I have often struggled with starting my saw cuts, but an “off to the side” comment in a video completed the circuitry. The choir sang the aaaaah and the fireworks lit up the sky in my darkened mind…
I’ve gathered a lot of information from years of research and watching movies from a lot of woodworkers. Adding in my own experience – and especially those eureka moments – I present to you a distillation of my knowledge on some topics. Your mileage may vary, of course.
In this article, I’m primarily focusing on western «push» saws. The eastern pull saws are a bit of a different beast, although some of the information in this article applies to them too.
In one of the (incredibly good) video lessons from The English woodworker, Richard was talking along while working the project. He took a saw and prepared to do a rip cut. Sort of “off hand”, he mentioned that it sometimes could be difficult to start a saw cut like that. Drag the saw backwards (YESS, I’ve at least done THAT part correctly then… waitaminute..!), and the saw goes da-da-da-da-da-da and makes the late growth (the harder part of the growth rings) stand out even more. The saw then tends to really dig in hard and the cut is even more difficult to get going. Tear-out is almost guaranteed, too. The saw might even jump on ya and start somewhere else. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Starting the cut – take a load off!
Richard then casually mention that you just take the weight off of the saw ever so slightly, then start the cut with a push stroke. Sort of lift the tip of the saw without actually lifting the saw.
My jaw still hurts after being dropped to the ground that hard – weeks ago! I have struggled with this so many times! Was the saw dull? Should I file the first 4-5 teeth down? WhatamIdoingwrong????
Nah, just lift. Ever so slightly. Maybe I should feel silly not realizing this on my own, but I am weathered enough to know that life is full of forehead slapping moments like that. You learn to appreciate them and they will stay with you for life. Pay them forward to others so they can do some percussive maintenance on their prefrontal cortex, and slapsgiving is a thing. It’s beautiful!
This, along with another tip I got from Paul Sellers, has made my relationship with my saws a whole lot better. I bought the Spear & Jackson 22” 10 tpi (teeth per inch) saw based on his recommendation. It is a very nice saw, perfect size and it can be resharpened. I bought two of them so that I can file one for cross cut and one for ripping.
Knife wall technique
Oh, the tip! Paul calls it the knife wall. He might not be the inventor of the technique or the name, but he was the one who taught it to me in a Youtube video years ago.
Basically, you score a line with a sharp knife (one light cut to establish the line, followed by 2-3 firmer cuts) in stead of drawing the line with a pencil. You can do that too for clarity, or “pencil in” the knife line to see it better. Use a sharpie, and I don’t know what to tell ya…
Then you create sort of a trough for the saw by chiseling out a small groove, like so:
Put the chisel on the waste side of the cut and make a shallow cut. You’ll hear and feel a slight thud when the chisel hits the knife line. No need to welly with a mallet, just a bump with your palm or your project goes from credenza to kindling real quick! You can then deepen the groove by chopping down along the knife line with the chisel – do not go too far/hard, or you’ll move the knife line! – and remove some more waste. In the image above, I could just flick the waste away. Should any splinters remain, chop lightly along the knife line (or cut with the knife) to remove if you want to. Usually they don’t matter and the saw will take care of them.
A completed knife wall. The knife line will be intact and ensure a CRISP line after the cut. You can make the knife wall on the exit side of the cut too, and you won’t get any tearout. Even scoring the line will help that.
Should the cut leave a bit of material, you can plane it off or pare with the chisel to get a perfect surface.
Sawing straight and follow a line
The saw is placed in the groove and the cut is started. By lifting the weight off of the saw…
Get the cut going, then drop the heel of the saw down while concentrating on following the line. You’ll soon have the saw pointing upwards. By doing it this way, the far end of the cut automatically follows the line and stays straight and true while you focus on following the line down. You don’t even need to position the work so that the saw line is plumb – this works even with the cut at an angle. Within reason, of course.
If you’re doing a stopped cut, for instance when making a dovetail or a lap joint, cut until you are just about to reach the depth line, then bring the saw level and cut down until you again reach the depth line. After a while you’ll find yourself cutting to the line in one continuous motion without ever lifting the saw.
I used this technique with a chain saw when I cut down a huge oak which I milled to planks; I struck a line along the log, dove the bar vertically into the end of the log ensuring I was 90 degrees to the face. I then moved along the line “half a bar length” keeping the tip of the bar in the vertical cut. When the bar was at 45 degrees, I then dove the tip of the bar into the log again until the saw was vertical by “rolling” the saw on the spikes next to the bar. This technique ensures that part of the bar remain in contact with the kerf side(s) so that it steers the cut. The chain will cut into the sides and veer off course if you “drag” the saw through the cut. The result:
I cut a 90cm (appr. 2’11”) wide slab from the biggest trunk with a 53cm bar (21”). Each cut was pretty clean, but I had to rotate the trunk in order to gain access to the other side. It was hard to line up the cuts to each other, but I got within 2-3 degrees. I planed off the excess material before stacking the slab. Here is the worst side of that slab:
Holding the saw and stance
You should also loosen the death grip on the saw. Point the index finger along the saw, just like you should do with a plane. Sort of pointing where you want the saw to go. Keep a light grip and let the saw do its thing. For those of you that has some experience using an excavator, this is the same thing. Grab the joysticks and manhandle them – and you’re in for a bumpy ride with the machine jerking around. Three fingertips, and you can scratch your dog behind the ear with the bucket!
