What is a handsaw?

A handsaw is a hand tool for cutting wood or other materials. Usually, it consists of a steel blade with teeth grounded on one edge and a handle mounted at one end. They are operated by oscillating motion created by the user.

History of handsaws

First saws known in history were serrated flint, seashells or obsidian. First metal-bladed, open saws were made by ancient Egyptians in around 3000 BC. They were made of copper. According to tomb wall illustrations and discovery of copper-bladed saws from the tombs, the Egyptian saws were at first serrated and hardened copper which cut on both pull and push strokes. Later the Egyptian saw developed, and it got raked teeth and one-sided set. That saw was used with the push stroke.

When the skills of the metallurgy progressed, the saws were first made with a bronze and later with iron. With iron, it was possible to make thin and narrow blades that were kept under tension. In the iron-age, first frame saws were developed for these narrow iron blades.

The invention of the steel was the last and most important step for the hand tool makers. The cutting tool made of steel is far superior in durability and its ability to hold a sharp edge for a long time.

Before the electricity and combustion engines, lumberjacks, carpenters, boat builders and cabinet makers used the hand powered saws for every task. There were water-powered sawmills but they were scarce. Handsaw was used everywhere.

Lumberjacks used two-man crosscuts saws to fell trees. Two-man pitsaws were used to saw logs to boards. Basic shaping and fitting were done using open handsaws and its specialist versions; keyhole, compass and tenon saws. Frame and bow saws were also preferred in some regions for the same basic shaping and fitting task.

All the old handsaws were sharpened by hand. The basics of sharpening and setting the blade were among the first skills learned when starting as an apprentice. It was the most important skill for every artisan in trade.

The table saws, chop saws, bandsaws, and chainsaws have largely replaced the need for some of the old types of handsaws. But for many tasks, there is still uses for handsaws for a modern carpenter, cabinetmaker, boat builder, luthier etc. Sometimes the handsaw is the most efficient choice for the job at hand.

Crosscut and rip cut teeth

On top is a crosscutting blade, and on bottom rip cutting.

What is the difference between crosscut and ripsaws?

Names of the crosscut and ripsaw indicate the main use and differences between them. If you need to cut across the grain, a crosscut saw makes the clean and fast cut easily. Cutting along the grain (ripping), the rip saw works well.

Main differences between them are found when looking at the teeth of the blade.

Teeth in the ripsaws can be compared as a series of chisels that each pare away the wood as it passes over it. This type of teeth cut well when cutting with a grain but not so when crosscutting. “Chisel” design ensures clean cut along the grain. Ripsaw teeth tend to grab at the end grain and tear the fibers out producing a tear-out. Ripsaw teeth can cut only on push stroke on western style push saws, Japanese rip saw cuts only with a pull stroke.

The crosscut teeth are filed like a series of knives that scores and slices the cross-grain fibers easily producing a cleaner cut. Teeth angle back and are beveled. Teeth of the crosscut saws are also much smaller than those on a ripsaw.  Crosscut saw can cut on both the push stroke.

Characteristic of a good handsaw:

  1. First and foremost feature is sharpness of the teeth. You can easily test sharpness by running your fingers gently over the teeth. They’ll catch your skin if properly sharp.
  2. The blade should be straight. Slight bend or bow will hinder the performance of the saw and can cause binding. The handle should be also in the same line with the blade.
  3. Teeth should be set evenly. Observe the setting of teeth by looking along the blade. Any teeth that projects farther than the rest will cause rough cut and more drag when sawing. Setting that is more prominent on the one side than the other will cause the blade to twist.
  4. Good saw blades are tapered. The tapered blade is thinner at the top than at the teeth. Tapering provides clearance and reduces binding. A taper is usually very slight and cannot be seen by the eye. You need thickness calipers to check for taper.
  5. Handsaw blade should be flexible and springy. It should easily bend and easily straighten back when let go.
  6. Pre-tensioning of the saw blade. The center portion of the blade is tensioned by rolling and hammering. Reason for the tensioning process of the saw is to counter the effect of thermal expansion at the blade. Heat is generated at the tooth line when sawing and it causes the saw blade to expand lightly, effectively lengthening the saw a tiny amount. This lengthening happens only at the tooth line and if no counteracted it will make the saw wander or bind. You can check the tensioning by bending the blade with a straight edge across the blade. If properly tensioned, you will see the slight bow. The bow should be uniform with no flat spots.
  7. Balance, a good handsaw should feel comfortable in your hand. A saw should not be too nose heavy, you can feel the balance just by grabbing the saw by the handle and making some sawing motions in the air. The handle should be comfortable to hold and conform with your hands.
  8. The saw blade should be at least twice as long as the thickness of the piece one would like to cut.

