Understanding Different Types of Hand Saws
When it comes to woodworking, few tools epitomize the craft like the humble saw. Indeed, sawing wood by hand and creating the perfect joints every time is the dream of many woodworkers.
It’s certainly true that power saws are by far the more efficient tools for everything from sawing lumber to size to cutting intricate dovetail joints. But there’s something wonderfully romantic about mastering the craft of cutting wood by hand.
Not only that, but for the hobbyist woodworker, hand tools are far more affordable. In this chapter, we’ll take a look at how handheld saws work and the most common types of woodworking hand saws to look out for.
The Anatomy of a Saw
Hand saws for woodworking come in many shapes and sizes, each designed to perform a different task. Before we get stuck in, it’s important to understand what your saw is made of.
The Language of Sawing
The ideal tool to cut wood to size, the saw comes with a few technical terms that are worth knowing.
- Teeth: the teeth are the sharp points on the cutting edge of the saw. Shaped like tiny chisels or knives, they bite into the wood, removing minute shavings as they glide back and forth.
- Kerf: the thin slot that is left after the teeth have cut into the wood.
- Heel: the end of the blade that is closest to the handle.
- Toe: the end of the blade that is furthest from the handle.
Understanding Saw Teeth
The type of teeth your saw has varies greatly depending on what type of saw it is. They come in different shapes and sizes to perform a wide array of tasks.
The Set of Saw Teeth
Saw teeth are often ‘set’ so as to prevent sawdust from building up in the kerf and jamming the blade. This means that rather than being stacked one behind the other, they are normally bent to the left or right.
In this way, the saw can cut a wider kerf than the saw blade, preventing it from jamming. Only very fine teeth on saws with a thin blade are set straight, ensuring a fine cut for intricate work.
Saw Teeth Shapes
Depending on what job the saw is designed to complete, it will have different shaped teeth. For example, ripsaw teeth are large, with a near-vertical leading-edge, perfect for cutting along the grain like a chisel. Meanwhile, the teeth on crosscut saws, designed to cut across the grain, have an angled leading-edge, filed down to create a knife-like cutting motion.
Japanese sawteeth are even more different; taller and narrower, they have three, rather than two, bevels for cutting. Finally, ‘fleam’ teeth are symmetrically placed at a 45-degree angle, severing the wood on both the forward and return strokes for extra efficiency.
Saw Teeth Sizes
The size of the teeth on your saw will again vary depending on the task the saw is designed for. Ripsaws must be able to cut long planks of timber to width and should therefore have large teeth with large spaces between them.
For more intricate work, smaller teeth with small gaps between them are perfect. Saw teeth sizes are typically measured as either teeth per inch (TPI) or points per inch (PPI). The more TPI or PPI, the finer the blade.
Okay so this might seem fairly self-explanatory, but it’s worth taking a quick look at the handle of your handheld saw. After all, it’s the part you’ll ideally be in contact with most often! Different types of saws have different types of handles. Having said that, nowar, you’re most likely to find molded-plastic, closed handles on the majority of hand and back saws.
These handles tend to be designed in a way that allows you to use the length of the saw blade like a large set square. With both 90 and 45-degree angles, this is ideal for marking and cutting on the go.
Closed wooden handles can be a sign of quality. They’re common on a traditional hand saw and are often a little more ergonomic. Some saws also use a pistol grip. These can be useful for more intricate work, but are generally not ideal for larger jobs and should be avoided in handsaws in particular.
Different Types of Saws
So, now that you know what your saw is made of, let’s take a look at the most common types that you’re likely to use.
Hand Saws and Their Uses
Handsaws are designed to do the meatier, rougher cuts that will transform a piece of lumber or man-made board into a smaller component, ready for planing and shaping.
The best hand saws have a very slight S-shaped curve or dip on the top of the blade. Known as a skew-backed panel saw, the design allows you to correct and adjust the cutting path easier than a straight-backed saw.
There are three main hand saw types.
The largest type of hand saw, it’s designed to saw long, straight cuts along the wood grain on solid timber planks, ideal for cutting to width.
The thick blade is typically around 2ft 2” (650mm) long, with around 5 or 6 PPI, fewer teeth than most saws.
Similar in looks to rip cut saws, the crosscut saw also comes in at between 2 and 2ft 2” (600 and 650mm) in length. Where it differs is the teeth, which are designed to cut across the grain without tearing the wood fibers.
Ideal for cutting solid wood planks to size, it has slightly smaller teeth than the ripsaw, with around 7 to 8 PPI.
The smaller brother of the crosscut saw, a panel saw is specifically designed for sawing plywood, MDF, and other man-made boards. It has smaller teeth at around 10 PPI and the blade is normally between 1ft 8” and 1ft 10” (500 and 550mm) long.
Most panel saws also double as a crosscut saw.
Back Saws and Their Uses
Back saws feature smaller teeth compared to handsaws and the telltale strip of metal, normally brass or steel, that is folded over the top of the blade. This stiffens the back of the blade to allow for straighter cuts.
In addition, it weighs the blade down, keeping the teeth in contact with the wood so you don’t have to force the blade into the work. Designed for cutting joints and trimming smaller bits of wood to size, back saws also come in various styles.
For the most part, the difference comes in the number and size of the teeth, allowing for increasingly intricate cuts.
A jack of all trades, tenon saws are good for cutting larger pieces of wood down to size, as well as more precise work such as tenon joints.
