How to Cut Wood With a Hand Saw
Perfecting your joints and crafting a masterpiece completely by hand is an extremely rewarding experience. It can be tricky at first, but with enough practice, plus a few expert tips and tricks, you can soon master the art of sawing by hand, straight and true.
With that in mind, in this chapter, we’ll be taking a good look at everything you need to know about working with handheld saws. From how to cut wood for beginners to the most common mistakes to avoid when cutting wood by hand, we’ve got you covered.
Hand Sawing Basics
Selecting the correct tool for the task at hand is perhaps the most important rule in any craft. So, before you make that first cut, it’s important that you’re using the right saw for the job — be sure to check the previous if you’re not sure.
Whether you’re sawing lumber, plywood, joints, or miters, you’ll need to follow the same 3 basic principles to ensure success when using a handheld saw.
How To Hold and Control a Hand Saw
Knowing how to saw straight with a handsaw all comes down to control, and control comes from how you grip your saw. The ideal grip for most back and hand saws and is to point your forefinger towards the toe of the blade and hold the rest of the handle with your remaining three fingers and thumb.
In this way, you gain better control as the handle cannot twist in the palm of your hand so easily. As a result, you’re much more likely to feel comfortable and cut straight.
How To Start the Cut
Having marked the cut line on the surface of your wood, place the teeth of the blade just to the waste side edge of your line. Hold the knuckle of your thumb (on your other hand that isn’t holding the saw) flat against the blade to guide it as you make a few short, pull strokes with the heel of the blade to establish the cut.
For delicate cuts, you can use a marking knife or beveled edge chisel to cut a narrow V-shape notch that your finer saw blades can slot into for a more precise cut.
Continuing the Cut
Using the entire blade, make slow and long strokes to continue the cut, staying on the edge of your marked line. With each push stroke, keep your elbows close to, but not touching, your body to ensure precise cuts. Keep the saw at around a 45-degree angle if you’re rip sawing or crosscutting, and more or less horizontal if you’re cutting shoulder joints with a back saw.
Try not to apply too much cutting pressure, and instead allow the weight of the saw to keep your cuts steady. Don’t try to force your saw into the cut, instead allow the power to come from your body posture. Align your body with the direction of the cut, keep your back straight and elbow bent at a right angle, with plenty of space to swing freely.
If you do start to deviate from the intended course, slightly twist the blade back towards the line. Take it slow at first so that you can easily see if you’re missing the mark before it’s too late.
How To Finish a Cut
Finishing a cut cleanly with hand saws can be tricky. Do it wrong and you can find yourself splintering the wood grain and damaging the fibers. When sawing planks of wood or boards to length, hold the off-cut with your free hand and work slowly and gently to avoid splitting the wood. Don’t allow the off-cut to drop away before the cut is completely finished, as this can rip the fibers.
When trimming a long plank to width, it can be best to turn around and start a fresh cut on the end of the plank. Meet the original kerf in order to finish the cut. Alternatively, hold the saw vertically with two hands for maximum control. Continue to cut in the same direction, but with the saw teeth facing away from you. Make sure the plank is supported to prevent the fibers from tearing, which leads us to the next step.
Supporting Your Work Is the Key to Success
The key to accurately cutting wood is proper support. This is true whether you’re using a ripsaw to trim planks, cutting dovetail joints, or sawing a hole in a board. Trestles, or sawhorses, are invaluable when you’re sawing lumber, boards, and planks.
A fun DIY project is to build your own trestles, though you can easily buy premade ones. Either way, the ideal height is around 2 feet tall (600mm). This allows you to hold your work down with one hand while using your knee to prevent planks and other longer pieces from twisting. When working on smaller pieces and joints, bench vises and clamps are essential.
To cut a long plank to length with ease, use two trestles to support it. Use clamps to stop it from sliding or twisting, particularly with smaller planks. Your cutting line should have the two trestles behind it, with enough space for blade clearance. For thinner pieces of wood or board, place a thicker plank beneath it to stop it from bouncing.
Again, long planks that need to be trimmed to width can be done easily with two trestles. Simply start the cut at one end, and as you reach the trestle, move it to allow you to continue the cut. For manmade panels, place two planks under the board, one on either side of the kerf. This will stop it from flexing and jamming the blade.
Joints, Miters, and Curves
Use a vise mounted to a workbench to comfortably work on joints and smaller pieces. Alternatively, clamp your workpiece onto the bench directly to prevent it from moving and ensure a square cut. For straight cuts and miters, miter boxes or blocks can be very useful. They have slots cut into the sides in which you place the blade of your back saw to keep it cutting in a straight line.
