Your Guide to Using Hand Saws

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Continuing our series on hand tool woodworking, John Bullar guides us through the various hand saws available to woodworkers and how to use them

Photo 1 If you get your wood ready sawn to width by the wood yard, most of the timber cutting in your workshop will be across the grain or 'crosscut' sawing. Gripping the saw with one hand and the wood with the other then pushing and pulling comes naturally to most people, but good results don't always follow. There are three things that often go wrong: firstly not starting in the right place, secondly jumping on the first few strokes, and thirdly straying off course. We will look at how to tackle these in this article


Photo 2 Close up you can see the saw teeth have sharply raked front edges to dig into the wood on the push stroke, with a shallow rear angle helping them glide over the wood when you pull. From edge-on, you can see the teeth are 'set', or bent outwards to alternate sides, making the saw-cut or 'kerf' wider than the blade, which moves freely and does not jam. This wiggle room means you can align the blade on each stroke before it goes off course

Photo 3 Handsaws have changed over the years. The traditional large ripsaw was designed for cutting boards longways. To make it quicker at following the grain direction, the teeth are large with their front edges filed at right angles to the blade. The small modern hardpoint saw has angled fronts on its teeth, designed to slice through grain as it cuts across the wood

Photo 4 The manufacturer tempers the teeth by electric induction heating the edge of the blade. This makes the teeth harder and more brittle while keeping the rest of the blade flexible. Hardpoint teeth will stay sharp much longer but because they cannot be re-sharpened or adjusted, they are disposable


Photo 5 Wood cut to length by a wood yard will not be accurate enough for most fine woodworking projects. It is worth buying timber at least 25mm over length as it is tricky to saw small amounts off the end. However, when necessary, it is a good test of your sawing accuracy

Laser Guides

Photo 6 Laser guides turn up on all sorts of tools nowadays, even handsaws. You press the button on top, switching on the laser to align the blade and then grip the handle in the normal manner, sawing with the laser off. It is particularly helpful for sawing through shaped surfaces where you cannot draw a straight line


Photo 7 Saws designed for making small accurate cuts are known as backsaws. The blades are short with heavy metal backs along the top edge. This stiffens the blade and applies weight over the teeth, so you do not need to press down with the handle. Small versions are used for cutting dovetail joints so they are known as dovetail saws. The larger type is called a tenon saw

Photo 8 The hardpoint tooth design is also used on some backsaws, but is less advantageous here. The backsaw is needed when you want to cut accurately rather than quickly. Fine slow cutting teeth are ideal. Furniture makers usually prefer backsaws that are not hardened so they can sharpen and adjust the fine teeth

Starting the Cut

Photo 9 At the start of a saw cut the blade must be positioned on the line and guided to follow it. A finger and thumb pinching the top corners of the wood will help you steer the blade before it has settled into its own groove or kerf

Photo 10 To avoid the saw jumping, especially during the first few strokes, there must be little or no downwards pressure on the blade. Carry most of the weight in your hand until the kerf is established. To prevent the wood moving under the saw try holding it against a bench hook

Photo 11 Once the kerf is started you need to concentrate your attention on every stroke to prevent it wandering off course. Sometimes it is best to angle the wood so you can see both faces, making sure the saw does not run off course in either direction

Photo 12 A bench vice is ideal for holding wood firmly while you make accurate saw cuts. If tilting the wood is not practical, it may be necessary to angle the saw. For fine work, I position my nose directly above the blade so my eyes are watching either side of the cut. This takes a bit of practise to get used to but it works

Getting a Grip

Photo 13 Tilting the saw from side to side when making angled cuts can cause problems. It is often difficult to judge if the angle is correct. However, if you tilt the wood and keep the saw straight, it is easier to produce consistent results

Photo 14 Sometimes we have to make fine saw cuts away from the bench. A G-cramp is ideal to help grip the wood firmly, while the extra weight close to the kerf cuts vibration

The Japanese Way

Photo 15 The Japanese saw blade is replaceable. It slides into the back then locks in the handle. Like any different tool it tends to get mixed reactions: some people love Japanese saws and others dismiss them. It is largely a matter of what you are used to and whether or not you enjoy trying different tools

Photo 16 Japanese saw teeth have steeply angled rear edges so unlike traditional Western designs, they cut on the pull-stroke. The blade is pulled into tension, straightening it while cutting, rather than being pushed like Western saws. This allows the blade to be very thin so it can cut fine kerfs

Can You Cope?

Photo 17 Coping in woodwork means shaping the end of one piece to match the profile of another, such as where skirting boards meet in a corner. The coping saw with a thin removable blade stretched across a frame, is ideal for this and other curved work

Photo 18 Coping saws get used a lot for removing the waste pieces from joints. The thing to watch is that the cut may be wiggly so it must be made above the line and later pared back with a chisel

In the Frame

Photo 19 The largest frame saw, the bow saw, is worked with two hands for shaping curved parts. While there are modern designs available, the old fashioned wooden bow saw with its twisted string to hold the blade in tension, takes a lot of beating

Photo 20 Other frame saws, such as the fretsaw or the fine jeweller's piercing saw, are used for removing the waste from small joints such as fine dovetails. The blades on these saws are thin like a flat piece of wire, so it is easy to buckle them by working too fiercely