeping a web site and documenting my adventures with hand tools, I've been asked a lot of questions about them, and hand saws in particular.  I've decided to give documenting some of those basics that I know about hand saws into this article, to see if that can answer some of the more common questions I get. 

Why Use Older or Make Your Own Saws?

Older saws - and I'm talking pre-WWII saws for the most part - were made in a time when the hand saw was king.  The golden age of handsaws was from around 1860 to 1940, and it's end came around the time that electrically powered saws became affordable.  Hand saws fell out of favor, and economics forced severe cutbacks in quality.  First to fall victim was the handle - gone was the wonderfully shaped applewood handle that fits your hand like a glove, replaced with clubby beech handles. While beech is still a fine wood for handles, the manufacturer's no longer had the resources to pay much attention to how the handle was shaped. 

The saw on the right is 100 years old, the one in the middle is about 50 (circa WWII), and a hand made handle for a backsaw is on the top. The one in the middle is made of beech. You can start to see the shape of the handle losing some of it's grace... Some don't consider these saws worth their time, but I think they are OK - the steel in them is pretty good. They aren't as comfortable as the older ones, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as the clubs that have been put out in the last 30 years. There are too many of those to waste even a lowly WWII era saw. Not that they are incredibly valuable now, but someday, they will be. Trust me on that... I won't cut up one that has a handle like any of these, unless the blade itself is badly damaged or rusted beyond repair.

I'm not sure of the exact date that saws went to pot - but I believe that sometime in the mid-50's to early sixties saw the last of any hand saw worth it's salt.  The quality of the steel used remains pretty good, even to this day for most saws (except those with specially hardened teeth), but the care taken to make it the best possible saw steel is now missing.

Note the "patina" of the blade of the one on the right - it doesn't have to be shiny, just smooth, and free of rust. Discoloration is not a defect, and doesn't affect performance - I won't be "restoring" that particular saw any more than it already is. There's no need to make them look brand new, which would probably lower their value anyway, if that's what you're concerned with.

If the saw has true brass hardware, it's usually a sign of quality... Later saws, including the WWII one in my picture above use steel hardware.

Why did the quality decline?  They simply weren't in demand anymore, and shaping the handle is a laborious task... it's why you still don't see it today.  The computer driven machines made today still can't compete with the quality handle one can achieve with a simple hand rasp, at least IMO.  Which leads me to the "why make your own" section of this treatise...  There are still several older saws available for purchase, but as time goes by, these will become fewer and more expensive.  

Making your own saws affords you several options that purchasing antiques doesn't.  First, you learn a great deal about saws.  Also, you're not scared you'll be the one to screw up a tool that lasted 100 or more years before you got a hold of it.  It also allows you to custom make the saw to your own specifications.  It's this third point I consider the most important of all of them.. I hate re-toothing an old classic Disston - it shortens the expected life of a classic tool.

That all said - hand saws such as these are what built America, as is evidenced by their abundance, even to this day.  Many might have been neglected over the years, but are salvageable.  So with a little skill, and just a bit of direction,  good hand saws are accessible to even the most cash-poor woodworker.

Types of Handsaws


Some Basic Types of Hand Saws used in Furniture Making

I'm not about to go into an in-depth study of all of the different types of hand saws - that *would* be a daunting task.  Besides, there are books already written - like Erv Schaffer's classic "Hand- Saw Makers of North America" or another great reference is to find reproductions of old catalogs of saw manufacturers.  I'm going to review some of the basic types of hand saws used in furniture building, staying away from those not commonly find in a cabinet shop.  I am also not addressing the needs of builders who work green wood - it's a different method than I trained with, so I'm not as familiar with the tool needs for that type of work.

First - an Explanation of TPI vs. PPI

That's Teeth Per Inch vs. Points Per Inch.  Just to get this cleared up - there isn't much difference between the two - but the number will always be one more for PPI than for TPI on the same saw.  TPI is basically measured gullet  to gullet, where PPI is measured from the tip of the point to the tip of the point:  

"But what about something like 6-1/2 PPI?  How is a half point measured?" you might ask...  My only answer would be "Yes... what about it?"  Looking into it too hard will just give you a headache.  I will try use PPI mostly here because that's what most hand saw manufacturer's used prior to the 50's (though most today use TPI - go figure).  However some of the tables are shown in TPI as that is what they originally were - in reality, the difference is pretty minor.  The difference between the two is somewhat more pronounced in coarser saws yet is almost imperceptible in finer-toothed saws.


Here's a factory stamp at a pretty standard location that indicates the factory PPI the saw was given at the factory - this one is 10 PPI, obviously. Frequent sharpening will remove this section of the blade...

Sidebar - What importance is teeth per inch?

While this is a seemingly simple subject, it has important ramifications. Recently, I was asked both why you would need more than one rip saw if you have one that is 6-8 PPI or so, and what the reason for having a fine-toothed (10+ PPI) handsaw was. I won't get into blade thicknesses or delve too much into rake angle here, but those are considerations as well.

First off, for a saw to work properly, it has to have a certain amount of teeth within the wood it is cutting. Too many, and the teeth fill up with sawdust and no longer cut effectively. Too few, and the saw gets too hard to push through, leaves too rough of a cut, and can tear out large chunks of wood with it. First - we'll look at having the right amount of teeth in the wood.

Rip Saws

First - what is the 1/2" bench chisel of rip saws - the 'universal' rip saw? After all, most of us have a band saw or a table saw, and uses them for this purpose, and don't *need* more than one hand saw for occasional use.  

I was taught was to choose a saw for ripping that has no less than 4 teeth for the thickness of the wood being cut, and no more than 8. For an example - an appropriate saw for a 1" thick board would be from 4 to 8 PPI. Subsequently, a 3/4" board would require a saw in the 6 to 10 PPI range, and a 1/2" board in the 8 to 12 PPI range. Right in the middle is an 8 point - which is a fair compromise if you were to only have one, and ripping isn't something you do everyday. 

Crosscut Saws

How about the universal crosscut saw? The same basic logic applies, but because cross grain is more prone to tear-out, instead of 4 to 8 teeth in the wood, the numbers should be 6 to 10. Crosscut saws are sharpened to cut differently to address the tear-out problem. Where rip saws act like a series of chisels chopping through the wood, crosscut saws act more like a series of knife cuts - the rake angle is increased to reflect this, so the teeth literally cut the grain as it goes along, where a rip saw's action is more analogous to chopping the wood as it proceeds through the cut. As a result, crosscut sawing is a little slower than rip sawing. 

So there it is - the 'universal' rip saw would be in the 6 to 8 point range, and the 'universal' crosscut saw would have 8 to 10 point per inch. This jives with the saws I've found in the wild - most of the saws I've found are in these ranges.

These numbers might seem a bit coarse to you - but remember, you don't saw the board straight across, you saw it holding the saw at a 45 to 60 degree angle to the plane of the board - making the number of teeth that are actually in the wood one and one-half times as many. So, a 4 PPI saw in 1" of wood actually ends up with between 5 and 7 teeth in the cut at a time.

The Best Saw for the Job

Why isn't having a 'universal' saw enough for most purposes? Well, it can be - but it's the same as having only two chisels, like say a 1/4" mortise and the universal 1/2" bench chisel. Sure, they will do the large majority of the tasks at hand, and you can even modify your project to fit the tools you have on hand - but it does limit you quite severely. What about projects that would work better with a 3/8" mortise?   Obviously, there are times when having a more diverse selection - different sizes, and special purpose chisels (paring, mortise, bench, butt, or slick) - can make the work much easier and give you better results.

How to determine the best saw for the job? Well, now that you've determined the range of PPI to use you might think "OK - I'll just grab the coarsest because it will cut the fastest".  That will be OK most of the time, but what about the finished edge? Are you going to clean the cut up with a block plane, chisel, or leave it raw? It  depends somewhat on the final use of the piece being cut. Cleaning up the saw cuts for rafters would seem a waste of time. The same can be said for tenon cheeks, where fit is the most important factor. But if you are doing trim work, appearance is more important, so there you might saw just short of the line and clean up the cut as described. So, to state the obvious - trim saws are always finer than saws used in framing because of these differences as you are usually working in thinner, drier woods, and prefer an edge that requires less clean up with a saw that's less prone to damaging the wood.

Which brings up the next point - it also matters which kind of wood you are cutting - is still softwood, hardwood, still green... Wet wood requires the coarsest saws, and softwood and construction lumber generally springs back more (which tends to cause finer saws with less set to bind more often), thus require a coarser saw than dry hardwoods, where using too coarse of a saw in dry hardwood might splinter the wood too much for you to be able to use it.

So - if you are using hand saws more often, it pays to have more than one configuration - as was the case "back in the day". Most carpenters/joiners had several saws they brought to work everyday, usually a couple of each - rip and crosscut - one each of finer and coarser for use on finer or rougher work, and then probably a 'universal' saw they had for general purpose work. Great granddad's case of saws contained 6 such handsaws he carried with him to each job site.

Rip vs. Crosscut

There are 2 essential differences between all of the saws I will list - they are all either filed crosscut, or they are filed rip.  They get their name because of their function - a crosscut saw is for cutting wood across (or perpendicular to) the grain, and rip saws are filed to cut more efficiently with (or parallel to) the grain of the wood.  There are different sizes, configurations, and purposes that saws are made for, and a basic understanding of these will help in your quest for learning the right saw for the job, and in how to sharpen and tune it.