How To Use Curve-Cutting Saws
With their thinner blades, curve-cutting saws are more inclined to twist and turn out of control. In some cases, you can even snap or buckle the thin blade. Often it’s easier to use an electric jigsaw or bandsaw for those complicated curves. If you’re really keen to do it by hand, however, here are some tips and tricks for sawing wood with a curve-cutting saw.
Cutting With a Bow Saw
The heavy frame of a bow saw can cause your cut to drift if you’re not careful. Grip the handle with one hand, using your forefinger to point along the blade. Next, place your free hand in line with the other, wrapping your forefinger and index finger around the end post, one on either side of the blade. This offers much more control and support.
Coping With a Coping Saw
Extend your forefinger and place it on the frame, near the blade. A two-handed grip can be more comfortable but isn’t always necessary. To saw a hole in the wood, first drill an access hole into the waste section, near the edge of your cutting line. You may wish to drill several holes if you’re cutting a larger shape.
Remove the blade from the frame, then fit it back, first passing it through the access hole. You can now carefully follow your cutting line, gently turning the frame to guide the blade. Use a vise to keep your workpiece secure.
Don’t Fret With a Fret Saw
A fret saw works in much the same way as the coping saw. Due to the nature of the saw, you’ll normally use it to cut holes or shapes in thin pieces of wood. To prevent vibration, attach a strip of plywood beneath your workpiece to support it from below. Cut downwards using a pull stroke for best results, and turn carefully using the frame to guide the blade.
Using a Compass Saw
To cut a hole in a board or plank, first drill an access hole that is big enough to fit the point of your compass saw through. Then saw steadily and smoothly, taking care not to buckle the blade on the push stroke.
Our Top Wood Sawing Tips and Tricks for Beginners
With these hand sawing techniques under your belt, you’re now well on your way to mastering this noble craft. But there’s still plenty more to learn. You can take things to the next level with the following tips and tricks for sawing wood.
- When sawing, allow your elbow to swing freely rather than rubbing against your torso. Avoid working in cramped spaces. This way, you can ensure longer strokes and straighter cuts.
- Don’t apply too much pressure when cutting. Instead, let the weight of the saw do the work. If that’s not working, chances are your saw is blunt or the teeth aren’t set properly. We’ll take a look at how to fix that below.
- Try not to grip the handle too tightly. This can pull you off course. Ideally, relax your grip a little, imagine you’re holding a kitten or a baby bird to get the right kind of pressure.
- When rip sawing long planks, you might find that the kerf will begin to close up, jamming the blade. Simply drive a small wedge into the kerf to open it up a bit. Take care not to split the wood though.
- Use a candle to lubricate both sides of your saw blade if you find it’s sticking. You can buy special sprays, but candle wax tends to be cheaper and is extremely effective.
- Use the right tool for different jobs. If you want a clean cut on your dovetail joints, don’t use a crosscut saw!
- Practice your technique with wood off-cuts rather than jumping straight into more complicated woodworking projects. This way, you can use a hand saw to hone your skills and try mastering various cuts and different joints. Even making a rough cut in an spare piece of wood helps you get a feel for handling hand saws correctly.
Common Sawing Mistakes to be Avoided
While handheld woodworking saws are far safer to use than electric saws, they’re still capable of causing you considerable injury if you’re not careful. Proper handling is important not only for safety reasons but also for ensuring top results. Here are some of the most common sawing mistakes to avoid.
- Sawing unsupported work; one sure-fire way to injure yourself while using a handheld saw is to attempt to make a cut on a piece of wood that isn’t properly supported. Your workpiece can easily slip, ruining your cut and potentially causing harm. Be sure to use trestles, clamps, vises, and a proper workbench when sawing.
- Cutting dirty boards; try to avoid using your nice new rip or crosscut saw to cut old boards and planks, especially if they’re covered in concrete or have previously been nailed or screwed. Hitting an old screw can damage the teeth of your saw, while concrete grit will quickly dull even the sharpest blades.
- Damaging your miter box; a miter box is really useful for cutting perfect angles — until it isn’t. Many beginners end up cutting into the slots of their miter box, ruining that perfect angle and damaging the blade. This is often caused by cutting a piece that is too tall for the box or not keeping your cut straight. Be sure to slowly and carefully establish a straight cut using short strokes, relying on the box for guidance. If you notice you’re cutting into the slots, try to reangle the saw.
