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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.