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Woodworking 101/saws

Introduction to Saws

The saw is an essential tool in the woodworker's kit, and is vital when both preparing and working with the timber. Before choosing a saw, it is essential to understand its function, so that the correct saw is bought.

Basically saws can be divided into three main groups:

  • Hand saws
    • Rip saw
    • Cross-cut saw
    • Panel saw
    • Log saw
  • Back or tenon saws
    • Dovetail saw
    • Tenon saw
    • Gent's back saw
    • Blitz Saw
  • Special saws
    • Frame saw
    • Pad saw
    • Continental bow saw
    • Coping saw
    • Fret saw
    • Hole saw

Therefore, it is vital when buying a saw to remember its purpose, and choose accordingly.

Factors When Buying a Saw

The reputable manufacturer will have selected the best possible steel, and will also have designed a suitable handle to fit both the hand of the user and the saw blade itself. Many woodworkers will prefer a traditional timber handle, although modern plastic is quite adequate and often pleasant in appearance.

A saw must be easy to use and well-balanced - you can immediately detect a bad one. The teeth must be carefully and accurately set and sharpened - look out for the cheaper versions which have stamped-out teeth. Keep in mind that after some use, the woodworker's saw will need sharpening and he/she may have to do it themselves.

Protection for all saws is necessary to prevent the teeth from becoming blunt. Many woodworkers store the saw with the teeth enclosed in a groove cut in a block of wood. A number of manufacturers supply a plastic strip to protect the teeth. Although a light oiling of the blade will prevent rust, perhaps the best way to protect the saw is to keep it in a case.

A discussion on saws would not be complete without mentioning that present-day manufacturers often coat the blades against corrosion. The Teflon coating provides protection, and some woodworkers maintain that it makes sawing easier. However, the coating must be of high quality to resist wear.

Hand Saws

This group includes rip saws, cross cut saws, and panel saws. They are distinguished by the style of their teeth: rip teeth and cross cut teeth. All saw teeth (usually called points) are set alternately to the left and right, and when pushed through wood, they cut a groove called a kerf.

The rip teeth are sharpened at their points and cut like a series of small chisels, to cut with the grain. This saw should never be used across the grain or serious ripping and tearing of the timber will take place.

The cross cut teeth are sharpened on their edges, and cut two tiny grooves with the timber crumbling in between these to make a severing kerf. This saw could be used to saw with the grain, but it could be hard work.

Generally, hand saws from reputable manufacturers are taper ground. This produces a blade which tapers from the handle to the toe on the back of the saw, but which retains a single thickness just above the teeth. This type of saw cannot bind in a deep cut, and the set of the saw need not be quite as great as with an unground blade. The saw is easier to use, and saves wood.

Hand saws divide further into distinct types indicated by the design of the teeth - rip teeth and cross cut teeth.

A rip saw is needed to cut a piece of timber along its length – that is, with the grain. It is the longest of the hand saws, usually 28-30 inches (700-750 mm), with 3.5 points per inch (25 mm). Some rip saws can have smaller teeth at the toe than at the handle. There is also a half-rip version, slightly shorter in length, with an extra point per inch (25 mm). When ripping, keep the saw at an angle of 60 degrees. 

The cross cut saw for cutting across the grain is between 22-26 inches (550-660 mm) in length and has 5 points per inch (25 mm). When cross-cutting, keep the saw at 45 degrees.

Panel Saw

The panel saw is for finer work and useful for cutting thin plywood panels. Usually it measures 20-24 inches (500-600 mm) in length, with 7 points per inch (25 mm). There may be variations in design between manufacturers, even in the length and number of points.

Factors When Choosing a Hand Saw

All good hand saws will have handles secured by brass screws – this is essential to take up any slack and ensure a perfectly tight union.

Points to look for when buying a saw:

  • Flexibility: although you should be able to flex the blade easily, its tension should quickly bring it back to true.
  • Crown: The greater the crown, the fewer the teeth that make contact with the wood. An 1/8" crown on a 26" blade makes sawing easier without affecting efficiency.
  • Straightness: Before buying, check that the blade is quite straight and lies properly in the handle.
  • Taper grinding: A taper-ground blade means that the teeth require less set and the blade will not bind in the kerf.
  • Teeth: Sharpness, of course, is essential. Make sure also that the set is uniform and that there are no burrs on the teeth.
  • Handle: Check that the full four-finger grasp is comfortable. Higher quality saws usually have wooden handles. These will not make the hand sweat so much, and after a while they will begin to follow the contours of the hand.
  • Fittings: How is the handle secured? Is it cheap screw fixing or does it use shoulder screw fixing? Brass fittings are best.

