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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!