In this diagram, you can see the basic difference in how the lumber sees a rip or crosscut saw.  The rip saw is often compared to a series of chisels that each hack away at the wood as it passes over it.  This works well when cutting with the grain, but not so well when cutting across it.  The "chisels" grab the end grain and instead of cutting it, and can lift it out resulting in "tear-out".  The crosscut  profile is filed at an angle to present a more knife-like edge and score the end grain as it cuts, reducing the chance of tear-out.  I'll get more into the technical differences between the two profiles in the sharpening section of this article.

Classic Hand Saws

How long is a saw?  Sounds like a silly question, doesn't it?   It isn't really.  Most standard hand saws have 26" long blades - those with shorter blades that still look like a classic hand saw are known as panel saws.  Why 26"?  That is a good average length for the stroke of an arm.  Longer than that and either the full length of the saw isn't going to get used, or you need more clearance underneath where you are sawing than your typical saw horse provided.  

Classic Rip Saws

This is the classic saw everyone thinks of when they think of hand saws.  A good example of a rip saw is the Disston D-8 thumbhole saw - here is one I recently rehabilitated:

Note the slight curve of the steel on the top of the saw.  This is what is known as a "skewback" saw.  Other saws have a small "nib" about 6" from the end of the saw on the top.  These elements are there purely for aesthetic reasons and while they may affect the value of  a saw to a collector, they have no real purpose to the actual user.

The top photo is one of the "nibs" I referred to, the second is a pretty standard etching found on the left side of most saws.  The etch often does not survive on old saws, so finding antiques saws with a readable etch can make old saws more collectable to some, raising their value.

The thumbhole in this saw gives you a way to grab the saw with your other hand - important because using a rip saw means you are going to get a workout.  Not all rip saws have a thumbhole, nor do you have to use your thumb just because it's called one.  I find that the first two fingers of my left hand are a perfect fit - but I change up after my arms tire out to other positions.

What rip saws you need to have:  Most rip saws I know of are fairly coarse saws with 8 or fewer teeth per inch.  I  have heard of a 3-1/2 PPI (Teeth Per Inch) rip saw, most likely used for timber framing.  For the furniture builder, a single rip saw with between 5 and 8 PPI will get the most use - which is usually short (< 3' or so) boards when talking about standard casework.  If you do a lot of ripping by hand, you might want two different rip saws - a coarser saw with fewer teeth and more set, and a somewhat finer saw with less set for smoother cuts in shorter material or in hardwood.

Classic Crosscut Saws

Other than how they are filed, it can be hard to tell a crosscut saw from a rip saw.  Most often they are the same model of saw (i.e. Disston's D-8) just filed differently.  I use these quite a bit, more so than a rip saw.  They are usually found ranging from 8 to 12 PPI, and I like to have at least a couple on hand for cutting off stock.  The coarser saws leave quite a rough edge, but cut much faster.

Here is a 26" Atkins crosscut saw that sees daily use in my shop:

This one has about 10 PPI.  As a side note, if you want to know what PPI your saw was originally, most makers stamped that number into the blade just below the handle... 

Which Crosscut Saws You Need to Own:  Crosscut saws are by far the most plentiful in the wild, and one of the most useful in my shop.  I'm always short of space so my table saw is stashed away, and my miter saw can't cut wide boards, so it seems I'm always grabbing  a crosscut saw for getting short lengths of lumber.  Because classic old hand saws can be found everywhere and are so cheap, I'd recommend a minimum of 3 - two at 10 PPI or so, one with a fine set for harder woods, and one with a coarser set for softer woods.  Then, one with about 8 PPI with a fairly coarse set just for cutting off lengths of wood quickly when needed.

Panel Saws

Panel saws are quite simply just shorter saws where the blades are from 16" to 24" (some say 14" to 20") in length and are usually crosscut.  There are 2 reasons to keep a couple around -  for one thing, they fit into a tool box better than a lengthy standard saw.   Second - they are awfully handy to grab when you need to cut a board quickly, either right on the bench or in an awkward spot.  

I like to keep a couple of them around for cutting off stock from a rough blank.  One of my favorite panel saws is a 22" "Swift Cutter" crosscut saw I pull out to hack off boards when I'm in a hurry:

Which Panel Saws You Need to Own:  I like having 2 crosscut panel saws around, with fairly fine teeth (10 to 13 PPI) for cutting boards used in casework (rails, stiles, frames, etc).  Keep one with more set for cutting softwoods like pine, the other with less for cutting hardwoods.  They are plentiful enough that if you want to re-file one to rip for the occasional cut, I can't see why not...

Back Saws - Dovetail, Carcass, Sash, Tenon, Miter

Ah, these are the little gems everybody loves.  Basically, they are all the same saws, the only real difference being length.  Like the saws above, they can be found in either rip or crosscut profiles, but it is far more likely you will find the older saws came mostly crosscut.  Dovetail saws are the shortest and thinnest of the lot, because they are used in cutting shallow, detailed cuts.  

The back is usually made from either brass or steel and is there for just one purpose - that is to stiffen the blade and hold it true.  An added benefit is a bit of weight it can lend to the saw that gives it substance, which can help when guiding the saw in it's cut.

Erv Schaffer's book, "Hand-Saw Makers of North America" - generally considered the bible of american hand sawmakers - lists the following criteria as what the different types of back saws are:

Type Length Blade Thickness TPI
Tenon 16"-20" .032" 10
Sash 14"-16" .028" 11
Carcass 10"-14" .025" 12
Dovetail 6"-10" .022" 14-18

Here's two of my versions of a dovetail saw that I made for the recent back saw project:

Walnut Handle,  020" thick blade, 7" long:

Cherry handle, .020" thick blade, 9" long:

Dovetail Saws.  Some people prefer a straight handle to the pistol grip I show above, like a Disston #68.  I've never been fond of those. I don't seem to have as much control over the cut as I'd like and they're harder on my wrist, but, to each his own.  These dovetail saws are filed for ripping with very fine teeth and have thin blades for doing detailed work.  They won't serve as well as a general purpose saw - but they are quite nice for cutting dovetails. 

Carcass Saws.  Slightly longer saws with thicker blades are better for general use at the workbench and for jobs such as cutting small tenons. These are generally known as carcass saws - they're the standard back saw most people think of and see.  They have a few less teeth per inch than a dovetail saw because of the need to occasionally cut deeper stock.  Here's a shot of my carcass saw - an old Jackson 14":

Sash saws.  I've personally never heard this term used in relation to any saw within my sight.  Maybe its an east coast or an English thing I'm not familiar with - but the size looks like it's basically a tenon saw, at least to my eyes.

Tenon Saws.  Tenon saws are usually longer and coarser because they are tasked to make longer and deeper cuts.  The deeper gullets in these coarser teeth carry the sawdust out of the longer cut more efficiently.  The saws are also usually crosscut saws, but a rip saw may be a better fit for the cheek cuts for a tenon. However, rip saws can have a tough time crosscutting - so I would suggest having at least one of each. 

Miter Saws.  A "miter" saw generally refers to a large tenon saw that is mounted into a miter box - contraption meant to hold the saw at a set angle.  They can be deeper and longer - I've seen up to 28" myself, and heard of longer - and are almost always crosscut.  

Summing up Back Saws: While the names suggest a specific use for each, they are by no means absolute... Each saw can be used for purposes beyond what it's name connotates.  For example, in my back saw making project, I made saws the same size using both thick and thin steel, and could make arguments for either configuration.

What Back Saws You Need to Have: The type of joinery you do will dictate whether you need a coarser or finer, longer or shorter saw.  General cabinet work can get by with about 11-12 PPI, rougher work such as workbenches and shop fixtures could use a bit coarser saw.  Finer, smaller casework could use a finer saw.  A good general purpose back saw, which every shop should have, would be a 12" long Disston #4 or it's equivalent - filed crosscut with around 12-13 TPI.  Fine work, like dovetails for heirloom quality dressers, will need a much finer saw, tasked specifically for that purpose.  An 8" or 10" dovetail saw, filed to about 16 TPI, fits the bill nicely.

If you plan on using a miter box, look for one of the Langdon series of miter boxes with an appropriate Disston crosscut saw, and you won't be disappointed.  For a small wooden miter box, the tenon saw I mentioned above will do for most furniture work.  If you can only afford one back saw - make it a 12" to 14" crosscut carcass saw with about 12 to 14 TPI.  It's simply the most universal saw.

Specialty Saws and Taper Grinding

Specialty saws

Classic crosscut and rip saws along with back saws cover 95% of the work done in my shop with a saw.  There are a few specialty saws that I've found very handy, and should review for this article as well...

Keyhole saws.  Keyhole saws have a narrow blade, and were used for all things - making keyholes in desks and drawers.  The narrow blade allows for tighter turns to be made - here is my version of a larger keyhole saw:


These saws come in all manner of shapes and sizes and can be much, much smaller, depending on their intended use, even as small as a pen knife.  They can have from 12 to 16 TPI for fine cutting, and are found in lengths ranging from around 6" to 16".  I find the saw pictured above extremely handy in making planes - it's perfect for cutting in the wedge pockets.  One of these is a must-have for any shop - and two is probably better (a smaller one).

