Skill Builder: Understanding Handsaws

Woodworking Workshop
Skill Builder: Understanding Handsaws
This Skill Builder is excerpted from Charles Platt's book Make: Tools, available at Maker Shed and fine booksellers.
This Skill Builder is excerpted from Charles Platt’s new book Make: Tools, available at Maker Shed and fine booksellers.

Last week, we posted an excerpt from Charles Platt’s new book, Make: Tools. In that installment, Charles discussed miter boxes and how to cut precise angles using them.

In this excerpt, one of the many tool “Fact Sheets” that end the project chapters in the book, Charles takes a brief look at various types of handsaws, saw styles, how they cut, and basic power vs. handsaw considerations.

You can read my review of Make: Tools on Boing Boing here. -Gareth Branwyn

Some Saws and Their Teeth

Figures 1 through 6 show a variety of handsaws, each with its particular advantages.

Figure 1. A vintage panel saw from the 1970s, when handheld circular saws had not entirely taken over the market. The term “panel saw” is derived from its application cutting large panels of wood. This one has nine teeth per inch, although variants were available with 8 and 10 teeth per inch.
Figure 2. A modern panel saw, with nonstick coating and radically improved teeth design. It has 8 teeth per inch.
Figure 3. A tenon saw, also known as a back saw or a miter saw, with 13 hardened teeth per inch.
Figure 4. A general-purpose utility saw with 11 teeth per inch.
Figure 5. A full-size Japanese-style pull-saw with 9 teeth per inch.
Figure 5. A full-size Japanese-style pull-saw with 9 teeth per inch.
Figure 6. A small Japanese-style pull-saw with extremely fine teeth—-17 per inch. This is ideal for making clean cuts in soft plastic, as you’ll see in Project 15.
Figure 6. A small Japanese-style pull-saw with extremely fine teeth—-17 per inch. This is ideal for making clean cuts in soft plastic, as you’ll see in Project 15 of Make: Tools.

Figure 7 shows the teeth of four of the saws in closeup. A saw with wider teeth generally cuts more quickly and aggressively, but is more likely to leave rough edges. However, the shape of the teeth is even more important.

Figure 7. Saw teeth look surprisingly different in closeup, and the differences are important.

The geometry of saw teeth has changed radically over the past couple of decades. Closeup A shows the (rather blunt) teeth of the old 26″ panel saw. Closeup B is of the modern panel saw. Closeup C is of the utility saw, in which the darkened teeth indicate that they have been hardened. Closeup D is of the small Japanese- style pull-saw.

Pull or Push?

When using a Western-style saw, you push it to cut the wood. This requires the blade of the saw to be relatively thick, so that it doesn’t bend under pressure. Or, in the case of a tenon saw, a thin blade has a thicker bar along the top edge, to stiffen it. Unfortunately, this prevents the full length of the saw from sliding down through a wide piece of wood, and limits the extent of a cut.

A Japanese-style pull-saw cuts when you pull it toward you. Because you are pulling it instead of pushing, the blade can be thin, and its lack of a stiffening strip allows it to penetrate all the way into a cut. Some people feel the Japanese saw is less effective for doing heavy work, and if you pull the saw all the way out of the wood, there may be a slightly greater risk of hurting yourself. Personally I think it’s just a matter of what you are used to.

How a Saw Works

Figure 8 shows two teeth of a western-style saw being pushed from the right toward the left. Each tooth of the saw is like a tiny knife blade, digging into the surface of the wood and kicking some of it out as sawdust. (In the case of a Japanese-style pull-saw, the blade would be pulled from the left instead of being pushed from the right.)

Figure 8. Two teeth of a saw, creating sawdust.

If you inspect a saw from the end, you’ll see that alternating teeth are angled out to either side. This set (the distance off-center) creates the kerf (overall cut width) and is shown in Figure 9. Because the teeth stick out, they make a cut that is slightly wider than the body of the saw, so that the saw can slide freely.

Figure 9. End view of a saw blade, showing how the teeth are angled outward to make a cut that is wider than the body of the blade.


A hacksaw, shown in Figure 10, is designed to cut metal. The frame can be adjusted to accept blades 10” or 12” in length, and blades are available with a variety of teeth per inch, 18, 24, and 32 being common. Because the blade is thin and not rigidly clamped, it can flex while the saw is being used. Consequently, precise cuts can be difficult.

Figure 10. A typical hacksaw.

Saws that Cut Curves

Various saws that cut holes and curves are discussed in the “Holes and Curves Fact Sheet” in Make: Tools, page 164.

Protecting a Saw

Even a saw that has hardened teeth is easily damaged by banging it carelessly against steel, stone, or concrete. A saw should be placed where it won’t be knocked onto the floor accidentally. If you live in a moist environment, protect saws from rust by rubbing oil over them with a rag, or (better) use a wax such as Glidecoat that is formulated for the purpose.

Handsaws vs. Powered Saws

For more details on powered saws, see the “Power Tools” section of Chapter 20, “More Tools,” in Make: Tools, page 234. Here’s a quick summary of their relative advantages.


  • Less expensive.
  • No concerns about flat batteries or long extension cords.
  • Small handsaws are ideal for delicate detail work.
  • Very little risk of making a deeper cut than you intended.
  • Unlike a circular saw, a handsaw doesn’t throw dust up in all directions. You don’t need a mask (unless you are sawing materials that create toxic dust), and there will be relatively little cleanup.
  • A handsaw doesn’t make significant noise (no hearing protection needed).

Powered Saws­­­­­­­

  • Can cut much faster.
  • Much less tiring to use.
  • Powered miter saws and table saws can make very accurate, precisely vertical cuts.
  • Blades are replaceable for a fraction of the original cost of the saw.
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Charles Platt

Charles Platt is a contributing editor to Make magazine, which has published more than 50 of his articles. Six of his books are available from Make: Books

Make: Electronics, an introductory guide, now available in its second edition.

Make: More Electronics, a sequel that greatly extends the scope of the first book.

Encyclopedia of Electronic Components, volumes 1, 2, and 3 (the third written in collaboration with Fredrik Jansson).

Make: Tools, which uses the same teaching techniques as Make: Electronics to explore and explain the use of workshop tools.

View more articles by Charles Platt