Push or pull, Sensei?

Which style of tools should we use? Are pull better than push? If a katana slices a silk scarf floating to the ground, the tools from that culture MUST be good. Right..? Onegaishimasu!

I’ve used a dozuki (the one with a long spline) and a ryoba (the two-sided frying spade) in the past – and I still own and use the ryoba. The dozuki blade broke, and a replacement blade costs almost as much as a new saw. I never replaced it and never will. But both are incredible saws that cut very fast and leaves a rather smooth cut. If you understand how they are supposed to be manhandled, you can cut straight with them too! In that regard, they are no different from their western relatives.

I am not going to discuss any other tools than saws, since I do not have any experience with eastern planes or chisels. The only thing I’ll say: be aware of hype, just as with saws. Hype doesn’t say anything about reality, and usually the “hypers” are affiliated or have some sort of self-interest or bias.

Technique is key with saws, and I’ve written an article about the topic you might find interesting. It is mainly targeted at western style push saws, but most of the techniques is relevant for eastern pull saws as well.

This is a "rant" - an article where I give my opinions on things. Usually, the rants are triggered by something I read or see online. In the rants, I do not try too hard to be unbiased although I try to be accurate and do think things through. I lean on other opinions as well, from well established folks that has proven themselves. At the front of that line, you'll find Paul Sellers and Richard Maguire (the English woodworker). Read this article as it is intended - informative, provokative and with a large amount of humor. Then draw your own conclusions.

The main difference is that a ryoba should be used two-handed, sort of like using a katana sword – or cleaving firewood with a long axe. The way you hold your work is also different, since you apply force in the completely opposite direction. Using a western style work bench made for push style tools, this is not easy. I have tried.

How not to do it:

The Sjöbergs work bench is of a traditional Scandinavian style (as far as I know). It is not made for pull style tools, and the tail vise on this particular bench was horrendous. My English style workbench would work a LOT better, but to be fair: it is a lot bigger, heavier and have a very good Eclipse 9” vise.

I had to wedge a piece of wood between the work piece and the floor to keep the work piece from rotating in the vise. It kinda worked, mostly because my father have the bench screwed to the wall to keep it in place. If not, I would’ve dragged the thing all over the floor. But I managed to rip the plank into two pieces, and the rocking cradle was built successfully. Using pull style saws.

For years and years, I dreamed of a woodworking shop where I could enjoy woodworking. In the spring of 2019, we bought a house with an attached garage which since has been converted into a pretty decent shop. In that process, I bought a lot of tools including some of my saws. I bought the western style push saws, as I can resharpen them myself. No need to keep replacement blades in stock, and I find that I have a lot more control with a push style saw. All my other tools are western, too, so the infrastructure in my shop is targeted for that.

By looking at what the end result look like, it is obvious that it does not matter which style you get into. I got perfect results with my ryoba pull saw, with its very fine kerf. Smooth faces from the cut and clean lines, creating tight joints. But I got exactly the same results with my rather coarse 10 TPI S&J 9500R panel saw:

Straight off the saw, I got four interchangeable bridle joints for my side table build. I had to fettle the center of two of the mortises as they were a gnat’s nadger too narrow, but they all came out perfect. I found that impressive! Remember, this is a pretty coarse saw with a much wider kerf compared to a pull saw. This debunked the myth once and for all for me, that the pull saw is superior.

It ain’t. It’s just different.

“Onegaishimasu” is a word with deeper meaning than just “please”. When I trained karate, onegaishimasu was interpreted as “please enlighten me” – we asked the sensei to teach us. Karate is a lot of fun – I miss it! Got my orange belt, but then life happened. Oh, well.

May the force be ever in your favour, Spock!

If we study the forces involved when sawing, consider where they go. I’m using my western style shop as the baseline here. If we secure the work in the vise, a push saw applies the force into the work bench. Most of the forces are absorbed by the bench. Switch to a pull saw, and those forces are applied to the movable jaw, which in turn applies them to the half nut (for a quick-release vise). The vise will take it, no problem – but it is not ideal.

Of course, if you use a woodworking shaving / draw horse.. But then I’d suggest you re-evaluate your priorities unless you’re working in very specialized areas of the woodworking realms.

