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All About Japanese Saws

It is unusual to visit a fine woodworker’s workshop and not find some Japanese saws (nokogiri) hanging on the tool rack. For people who haven’t encountered them, Jan Schilling offers some advice on using and selecting these distinctive tools.

Japanese saws work very differently to western-style saws, their teeth are set in the opposite direction and the cut is made by pulling the saw towards the user. Because the cut is made on the upstroke with the blade in tension, the metal in the blades can be very thin. This leaves you with a very fine kerf. (width of cut).

In Japan, woodworkers traditionally work on tatami mats on the floor at a planning board,  which is a multi-functional small flat bench with a sliding dovetail stop.  These saws can be used in a sitting or a standing position.

Using a Japanese saw is a little different to the western-style tenon saw. To begin with you start your cut with the back of the blade not the tip. (Otherwise there is nothing to pull). As with a tenon saw you can use your thumb to guide the saw, however, be aware that the blade is really sharp and if it jumps it will leave a jagged cut on your finger. I have one to show for my carelessness. Angle the blade a little towards the stock and do not grip the very front of the handle, hold it a bit further back.

Saw gently, steadily and with only a little pressure, too much of either and you’ll wander off course. Also do not suddenly exert pressure or bend the blade or you’ll loose a few teeth and have a saw that will not cut perfectly straight.

A tip if you are having trouble sawing straight is to draw a line both front and back of the stock, set a mirror behind the stock and as you saw, watch the blade and the line at the back of the stock and adjust your hold on the saw as necessary – works a treat.

Generally Japanese saws have changeable blades. The teeth are too fine and the metal too hard to sharpen as you would western saws. If used with care though, you can easily get a couple of years out of a blade; depending on the amount of work you are doing and the hardness of your timber.

Changing a blade is a simple matter of tapping the back front edge of the blade against a hardwood block. You will then be able to detach it easily. When you have inserted the new blade, tap it again, only this time with the spine of the saw – it is similar to putting a broom head on a handle. 

Three of the most commonly used Japanese saws used are:

Dozuki – a saw with a rigid spine, enabling very precise cuts. This is the saw most commonly used for joinery.

Ryoba  - a saw with teeth on both sides for crosscutting and ripping. This saw is used mostly for sizing or breaking down material.

Kataba – a saw without a back and teeth on one side of the blade, it comes as a crosscut saw but ripcut blades are available. The absence of the spine allows you to make deep cuts or cut right through the stock.

Choosing a saw will depend on what you want to do with it and your skill level. You don’t have to be enslaved by the prescribed use of the saw. It is perfectly possible to use a crosscut saw to cut with the grain, just as long as you do not mind the slow speed, and crosscuts are manageable with a ripcut saw – it just won’t be as clean a cut. Japanese ripsaws have different teeth for cutting softwood or hardwood. The teeth for softwood are more sharply angled for biting into the soft fibres. The crosscut saws are designed like small knives so as not to tear out the fibres. The tooth shape is the same for soft and hardwoods but the upper bevel of the cutting edge has an increased angle for hardwood.

When starting out with a Japanese saw, it’s best not to buy the most expensive, as most people only change blades because the blade has snapped or teeth have been ripped out.  If the saw did not cost too much, replacing the blade hurts less!

Backed saws are easier to steer than backless saws, but they do have a limited depth of cut, the blade is thinner and the teeth more delicate – perfect for dovetails.  The backless blade is thicker, sturdier and allows deep cuts. It is your choice but to meet all demands, you will need both.

One thing for sure, when you try a Japanese saw, you will never look back. It will be destined to take pride of place in your workshop. 

Click here to check out Carbatec's full range of Japanese saws.