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  • All About Handsaws

All About Handsaws


Even if you use machinery for cutting most of your joinery, there are some things that are still best done with a handsaw. Being able to saw accurately to a line is a fundamental woodworking skill that can take a lot of practice to get it right, but is well worth the effort. Once you gain confidence, you may even find yourself cutting your dovetails or tenons by hand.

Something that can not be overlooked is the importance of using the correct saw for the job, especially when there are so many different varieties to choose from and they vary in what they do and how they do it. Don’t sell yourself short when buying a saw, to get the best results it’s always worth investing in quality tools. It’s a real pleasure using a well-made saw that cuts cleanly and feels good to use.

A lot of thought goes into creating a saw that will produce a perfect cutting action. Timber is a fibrous material that works differently if you cut it along the grain (ripping) than it does when you cut across the grain (crosscutting). Therefore there are different saw teeth configurations that are available.

The number of ‘teeth per inch’ (TPI) and the ‘rake’ or angle of the teeth determines whether the saw is best used for ripping or crosscutting. The higher the rake, the more aggressive the cut, but the more it will grab and be difficult to start, a more relaxed rake will assist in starting the cut. When you are ripping along the grain, saw teeth tend to be ground flat like a series of small chisels. There are fewer teeth per inch with deeper gullets to allow the fibres that are cut away to clear and not clog.

Crosscut saws have more teeth for a finer cut to avoid creating a ragged edge and are ground to a bevelled angle with a leading edge that scores the fibres to give a nice crisp edge to the cut. The teeth on both types of saws kick out to alternate sides to allow the body of the blade to pass through the wood easily. This is known as the ‘set’ of the teeth and the width of the cut is known as the ‘kerf’.

Most woodworkers will own several saws, the thickness of the material and the types of joinery you want to cut will determine which ones you choose. If you are making small boxes with tiny dovetails, you won’t want to use a large tenon saw to cut them, you are more likely to go for a fine dovetail saw or Gent’s saw.

Most joinery is cut using a backsaw. This is a family of saws that have a stiff rib or spine supporting the blade. Gent’s, Dovetail, Tenon and Carcass saws fall into this category. The spine adds support and help with control and accuracy, it also means that the depth of cut is limited.

Carpenters saws are designed to cut timber to dimensions that make it easier to work with. There is no spine so the blade can pass all the way through a board. Power tools are mostly used for this purpose these days, but it’s always handy to have a well-tuned handsaw if you need to re-size material out of the workshop.

In recent years there has been a growing trend for woodworkers to include Japanese saws in their repertoire. Western saws cut on the push stroke and their teeth are set towards the toe of the saw. The teeth on Japanese saws are set in the opposite direction and cut on the upstroke. This means that the saw is cutting in tension and the steel used in the blade can be very fine leaving the narrowest of kerfs. They traditionally have long wooden handles wrapped in cane and look very different to the familiar western saws. They are superb to use and people new to woodworking find them very approachable and are able to gain confidence with them very quickly.

A Dozuki is the equivalent to a backsaw and a Kataba is more like a carpenter’s saw. Japanese saws also have a style called a Ryoba, this features a side for ripping and a side for cross cutting in the one saw. Many people never go back to western style saws after trying Japanese ones.

There are a number of saws designed for special functions. A Flush cut saw or the Kugihiki (the Japanese version) is designed to cut dowels or through tenons flush to the surface of your workpiece. The teeth on these saws are only set on one side, preventing any surface damage to the timber. They are also very flexible and will bend easily to allow the cut to be easily made.

Take the time to choose your handsaws. The comfort of the handle and the weight are also important factors to consider, the saw needs to feel right. They are an extension of your hand and become old friends once you find the right one. Once you’re happy, then practice as much as you can, you’ll be amazed at what you can do!