Log Saws

Where large timbers have to be cut, and the woodworker is unable to employ the services of the professional tree surgeon, a number of different saws can be used.

The two-man cross cut saw is superb for handling large logs. It comes in a variety of sizes and the teeth are interspersed with deep gullets to carry the sawdust. The best have a style of teeth called lightning. The blade is curved so that the teeth can be kept in contact with the timber throughout the movement of the saw.

The one-man cross cut saw has a handle similar to that of the hand saw, but with an additional round handle which can be placed anywhere along the top of the blade. Usually, it is placed anywhere along the top of the blade, near the handle, but the saw can be converted into a two-man cross cut saw by fixing the supplementary handle near the toe of the blade.

The contemporary log saw consists of a tubular steel frame with a saw blade between 24-36" long and 3/4-1" in width. The blade is tensioned either by screw or lever. This tool is most useful with pegged teeth and gullets, which cut efficiently in both directions. It can tackle many rough conversion jobs which would be hard work for the normal hand saw.

Back or tenon saws

There are various types of saws in this group. Generally, the blades can be described as thin, short and rectangular in shape, with fine teeth finely set. A heavy strip of either brass or steel is folded over the back of the saw to strengthen it. Brass, being a heavier metal, is better than steel. The design of the saw means that it cannot penetrate the timber completely, making it suitable for cutting joints. The handle, similar to that on a hand saw, is often set higher, and is either closed or open.

A dovetail saw is a smaller back saw, with an open handle. It is 8 in./200 mm long, with as many as 26 points per inch/25 mm. The blade is extremely thin, with finely-set teeth to give complete accuracy in the cutting of dovetail joints and other fine work.

Tenon saws are usually between 10-14 inches/250-350 mm in length, with up to 20 points per inch/25 mm, and are used to cut tenon joints.

Another variation of the back saw is the gent’s back saw, so-called after the small tools once used by gentlemen who took up woodworking as a hobby. This has a turned chisel-like handle, with blades up to 10 inches/250 mm long. The blade is thin, with small teeth, set to cut a narrow kerf. It is best used for cutting fine joints and dovetails. This saw has also been called the daney gent’s saw, the gent’s dovetail saw, and the beading saw. Many users find this saw difficult to hold after using a saw with a normal handle. A continental manufacturer offers the gent’s-style saw with an offset handle, and one with a reversible offset handle.

A variation of the gent’s back saw is the blitz saw. This has interchangeable blades for use on metal, wood, or plastics. A small hook as an appendage at the end of the back strip serves as an extra handle. It was not originally designed, specifically for the woodworker, but was an all-purpose saw.

Special Purpose Saws

For curved cutting, the frame saw, also known as a bow saw, ss probably the most versatile of the special saws. It has a thin, narrow blade attached by removable and renewable pins, through brass ferrules, located in the lower ends of two wooden cheeks, or arms. These are held apart by a centrally-placed stretcher rail, or beam, morticed into the arms by stub tenons and tensioned by a twisted cord worked by a toggle stick. Handles are attached to the ferrules, which can be twisted in the cheeks to position the blade in the direction the curve is to take. Blades can vary between 8-28 inches (200-700 mm) in length, and usually have 9 points per inch (25 mm). Normally, it is used for curved cutting only. The depth of the cut is indicated by the distance between the stretcher rail and the blade.

The continental bow saw is larger, and used for all types of work. The biggest sizes have fixed wide blades, without handles, and are often used instead of the hand saw. Another version sometimes seen in Europe is the double-bladed frame saw, with an adjustable center stretcher rail, which serves to tension the blade.

A coping saw is a smaller saw for curves, similar in concept to the frame saw. This is a modern design with a 6-inch (150 mm) blade, tensioned in a steel frame by twisting its round wooden handle. The frame cuts up to 4.5 inches (112 mm) from the timber edge. The blade has two pins which fit into swiveling spigots at each end of the frame. The ease with which the blade can be fitted makes it possible to assemble it after passing it through a previously bored hole, enabling closed curves to be cut within a panel. This saw is also used for the fast removal of waste wood when cutting dovetails and other joints.