Compass Saw.  A compass saw is larger than a keyhole saw, and is used for sawing more gently radiused curves.  The wider blade allows for, with practice, a smoother radius.  Slightly tighter radiuses can be achieved by using the saw closer to it's end.  Here's my version:

This one was modeled after an old Disston, as were most of these saws.  These are especially popular with boat builders, because of the many gently radiused cuts required in that craft.  They are handy at about 8-12 TPI to make short work of the cut, which is often smoothed out through the use of (what else but?) a compass plane.  Common lengths are from 12" to 20". 

I don't use this saw as much as I though I would.  The band saw gets the call most often for the kind of cuts that this one makes...  I'm not going to toss it yet, though - I'm sure a good use will pop up for it.  But it's not a must-have.

Coping Saws.  A coping saw is a thin saw blade held in a frame, and is used for making curved cuts in thin stock.  Most coping saws are used in installing trim, doing the cope cut (hence the name) for joining two pieces of trim in an inside corner.  A fret saw is almost the exact same saw, but has a deeper throat.  I've also seen the name applied to a jeweler's saw (basically an adjustable length coping saw), but I think this is a misnomer - the blade for a jewelers' saw is slightly different (see below).  The frame for a coping saw can either be a wooden bow-saw style, or the more commonly found metal framed version, like this offering from Stanley:

The blade has pin on each end, which are inserted into the carriage of the frame.  The blade is then tightened by turning the handle, tightening the screw that has the carriage on it.  The blade can be turned in the frame so it's angle is more convenient to use on a given piece of wood.  There are also different kinds of blades available for standard coping saws that are more like round files than saw blades, and can cut in any direction - very handy for small fretwork. 

These are saws that every furniture maker needs to have in his tool kit.  Avoid the cheap, stamped frames often seen in discount tools stores, as they will be a major source of frustration.  Better coping saws hold the tension on the blade better, allowing for smoother cuts.  The cheap ones have more tendency to vibrate, or to let loose of the blade.

Fret and Jeweler's saws.  These are deep throat (fret) or adjustable saws and adjustable depth (jeweler's) saws that hold very fine blades by crimping the end available also.  The blades have no pins to hold them in place, but are simply held in a clamp at each end of the saw frame.  The fine blades for a jeweler's saw can be expensive and may break, so the adjustable length and different clamping method is nice to hold blades that might not have worn much, but have broken during use.  

One thing to watch for - some older fret saws require a 6" blade, where most of the saws manufactured today (and thusly, the blades for them) are 5" in length.  Also make sure the holding mechanism for the blades is not cheap stamped metal.

Stair Builder's Saw.  One saw I wanted to mention here that doesn't get enough attention is a stair builder's saw.  It has many uses for the modern furniture maker including making stopped dados.  The body of the saw basically serves as a depth stop, and the depth of the blade can be adjusted by loosening the two screws that hold it in place.

This saw gets its name from the trade in which it was most frequently associated with, the stair maker.  Stairs made of wood are usually constructed without the 2x12 stringers most people are used to seeing - instead the stringers were along the wall, and the tread and risers are let into stopped dados in the stringers.  Only very specialized planes can make a stopped dado, and expensive ones at that - but a stair saw is relatively inexpensive and, with the help of a common router plane or chisels, accomplish the same task.  

Here's one of my versions of a stair builder's saw - a copy of a Disston:

This is a must-have saw for the hand tool crowd, but other tools such as a router can take it's place.  But it does look cool - so why not have one just for that reason?

Patternmaker's Saw.  One saw I'm going to mention here is a patternmaker's saw, pictured here above a standard 9" dovetail saw.  I don't use it all that often, but it's been handy in a couple instances.  Again, I just think it's cool, so indulge me, please.

These were used by patternmakers for hollowing out forms for various molds.  The small size allows for fine work, the pointed nose allows access into tight areas, and the handle configuration allows the saw to be used above a plane of wood, often a requirement in patternmaking.

This one is 15 TPI, and is sharpened in the traditional manner of a patternmaker's saw.  Normal saws are filed with a triangular, therefore 60 degree, saw file.  These are sharpened with a cant saw file, which has a 30 degree cutting angle.  This allows for a much deeper gullet, which increases the ability of the saw to carry sawdust without losing it's fine-tooth configuration.

This is not a must have saw for the average woodworker, but I have found it handy on occasion.  It's a tough one to find, if you do go looking - most users I've seen have gone for over $60 and up to $100 on EBay.  If you find one in the wild on the cheap - grab it.

Flush Cut Saws.  A final type of saw I'll review is a flush cut saw.  I don't have a photo, or think one's really necessary, as you see these things in just about every woodworking store or internet catalog.  Often, these have a flexible blade that allows you to cut a dowel, plug, or protruding piece of wood from the center of a panel.  You can make one for yourself, if you are so inclined... The only trick to them is to use a flexible steel if you want to be able to bend it - I rarely find a need for that, and to set the saw on one side only so the set teeth won't rub against the face of the wood you are cutting the piece off of.

They aren't a must-have, but they are handy...  A back saw or keyhole saw along with a block plane can often do the same job.

Steel in hand saws - or, Rockwell - is it hard enough for you?

Taper Ground, 1095, Carbon, Spring, London Spring, Cast Steel, Special Cast Steel, Patented Cast Steel, Patent Tempered, Extra Special Patented Temper Spring In London With Tea for Two Steel. YADA YADA YADA   WHY SO MANY NAMES?   ---  I can answer that in pretty much one word.


That's not to say that some sawmakers didn't use better steel, or have better methods for treating it - quite the opposite.  But in comparing the different lines from a single manufacturer, at least one researcher found little difference in the steel used in their high end line from their mid-priced line.  So - while the steel is almost always a simple, high-carbon steel, it may be the most important part of manufacturing steel is in how it's hardened and tempered. 

A good saw steel should have high carbon steel  with a Rockwell hardness of over 50.  Most of the Disston line had a rating of Rc50 to Rc55.  I've made saws - like the dovetail saws pictured above - out of blue-tempered spring steel rated at Rc44 -Rc51 with success.  My guess it they will need sharpening more often than a harder steel would, but not excessively.  Too hard isn't any better than too soft - over Rc 55 and the saw will be too hard to sharpen properly, and may be too brittle to set.  

Taper Ground Saws- WTF is that about, anyway?  

There are two things I need to clear up first.  First - setting the teeth on a saw widens the kerf the saw is cutting in, allowing the blade behind the teeth to work in the same kerf without binding.  Second - the best way for sawmakers to guarantee their steel was flat is to grind it flat.  Since they were grinding the steel anyway, an enterprising sawmaker thought to take that process yet a step further, and grind the saw so it's thicker near the cutting edge, and thinner nearer the opposite side.  It's not evenly tapered across it's length, however...  A diagram I saw of how the blades were taper ground looked something like this:

The lines show gradations in thickness - the thinner portion of the saw is on the upper left, nearest to the toe of the saw, while the thicker part is to the right, nearest where the handle would be.  Note, this isn't exact since I'm going off of memory, and could have varied in different models of saws as well as from company to company.

Whether or not this helps the saw to cut is somewhat debatable.  The idea is the taper would reduce binding problems with the saw.  I believe the set of the teeth would far exceed any benefits to tapering of the blade.  I can see how it could have benefits if the set was minimal, though - and it is a sign of the care for quality the sawmakers put into their product.  In the end, I think that is the most important thing about a tapered saw blade.

What to look for when buying an old saw

Many old saws are rusted, but this isn't always a deal breaker.  Look for heavy pitting, and avoid those where it is too heavy...  Rust can be removed if it hasn't gone too deep.

Look for a handle free of cracks or breaks, that has all of it's nuts.  Make sure the handle fits tightly on the saw and doesn't let the saw move in the handle.  

Avoid saws that are bent or kinked.  You might be able to straighten them out, but then again - you may not.  If you don't have to, it's best not to have to worry about it.

Look to see there is plenty of blade left, and that it has been sharpened properly.  There should be no curve to the cutting edge, either convex or concave.  

If you are unsure on whether you should purchase that antique saw, or even use it - research it!  There are tons of places on the web dedicated to old tools to check, or internet forums where you can find help.  Don't forget auction sites and antique dealers, both in person and on the web!  Google is your friend!

That should cover some of the basics of the basics... Like I said, there are literally hundreds of different types of saws - I hope this at least covered the need-to-know aspects of hand saws commonly found in cabinet shops.

Sharpening Hand Saws

This is as basic of a skill to woodworking as sharpening a chisel, and not much more difficult.  Yet, some still quake with fear at the prospect, as if Odin himself will smite them should they dare put file to saw.  Or, they think others can do the job better for them....  I will try hard to explain the processes of sharpening within, with my goal being to demystify the process.  After that - practice is what is needed.  Practice, practice, practice.  You will fail during some of your first attempts, have no doubt... but at the worst, you will learn, and be the better for it.

Sharpening First, Tuning After?

Before getting into troubleshooting problems with saws, it's best to make sure it's sharp - and to understand all that sharpening a saw entails.  However - some of the steps you take when tuning might be undertaken before you sharpen the saw, some after, so keep it in mind when reading both this and the tuning sections of this article.