There is one particular instance where I find the push saw superior. Slap a bench hook anywhere on the bench (or support table or other horizontal surface chaos collector) and go to town. Not so with a pull saw, unless you hook the hook on the far end. On my 80cm wide bench it sounds rather bothersome…

I keep my ryoba at hand, because there are instances where it is the right choice. Flush cutting a dowel? Grab the ryoba! I put a plane shaving underneath the blade to prevent marring the surrounding wood by accident and to leave enough for the smoothing plane to clean up. I also find the ryoba very useful for tiny details and very delicate cuts; I do not own a very fine toothed western saw (more than 22 TPI). Also, sharpening a >22 tpi saw? Forgeddaboutit! My Veritas dovetail saw is 14 TPI, and it is hard enough to sharpen that one correctly.

My conclusion

Eastern pull tools might be the right choice for some tasks, but considering that most of the tools we use are made with pushing in mind – it seems to me that western style push saws would be the best choice for us. I would recommend that you invest in a set of good quality, resharpenable western push saws as your core kit. Then add some eastern spices to taste, because there are instances where a pull saw is advantageous.

Of course you could stand on your bench like Richard, but I doubt that is a viable option. I’d bang my head in the ceiling long before I get my back straight if I were to try it.

By doing this, you’ll do yourself a favor: say you are doing some rough construction work using Cu-impregnated wood. Chances are you’ll use a hard-point throw-away (I would…). If you are well trained using push saws, you’ll get perfect results with the hard point without thinking about it or even trying. It’ll be natural for you. If you use pull saws in your shop, you might struggle with the hard point.

What ever you choose is probably right for you, so I’m not going to look down my nose if you don’t agree with me. Just do not buy into the hype of pull saws – they are absolutely NOT superior to push saws. Anybody who are making such claims are either straight up lying or have no clue to what they are talking about. Or they are trying to sell you a product.

It is the same thing with thick plane irons (“chatter free” is the claim – utter tosh!) and Japanese chisels (the hollow back and Damascus steel is the magic dust here). Craftsmen (traditionally a man’s field, today we strive for equality. Praise be!) used western tools for a LONG time and produced very fine things. Without the need for any modern “inventions” from the PR department. Although…. Record planes were painted blue……………..

“The pull saw cuts so straight”. Well, mr. Notgotaclue, I’ll congratulate you. You – YOU – have managed to cut straight with a different tool. Now go learn to do it with a push saw and otherwise shut up! No hand saw will EVER cut straight on its own. You have to guide it, so it is really YOU who cut straight. You might achieve a straight cut easier with one style saw over the other, but in the end it comes down to technique.

The one thing a Ryoba can do, that a western style push saw cannot, is to be converted into a mean spatula for flipping burgers. Keep the teeth – one side for cross cutting buns, the other for slicing bacon!

If you want to read other people’s opinions on this topic, I recommend these articles:

Use, abuse and discard galore

I’ve bought several hand saws that I sharpen myself. Even an inexpensive saw, such as the Spear & Jackson 9500R, performs just as well as the really expensive saws out there – if nobodies like Paul Sellers are to be believed… And since the 9500 costs about the same as one of the more expensive hard-point throwaways, the choice is easy. My 9500 saws (I bought two, one for cross cut and one for ripping) will outlast me, and possibly a generation or two more.

I do have a very good Bacho hard point that I use for outdoor construction and situations where I do not want my “good” saws to be at risk – but I will probably replace that one with another 9500 when the non-resharpenable teeth wears out. Price wise they are equal, even with freight costs.

Of all the pull saws I’ve encountered on the market, none are resharpenable – and I doubt most of us will be able to do that anyway. The tooth profile is really intricate, with several bevels. Once they go dull, toss’em – or at least replace the blade. This is really not a sustainable way forward. you could always cut the blade into a card scraper, but the blades are rather thin for that – and how many scrapers do you really need? It is a small thing, really, but it is part of a larger picture: once-use only and unsustainability. Your one ryoba blade every three or four years is a mice’s piss in the ocean comparably, but to quote the late Norwegian Noodle king, Mr.Lee (wonderful man, met him once when he worked for my father during the opening of a local mall): “From many tiny atoms, eventually a mountain is built”. This was his answer to a reporter asking him how he could make so much money from simple noodles. Wise man. And delicious noodles, too! See – I do not shun any eastern influence!

So if the replacement blade seems like nothing in the bigger picture, remember the saying: “If you ever feel insignificant and small, try to sleep in a room with one mosquito”.

I usually follow that one up with “And a mosquito landing on your privates will soon proove that sometimes, power or violence isn’t the answer”.

Draw from this what you want. I am not pushing anything on ya…

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