Control! Control! You must learn control!
A firm grip will steer the saw away from the line. Let the saw kerf do the steering, only make small adjustments. You’ll soon figure this out. A slight squeeze with the thumb, a small twist of the wrist… It’ll become natural.
Keep your elbows close to your body to prevent twisting the saw in the kerf. Use long strokes – “use the whole saw”. Let the saw do it’s thing; bearing down on the saw won’t speed up the process. If the saw cuts slow, something is amiss.
Position your body so that your arm naturally follows the saw in the cut. Somewhere around 45 degrees to the saw will make your arm move more natural. A wide stance with one foot back ensures that the force from the saw will go into the floor – you won’t have to fight to stay upright.
Physics lesson time: The third law of Newton: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This simply means that the saw push back at you with the same amount of force as you push on it. If you stand heels together, straight like a member of the Queen’s life guard, and try to saw into some oak, you are going to take a bit of a tumble. Just take my word for it… “Gravity. It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law!” -Adam Savage
The weapon of choice?
The S&J 9500R scew back saw is an affordable saw that will last you a lifetime if cared for.
Remove the protective coating with mineral spirits / white spirits, or it will snag on you. Maybe reshape the handle and apply wax or wipe some mineral oil on the blade to reduce friction. A Bacho 4-186-06-2-2 saw file, a saw clamp (Paul Sellers has lots of info on this topic) and you can sharpen your own saw for the rest of your life. No more throw-away ones with “VENOM” in sickly green print on the sides…
They are actually cheap – get two of them and file one for ripcut (sawing along the grain) and the other for cross cut (a..cross.. the grain… get it?).
Exclusive hand tools are expensive, right?
At the time of writing, I found the 9500R for NOK 176,- at Toolstop. I also found the saw at Amazon for about NOK 230,-. I found them on Ebay too – just google them and you’ll find a place to get them, I’m sure. You can get hand saws with plastic handles and hardened teeth for as low as NOK 39,-. But those “things” are usually hateful to use – my opinion. I found the Bacho PrizeCut NP-22 for NOK 149,- which is a comparable hard point throw away hand saw that will last for quite some time. But you cannot sharpen it once it goes dull, and the plastic handle cannot be reshaped to fit your hand(s) better. Because you should train yourself to saw with either hand.
The saw has a coating of some sort, which makes it bind a bit in the cut from time to time. Paul Sellers recommends to remove it to remedy the problem. Use denatured alcohol (Methylated spirits – in Norway: rødsprit) to do this. The printed logo on the blade will be removed. Spritz the blade with 5-56 / CRC or mineral oil to prevent rust, and wiggle some wax on the blade from time to reduce friction. A candle works great.
I do have a Bacho throw-away from years back, and I use it outdoors as it has some protective coating which prevents rusting – and it still cuts well. I won’t buy another one once it goes dull on me, though.
I’ve seen premium hand saws priced at NOK 2500,- to NOK 3000,-. That is a good chunk of money for a saw, even though they might very well be worth the price.
The fact that a lifetime tool costs about the same as a decent throw-away should make your choice easy. Get two.
Starting, and correcting the cut
Use your thumb or the knuckle of your thumb to guide the saw at the beginning of the cut. As soon as the saw is “in” the wood, move your hand away to steady yourself and/or the work piece. You can also use a guide block to ensure you saw straight, but I recommend striking lots of lines down a scrap piece of wood and train yourself to saw straight without any training wheels. Sometimes you have to jump in at the deep end in order to learn how to swim…
The tapered grind of the blade (it is a smidgen wider at the bottom than the top) is helpful if the cut goes off piste. Just lift the saw to where you veered off course, use the first 10cm (4”) of the saw and twist it ever so slightly to correct the course while taking light cuts (“sawing in the air” until you’ve established the new kerf line). Remember to lift the weight off of the saw while doing it. This helps you steer the cut nicely until the saw is back on track. With some practice, you won’t need to do it as much. Once you can cut straight, you just cut straight…
In order to use a hand saw efficiently, you need to support the work piece as close to the kerf as possible. If lowering the piece in the vise is not an option, apply a light pressure to the work piece with your left hand.
If the saw kerf closes in and binds the saw, just put a wedge, nail or some thick shavings into the kerf to keep it open.
Lube up! Apply some mineral oil or wax to both sides of the saw blade to reduce friction. Work lubed, not hard. Or what was it…
The hand saw is one of the basic tools you really should master. Scratch that – it sounds to daunting. You should get a good saw and learn how to use it, which you do by using it. No fancy equipment or setup needed. Just you, your saw and a piece of scrap for target practice. Very often, grabbing a hand saw and git’er done is a LOT faster than figuring out how to do the cut with a power tool without taking out an arm and a leg. The hand saw usually stops before hitting bone, too.
Funny story time: A woman appeared in court to establish who the father of her baby was. There were quite a few options, so the judge asked her why she didn’t have a more specific candidate. She replied: “your honor, if you cut yourself on a hand saw – can you tell which tooth did the first cut?”
Befriending your hand saw. It is saw good…