Hand Saw Maintenance
As well as knowing how to use your saws, it’s important to look after them. Sometimes the teeth will become blunt or incorrectly set, making what should be an easy cut a real hassle. Let’s find out more.
Proper Hand Saw Storage
Storing your tools correctly is essential. A properly sharpened saw is a joy to work with, whereas a rusty blunt one is a nightmare. Ideally, protect the teeth by sliding a plastic guard over them. If your saw doesn’t come with a protective cover, you can use a length of old garden hose — simply cut it to the length of your blade, cut a slit along the top, and fit it over the blade.
Keep your blade rust-free during long-term storage by wiping it down with an oily cloth. Saws whose blades are under tension should be slackened during long-term storage.
How To Sharpen a Blunt Saw
The art of sharpening a blunt saw is increasingly rare. With cheap tools built to be replaced after they’ve worn down, few woodworkers worry about learning how to sharpen and recondition a blunt saw nowadays.
However, it’s a useful skill to know, and while it’s not exactly essential for the beginner, we’ll cover the basics here. If you ever get your hands on a high-quality saw, you’ll want to know how to keep it as good as new year after year.
Be advised, some saw teeth are hardened. These will require special tools and are best sharpened by a professional. Likewise, saws with very fine teeth are also best left to the pros.
Tools You Need
Here’s what you need to sharpen your saw;
- Metal file: a fine, smooth metal file works best.
- Saw file: with a triangular shape, this special file is designed to fit between the teeth. Each face should be around twice the height of the teeth, with saw files coming in a variety of sizes to serve different types of saws.
- Saw set: with an adjustable metal anvil, a saw set is used to re-set bent teeth to the correct angle. Adjustment is based on the number of points per inch (PPI) of your saw.
How It’s Done
Now you’ve got the tools you need, here are the main steps to reconditioning and sharpening a saw.
- First, clamp your saw to prevent it from vibrating during the sharpening process. Use a bench vise, and protect the metal blade by putting stiff wooden battens on either side, just below the teeth. Alternatively, you can build a special set of chocks to hold your saw tight.
- Next, you need to top the saw. This reduces all the teeth to the same level and leaves a bright spot on top, which will come in useful later. Run your metal file across the entire length of the sharp edge of your saw two or three times.
- Use your saw file to sharpen the cutting, leading edge of each tooth. The process differs slightly depending on the type of teeth, ripsaw, or crosscut. For ripsaw teeth, hold the file horizontal and square to the blade. Work from the toe end and start on the first tooth bending away from you. Run your file two or three times against the leading edge of the next tooth, until around half of the bright spot caused by the topping process has faded. Repeat this on every other gullet until you reach the heel. Then, turn the saw around and do the same on the other gullets, filing each tooth until the bright spot has disappeared.
- The process is much the same for crosscut teeth. However, rather than holding the saw file square to the blade, twist it to around a 65-degree angle, keeping the tip of the file facing the saw handle.
How To Set the Teeth of Your Saw
If your saw is often wandering from the line or sticking in the kerf, you’ll probably need to set the teeth. Here’s how it’s done.
- Clamp your saw in the same way as before.
- Adjust your saw set to match your saw.
- Work down from either the heel or toe, place the set over the cutting edge of each tooth that leans away from you.
- Squeeze the handles of the set to bend the sawtooth to the correct angle.
- Once you reach the end, turn the saw around and repeat the process with the remaining teeth.
How To Fit a Curve-Cutting Saw Blades
Coping saws, fret saws, and compass saws all have removable blades that can be easily changed if damaged. Fitting a new blade is easy when you know how.
- Coping saws; each end of the frame has a retaining pin with a slot in it for the blade to fit into. Turn the handle anti-clockwise to reduce the gap between the two pins. With the teeth facing away from the handle, fit the end of the blade into the pin on the toe end of the saw. Fit the other end to the heel-end pin, and twist the handle clockwise to tighten the blade and fix it in place under tension. Twist both pins until they align and the blade sits straight.
- Fret saws; much like the coping saw, the difference is that instead of retaining pins, a fret saw uses thumbscrew clamps to hold the blade in place. The other difference is that the teeth of the blade should face the handle, allowing the saw to cut on the pull stroke.
- Compass saws; if your compass saw blade bends or becomes blunt, you can change it easily enough. Simply remove the clamping screws on the handle to release the old blade. Fit the new one, and tighten the screws.
Now that you know the essentials, it’s time to put the theory to the test and start making your first cuts!