What handsaw to use?

The type of work at hand will dictate what type of handsaw you should use.

Rough cutting the boards to length or width is generally done with a panel saw. A panel saw is the saw that first comes to mind when we speak about handsaw. Panel saws are manufactured with crosscut, rip and hybrid teeth. Panel saws are usually inexpensive.

For the joinery, backsaws are the most used type of handsaw. A backsaw is a type of saw which has fine teeth and a thin blade. They have rigid brass or steel backs to keep the saw plate from bending, which provides rigidity for accurate cuts of wood joints. The type of joinery you do will dictate whether you need a coarser or finer, longer or shorter saw. For general woodwork 11-12PPI is good, rougher work could use bit coarser saw. For fine dovetails in heirloom quality work 16PPI dovetail saw will make the perfect cuts. Backsaws are generally more expensive than panel saws.

When you need to cut curves, the frame saw is great. Frame saw is a type of saw which consists of a relatively narrow and flexible blade held under tension within a rectangular frame. When used with a narrow blade, a frame saw works great for cutting curves (similar to a power bandsaw). A frame saw can also be used for rough cutting when a larger blade is used. Frame saws are made in all sorts of sizes, with small teeth for fine work to large teeth for rough-cutting. Bowsaw, Hacksaw, fretsaw and coping saw are all a type of frame saws.

What type of saw is best to cut shapes out of wood

Best saw to cut shapes out of wood is any frame saw with a narrow blade. For fine details, a fret saw and a coping saw with a very thin blade are good options. The compass saw is also used for curved cuts, particularly in confined spaces.

What kind of saw is used to cut curves

Any frame saw with a narrow blade is good for curves.

What are the types of handsaw?

Backsaw

A backsaw is a hand saw with a stiffening rib on the back of the blade, enabling better control and more precise cutting than with other types of saws. A backsaw is often used with a miter box for precise cutting of angled joints. Teeth of the backsaw are more closely spaced than in other types of saws and the set is narrow or nonexistent.

What is a backsaw used for

A backsaw is used for cutting the precise joints like dovetail, miters or tenons.

What are the different types of backsaw?

Mitre Saw

Note: This refers to a handsaw called mitre saw.

A mitre saw is large backsaw used with a plastic, wooden or metallic miter box to cut miters of any specified angle. The mitre handsaws are largely replaced with an electric miter and chop saws.

Tenon saw

A tenon saw is a medium sized backsaw used for cutting of tenon for mortise and tenon joint. They are available with both; rip- and crosscutting filed teeth. PPI of the teeth is relatively fine, 13 PPI being a common size.

Dovetail saw

A dovetail saw is a small backsaw used to cut dovetails. Dovetail saws come also with both types of teeth. But general opinion is that rip tooth pattern is more efficient at cutting dovetails. Dovetail saws have relatively dense teeth spacing, ranging from 15-20 TPI. Dovetail saws have narrow kerf.

Sash saw

Sash saw is a smallish tenon saw. It was used in the 18th and 19th century for making window sashes.

Gent’s saw

Gent’s saw is small dovetail saw with a straight turned handle. It is used in luthiery, miniature cabinet making for dolls houses, and in model-making.

Razor saw

Razor saw is a miniature backsaw with very finely pitched, no set, crosscut teeth, disposable blade. The razor saw is capable of making superfine cuts in soft woods like balsa. Razor saws can also be used to cut other materials like plastics and soft metals. The razor saw are used by the hobbyist who builds model aircraft, boats, and railroad dioramas.

Dozuki

Dozuki is a Japanese backsaw. The concept is the same as in western backsaws, although the saw doesn’t share an ancestry with western backsaws. Like all the Japanese handsaws, a dozuki cuts with a pull stroke, allowing straighter and narrower cuts than its pushed counterparts. Less thickness is required to keep the blade straight when pulling the saw.

Compass saw

The compass saw is a saw used for making curved cuts known as compasses, particularly in confined spaces where a larger saw would not fit.

Coping Saw

The coping saw is a small bow saw used to cut accurate shapes and cutouts in woodworking and carpentry. It is used also for making coped joints for moldings. Coping saw blades are thicker and coarser than typical fretsaw blades. Coping saws can, however, cut slight bends or circles if used carefully.

Fret Saw

The fretsaw is also a small bow saw, but it is used for more intricate cutting work than the coping saw. It can cut very tight curves and more delicate work due to thinner and finer blade (up to 32 PPI). A body of fretsaw has a deeper frame (from 10” to 20”) which allows much farther access from the edge of the board. But unlike the coping saw, the blade has a fixed orientation in relation to the frame.