A great reference site on saw sharpening does already exist on the web and is available at www.vintagesaws.com.  Most, if not all, of the sharpening procedures are covered on that site, some maybe in more detail than what I do.   I will also cover some of the basics of saw sharpening well enough to do a good job, using my experience, from a "what users need to know" sort of perspective.  But it certainly never hurts to check out other references for additional perspectives.

An excellent source for sharpening two-man crosscut saws is available at the United States Federal Highway Administration's web site (whoodathunk that?).  I would also suggest Leonard Lee's book "A Complete Guide to Sharpening", available from Lee Valley.

An important note - sharpening saws is pretty much impossible to accomplish without some sort of a saw vise, be it iron or wood. If you buy one, avoid the no-name steel versions and go for the classic cast iron ones from companies such as Disston or Wentworth.  I have 4 currently, including a Wentworth, and #1, #2, and #3 Disstons.  Of those, the Wentworth isn't useable for backsaw, but is excellent for regular saws... The #1 and #2 Disstons are handy, and work well, but are somewhat short at only 9 or so inches.  My favorite - the #3 - is over 12" long and is big and heavy - a benefit, because it holds the saws steadier while filing.

Should you decide you would rather make your own - an excellent plan for a wooden saw vise is available on The Cornish Workshop's web site.  I've used both cast iron and wooden saw vises, and each have their respective advantages and disadvantages.  I've found that both types work well, and I personally don't prefer one over the other..  One thing to be aware of - the vise I link to above is not suitable for back saws without modification... But - I'm also happy to say that Jasper Homminga has graciously contributed a small article on making a simple wooden saw vise - available on this web site HERE.  It looks like a classically simple design, easy to build, and customizable to fit available hardware besides.

Some advice for those who haven't done much sharpening, or have only sharpened larger saws - go slowly, and with a light touch until you get the hang of it.  Even then, not all days are good saw sharpening days.   There have been many instances for me while sharpening saws where I just about gave up in frustration because I just couldn't get the teeth to come out right - it took a little time away from it to get some perspective.  Teeth as small as these are can be difficult to get right without some practice. 

I've also found that a magnifying light is of great help when doing fine teeth.

Sizes of Files Used in Sharpening Saws

This is taken from a couple web sites - you can see not even the experts always agree on which files should be used for which saws:


First site 

File Types

PPI of Saw


File Types/TPI

TPI of Saw
7" Regular Taper


7" Regular File  (5-5 1/2 tpi)
 7" Slim Taper


7" X Slim File  (8 tpi)
 6" Slim Taper


n/a n/a
 6" XSlim Taper


6" X  Slim File  (10 tpi)
 6" 2XSlim Taper


6" XX Slim File  (12 tpi)
 5" 2XSlim Taper


4" X Slim File  (15 tpi)
 4" 2XSlim Taper


4" 2X Slim File  (22 tpi)


You can see that not everyone agrees across the board on the proper size files.  What I read from that is that absolute adherence to the above table - either side of it - is not necessary, just recommended.  Remember that too large of a file for too small of a tooth can lead to problems with with the file being too rounded at the corner to be effective.  The opposite can waste a file by using too much of its side up, dulling it when you try to use another corner of the file.  A good rule of thumb is that 1/2 the depth of the file should be just greater than the depth of the tooth being filed.

I find I can use a file for shaping teeth for quite a while, but for final sharpening it really pays to use a nice sharp one.  For teeth finer than 16 PPI, you can also look into using a needle file.  I've not done this, but others have reported success to me using them.  Files less than 6" long can be difficult to find in your local hardware store - I've had good luck getting them from Lee Valley and McMaster-Carr. 

Angles Used in Saw Teeth - Rake and Fleam

Before getting too deep into shaping the teeth - I think a bit of discussion of rip and crosscut profiles is in order, to help understand some of the reasons behind them.

A fairly recent "innovation" is that dovetail saws should be filed rip, since that is the direction in which they were cut, and recently more and more dovetail saws are being sold in this configuration.  This was not the case when I was learning - a crosscut profile was considered to be more useful than a rip, because while you can use a crosscut saw for short ripping functions (albeit slower), the opposite is decidedly not the case.  

This is because a rip saw leaves a rougher edge than a crosscut saw - you can get away with this when sawing with the grain, but not going across it (it's for much the same reason you need knickers in a dado plane, but not in a rabbet or grooving plane).  Using a rip saw invariably means you must use a marking knife of some sort to cut the edges of your dovetails - or use a backer - before you saw them, else you will get a ragged edge on the back side of the cut.  The chance is less so with a crosscut saw, because the teeth act more like knives than the chiseling cut of the rip saw.  Here's that profile shot again, where you can see what the differences are in the two types if you were to sight down a saw from the end:

Dad always told me that you could slide a needle down the valley that forms between the teeth of a well-sharpened crosscut saw.  I say this just to point out the slicing cut that it makes.  Personally, I have used each for cutting dovetails - and I can't say I prefer either way.  Regardless, a cross-cut saw is needed for making some shoulder cuts for tenons, so having one of each seems like a good idea.

For rip teeth, you can use the following as a guide for setting the rake angle (note, the heel - or handle - of the saw would be to the right, and the toe - end - of the saw to the left)::

The top one is the more aggressive pattern, which can be more difficult to use if you're not as experienced with hand saws as you'd like to be.  If starting cuts is an issue with you, you might consider the lower diagram (or something between the two) which relieves the angle of attack slightly to make for a less aggressive cut.  It'll be slower, but easier to use.  Disston started using the lower profile at some point after the turn of the century for some of their saws, so there's no need to feel like you're cheating if you do decide to use the less aggressive cut.  I know users who sharpen their dovetail rip saws up to a full 15 degrees to make them easier starting.  I would suggest you experiment with your own to find out where you are most satisfied.

Much the same is true for a crosscut profile, but it starts out with a less aggressive angle.  Here is about the most aggressive angle I would use on one:

You can increase the 12 degree angle for a less aggressive cut, if you prefer.  There is more discussion of these angles on the Vintage Saws site, if you are interested.

Fleam only really applies to crosscut saws, for our purposes here.  Fleam is the angle off of 90 degrees that a crosscut saw is sharpened to, like this:

This diagram shows a fleam angle of 20 to 25 degress.  Every other tooth gets filed to the prescribed angle, then the saw is flipped and the remaining teeth are filed to a mirrored angle.  It's this angle that forms the slicing points shown in the diagram above - you can sort of make it out in the teeth shown in this diagram. There will be more on this angle in the next page, where you will also see this same diagram again.

Truth be told - I never sit there with an angle gauge to determine what exact angle I'm filing.  I stick the end of the file into a block of wood at what "looks" to be about right, and go with it.  I often jam the other end of the file into another block of wood to help me maintain a consistent angle, however, and use a bevel gauge so I can repeat the angle when I turn it around for the other side.

Shaping the Teeth

If the teeth aren't very uniform, the first step is to shape the teeth so that they are.  When shaping, I usually work from one side only.  Trying to skip every other tooth is difficult at best, and unnecessary at this point - as I'll finish sharpening them later by doing every other tooth.  One note if you are shaping from one side only - you need to make sure you are holding the file perpendicular to the blade, and not angling the file up or down - if so, the final sharpening process will be much more difficult.

First, I 'joint' the saw - that means filing the top of the saw so each of the teeth are just slightly flattened.  I just use a file with a square scrap of wood to help hold it perpendicular to the saw, but name brand jointers are available as well.  Here you can see the reflection of the freshly flattened parts of the teeth by their reflection:

File just enough so that you can see a flat spot forming on all of the teeth - if there are one or two that aren't, it's not a big deal - subsequent sharpenings will bring them out.  But only a couple...  

You can see (maybe - kind of blurry) some of the flat spots on the top of the teeth in this photo after I've jointed them: 

If the result of jointing shows evenly sized 'flat spots' on top of the teeth, you can skip the shaping section and go directly to sharpening.  However, you can see in this instance that some of those flat stops are larger than others - and some are hardly there at all.  We'll need to fix this while the teeth are being sharpened because ideally, they would all be the same.  This point to a problem with the size of the existing teeth - that some are more deeply filed than others, and consequently that the points of the teeth are not all the same height - so the saw will not work as well.

What brought this about? Not paying enough attention to details.  Many sharpeners simply count the number of strokes they make with the file, but sometime they might be putting more pressure in one direction than in the other, and this is the result...  Not to worry - it's easily taken care of.  In either case below, when you are sharpening, you are sharpening to the point where the flat spot you created in this step *just * disappears... You will notice, as you go, how much pressure it takes to do just that.  Plus, guided by the flats on top of the saw, you can apply a slight amount of pressure to the side that has more flat than it should.

This can be a little bit tricky for your first pass, as you only do every other tooth. Just file more conservatively on the first side you do, then return to it to finish the job.  One thing I often do on badly out of joint saws is to do a shaping round first, concentrating on getting the teeth uniformly shaped - all from one side.  I then set the saw, as shown after the sharpening instructions below, lightly joint the teeth one more time, then go on to sharpen the saw as described below.

