Mastering the handsaw

A guide to making precise unguided cuts.

Even for the most seasoned woodworkers, cutting with a handsaw can be intimidating. Without a miter gauge, fence, or jig to guide the cut, you depend on your eye-hand coordination to cut true. Improving that skill is easy: The old saw (sorry) about practice making perfect applies. Cutting tenons helps you develop the muscle memory for making accurate rips and crosscuts. Plus, you’ll learn a new skill for cutting joinery on oversize workpieces, and angled tenons that a router or tablesaw may not be able to tackle.

Cut a mortise in a piece of scrap and use it to help you gauge the thickness and squareness of your practice tenons, and you’ll quickly identify where to improve your technique. Practice on a soft wood, such as pine or birch, to build confidence, and because you can more easily correct a line that drifts while you perfect your technique. 

Choosing a saw 

Backsaws come in many sizes and varieties, below, and get their name from the spine along the top edge that stiffens the blade. This reduces the blade’s tendency to buckle, so it cuts truer. And while it may seem counterintuitive, a larger backsaw can help you best develop your skills. The longer blade wanders less, and its weight helps you cut with less downward effort. 

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Small saws meant for fine work (top and middle) have tooth counts of 12 teeth per inch (tpi) or points per inch (ppi) and up. Tenon saws (bottom) have a lower tooth count for better rip cuts, and wider blades for deeper cuts.

Make your marks


Cutting precisely starts with sharp layout lines for the length and thickness of the tenon. A marking gauge severs wood fibers, creating thin lines [Photos A–C]. Darken the cuts with a fine pencil lead if you need to improve their visibility. 

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Press the marking-gauge fence tight to the end of the workpiece. Scribe the faces first, then connect those lines with marks along the edges.

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To mark the tenon thickness on the workpiece end and edges, reset the gauge using the mortise as a reference. Strike lines around the end and both edges.

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See what you saw

Secure the workpiece in a vise, angled away from you, so you can easily see the adjoining layout lines on the end and edge of the workpiece. Grip the saw with your index finger extended along the handle and pointing to the end of the blade [opening photo, top]. Use the tip of the thumb or a knuckle on your free hand to guide the saw as you start the cut with short, light, back-and-forth strokes [Photo D, below].

Making the cut
Position the blade to the waste side of the line. Do not apply downward pressure as you start the cut with strokes of about a fourth to a third of the blade length. Gradually increase stroke length as the kerf deepens.
 

Keep the spine of the saw horizontal, sight along the edge of the blade and kerf to the marked cutlines, and apply only light pressure as you work. Saw until you reach the shoulder line on the near edge [Photo E, below]. Watch the lines closely on the end and edge—if you begin drifting away from either, back up, angle the saw to guide it back to the line, and resume.

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Stop when the kerf reaches the knife mark on the near edge of the workpiece. The kerf should extend through the width of the workpiece.

Flip the workpiece face for face, and use the kerf to guide the saw as you cut to the opposite shoulder line. Pivot the saw parallel to the end and shoulder line, and square up the bottom of the cut [Photo F, below].

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You can leave the workpiece angled and pivot the saw or, if it’s more comfortable, reposition the workpiece vertically. Saw away the wedge-shape waste between the two shoulders.

Cut the other cheek in the same fashion.

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Begin with short, light strokes on the far corner next to the cleat. After establishing the kerf, lower the saw to cut along the full length of the cutline. Slow and shorten your strokes as you near completion to prevent tear-out.

Use a bench hook when cutting the shoulders. Pressing the saw blade against the bench-hook cleat helps keep the blade vertical. Align the shoulder line with the end of the bench-hook cleat so the saw kerf just leaves the knife mark [Photo G, above]. After cutting away the waste, a few strokes with a shoulder plane or a sanding block with square edges smooths the cheeks, providing a good glue surface. Clean up to the knife marks with the shoulder plane as well [Photo H, below]. 

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The bench-hook cleat backs up the shoulder as you plane, preventing tear-out. Planing squares the shoulders to the cheek for a gap-free fit with the mortised workpiece.

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Mark the tenon width on the newly cut cheeks and transfer them around the end. Darken the lines if needed.

Strike marks for the tenon width [Photo I, above], then cut to the lines [Photo J, below]. Work down to just short of the shoulder. Repeat for the opposite mark.

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Start the cut on the far face so you can see the cutline. As you work, stop and check your progress against the marks on both faces of the tenon.

Grip the workpiece horizontally in the vise and trim a shoulder, [Photo K, below] leaving a tiny amount of waste to pare away with a chisel. Repeat for the opposite shoulder. Test the fit of the tenon in your mortise and give it a close inspection. Even if you find a satisfactory fit (and congratulations, by the way), cut another tenon while the methods are fresh in your mind and work for an even better fit. You’ll soon find the motions becoming second nature—and that’s what you’re after.

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The short cutline on the edge makes it more difficult to cut perfectly square, so stay on the waste side of the line.

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