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Japanese Saws Vs. Western Saws

Japanese Saws Vs. Western Saws

Japanese Saws Vs. Western Saws

Introduction

When comparing Western and Japanese saws, it’s important to understand that each is designed to function inside a particular tradition — specifically, a particular method of holding and supporting the wood that’s being worked. In the West, woodworkers tend to rely on heavy benches equipped with vises, clamps, holdfasts, and jigs. Japanese workholding, on the other hand, is far more likely to use the woodworker’s body as a workholding device. The Japanese workbench is most often as simple as a beam on a couple of sawhorses or, with some projects, just the floor.

While there are many differences between the two styles of saws, there is no right answer is to which one is better. What makes a saw the correct one is if it's suited for the needs of the project. That's why many experienced woodworkers keep both types in their shops. They are all highly versatile tools that can cut fine dovetails or slice large pieces of lumber. As long as you maintain your tools, they will serve you for years to come. To learn more about sharpening, you can read our guide to sharpening tools.

We also wrote a blog on the different types of Japanese saws you will encounter.

Cutting Direction for Western and Japanese Saws

The method of wood support is really the primary difference between Western and Japanese saws because it affects cutting direction. Western saws almost exclusively cut on the push stroke — that is, material is removed as you push the saw forward through the wood. Japanese saws are the exact opposite, removing wood on the pull stroke. Japanese hand planes, for similar reasons, are also pulled toward the user and not pushed.

The handles reflect the proper grip needed to utilize both types of saws. For example, a Japanese ryoba saw has a handle that's really an extension of the blade. It's meant to be gripped as a sword with both hands to stabilize your cutting technique as you pull back.

A western saw, such as a dovetail, traditionally has a handle attached to the end of the blade that you grip like a pistol. This stabilizes your elbow as you push through the wood and makes it easy to go forward and backward without bending the blade.

Saw Size

In practice, this means a Japanese saw can be thinner than its Western counterpart and therefore produce a thinner kerf. There's less risk of the blade jamming, bowing, or bending inside the cut. The metal itself isn’t supporting the power of the cut, and there is tension on the blade, not compression, while it engages the wood fibers.

While a Western-style saw can also be quite thin, it requires extra support to remain straight in use, usually in the form of the brass backing rib seen on common tenon and dovetail saws. Many woodworkers actually prefer this Western style of backed saw because the extra weight on top can make it easy to find a perfect 90-degree cutting angle simply by feel.

Adjusting Your Shop for Japanese Saws

If you’re going to use a Japanese saw in your woodworking shop, you’ll need to make a few adjustments. For one, you should replace or remove your existing bench hooks to the far side of your workbench since they’re now anchoring against a pull stroke. You also need to change your stance and body position, particularly with larger saws like the Ryoba, which is designed to be used with two hands, with the user standing centered on the cut line.

You may also want to experiment with lowering your work during sawing, as many Japanese sawhorses may stand as low as 6” to 8” off the ground. You can perform crosscuts and rip cuts easily with these, using your body weight (a foot or a knee) to counter the cutting stroke.

Ideal Wood Types for Each

Many Japanese saws are designed and tuned to work in softwoods.

  • Pine
  • Cedar
  • Even “soft” hardwoods like poplar

If you frequently use hard maples or exotic hardwoods, you might run into difficulties. Check the details on the saw you’re using to verify what kinds of wood it’s set up for. Western saws are built more rigidly, and so are able to cut through the harder woods. These include:

  • Maple
  • Oak
  • Cherry
  • Walnut

The Benefits of Japanese Tools

Despite a recent resurgence by small makers of Western-style hand saws, it’s safe to say that Japanese pieces outperform Western ones at lower price points. If you’re on a tight budget and you’re starting from scratch, the Japanese tradition has a lot to offer. It’s especially attractive if space is an issue; apartment woodworking becomes much easier if you adopt some Japanese tools and techniques.

Important Woodworking Advice

An increasing number of shops these days make use of both types of saws. Japanese-style pull saws might handle rough dimensioning, re-sawing, and flush cutting, while Western-style backsaws take care of the joinery. Other users might swear by dozuki for cutting dovetails and tenons. Here, personal preference is key, and the only way to find out what you like is to experiment. Whichever tradition you prefer, there are always constants: make sure your tools are sharp and well-tuned, let the weight of the saw do the work, and measure twice before you cut!

Looking for more woodworking advice? Discover other workshop blogs at Garrett Wade today!

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Written by Jeff Kocan

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