Sharpening, Continued


Sharpening the Teeth

This section is on re-sharpening existing teeth on a saw.  If you would like to re-tooth a saw, there is a section in the back saw project on cutting new teeth into the blade that might interest you - but as that isn't the norm, I'm not going to include it here.. 

One note about sharpening fine teeth - even your stance at the vise can make a difference in how you apply pressure to the file - and if you don't move as you progress down the saw, it will make a difference in how the saw is being sharpened.  Stop every so many teeth and adjust yourself accordingly!  Besides, you need to make sure you can see what you are doing.  Now, either because you have re-shaped the teeth in the section above or because they weren't that bad to begin with, you can count your strokes if it helps you.  The real trick is to keep a good eye on the tips of the teeth, looking for the flat from the previous step to just barely disappear.  

Another quick tip - learn to lift the file on the backstroke.  Doing so will significantly lengthen the life of your files, as dragging the file backwards across the steel only serves to dull it.

Filing Rip

For sharpening rip saws - file across every other tooth from one side, then flip the saw and run the file from the other direction on the remaining teeth with at least one end of the file jammed into a block of wood like shown below.  Filing from each side is done so the filing is consistent from each direction, and any inconsistencies that are created by your technique are repeated in an opposite and equal manner.  The angle should be the same one chosen previously (the lower is the less aggressive pitch):

It often helps to use something to darken the teeth so you can see which teeth you've filed and which you haven't.  You can use chalk, layout dye, or "Sight Black", which an anti-reflective aerosol spray used by gun-owners for reducing glare when sighting through their scopes.  It wipes off easily, leaving nothing behind.  Another great method is to use the soot from a burning candle or alcohol lamp.

As shown in the above diagram, file the teeth at 90 degrees to the blade, using the same angle used in shaping the teeth above.  Here's the real-world shot:

Usually, only a light stroke or two of the file is needed, just enough to remove the "flat" part left behind in the step above.  The flat will help you as a reference, filing the very last of it away should leave all of the points of the teeth in the same plane along the length of the saw.  Use the set of the saw to help guide you - for example, keep the tooth that is bent away from you to the right side of the file.  When you flip the saw, the orientation will remain the same - and if you darkened the teeth as suggested above, it should be easy to see where you've filed and where you haven't.

Filing Crosscut

The process for crosscut saws is much the same as for rip saws above, but with two very important differences - the first being the angle the teeth were cut at - which will be the same angle you chose when shaping the teeth previously, similar to this (the 12 degree angle is the minimum, most aggressive angle I would use on a crosscut saw - more rake angle will give you less aggressive, easier starting, but slower cutting performance from your saw):

The other difference is the fleam angle.  For our purposes, fleam angle is just the angle that you file the teeth at, which basically means 20 to 25 degrees off of perpendicular, as shown below, whereas a rip saw is file perpendicular.  File every other tooth, then flip and file the remaining.  Always file pointing in the same direction relative to the saw - if you do one side angling the file towards the toe of the saw, make sure that you also file towards the toe of the saw when you flip and file the other side.

Or, using a real-world photo, something like this:

Just be careful, and watch that you don't remove too much that it makes it difficult to file the teeth from the other side.  If you have to, just file a little, flip the saw file the other side, then repeat until you are finished.  It's easier if you remove too little than if you remove too much.

It is important that you file the proper teeth for crosscut, and how you file them is determined by the set of the teeth.  I tend to pick a side (i.e. the tooth bent away from me will always be on the right), and then file towards the toe of the saw.  It seems silly, but look at how the teeth are forming in this diagram, with the cutting points of the teeth on the outside edges of the blade:

I know this might seem trivial, but I've caught myself filing the teeth backwards!  So watch yourself!  To help clarify the angles a bit more, here's an overhead view of how the files should be held:

For back saws. I use about a 20 to 25 degree angle.  A steeper fleam angle results in a sharper saw, but also one that dulls quicker (on panel saws I use a 15 to 20 degree angle, because I don't like sharpening them as often).  You should end up with evenly shaped teeth, as below:

It can be hard to tell (and even harder to photograph), as because of the sharpening every other tooth might look small - so look at it against a light colored background and look at the entire tooth.


Crosscut Teeth - Graphic

I thought it might be a good idea to show a couple of graphics describing crosscut teeth.

  Here, you can see the bevel of every other tooth, as well as the back of the alternating teeth in this side elevation of a set of crosscut teeth:

When viewed from on end, just above the plane of the teeth, the above teeth look like this:

You can see the point of every other tooth is located on the opposite side of the blade - To show this a little better, here's a perspective view of the same teeth:

Quite a difference from the 90 degree angle of a rip saw's teeth:

I hope this helps illustrate what crosscut teeth are compared to rip...


Broken Teeth

What do you do about broken teeth?  If it's just a couple, ignore them and keep sharpening the saw as if they were there. They will eventually "grow" back, more and more with each subsequent sharpening. If it's a bunch, then the blade is probably too hard to be set, and may have been a metal cutting saw, or poor steel, or someone has tried to set the teeth the opposite way that they were originally set.  Hopefully it's the last rather than the steel...

If it's a lot of teeth, there's may be more wrong with the steel of the saw than is worth fixing. You can try joint the teeth down a ways and re-shape the teeth - it's an ambitious project, but not too hard to do, just a bit tedious. Take a look at the back saw project where I added teeth to blank steel to see a bit more on it.

I've only had teeth break on one saw I owned - and on that one, about 1/3 of the teeth were too hard to take a set. Thing is, about another 1/3 of the teeth were too soft to hold an edge.... Just poor steel, and not worth repairing in the end. Shame, too - it looked like a cool old saw, but was basically unusable.

Adding Set to the Teeth

Now is a good time to "set" the teeth.  "Setting" the teeth simply refers to bending every other tooth over slightly one way (the remaining are bent the same amount the other way) to increase the kerf size cut by the blade.  You can see the end effect in the rip and crosscut profiles diagrammed above.  The reason for this is to keep the blade from binding against the wood its cutting.  Softwoods need more set, as they "spring back" more.  Wet woods need the most set.  Hardwoods need less, and for cabinet grade hardwoods, it's best to try and get away with as little kerf as possible.  It's been my experience that you need at least some.

Setting the saw is done with a tool called, surprisingly, a saw set.  Stanleys are among the most common with the 42x being my preferred - but others can be just as serviceable.  For teeth finer than 14 PPI, it might be necessary to file down the hammer of one of these so it fits properly over the saw tooth.  The ultimate goal is to end up with a set where about 1/2 of the tooth is bent over.  Subsequent sharpenings reduce the amount of set simply by filing it away as you file down the tooth, therefore requiring you re-set the teeth at least every third sharpening, and maybe more often with finer teeth.

Using a saw set - notice the mark I've made on every other tooth with a marker:

Start by setting every other tooth on one side, then flip the saw around and set the remaining teeth the other direction.  Like I said, I don't always set the teeth during every sharpening, as sometimes I don't file enough off to significantly affect the set.  But when I do, I will always set it *just* a little more than I think is necessary.  You'll see why in the tuning section.

A word of warning - if you set a tooth one way, then decide you need to set it the other way, you could break the tooth off.  It is generally good practice to avoid doing it, so heed the following advice.  One problem I always seem to have when setting fine teeth is that I lose my place while setting every other tooth.  To overcome this, I often take a marker such as a Sharpie and mark every other tooth for reference, as I mentioned above.  This helps me avoid problems like mentioned above where you accidentally set the  teeth the wrong way.  If you do - don't fret, it's not the end of the world.  Subsequent filings will essentially remove the set, and at some point in the future you can start over.  Till then, it won't make a huge difference in how the saw performs so long as you are consistent in the set from side to side.  But do try to avoid it.

Once I've set the teeth, sometimes I will go over the saws once again with a file to sharpen them one last time - very lightly - to account for the new set.  Now the saw is sharp... but I'm not done yet.  Now saw is ready for final tuning.


Graduated Teeth  (Added 05-05-05)

A friend (Jonathan Skipsey) and I were having conversations about sharpening saws (yes, I know - what fun!) and the subject of spacing graduated teeth came up.  Graduated teeth are where the teeth at the toe of the saw  might be spaced at 8 teeth per inch, and at the heel the spacing is 5 TPI.  This is done to make starting a saw easier, but as the cut progress, the saw cuts more aggressively and as a result - cuts faster.  Jonathan had seen several saws where the spacing was masterfully done, and we wondered how the sharpener could spaced the teeth evenly, when Jonathan thought up the answer:

Text written on board above reads  "Edge of saw" - "Fronts and tops of teeth marked out - need square or sliding bevel etc." and "Line from biggest to smallest gullet depth".

Here's his commentary on it:

"Obviously I exaggerated the slope on this example but you can see the basic idea. I reckon it will be critical to get the edge filed and stoned absolutely straight before starting; Paste plain smooth paper along then set it out with a sharp 2h. The depth of the gullet for the biggest and smallest TPI are the 2 important dimensions. I'd calculate them separately on paper.
You could use a Swanson square or sliding bevel, or even 2 little wood or brass templates, one cut to each of the 2 angles. "

If you have a CAD program, this would be quite easy to do, too.

Thanks, Jonathan!  If anyone has another idea, I would like to hear from you!


Tuning a Saw for Optimum Performance

Yes, a saw can be tuned for optimum performance, and there isn't that much involved that I haven't gone through already in this article - but to put it all in one place...