It’s the largest of the back saws, with around 13 to 15 PPI and a blade length of about 10 to 14 inches (250 to 350mm).
At first glance, the dovetail saw looks like a shorter version of the tenon saw. However, with 16 to 22 PPI, the sharp teeth are too small to be set normally.
As a result, it produces an extremely narrow kerf, ideal for the fine cuts needed for dovetail joints.
Offset Dovetail Saw
More or less the same as the standard dovetail saw except for the handle. Rather than a standard closed handle, it features a straight handle that is slightly offset from the fine toothed blade.
This allows the woodworker to trim dowels and tenons flush with the surface of the wood.
Bead and Blitz Saws
Even smaller than dovetail saws, bead and blitz saws generally have 26 and 33 PPI respectively. Ideal for model making and very fine joints, blitz saws often feature a finger grip on the toe end of the blade to improve stability.
The narrow blade of a blitz saw are typically replaceable as the teeth are too small to be sharpened.
Curve-Cutting Saws and Their Uses
If you’ve been wondering how to cut wood curved, by hand, you’ll be glad to hear there are a number of curve-cutting saws at your disposal. Also great for angled cuts, this group of saws typically features thin, flexible blades and wide handles that allow you to twist and turn with ease.
Here are the most common types of saws for cutting curves.
The largest curve-cutting saw, it has a medium-weight frame and an 8 to 12 inch (200 to 300mm) long blade with 9 to 17 PPI. Bow saws are a good choice for thicker pieces of wood, and can be turned 360 degrees to cut holes and curves.
With a very narrow 6 inch (150mm) blade held under tension by its metal frame, coping saws typically have fine teeth and around 15 to 17 PPI. The blade can be twisted to keep the frame out of the way, allowing for the easy sawing of holes and curves.
Featuring much finer teeth (32 PPI) and a deeper frame than the coping saw, fret saws are ideal for thin pieces of wood and veneers. It only cuts on the pull stroke to prevent the delicate, thin blades from buckling.
Bear in mind, while a fret saw can be used to cut through veneer, it differs from a veneer saw. A veneer saw is a much smaller, double-edged hand saw used to produce thin strips of veneer and is quite different from most types of saws.
Compass and Keyhole Saw
Free from the frames of other curve-cutting saws, compass saws normally feature a pistol grip and narrow blades that are tapered. Unlike the others, the blade is stiff enough that it doesn’t need to be held under tension and can be used to cut holes in the middle of larger boards.
A smaller version, called a keyhole saw, sometimes has an adjustable blade depth to prevent flex.
Japanese Saws and Their Uses
The main difference between Japanese saws and their western counterparts is that they’re designed to cut on the pull stroke. As such, the blades can be thinner, resulting in a narrower kerf and ultimately a finer cut. There are Japanese versions of all the different kinds of hand saws we’ve mentioned.
Similar to a handsaw, it’s available with either ripsaw or crosscut style teeth. There’s also the Ryoba, a double-edged Japanese saw that features ripsaw teeth on one edge, and crosscut teeth on the other.
The downside to this design is that you’re often limited to fairly shallow cuts to avoid the upper teeth from scoring the sides of the kerf.
The Japanese equivalent of a backsaw, it’s available in different sizes, with the dovetail version producing an extremely fine cut with almost no tearing of the grain due to a high number of teeth per inch. On some versions, the teeth increase in size from the heel to the toe to help start the cut.
Very similar in appearance and utility to the compass saw. With the blade designed to cut on the backstroke, there’s less chance of it buckling.
3 Essential Types of Hand Saws for Beginners
By now you can see that hand saws come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. However, many of these are only really used by professional woodworkers. As a beginner, it’s not worth buying a multitude of different types of saws you might never use.
Woodworking isn’t for everyone, so it’s best to start with the basics and build up if you find the hobby is one you want to pursue further.
With that in mind, here are three hand saws that we think are ideal for starting out with.
Of the three main different hand saws for wood, the panel saw is the most versatile. It might be the smallest, but it’s capable of cutting planks made from both hard and soft woods, as well as man-made boards and panels.
These days, it’s far easier to have your planks cut to width by machine, and most large hardware stores will offer this service. As such, there’s no real need for a beginner to invest in a ripsaw. Likewise, a crosscut saw becomes redundant since the panel saw can take care of the typical cross-cutting needs of a beginner.
Look for an affordable straight-back panel saw, with a closed-grip plastic handle that will also serve as a set-square/miter-square.
As a beginner, a tenon saw is a fantastic go-to backsaw and it can be used for a multitude of tasks. When you’re starting out, it’s best to master simple joints such as butt joints, mortise and tenons, miters, and lap joints before tackling the more complicated and intricate joints.
A tenon saw is more than suitable for these beginner friendly-joints, as well as cutting dowels, tenons, angled cuts, and trimming oversized bits of work down to size. For many, it’s the only hand saw to cut wood that they need.
Cutting curves and holes in wood by hand isn’t the most beginner-friendly task, but for those willing to give it a go, the coping saw is an excellent choice.
Lightweight and easier to handle compared to the bow saw, yet more resilient than the fret saw, simple curves on the edge of your workpiece can be fairly easily cut after a few attempts.
Armed with these essentials, you’re ready to start sawing some wood! Find out more in Chapter 8: Cutting Wood by Hand.