Many woodworkers prefer to insert the blade so that the teeth point towards them. The saw then cuts on the back stroke, which allows straighter cutting and reduces breakages. This is certainly an advantage when cutting thin stock which rests on a veed table mounted in the vice. With the saw used vertically, the natural tendency of the teeth is to pull the wood down onto the table, again reducing the possibility of saw breakage.

A pad saw is for small curves, slots, and keyholes, also known as the compass, or keyhole, saw. This has a narrow tapered blade which fits into a round handle. The blade can be fixed in any position by turning a thumbscrew located in the handle ferrule. Blades vary between 5-15 inches (125-375 mm) in length, and from 8-10 points per inch/25 mm. The handles of many pad saws also take a whole or broken hacksaw blade.

The pad saw blade is seen again in the nest of saws. This comprises one open-ended handle into which various tapered blades, slotted at the wide end, can be fitted. This is a useful tool for the casual woodworker.

A fret saw is an extremely versatile saw for fine work, particularly the piercing of thin panels and plywood. It was a craze amongst schoolboys in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. A number of versions are still available, with frames up to 20 inches/500 mm deep, allowing cuts to be made inboard from the edge of the panel. The very fine blade, up to 6 inches/500 mm in length, is held in position by a clamp, with the tension applied through a thumbscrew. Different blades can be obtained for cutting wood, metal or plastics.

The hole saw, although not strictly in the saw family, is a very useful tool. This consists of a circular body and a drill bit. Circular blades are fitted into the body and the portable drill switched on, once the drill bit has been correctly located on the material. Various sizes of blades are available, enabling holes to be cut in timber, metal and plastic.

For the craftsman working on a house, particularly when needing to gain access under floorboards for electrical or heating work, a special flooring saw can be used. The blade is 13 inches/325 mm long, with 7 pts per inch/25 mm. The top side of the blade is angled to allow the saw to be used in an upright position close to a corner. The other edge has teeth completely along it and is curved to cut into the tongue of the floorboard without the need for a starting hole. Another version of this tool is the plywood saw, approximately 11 inches275 mm long. The end of the top edge is curved and toothed, thus permitting cutting into a panel without pre-boring.

A fairly new addition to the saw family is one which is fitted with a low-friction blade, capable of cutting wood, steel, plastics, rubber and many other materials. The blade is set in an enclosed handle, and can be moved into nine different positions.

Ancillary Sawing Equipment

Many sawing jobs can be carried out with the timber held in a vice, but the sawing of tenon shoulders, and many other smaller, shallower cuts in thinner timber, will be done best using a bench hook. This is a traditional piece of equipment in the United Kingdom, consisting of one large block of wood with an end block fixed on either side. Generally, it is made of beech with the end blocks doweled to prevent any possibility of the saw striking screws or nails. The bench hook is usually held in the vice, but it can be used freely hooked over the edge of the bench. Either side of the bench hook can be used.

Normally, mitres are cut with a tenon saw. The mitre can be marked out using the mitre square or the combination square. A quicker way is to use a mitre block.

This is usually made in beech, and comprises two pieces jointed at 90 degrees and 45 degree slots cut in the upstand. It can be held in the vice or screwed to the bench. The saw passes through the slot and is held in the vertical with the timber held firmly against the upstand.

A more efficient tool is the mitre box – the timber is housed between two slotted slides. The slots are sometimes reinforced with brass guides. A deluxe metal version has saw guides which can be adjusted to the exact thickness of the blade. The largest size will take timbers up to 4x2 inches/100x50 mm.

Another metal model, which not only incorporates guides for the saw but also screw clamps for the timber, ensures great accuracy in cutting. This tool is particularly valuable where careful cutting of picture frames is needed. An extended model has sawing positions for both 45 and 90 degrees. Made in gray iron with accurately machined faces, this tool can also be used for joint work.

A greatly superior mitre cutter is one which has its own built-in saw assembled on easy-moving bearings. It can be quickly adjusted to cut at 90 degrees, 60 degrees and 45 degrees, and incorporates an adjustable stop for measured cutting. Unfortunately, it does not have a timber-clamping device.

An increasingly popular tool is the jointmaster. This tool was designed to cut lap joints, mitre joints, tenon joints and many other cuts at degrees varying between 10 degrees and 170 degrees using a 12 inch/300 mm back saw. It accommodates quite large timber and can be used with success by even the most inexperienced woodworker. The timber is held in place by wedges and pins.

The dedicated woodworker will devise many different ways of holding for saws. A device used by the author for many years for repetitive sawing is the sizing board. This is made in blockboard or multi-ply wood.

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