Wax the blade of the saw using a paste wax such as Johnson's Paste Wax.  Avoid waxes that contain silicone, as this can contaminate some finishes... simple paste wax is best and it is amazing how much it can improve performance.

Lightly stone both sides of the teeth to even them out.  Errant teeth both reduce efficiency and leave the surface rougher than need be.  Stoning the sides evens the set of the individual teeth.

When sharpening, you can adjust the rake of the teeth to provide either a more aggressive angle that cuts faster, or a less aggressive angle that provides more control.  I've had back saws sharpened so aggressively that they can reach their full depth with a single stroke, albeit by leaving a very  rough surface behind.  

Crosscut saws can be sharpened with more or less fleam... using 30 degrees of fleam provides a very, very, sharp saw - though the edge retention is less than desirable, and you would need to re-sharpen such a saw quite often.  On the other hand, a saw with less than 15 degrees of fleam needs sharpening less often, but isn't as sharp.  Generally I try for a 20 to 25 degree fleam on my back saws, and a 15 to 20 degree fleam on my hand saws - but it is an opportunity for optimizing performance that you can utilize.

One thing I've heard of, but never tried - I guess there are now triangular shaped ceramic stones available now that you could hone the cutting edge of the saw teeth with.  Seems like quite a bit of work to me, but interests me enough that I might try it one day.

Once you get used to sharpening and tuning your own saws, you will develop a feel for what types you need, and how to tune each for it's intended purpose.  I've tried laying out a few simple guidelines, but so much of it comes from using it - well, you'll see!  Once you've made those first cuts with a sharp saw...

Using and Troubleshooting Saws

Using and Troubleshooting Hand Saws

Just like using a properly fettled and sharpened plane, using a properly sharpened and tuned saw can be a joy.  The opposite is also true- improper tuning and technique can cause the user to give up in frustration.  Sawing, just like mortising, shaping, or planing, is a skill - albeit a seemingly simple one - often overlooked that needs to be learned just like any other skill in woodworking.  On this first page, I'll try and go through some of basic applications and techniques for using hand saws.  On the next page, I'll go through troubleshooting the more common problems found with hand saws and tuning them for optimum performance, and give a quick overview of the "black art" of straightening a bent or kinked saw.

Using a Hand Saw

I'll break this down into the main categories of cuts made in a standard woodworker's shop -  crosscutting, ripping,  sawing with a back saw including cutting tenons and dovetails, and coping cuts for trim.  It will be a review of general techniques, but as some techniques are universal throughout, so I'll start with some general concepts.

General Concepts 

From here, most of the techniques I will describe are for right handed people, so left handed people need to switch left for right...  To guide the start of your saw, grasp the board just to the left of where you plan to cut, and use your thumb and forefinger as a guide for the saw, like this:

Sight down the top of saw, and line up the saw to the mark, putting the blade on the waste side of the cut.  Watch that you are holding the saw perpendicular to the stock - if it helps,  use a square piece of stock, or a square to help you.  Over time, and with practice, this will become second-hand to you.  Use your hand holding the saw to keep light pressure on your fingers, guiding the saw for it's first few cuts.  Hold the saw at about 45 degrees off of parallel to the board.  

Once you get the cut started, let the saw do most of the work.  Use full length strokes, utilizing the full length of the saw.  Keep an eye on the line you are cutting to, and adjust your cut accordingly...  Many small adjustments are much easier than one big one - if it gets too big, it can be difficult if not impossible to straighten out.

An important part of any successful sawing session is anchoring the work-piece, whether you anchor it with your weight or in a vise of some sort.  It is nearly impossible to properly saw anything if it's moving all over the place on you.  It also makes it much easier if the stock is not only securely anchored, but anchored near where you are cutting.  If the sawing is being done too far away from an anchor point (i.e. vise, top of the saw horse) that steadies it, the teeth of the saw can cause the stock to vibrate as it cuts.  The harmonic that sets up between stock and saw reduces the saws cutting ability and can be a source of frustration, making the saw want to wander as it cuts.

For most work with a hand saw, a pair of saw horses the proper height are very nice to have.  Proper height on saw horses - ones that you are going to actually use for hand sawing - are about 24" to 26".  Low enough that you can kneel on the stock being cut without discomfort, but tall enough that there is clearance for the saw below.  Most modern saw horses you purchase at the hardware store are too high, so you may need to make yourself a pair.  But hey - making your own stuff is what this is all about anyway, isn't it?

Crosscutting - Sawing Perpendicular to the Grain

Place the board you are going to cut onto your saw horse.  For cross cutting, the waste end should be off of the saw horse, to your right, hanging free, with the cut as close as possible to the support to reduce vibration. Use your left knee to anchor the board to the saw horses with your weight, and make the cut with the saw at about 45 degrees off of parallel to the board.  If it's of any significant length, you will need to support the free end of the stock when the cut is getting made, but the support should be at least an inch or two below the stock.  If it is supporting it while you are cutting, it will bind the saw blade by squeezing together over it.  

Best to let it hang and to let it drop if it is short enough, or if there's room - to hang on to both at the far end of the cut. A word of warning if you don't -  it will break a piece off where you don't want it to if it's too long - guaranteed .  I usually rough cut my work a couple inches longer than required, then make a second finishing cut to length just so this isn't an issue. For the first rough cut, I minimize the breakage by giving it a support an inch or two below the stock so it doesn't fall too far.  Then, once you get near the end of your cut, either let the piece fall away or get your apprentice to hold it for you, lightly pulling the waste piece away from as not to bind the saw.

Ripping - Sawing Parallel to the Grain

Much of the procedure for ripping lumber is the same for ripping... but of course, you aren't cutting the short way across the board.  For a long board, start with much the same posture as for crosscutting (of course, turned 90 degrees) with one end of the stock being cut hanging off of the sawhorses, and cut with the saw at about 60 degrees off of parallel to the stock. Once the cut is started, you can use both arms to push and pull the saw, watching that your cut is square and to the line.  Once I reach the end, I usually switch directions and finish the cut from the other end.

For shorter boards, which is more common in casework, I often mount the stock into the end of my vise, perpendicular to the floor with the proposed saw-cut clear of the bench, allowing me to make the cut from top to bottom.

Once thing that is a pretty common occurrence when ripping is where the freshly cut wood begins to bend slightly in upon itself, binding the saw in it's kerf.  A way to avoid that is to keep a couple of wedges available to stick in the saw kerf behind the saw as you go, to keep the wood from closing in on itself and binding on the blade.  In a pinch, a nail will sometimes do, also.


If keeping the saw straight so your cuts are square and perpendicular is difficult for you, use a guide to aid you in holding your saw correctly.  A guide can be as simple as an old 2" x 2" or 2" x 3" piece of pine cut from construction lumber, or a chunk of plywood - whatever you need to help train yourself to cut straighter, something similar to what you see in the diagram above, so long as it's straight.  I have several shop made "fences" I use around the shop made out of scrap plywood that I use for this purpose, and also as a temporary fence for the drill press or band saw - or what ever comes up that requires the use of one.  Very handy!

As you gain proficiency with your saw, you will need these guides less and less;  but they can be very helpful in teaching yourself proper technique.

Cutting Plywood and Other Engineered Materials

Plywood and Waferboard (aka OSB or Oriented Strand Board).  Because you have plies of wood that are running in two or more separate directions, it makes sense that a crosscut saw is the best choice for cutting manmade or engineered materials such as plywood, OSB, or similar materials.  The main issue with these materials is tear-out, which can be minimized by scoring the top veneer along the line being cut, and using a finer toothed saw, say something between 10 and 12 TPI.  Coarser saws can be used, of course, just with greater risk of tear-out.

Particle Board, MDF, Tempered Hardboard, and Similar Materials.  These sorts of building materials came along after hand saws had lost their popularity, and not much development has been put into making hand saws for them.  They will work in this material, but at a cost - the glues and other chemicals used in these materials will dull a standard hand saw quickly.  I usually switch to power tools for sawing panels such as these anyway, as using them can't really be considered 'traditional' anyway.  There are some hand saws made today that might be more appropriate for using on these kind of materials - so-called 'hard-point' saws that have the teeth specially hardened.  These saws can't be re-sharpened effectively by the average user, though, and usually have a handle that resembles a club more than a tote for a saw.  It is an option for the hard core Neanderthal, though.

Coping Saws

A coping saw's best use is for (surprise!) coping joints.  A coping joint is trim in an inside corner, where the molding being used has any rounded profile.  If you used a miter joint in this situation, the miter is likely to open up over time, showing a gap.  Coping the joint allows the corner to expand and contract without opening a gap in the molding. Another consideration is that rarely will you find a corner that is exactly 90 degrees...  A coped joint will allow you to work around such deviations.

On the left in the photo a mitered joint - two 45 degree angles.  You can see there is a shadow line visible, which happens when the joint opens up (and they almost always do).  A coped joint won't show this shadow line as easily as it will slide along the mating surface of the adjacent molding, and you won't see end grain in the crack.

