Saturday, December 8, 2012

Essential Tools for Newbies: Part IV - Hand Saws

Using a hand saw is simple.  All you have to do is keep from screwing up what the saw naturally wants to do, which is to cut straight.

This is easier said than done, however.  The trick is to keep from letting any bad technique get in the way of the saw doing what it wants, which is to follow the path of least resistance.

The first thing to think about regarding proper handsaw technique is your grip.  The good news:  it's easy.

Just hold your saw like you are shaking hands with someone.  Not too tight, though.  Don't let go, only hold it as tight as you might an egg.  Don't let it break or you'll have an icky mess.

Oh, the other thing is that you should hold any saw with your index finger pointing out.  In fact, you should hold other tools this way too, such as hand planes and bread knives.  This little trick tells your brain to do everything right and will increase accuracy.   Plus, most saws' handles are designed to be held with this three-finger grip.

Your index finger points the way to a straight cut.
Enough of that.  This series of posts is about equipment, after all, not technique.

So, in my toolbox I have two full size crosscut saws, two ripsaws, a giant tennon saw filed rip and a sashsaw filed crosscut, both by BadAxe, and a wonderful old Spear & Jackson dovetail saw.  I love all of these saws, and use them all of the time.

My hand saws, saw bench and saw sharpening files.

Knowing this, my recommendation for your first saw will be a little surprising:

You should start with a Japanese Ryoba saw.

Japanese Ryoba saw

I know.  Weird, isn't it?  Not many out there would probably agree with me, but here are the reasons for what I think.

First, they work really well.  A Ryoba has teeth on both sides of the saw.  Rip teeth on one side for cutting with the grain, and crosscut teeth on the other for cutting across the grain.  These teeth are brilliantly designed in a way I completely do not understand, but they work. What else do you need to do?  This saw leaves a really thin kerf (the space in the wood after you cut).  The rip teeth are aggressive enough for fast ripping, and the crosscut teeth leave a very fine surface behind.  This saw does everything from rough stock break down to dovetails.

Second, they are inexpensive.  Mine ran about 30 Euros, and when it got dull and the plate kinked, I replaced the blade for less than 20 Euros.  You can spend hundreds of dollars on one, but, there is no need to blow all your money on the world's finest tools when starting out.  Don't buy junk, but a good, stout user should not keep you from eating for long.

Third, the mechanics of using this saw are essentially the same as for using any western saw.  This statement also might be controversial, because the Japanese saw cuts on the pullstroke, where as western saws cut on the push.  But think about it, the grip is the same, arm movements are fundamentally the same, your elbow goes in the same spot, and unless you go totally eastern with doing your woodworking on the floor, your feet position and full body position is the same.  When you upgrade to specialty saws, either Japanese or western, there isn't all that much more to learn.  Don't think you need to be part of the western saw school of thought, or the Japanese school.  Be a member of the Hand Saw School.

Fourth, this saw is relatively small, and takes up far less room that a collection of western saws and a till to store them in.  Mine goes in the original plastic case and I hang it from a hook.

Fifth, you really don't have to worry about sharpening this saw.  When it gets dull, take the blade out of the handle, cut it up into scraper stock, and buy a new one.  Once you get a western saw someday (and I wholeheartedly suggest that in the future you do), you should learn to sharpen them.  Someday I will post a series of essential intermediate tools, and saw sharpening equipment will be on that list.  For now, you should be focused on actually making things by cutting wood.

Last, the juvenile in me loves the brand-name of saw that I have;  DICK.  I love my DICK saw.

When you choose a Ryoba, there are a few things you should look for to ensure you get a quality tool. Make sure the teeth are the shiny steel color of the rest of the saw.  The black ones have been hardened, and although you are probably not going to have this saw resharpened, I like the feel of regular teeth better.

A plastic handle isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Traditionally, these saws were wrapped with some natural fiber, but often these days a plastic, bamboo look-a-like wrap will be used.  A natural fiber will only drive up the cost.

A removable blade is also OK.  In fact, I think it is better as you can get rid of the old blade and insert a new, sharp one when you need to.

It is for these reasons that I think your first handsaw should be a Ryoba.  Save all that money to make sure you have the right jack plane.  Save all the time learning to sharpen for learning to saw straight first.  I think that a western saw is a great thing to graduate to.  They will increase your finesse, but you kind of need to know how to saw to a line first.

Once you know how to saw to a line, you are free to saw to any line that is required.  A compound miter is no more difficult than ripping to width.  The first Japanese saw I ever got I purchased at a grocery store for 4.99.  I eventually had to spend about $250 before I got a western saw that left a surface anywhere near as smooth as that cheapo got.  Don't discount these tools as mere gimmicks.

Next up in the Newbie series:  Chisels worthy of fine woodworking.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Sharpening
  3. Jack Plane


  1. Brian, this is the first time I have been on your blog> Might I just say your teaching degree did not go to waste! You are a fantastic teacher and writer. I can just feel your passion for your hobby.

  2. I see there are a range of blade sizes for Ryoba saws ranging mostly from 180mm to 300mm with 240mm being the middle ground. Did you consider other sizes before picking your 240mm saw?

    Here’s a short video showing a 300mm Ryoba being used to rip the end of a large beam. Pretty quick.

    Thanks, Dean

  3. Wow, that's a big tennon! That deffinitely is a bigger Ryoba than the one I have. It looks like they are doing timber framing. A Ryoba is perfect for the job site, in my opinion. I recently did some work to a friend's shoe cabinet. All I had to take was that Ryoba. Otherwise, I would have had to take both rip and crosscut saws, and a sawbench. I just used the cement porch steps with my body weight as a clamp.

    My Ryoba is a 240mm, I think. It was plenty long, with some nice fine crosscut teeth. And it was ten bucks cheaper than the next biggest size. I just HAD to have a DICK saw.

  4. I was with you until the part with the ryoba and you really lost me with the graduate to western saws. My thoughts on this if you learn on the japanese saws stick with them and the same with the western saws. Pull style saws mess with the right side of my oxygen starved brain cells.

    1. Haha! I knew that there would be folks out there who disagreed with me on this one. Thanks for speaking up!

      My friendly disagreement with you here is that I don't think if you start with either a Japanese or a western saw that you should think you are stuck with them. I will say, however that that is probably what most people do. Before the relatively recent re-introduction of decent backsaws such as BadAxe or Wenzloff & Sons the only decent saws being produced were Japanese. In fact, most hand toolers here in Germany use Japanese saws because these American saws are not easily available here.

      I don't think you should be stuck one way or the other because the fundamentals for both saws are the same. If you can saw to a line with your dovetail saw, I guarantee you that you can also do it with a Dozuki.

      The point of this post is that if I was brand-new to handtooling, there is not an affordable option for a start-up set of saws anywhere near the price range of my $35 Ryoba. This tool can get a novice a long way.

      In fact, once I have this series done, i.e. list the bare minimum tools I think a beginner should have, I am going to build a project with only these tools. Ralph, I hope you will be impressed by what I'll do with only this one saw.

  5. I'm a beginner, always struggled with western saws but last year I finally found out about the japanese saws and I'm now using it for virtually everything.

  6. Just an amazing saw! I was having headaches on which and how many western saws I had to choose and buy, well I just received my DICK ryoba saw this morning and played a little bit with it on some scrap wood, it's just amazing! Thanks Brian for the tip!

    1. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I love my DICK saw!

      All joking aside, this saw will get you a long way. My prediction is that once you start getting picky, you'll choose some western saws for your user set, but this saw will give you some time to figure out what it is that you need.