If you think your only decision regarding saws is whether to buy handsaws or power tools, you’re wrong. Since Japanese handsaws entered the Western marketplace, an entirely new approach to cutting wood has become available. The best toolkit now includes some of each.
In Western woodworking trades, craftsmen favored bow saws for fine work and stiffer carpenter’s saws for larger stock. In this style of traditional handsaw, you’ll still find a surprising number of options. Many of today’s woodworkers enjoy hand woodworking, even though it’s slower and rarely proves practical in a commercial situation. Tool collectors collect new handsaws as well as old ones. Western handsaws nearly always cut on the push stroke, and the blade itself needs to be of thick enough steel to stay straight in skilled hands. Unskilled hands find them amazingly awkward.
The way a saw cuts depends on the rake or angle of the teeth, the set or deflection of the teeth, and the tooth style and tooth count. A saw made for fine crosscutting clogs if used to rip along the grain of the wood, and a coarse-toothed rip saw mangles a crosscut. Teeth have to be sharp and perfectly in line, alternating left and right at a slight angle to cut a path or kerf a little wider than the thickness of the saw steel. If that all happens in harmony, it’s a smooth and efficient operation. If a tooth gets knocked out of line, it’s like dragging an oar in the water.
Japanese handsaws take all that precise wizardry and turn it completely backwards to Western thought. Because Japanese saws were designed to cut on the pull stroke, the resistance of the cut keeps the blade taut and straight. That means you can cut efficiently with a thinner blade. Some paper-thin Japanese saws go even beyond simply thinning the blade and shave the steel slightly hollow ground. The difference in performance compared to a western handsaw is amazing — these saws actually will compete with power tools for some applications. Japanese saw teeth resemble rows of knives and require special files for sharpening. Because sharpening and setting a Japanese saw is such a daunting task, modern companies make these saws in the traditional patterns but with replaceable blades. You can still find the best of the old style, but an elite traditional Japanese handsaw might cost as much as an authentic samurai sword.
Carpenters might keep a few good handsaws around for the occasional unsolvable problem, but tradesmen today depend on machines. Power saws today offer features that increase accuracy and safety. Not many years ago a saw with a dust collector and a laser sight was just a doodle on an engineer’s sketch pad. Now it’s real.
Some of Our Favorite Saws
In so many situations, a table saw makes so much more practical sense than a portable circular saw that even if you have to sacrifice some table space, a portable machine like the Bosch Table Saw is too handy to leave at home.
A contractor friend once explained to me that it’s easier to work through a big hole and patch it later than to work through a small hole and screw things up. The Sawzall Reciprocating Saw from Milwaukee cuts those big holes.
The Shark Ryoba gives westerners a reasonable introduction to the world of Japanese handsaws, with a replaceable blade designed for finish carpentry and cutting edges for either ripping or crosscutting.