The following is directions to cope an inside 90 degree corner - one of the most common cope joints.  Cutting a curved molding to fit it's own profile isn't as tough as it sounds.  The first piece of trim is cut square and installed right into the corner.  The second is sawn at a  45 degree angle to it's face, and a good tip is to highlight the profile with a pencil, as can be seen in the photo on the right just below:

The second shows how highlighting the profile with a pencil makes it easier to see when you do cut it.  When it is cut, hold the saw at just over 90 degrees so the face of the cut will contact it's mate in the corner first (undercut it just a little).


Peter Huisman suggested my instructions might be confusing, and I agree - he suggested the following instructions:

"Work from left to right around a room. Approaching an inside mitre, cut the right hand end of the profiled board square. Cut the left end of the next piece at 45 degrees as you would for an inside mitre. This exposes the exact profile to be coped away. Now cope along the exposed profile edge but at a little less than 90 degrees to the face (undercut). Trial fit and finish by filing / sanding to a good fit."

Thanks for that, Peter!


From here, a coping saw is used to remove the waste, shooting for a goal of cutting the pencil line about in half.  You can clean up the edge with a file, preferably a round one for the curved parts.  Here you can see one being worked on, and the resulting coped joint put together:

If the joint does open up, it will be less obvious on a coped joint than it is in a mitered joint.  After cutting as close to the line marked in the step above, use files to fit the coped joint to it's mate.  Test fitting helps to show were more filing is needed.

The coped joint can slide along the adjacent molding, allowing the walls or wood behind to move without opening up - thus aesthetically, it is a superior joint to a simple miter for an inside corner.

When Sawing Tenons and Dovetails

Always cut on the waste side of the cut - always mark the waste being cut with an 'X' so that you are not confused when it comes time to start the cut.  Leave just a little of the waste on the pins or the tenon, and remove that with a file afterwards, if necessary.  Remember, it's easier to remove wood than it is to put it back on.  An important aspect of cutting tenons and dovetails is how the grain is oriented when starting the cut.  A back saw with a rip profile is probably best for dovetails and the cheek cuts made for a tenon - using a finer saw for the dovetails.  To avoid tear-out, start the cut with the grain, rather than against it (note - this applies to starting the cut only):

Sawing with the grain, as shown above on the left, tends to compress the fibers of the wood against itself, where with the figure on the right, the wood has no backing, therefore it is more likely for the wood to tear out.  As the cut progresses, there's less chance for tear-out on the other side, and you can adjust your attack angle as needed.

Tenons and dovetails are best cut with a back saw.  For dovetails, start the cut about at the angle shown and continue cutting, leveling off the cut as the saw reaches the other side, then start cutting with the saw perpendicular to the board being cut.  For a tenon cut, start the cut with the work angled away about 45 degrees away from the saw, then as the cut proceeds through to the other side, change it so it angles toward you, cutting against the grain as it's shown in the above diagram.  Watch for tear-out on the far end of the cut.  As you approach the depth on the far side, level the saw out to cut the remaining middle portion.  

Keep the work clamped in a vise, and keep the work at between elbow and shoulder level if possible - make sure it's at a height that you can use the saw comfortably, and still gaze over the work-piece to make sure you are following the lines you've scribed.  Sight down the saw, keeping an eye on both sides of the saw and that it's perpendicular (or to whatever angle you're working),  Keep the cut of the saw on the waste side of the line.  If you use a marking knife, once you have a bit of practice, it's a fun challenge to see how evenly you can split the line it makes with your saw cut.

Shoulder Cuts and miter cuts made in a miter box have good results using a crosscut back saw if you start the saw at about a 20 degree angle to the stock, and work it towards level as the saw proceeds through the stock.  A miter box is a very handy item to have around to make accurately cut angles, but if you don't have one, you can get it close then use a shooting board and a miter plane to dial it in.  For most cases, a shooting board is the best way, as it is very hard to hand saw a mitered angle perfectly - there's often  some saw-tooth marks or other imperfections that need tuning.

Additional Info:  Following a Line (Making Dovetail and Tenon Cuts)

I should add a little note here for those who might have some difficulty sawing to a line using the method I describe here.  Here's another technique that allows you to follow the line a little easier.

Start with the saw almost (just a couple of degrees off of) parallel with the end of the board, starting the cut on the far side of the board.  Watch the angle - try it on a scrap first... Too high of an angle and the saw will be difficult to start and you might get too much tear out on the far side.  Too little of an angle and the saw will be difficult to keep straight on the line (it will want to jump).

Once you are practiced, starting the saw this way will become second hand.  It also reminds one that there is more than one way to skin a cat...  

I will provide a new photo here as soon as I can get one that helps to describe this.

Cleanup can be done with a paring chisel or a file.  A skew chisel is handy for getting into the corners of dovetails, and a shoulder plane is great for cleaning up the shoulder cuts on a tenon.  The cheeks of the tenon will clean up nicely with a chisel or file, too.

Diagnosing Common Issues with Hand Saws

OK - you've got your saw in your hand, and it just isn't working like you think it should.  What do you do?  I'll try and cover some of the basic issues I've seen with saws, hopefully enough to get you started in the right direction as to what's going on with it.

The Saw Leaves a Very Rough Edge/Tear Out Problems

A common issue with hand saws is they leave behind a rough cut, or cause much more tear-out than is necessary.  There's a couple things to look at to solve this...

Are you using a fine enough saw?  expecting an 8 TPI saw to leave a very fine finish might be asking too much of it.  Perhaps a finer-toothed saw is the answer.

Are you using the proper type of saw?  A rip saw can cause a lot of tear-out when used to crosscut.  It simply doesn't have the slicing cut that a crosscut saw does.  This isn't usually as big a deal when talking about very fine teeth, but still...

A marking knife used to score the surface of the wood, will reduce tear-out by cutting the fibers of the wood directly adjacent to the cut.

Finally, check the set of the teeth.  Sometimes, the teeth are set slightly unevenly, and this can leave teeth-marks in the wood as the saw cuts it. If there is enough set in the saw, often you can run a stone lightly down each side of the teeth to even them out.  Go lightly, and check after each pass.  One or two light passes should be plenty, but be warned - if you remove too much set, the saw will bind and you will have to re-set the teeth on the saw.  For a stone, I use an old cheapie oilstone I have had for years that broke during a move once - there's a picture of me doing just this to a saw in the section below entitled "The Saw Always Wanders to One Side" if you'd like to see it being done.

The Saw Starts Too Hard

If you've gone through all the steps outlined above in "Some Notes to Reduce Hard Starting" and are still having difficulty, you may have the saw sharpened with too steep of a rake angle.  You might need to go back and re-sharpen your saw using a less aggressive angle that starts easier. Be warned, easing the rake angle will make the saw easier to start, but at a cost in performance - the saw will not cut as fast.  Also, if you just sharpened the saw, it can take a little while, but as the saw begins to dull, it will get easier to start.  The razor sharp edges on a freshly sharpened saw don't always last that long, but that doesn't necessarily mean the saw is dull.  It may be that a little patience will bring about the results you desire.

Some Notes to Reduce Hard Starting

If you are having difficulty starting the cut, here's probably why:

First off, a freshly sharpened saw is harder to start than a dull one.  The cutting edge of sharp teeth are going to grab the wood much more than a dull one would.  One experienced with saws might look for this, because if it's not there it's a sign the saw is dull or at least starting to get dull.  Practice makes a great deal of difference in being able to start saws easily.

Figure A shows a normal saw at the start of a cut.  The corner of the stock being cut protrudes into the teeth, forcing the saw to take too big of a bite.  After the saw gets going, the angle is closer to that of the saw, and the teeth can then take light shavings off instead of a big chunk, similar to what you see in Figure B.

To start the cut easier, there are three things to try - first, you can try pull the saw towards you to start the kerf, which will start a shallow cut by breaking through the corner of the board.  In Figure B - you can see the reduced angle of both the teeth in the pull direction, and in the stock after the initial cut has been made.  What you've done is changed the effective angle of the cut, lessening the bite the teeth need to take.

Pulling the saw can cause a bit of tear-out at the corner.  If that's an issue, score the cut first with a utility or marking knife.

A second alternative, shown in Figure C is to can lower the angle of the saw.  The lower the angle, the easier the saw will cut.  At nearly level is often a good way to start a cut without having the teeth catch on the edge - just be careful when you get really low, as it can possibly cause a bit of tear-out.  You can temporarily clamp a piece of waste on the far side of the stock to help reduce this hazard, if need be.

A third option is to lift about half of the weight of the saw off of the board for the first cut or two.  This obviously does not change the cutting angle - what this does is provide a check against your technique.  Many times you are simply trying to force the saw too much, putting too much weight behind the cutting motion - which causes the teeth to dig into the wood, making it harder to start the cut.

You can use either any single or combination of these methods to help get the saw started in the cut. If you still have difficulty, see the troubleshooting section below.


The Saw Binds in the Kerf

If the saw is binding, there's a couple things to look for... first, make sure that the saw being used is properly waxed.  A good wax job using Johnson's Paste Wax (or it's equivalent) can do wonders for solving a binding problem. 

The first thing to look after that is your technique - are you working the saw in a straight line?  Is your return perpendicular to the cut?  Make sure that you aren't twisting the handle as you make the cut. 