The tool is named after its use in intricate fretwork.

Musical saws

The musical saw (Sometimes called The Singing Saw) is a flexible hand saw that is used as a musical instrument. It is played with a cello or violin bow. Any saw without a back can be played but for wider range and fidelity of tones, a dedicated musical saw is used. A typical musical saw is 5” (13 cm) wide at the handle end and 1” (2.5 cm) wide at the tip. Such a saw will generally produce about two octaves, regardless of length. Teeth of the dedicated musical saws are unsharpened.

Small and fine-teeth DozukiJapanese saws “Nogokiri”

What are the advantages of Japanese saws?

Western saws are generally used with pushing motion. To counter the natural tendency to buckle and bend, western handsaw blades are quite thick. Thicker the blade, more force is needed to cut. It doesn’t mean though that they are worse saws, you only need to use more power with them.

Japanese saws, on the other hand, are pulled. The pull stroke allows the use of very thin kerf saw blade thus lighter forces needed when sawing.

Japanese saws tend to cut more cleanly than their western counterparts thanks to their special tooth configuration.

The three most important types of Japanese saw are:

  • Dozuki – a saw with a spine that lends rigidity, enabling very precise cuts to be made.
  • Ryoba – a saw with teeth on both sides of the blade, for crosscuts and rip cuts.
  • Kataba – a saw without back, with teeth on one side of the blade. The Kataba comes as a crosscut saw.

Dozuki

A dozuki is a “universal saw” with a stiff back spine. It is basically a back saw. It is used to make extra fine cuts into hard and soft woods. The spine limits the depth of the cut. As the name suggests it is used for the tenons and other joints. Most dozukis are filed for crosscutting although rip cutting dozukis are becoming more common in western woodworking circles. Dozuki saws have blades of two different lengths: short (6 to 8 in.) or long (9-1/2 to 10-1/2 in.). Dozuki saws have three different ranges of teeth size. Most saws have 22 to 27 TPI teeth. They work well in pieces from 1/8 in. to 1 in. thick. Saws with large teeth that range from 13 to 18 TPI, cut very aggressively and are best suited for a stock that’s at least 3/4 in. thick. A few dozuki saws have incredibly small teeth (32TPI).

What does dozuki mean?

Dozuki means “Tenon”

Ryoba

The Ryoba is a double-edged saw, with cutting teeth on each side of the blade. It is a saw for deep crosscut and rip cut. Teeth on one side are filed for crosscutting and the teeth on the other side are filed for rip cutting. Some special Ryoba saws exist with one side dedicated to softwood and the other for hardwoods. Ryoba saw is usually tapered toward the middle of the blade to prevent the blade from binding. Length of the ryoba blade ranges from 9 ½ to 12” Teeth pitch for crosscut ranges from 13 to 18TPI and for a rip cut from 5 to 9TPI.

What does Ryoba mean?

Ryoba means “double-edged

Kataba

Kataba is single-sided saw with no back. It has a thicker blade than that of a Dozuki saw. It doesn’t need stabilizing spine and can be used for deep and long cuts. It is a general purpose saw while providing a clean and fast cut. Kataba saws are available with crosscut and rip cut teeth. The rip cut Kataba may have smaller teeth to the rear of the blade, for the easier start of the cut and larger teeth near the front, for faster cutting

Azebiki

Azebiki saws are short Ryoba-style saw, with curved blade and teeth on both sides. Azebiki is used for starting a cut in the center of the panel. Short blade is good also in tight quarters.

Kugihiki

Kugihiki is a flush-cutting saw. Teeth have no set and it is designed to flush-cut wooden dowels. The blade is tapered lengthwise so that it is thinner at the tip for fine cuts and less chance of surface damage and thicker at the rear for more stability when cutting more aggressively.

What does Kugihiki mean?

Kugihiki means “to cut nails”

Sokomawashibiki

Sokomawashibiki is a curve-cutting saw. It is originally used for cutting the bottom for a wooden bucket.

What does Sokomawashibiki mean?

Sokomawashibiki means “Bottom

Anahiki

Anahiki is a log or beam cutting saw for cutting green and seasoned woods. Typically, this saw is used for general construction or timber framing but can be used in the shop for rough-cutting of rough-sawn hardwood or softwood lumber.

Mawashibiki

Mawashibiki is a narrow, thick-bladed “keyhole” saw that is useful for cutting curves or keyhole

What does Mawashibiki mean?

Mawashibiki means ”turning cut”