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There are a plethora of reasons to choose a hand saw over an electric in certain situations. You can use them to get cleaner cuts, better detail, or might need them when you don’t have access to electricity. Also, if you’re budget-minded, certain hand saws make a whole lot more sense than their powered (and pricier) counterparts.

Some woodworkers are actually dedicated to crafting their pieces in the old style, with no power tools whatsoever. But if you want to get going with hand saws, there are some things you need to know. Here are ten tips to get you on your way.

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Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.


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  1. The difference between a crosscut and rip saw is actually in the shape of the teeth, not the shape of the overall blade. You can find saws of different shapes – panel saws, back saws, etc. – filed for rip cutting or cross cutting.

    Cross cut teeth are more like knives, intended to sever fibers. Rip teeth are more like little plane blades, removing lots of tiny shavings.

    For (lots) more info: http://www.vintagesaws.com/library/primer/sharp.html

    1. That is correct. I was just using size as an easy way to delineate in the picture. You’re right, size has nothing to do with it.

  2. Every hacksaw blade I’ve looked at tells you to mount it so it cuts on the push. I always install them backwards anyway – cutting on the pull is almost always better.

    1. David Sutton says:

      Depends if you are working over your head and how heavy the metal is. Copper was the most common for years, now steel and plastics. Lube is very important for hand and power cutting metals.

      1. David Sutton says:

        Yes, copper is not often cut with saws because pipe cutters work better if you are dealing in new plumbing construction. updated.

  3. David Sutton says:

    I enjoyed this simple lesson, but next time ask around and we will find new or at least clean tools for you to photo.

  4. Alan S. Blue says:

    Ten links to particularly useful sites focused on the specific topic at hand would be useful. A sawing glossary: kerf, tooth, pull, push, dovetail, etc.

    Yes, I can search “sawing glossary” – and the first thing that comes up for me is quite handy at http://www.disstonianinstitute.com/glossary.html

    But collecting ten particularly useful links is more useful than random searching.

  5. Jack Waycombe says:

    Can’t believe you didn’t mention that most elementary saw accessory – the bench hook.

    1. Tommy Phillips says:

      Or, for rough cuts, a sawbench. You can find a gazillion plans on the web for a sawbench. Here is one of them: http://blog.lostartpress.com/2008/02/17/free-construction-drawings-for-the-2008-sawbench/

    2. You nailed it. Bench hooks and saw benches just make it easier.

  6. Chuck McKinley says:

    Links for hand tool use:
    http://Www.sawmillcreek.org and http://www.woodcentral.com. Both have excellent hand tool forums and are very polite and helpful.

  7. Shaun says:

    One of the best places to learn about hand saws for wood and other hand tools that I know of is http://www.logancabinetshoppe.com/index.php

    For a complete beginner to hand saws I think the easiest to get started with are the japanese saws, as you can buy one and just start working with it (western saws are more touch and go if you don’t know what you’re doing).

    I would recommend a ryoba saw to start (http://www.leevalley.com/en/Wood/page.aspx?p=32940&cat=1,42884,42896&ap=1) as they have both rip and crosscut teeth and no back so you can do everything you need on them.

    There is also a really useful plywood saw (http://www.leevalley.com/en/wood/page.aspx?p=32939&cat=1,42884,42924) if you don’t have any other way to cut plywood.

  8. maxq says:

    These tips are great, but not reflective of current wood saws, and are a little misguided, which is no different than what I see on most handsaw instructions that you find online.
    You cannot reasonably sharpen a hardened tooth saw (most saws you buy today will be (you can see the heat treat on the teeth) – but it is hardened, so you will get a lot of life out of it
    You are calling a backsaw a crosscut saw (Dave Z called this one out) they are used differently. Most wood saws today will be a universal tooth (i.e. they can cut both rip and cross cut cleanly and cut in both directions – the wood saws that you showed only cut in one direction) – difference is in tooth count (higher will give you a cleaner cut) and length of blade (longer will cut faster, but offers less control).
    The coping saw only cuts in one direction (as do all the saws that you show), as does the Japanese pull saw (it cuts on the pull stroke, hence can have as smaller kerf as he blade is under tension when cutting).
    Jack – love the sawbench. I have always wanted to make one of these, but have not had the time.
    Most postings that I see on saws are assuming saw technology that is over 20 years old, and do not reflect what is on the shelf at your local hardware store. Kinda like getting instructions from your Grandpa on how to use a phone.

    I guide on how to sharpen would be great (shears, chisels, augers, drills, etc)

  9. Frank says:

    I’d add the use of a mitre box – I’m lost without it.

    And about lubricating the blade – surely you wouldn’t use oil for cutting wood? Wouldn’t that soak into the wood and ruin it for painting or staining?

  10. My grandfather used to use bar soap to lubricate his saw blades. In a pinch, he’d spit on the blade. I’m not sure I’d recommend that, but it seemed to work for him.

  11. bendur says:

    Some more tips:

    – Don’t press down hard when you saw. Let the saw do the work and you’ll be more accurate.

    – I like to point my index finger along the side of the saw, but find a comfortable grip for you.

    – Use a knife to mark your cuts for crosscuts (cutting across the grain). Then use the knife or a chisel to make a trench against the knife mark, on the waste side of the cut. This gives you something for the saw to ride in. If you want to avoid splinters, do this on all sides.

    – Start your cut at an angle on an edge (corner) instead of flat on the board. I’ll often do one edge, then the other, and meet in the middle.

    Using hand tools can be intimidating, but with a little practice you can be very accurate, and quick :)

  12. One last tip – there’s only two saws you really need for most woodworking. A Japanese Ryoba: http://woodshopcowboy.com/2011/06/26/tool-review-marples-japanese-style-saws/ and a coping saw.

    Olsen makes the best coping saws around today, but if you go cheap, buy Home Depot’s coping saws (the 6″ depth model has a wood handle and works great) NOT Lowe’s blue monstrosity. Home Depot’s is dang good, but Lowe’s just stinks.

    Use a saw bench and a bench hook and you can cut damn near anything.

  13. juannavarro says:

    Can I make a graphic of this to show these tips? Something we can hang in our garages to remind us? These are great tips, I feel like I gained a level just reading this