It could also be you've struck some reaction wood or case-hardened wood that is warping as you cut it.  Cutting through wood sometimes release the internal stresses on the lumber, allowing it to twist.  If you are ripping a piece of lumber, or crosscutting a particularly wide board, a wedge can be used to wedge apart the saw-cut, keeping it from binding on the blade of the saw.

One "fad" that seems to be raging through the woodworking community is the concept of a "minimally set" saw.  This is where a well meaning or uninformed sharpener reduces the set of the saw so that the width of the kerf cut is barely wider than the blade of the saw, supposedly to aid in accuracy.  I touched on this earlier, about properly setting the teeth on a saw for the proper type of wood being cut, and that is true - but I think some may have taken this concept a bit too far, and remove too much set thinking it will improve their control.  The only cure for that is to re-set the saw.

The Saw Always Wanders to One Side

This can be caused by a couple of things - usually it's either the saw was sharpened inconsistently from one side to the other, or was set inconsistently from one side to the other.  The fix is almost always the same, though. If there is enough set left, you can stone the side to which the saw is wandering:

Here, stoning just the side shown would reduce tendencies for the saw to track to the right.  Draw a line, and test that the saw can follow a line:

The test is the same for a rip cut, just that you would draw the line oriented with the grain instead - ripping, in other words.

Take a light pass with the stone, then draw a line a board and test it.  If the saw still wanders, repeat the above until it doesn't.  It shouldn't take more than a couple light passes with the stone to keep it from wandering, if it does, then the saw probably needs to be re-sharpened, paying special attention to consistency between the two sides.  Go slowly - you are removing set, and if you remove too much, the saw will bind.

It is always possible that it could be technique.  Check to make sure the strokes you make with the saw are themselves causing the saw to wander.  Never try to force the saw one way or the other, let the saw make the cut.  Just make sure you are holding the saw at the proper angle through the stroke, and let the saw do most of the work from there.

The Saw is Difficult to Control - Wandering

This is almost always because there is too much set in the saw for what it's being used for.  The extra set causes the saw to cut too wide of a kerf, and then the saw has a hard time guiding itself in its own cut.  The fix is the same as the above - only this time, you'll need to stone both sides of the saw blade, doing both sides with a light pass then testing.  The consequences are the same as well, as removing too much set may require you to re-sharpen the saw.  Go carefully, and test each stoning with a new test cut.  Again, go slowly - you are removing set, and if you remove too much, the saw will bind, and require re-setting.

Again, it is always possible that it could be technique - check it as described above.

Stopping the Wubawubawuba

What's the wubawubawuba?  It's that annoying vibration the saw makes when you are pulling the saw back up through the cut.  What's really happening is the saw is binding in it's own cut.  There may be several causes:  either there isn't enough set on the saw, and it is binding, or the sawyer is pulling the back up at an angle not in line with the cut being made, causing the blade to bind that way.  Also, make sure it isn't the wood closing up behind the initial cut, closing itself over the blade.  

The fix is first to check your technique, then add a bit of set once you've satisfied  yourself that your technique isn't at fault.  Use a guide like the ones mentioned on the previous page to help you diagnose your technique.  

The Black Art of Removing a Bend or Kink in a Saw 

Removing a kink or a bend in a hand saw is a bit of a trick, but with patience it can be done.  Two things cause bends - improper storage (something's dropped on it) or not enough set and the saw was binding in it's cut  until it bent from using too much force.  I didn't have a really badly bent saw to show for this, but I have one that's been poorly worked by a previous owner.  Not the best candidate for showing the procedures for straightening, but perhaps it will serve:

This is a 100 year old Woodrough & McParlin saw.  It's a beautiful saw to look at, but the steel isn't all that good in it, which is why I haven't bothered straightening it before.  What's wrong with the steel?  Well, I personally think it's a bit soft, but really - see the photos below.  Watch for the rant that's sure to come!

You'll need something that works as an anvil, with a fairly broad surface.  Guess what - an anvil works best!  You'll also need a hammer - a heavy, broad-faced hammer.  NEVER USE A BALL PIEN HAMMER!  They may work, but leave the surface of the saw horribly dented.  I use a four pound sledge with a large, flat face.  The term for a hammer used to flatten metal like this is a planishing hammer.  Here is what results from using a ball pien hammer:

Dents, dents, and more dents.  Ugly... I don't know how well these photos really show it, but it is bad.  There isn't anything that can be done to fix it either, I'm afraid. So I'll say it again - DON'T USE A BALL PIEN HAMMER!  This is the result of a former owner's attempts to fix this saw - I'd say he did more damage than good - and the saw had made it just fine without him for 100 years before he got a hold of it.  OK, I'm  done with the rant...

Sighting down the saw, find the area that's bent and mark it with chalk, or layout dye, or other non-permanent marking method (no permanent ink!).  The bends are almost always near dead center of the saw - if it is, place the handle of the saw on your shoulder so you can give a slight bend to the saw, resting the saw on the anvil where the bend is, with the bend facing up, like this:

The reason I bend the saw slightly isn't necessary for straightening the saw, but helps me to see where best to strike it with the hammer, using the reflection of the light to help me see the higher spots.  Your fingers are another good gauge - it's amazing how minute the surface changes are that you can feel.  The marks you see on the face of the blade are from the previous owner's attempt at fixing it.  The bottom part of the photo shows the bend of the saw as I orient it on the anvil.

Using light blows, working the hammer directly up and down over the saw, work the area that's bent, checking the straightness of the saw often. Hammering will expand the metal on the other side from the hammer, forcing the saw straight.  It can be a bit of a challenge, both in picking the right spot to hit and in not overdoing it, but it sure isn't rocket science.

This saw also had a slow bend in it, besides the kink.  To fix the bend, I put the saw in the vise and work the blade gently over from the top of the bend to the bottom:

The bottom photo shows me putting more pressure on a particular spot.  Be careful you don't overdo it, spend some time and bring the bend slowly to straight, checking often.

The end results aren't perfect, but do make the saw useable again:

I'm not bending the saw in either photo, either - that's the best honest to god photo I could get of it's condition.  I think that a good sharpening, and a re-setting of the teeth could actually straighten it out a bit more.

Never use too much force.  One reason I like a heavy hammer is that I can let the hammer do it's own work, while I simply concentrate on hitting the saw metal as straight on as possible.  Be careful that you do, else you will dent and damage the blade.  Did I mention not to use a ball pien hammer?

Storing Hand Saws

Keep your saws in a place where they are not in danger of having something dropped on them - many build a saw till that holds the saws upright and out of the way.  A good saw till can save your saw from most damage.

Don't store the saw in leather or plastic.  They don't breathe well enough and can allow moisture to remain on the blade, where guess what happens?  Yep.  Rust.

Wax the saw frequently, and thoroughly, if you're using it often.  If you are going to store the saw for long terms, don't buff the wax off, let it remain on dry.  You might have a hard time buffing it off in the future, but that's a lot easier than removing rust.

Skill Building - a Historical Perspective

It seems like it should be pretty straightforward, using a saw, and it is - but there are proper techniques you can use that can improve your success rate with using them quite a bit.  There are different techniques for different situations, too. Now - this should go without saying, but I'll will mention it here, just this once.  Remember that this is a saw, and it is sharp - and  the hardest thing to get off them tools is a blood stain.  No blood on the tools!  Having any high school shop flashbacks from that statement?

Why would anyone need to read about sawing wood?  Well... for example, the first thing to do when you are going to saw a board, whether ripping or crosscutting, is to position it properly so that you can hold it in place and saw it without undue strain on your eyes, arms, and back.  These things were not often explicitly explained in any sort of sawyer's manual 100 years ago, so it doesn't always get it's due attention today.  Is this because they never bothered with such things then, but now more people are aware of ergonomics and it's effect on manual labor? 

Possible, but unlikely.  These skills, like sharpening, were taught to apprentices on the job site by their more experienced mentors.  Today's woodworker's are more likely to learn the trade more in isolation than ever before, with only the occasional internet forum, magazine article, or (god help you all) articles such as this one to guide them on their way.  Even then, most of the time spent with other woodworkers is spent learning, showing, or teaching tasks that are less mundane than simply sawing a board with a hand saw. 100 years ago, there would have been an entire crew of people handy for learning from, and the only task of an apprentice when starting the job was sharpening saws and chisels, and cutting and ripping boards for the crew to use in building.  Because of this, by the time the apprentice was moved upwards to the position of carpenter, he was well practiced in the maintaining and using of the basic tools.

Personally, I think we've lost some of the skills taught that way.  Take a look at modern saw horses for example.  The saw horses I remember were all quite short - about 24 to 28 inches off of the ground.  This was so the sawyer could use his knee to hold the board down while sawing.  Modern saw horses are taller, to accommodate a circular saw.  I once had a pair of those out when I was asked if they were shorter so I could assemble cases on them.  It never even dawned on the fellow questioning their use that they could have been for sawing by hand.  That surprised me.  

People are also used to using power tools, where the power enables the user to force the blade through the wood, with little attention paid to the wood being cut.  The user of hand tools has to be much more intimate with the work-piece than what is considered the 'norm' today (pun intended).  Reading grain direction for reaction wood, run-out, defects, and pristine grain is an integral part of hand tools, beyond the concept of this short (short?  hah!) article, so I won't go into it in depth, and assume this is known by the reader.  Sounds like a good idea for another treatise...

Thanks for reading!