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Helpful Handsaws

These time-tested tools still have a place in modern workshops.

Though motorized saws dominate woodworking shops today, you'll inevitably run into situations where a handsaw helps you make a cut more easily or effectively. Here's how to get the most from your handsaws at those critical times.

Times you'll want a handsaw

Some work, such as trimming dowels flush with a surface, miter-cutting a tenon, or cutting small pieces, such as trim, is best done with a handsaw. And it's often quicker and safer to hand-saw a board to rough length, compared with balancing an overlong piece across your tablesaw. Many woodworkers simply gain satisfaction from hand-sawing joints, such as tenons and dovetails.

Although the handsaw often proves a better choice, the quality of the cut usually won't match that of a tablesaw or mitersaw equipped with a high-end blade. So, when cut quality matters, hand-saw slightly outside your line and plane or sand to the line, or cut to final size on a power saw.

Japanese-style saw

These saws, available in many sizes and types, including some with reinforced backs, cut on the pull stroke [photo below]. This keeps the blade under tension when cutting, allowing the blade to be thinner than a push-cut saw. It's also less likely to bind and buckle in a cut. Many woodworkers find pull saws easier to control. Japanese saws work well both for sizing cuts and joinery.

If you do a lot of flush-trimming, add a pullsaw with unset teeth to your collection-it prevents marring the surrounding surface. (Most saw teeth are set, or bent slightly toward opposite sides of the blade, so they cut a kerf wider than the blade thickness to prevent binding.)

The big three handsaws
Different strokes. Teeth (either rip or crosscut) point toward the handle on Japanese saws, so the saws cut on the pull stroke instead of the push stroke.

Western rip/crosscut saw

Today's traditional Western saws have a tooth profile and pitch (the number of teeth per inch) designed for fast cutting with reduced effort. One with a 14" blade (measured along the cutting edge), shown below, is a handy size. You can also get a 22" or 26" blade. This is a good saw for breaking down long boards or cutting parts to rough size.

Saw blade and holding a saw

Tenon saw or backsaw

Made for precise cutting and joinery, this saw, shown below usually boasts finer teeth (more teeth per inch) than a general-purpose saw. Its distinctive feature, a steel or brass reinforcement or stiffener along the back of the blade, makes the blade rigid and helps it cut more true.

Reinforced back
Getting started. Start a handsaw cut with short pull strokes. Put the thumb of your free hand against the blade, just above the teeth to guide the first few strokes.

Making the cut

As you saw, stand square to the workpiece and maintain a straight line from your elbow through your wrist to the end of the saw. Move your arm in a straight line from the shoulder like a piston on a steam locomotive. Keep the saw square to the work by checking the reflection in the side of the blade (below). The workpiece should appear to pass unbent through the blade. As you cut, take full-length strokes with the saw blade to equalize wear across all the teeth.

2 photos of saw being held

Support the cut-off piece as you approach the end of the cut to prevent it breaking off and tearing a splinter off of the corner of the part you're cutting.

Keep your saws sharp

Hang your saws on a toolboard or cover the edges to protect the teeth in storage. Saws with induction-hardened teeth (photo, below) stay sharp as much as three times longer than those without.

Saw blade with black points
Hardened teeth. A band of darkened metal along the teeth indicates induction-hardenedtips, which can't be filed. Grinding and setting may cost more than replacing the saw.

When the saw binds in the cut or veers in one direction as you cut, it's due for setting and sharpening. Unless you have some skill and experience in setting and filing saw teeth, take the saw to a sharpening pro.

 

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